24 Hours On İstiklal Street
Lets be honest, Most people visit İstanbul for its history and culture — and understandably so. İstanbul was — and still remains — one of the worlds great cities.
İstiklal’s nostalgic tram
The domes and minarets of the magnificent mosques built by the Ottomans give “old” İstanbul an unforgettable skyline. Sprawling Topkapı Palace attests to the might and wealth of the Ottoman sultans, rulers of a mighty empire spanning two continents and several centuries. In an earlier epoch the heirs to the eastern Roman Empire built the church of Aya Sofya, rightly regarded as the apogee of Byzantine architecture.
But when youve “done” old İstanbul, what then? Well, for shopping, entertainment, dining, nightlife and some turn-of-the-century-period charm, head across the Golden Horn to Beyoğlu. Known in the 19th century as Pera, this was the fashionable European quarter of the city. Here the great powers built their embassies and elegant Parisian-style apartments lined the cobbled streets. Grand hotels were built for visitors arriving from Western Europe on the famed Orient Express. Taverns did roaring business and the music halls overflowed. As the 20th century dawned, that new-fangled form of entertainment, the cinema, exerted an ever-increasing influence on the cosmopolitan population of the area.
The main artery of this vibrant district was the Grand Rue de Pera. Following the establishment of the Turkish Republic in 1923, it was renamed İstiklal Caddesi (Independence Street). The name aside, little has changed over the years. Without a doubt, it is the liveliest pedestrian street in this teeming metropolis. İstanbulites come here by the millions to shop, drink, dine, take in a film or gig, go clubbing or just stroll with friends. What follows are a few suggestions as to how you could spend 24 hours on and around Turkeys premier street.
Saturday 6:00 a.m. European architecture, Turkish tea
Many of you will already be scanning down the page to find a more sensible time to begin the day — perhaps 11:00 a.m. — but bear with me. To see the intriguing architecture of İstiklal Caddesi at its best, do it when it is at its quietest and youre at your freshest. Near the Tünel, the quaint 19th century underground funicular railway linking İstiklal Caddesi to the Golden Horn, is a wonderful Art Nouveau apartment. Named after its Dutch patron — a tailor for Sultan Abdulhamid II — the Botter House was designed by Italian architect Raimondo DAronco in 1901. Its finely carved stonework façade and flowing wrought-iron balcony make it the equal of similar buildings in Paris and Barcelona. Further along is the neo-Classical bulk of the Palais de Hollande, built in 1858, and now the Dutch Consulate. The pretty red-brick neo-Gothic façade of the Franciscan church of St Antoinette is next. Originally built in 1525, the building you see now dates back to 1913. Youll probably be distracted by the smell of freshly baked bread, simit and other pastries wafting from various shops. Restrain yourself and make do with a hot, sweet black tea from one of the many simple tea-shops tucked away in the alleys off İstaklal Caddesi.
Saturday 7:30 a.m. Breakfast in the Büyük Londra Hotel
Stay in this atmospheric hotel if you can. Neither as famous nor as expensive as its near neighbor, the Pera Palas, the Büyük Londra oozes the same vintage charm. Amongst the potted palms, dark wood Victorian furniture and etched glass doors of the bar and reception areas, it is hard to believe youre in Turkey. Ernest Hemingway stayed here in 1922. More recently, it featured in “Crossing the Bridge: The Sounds of İstanbul,” an evocative film by Fatih Akın and Alexander Hacke about the citys music scene. No doubt Hacke, who stayed here while shooting the film, ate his breakfast in the Londras moody basement dining room.
Saturday 9:00 a.m. Homer Kitapevi, Art Nouveaux cakes and Fender guitars
Back out on İstiklal the crowds are building up. They know that whatever theyre after, its to be found hereabouts. Book lovers can browse away the hours in the citys best bookstores. My favourite is Homer Kitapevi, opposite the venerable 19th century Galatasaray Lycee, which stocks a myriad of Turkey-related books in English. Mudo, down towards the Tünel, has a classy selection of toys and ornaments displayed in a genuine Art Nouveau interior. If youre tired, sip some coffee and nibble a delicious cake in Markiz. This lovingly restored patisserie sports two Art Nouveau wall panels, LAutomne and Le Printemps by Annoux. The smart waitresses, attired in timeless black and white outfits, help reinforce its turn-of-the-century atmosphere. Refreshed, continue your explorations on the now-teeming street. Musicians should check-out the music stores down towards the Tünel. They are piled high with everything from the world famous, but locally made İstanbul Cresent and Zildjian cymbals, to imported Fender guitars.
Saturday 1:30 p.m. France or White Russia?
Tired of the shops and out of calories from your mid-morning pastry? Then its time for a spot of lunch. Hop on the cute red 19th century tram that trundles its way between Tünel and Taksim Square. In summer, get off opposite the French Cultural Center. The Bordeaux Café, situated in its serene green courtyard, serves great crepes and is a peaceful haven just a stones throw from the jostling masses on İstiklal Caddesi. In winter, or for something more substantial, try Rejans. Redolent of the streets fascinating, multi-ethnic past, it was founded by White Russians in the 1920s and was a favourite haunt of Atatürk himself. Gleaming polished wood, high ceilings, white tablecloths, grilled quail and lemon vodka, what more could you ask for?
Saturday 4:00 p.m. The silver screen
Although bland suburban multiplex cinemas are now the norm in Turkey, İstanbuls entels (intellectuals) prefer the old-fashioned screens around İstiklal Caddesi. In the 1960s, Yeşilcam Sokak was home to the nations leading film companies. They are long gone, but this narrow street just off the main drag still boasts the Emek cinema. Built in the 1920s, it retains much of the glory of that era. A decidedly Bohemian alternative is the basement Yeşilcam. A small art-house cinema, it screens the best the Turkish and world-cinema industries have to offer.
Saturday 8:00 p.m. Mayhem and meze on Nevizade Sokak.
After relaxing and freshening up back at your hotel, its time for some serious nightlife. Every Friday and Saturday evening, thousands of people are funneled from the broad expanse of İstiklal Caddesi into the narrow alley that is Nevizade Sokak. The result? Mayhem. Join in and enjoy one of the streets numerous, bustling meyhane (taverns). Positioned alongside the citys fish market, its no surprise that most of the restaurants here specialize in fresh seafood. Try the Greek-run İmroz, established in 1942. Spread over three floors, what it lacks in sophistication it makes up for in liveliness and quality food. The diners, many fuelled by the fiery national aniseed spirit, rakı, manage to eat, smoke, drink, gesticulate and talk all at the same time. The appetizers are excellent and allow you to spin out the meal until its time to hit the nightspots.
Saturday 11pm. Babylon turns İstanbul on.
Recently re-vamped, Babylon is justifiably considered one of the citys best music venues. Of course, this is a matter of personal taste and if you dont like jazz, blues, dance, reggae or rock music, stay away. If you do, however, you may well agree that Babylon truly does “turn İstanbul on” as much as the clubs publicity claims. With its stripped-to-brick walls and exposed ventilation system, its a like a cross between an old-fashioned cellar bar and a high-tech arts centre. Somehow it works, and it is a great place to see major local acts, such as Baba Zula, and a steady stream of big-name foreign artists.
Saturday 2:00 a.m. The Secret Garden
Gig over, make your way back to Nevizade Sokak and up the dingy stairs of a 19th-century apartment block to the Gizli Bahçe (Secret Garden). The music (usually dance, trance and funk) is loud, but not deafeningly so. You can chat away on one of the battered sofas that litter the third floor of this old town house, whiling away the hours until dawn.
Saturday 4:00 a.m. Tripe time.
Many Turks who drink alcohol swear that işkembe çorbası (tripe soup) is the perfect antidote for a potential hangover. The places that serve this delicacy tend to be open 24/7 and do their best business in the early hours. Try the Cumhüriyet near the fish market, just a short stroll from the Gizli Bahçe. More atmospheric is the Lale — out on the thoroughfare where it all began at six oclock yesterday morning, İstanbuls most happening street: İstiklal Caddesi.