While Sultanahmet (Istanbul’s old town) is world famous for its Blue Mosque, Grand Bazaar and Topkapi Palace, the former ramshackle suburbs of Beyoglu and Cihangir on the opposite side of the Bosphorous remain relatively undiscovered by travellers, despite having transformed into hip, bohemian neighbourhoods. Filled with vintage stores and chic restaurants and bars, they have a kind of New York Brooklyn vibe – but without the self-consciousness. So if you, like me, are looking for a different take on one of the world’s most vibrant cities, here’s what you could do with 24 hours.
After checking into the charmingly old-school Grand Hotel de Londres (think peacock chairs, red velvet upholstery and gilded finishes in a building that dates back to 1881), make your way to Istiklal Caddesi off Taksim Square. This wide pedestrian boulevard lined with big brand name stores and crammed with people at all hours of the day and night is like the Pitt Street of Istanbul. If this isn’t your cup of cay, take a right turn at the Galatasaray High School and voila, you’ll find yourself in a warren of narrow cobbled laneways lined with vintage stores and bohemian cafes.
Kick off at Petra, a two-storey vintage store selling mountains of second-hand floral dresses, leather bags, denim vests and high-waisted pants, then head around the corner to drool over the works of local artist Irfan Yavru at his boutique gallery. Here you’ll also find vintage records at Deform Musik, and handmade espadrilles and leather boots at Fanfinfon.
Treat yourself to lunch at the ground-floor wine bar of the boutique hotel Corinne. Here you’ll find everything from mezze plates to pizza and quinoa salad, and a great vantage point from which to snap away at the vibrant graffiti and ripped bill posters splashed across the surrounding walls and roller doors.
If you’re up for more shopping, check out Mozk for retro furniture and fashion, and Kaftan for an Aladdin’s cave worth of exotic embroidered textiles, coats, bags, rugs and pillows. As you wander the streets, you’ll see dozens of men pushing rickety wooden carts laden with vintage items – everything from old shirts, candelabra and suitcases, to jewellery boxes and shoes – in a kind of moving street market.
Time for some pampering at Aga Hamami, a Turkish bathhouse dating back to 1454. Get a traditional hamam bathing treatment (yes, this involves getting naked in front of complete strangers and being washed down like an infant, and yes it’s strangely wonderful) and an oil massage. Finished off, as all good things in Turkey are, with a cup of apple tea.
Head back to the hotel to get ready for dinner and sunset drinks. The Grand Hotel de Londres happens to have one of the best sunset perches in Istanbul. It certainly isn’t the fanciest (if you’re after fancy head to Mikla on the top floor of the Marmara Pera Hotel), but the views over the rooftops towards the Bosphorus are something special.
Istanbulites dine late, so try to hold off as long as you can lest you end up dining in an empty restaurant. While you wait, head to the edgy Urban Café, housed in a graffiti-lined laneway littered with rickety wooden stools. This is where the locals congregate for after-work drinks, so do as they do and pull up a pew, order an Efes beer, and try your hardest to look nonchalant and attractive.
A candlelit dinner at Münferit is unmissable, with its chic European vibe and food, excellent cocktails and house-made raki (an anise-flavoured spirit, like Turkish Sambuca).
All that raki will have put you in good stead for the hipster cocktail bar Geyik on Akarsu Caddesi, where the sexy-looking crowd spills onto the street giving the whole thing a street party vibe.
Maybe you’ll end up at one of the area’s wild rooftop bars, dancing to bad live music and drinking more raki. Or maybe you’ll simply call it a night, trundling back through the bohemian streets under the starlight and reflecting on how clever you were to decide to explore Istanbul’s B-side.
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