This wasn’t my first visit to Istanbul, Turkey’s colourful, chaotic capital that so deliciously mixes East and West, Europe and Asia. I had travelled its tea-soaked soils nine years earlier, and had spent a glorious three days spinning through sultanahmet’s (the old town’s) usual suspects – the Blue Mosque, the Grand Bazaar, the Basilica Cistern, Topkapi Palace, the Istanbul Modern art museum.
But a second visit to a city is, in my opinion, a great chance for expansion. A chance to see beyond the touristy must-dos, to go a little deeper, to spend more time soaking up the city’s flavour. And so, I decided to spend the majority of my second visit to Istanbul exploring Beyoglu and Cihangir – two former ramshackle suburbs of 19th-century apartment blocks and grand Ottoman mansions that sit side by side across the Golden Horn from sultanahmet, which have recently become hip, bohemian neighbourhoods. Imagine a kind of New York Brooklyn vibe, but without the self-consciousness.
After checking into the charmingly old-school Grand Hotel de Londres (think peacock chairs, red velvet upholstery and gilded finishes), Pete and I loaded up on snacks at Ambar health food store down the winding alleyway around the corner. Don’t get me wrong, we’d been loving all the feta, Turkish bread, grilled eggplant and stuffed veggies we’d been indulging in, but man were we happy to see some organic goji berries, chia seeds and crackers in this little neighbourhood health store.
Continuing down that street we hit Istiklal Caddesi off Taksim Square, which is basically like the Pitt Street of Istanbul – a wide pedestrian boulevard lined with big brand name stores and crammed with people at all hours of the day and night. Some people’s cup of cay but not ours, so we took a right turn at the Galatasaray High School and found the warren of narrow laneways lined with vintage stores and bohemian cafes we’d been looking for.
We kicked off at Petra, a two-storey vintage store selling mountains of second-hand floral dresses, leather bags, denim vests and high waisted pants. I salivated over the stunning portraits of local artist Irfan Yavru at his boutique gallery around the corner, the vintage world music records at Deform Musik, and handmade espadrilles and leather boots at Fanfinfon. As I was trying to squeeze my heat-swollen hoofs into a pair I started chatting to the owner who, when I told her how excited I was to have discovered this surprisingly cool, hip new area, told me, “Cihangir’s been cool for ages, it’s been the bohemian enclave for about ten years but I think travellers are only just starting to realise it now.” Rightio then.
By that point we’d been pounding the cobbled pavements for a good couple of hours so we stopped for lunch at the ground-floor alfresco wine bar of the boutique hotel opposite, Corinne, where I got my fill of quinoa and snapped away at the vibrant graffiti and ripped bill posters splashed across the surrounding walls and roller doors and gave the side-eye to all the cute outfits passing me by.
No wonder everyone looked so good – this area is crammed full of fantastic vintage stores. I highly recommend Mozk for retro furniture and fashion, and Kaftan where I bought a vintage Uzbeki coat that reminded me of something Talitha Getty would have worn on the rooftops of Marrakech. Passing us in the laneways were dozens of old men pushing rickety wooden carts laden with random vintage items – old shirts, candelabra, suitcases, jewellery boxes, shoes – you name it, they’d sell it to you.
If we’d had time, we would have stopped off for some pampering and pummelling at Aga Hamami, a Turkish bathhouse dating back to 1454. Alas, it was time to head back to our hotel to get dressed for dinner pre-sunset drink. The Grand Hotel de Londres has to be 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 truly superb.
From here, it all became a delicious blur. Pre-dinner drinks at the edgy Urban Cafe, housed in a graffiti-lined laneway littered with rickety wooden stools. A candlelit dinner at Münferit, with its chic European ambiance and cuisine, excellent cocktails and a house-made raki that blew our coats off. Drinks at hip cocktail bar Geyik on Akarsu Caddesi, where we found a prime perch on the street for people watching. And later, soupy dancing at a rooftop bar neither of us could remember the name of.
Doing what I do for a living I always have to be on alert – taking notes, asking a thousand questions and taking a million photos. So losing myself like that was a sign of having truly fallen for a destination, so hard that everything else went out the window and all that was left to do was suck every last delicious drop out of the city.
And that’s exactly what we did.
Until next time, Istanbul.