Over the last few decades, travel trends have changed. People no longer settle for mainstream package deals that just visit touristic sites and attractions. Travellers want a more authentic experience that gives them an insight into the culture of the country they are visiting, and this certainly applies to visitors of Turkey.
One way to satisfy this trend is to put forward Turkish cuisine that is tasty, cheap, and varied. Another personal experience is touring local neighbourhoods. There is no better insight than wandering the streets, and in Istanbul, tourists can see how Turks live, learn about their beliefs, their community history, and generally, what life is like in Turkey’s largest city. Sultanahmet is the touristic district because of its many Byzantine and Ottoman landmarks but to mix with the locals, our suggestions below are worth following.
The Best Neighbourhoods to Explore in Istanbul
Widely viewed as the centre of new Istanbul, Beyoğlu has numerous transport links and includes Istiklal Avenue that is Turkey’s largest and most famous street for shopping. Travellers and students, who want to party after dark love the nightlife scene and budget and expensive restaurants serving many types of cuisine do a roaring trade, especially the rooftop establishments in summer.
For centuries, Beyoğlu has been a favourite hangout for foreigners, but the secret to a visit is to look past the crowds. The 19th-century architecture of old buildings includes famous landmarks such as Cicek Pasaj. This slim and tall glass-ceiling building credits Russian immigrants for its name because they used to sell flowers there after they fled their home country and the notorious revolution.
Nearby the Pera Palace Hotel opened in 1892 and famously hosted Agatha Christie, while the backstreets are home to jazz clubs, and cute boutiques. Within the same district of Beyoğlu, the small neighbourhood of Cihangir has certainly made a name for itself, in particular among the expat community. Many people view it as a trendy community and label it as one of the city’s pricier neighbourhoods.
Elite members of Istanbul social circles hang out in its cosmopolitan cafes, but visitors to the city should also tour the antique shops and Museum of Innocence in the Çukurcuma area to get a great sense of Istanbul’s heritage. Owned by Orhan Pamuk, that is Turkey’s most famous male author, he based it on one of his best-selling books about a love affair that goes against cultural traditions in 1970s Istanbul. The collection of personal items dating from the 1970s perfectly displays cultural beliefs of generations of locals in the city.
As the cruise ship port of Istanbul, a stroll down the side streets of Karakoy reveals a neighbourhood with more than enough character to satisfy the most curious of travellers. Well known for its fish market, it also boasts about its status as home to Karakoy Gulluoglu, who has an esteemed reputation as one of the best baklava makers in Turkey.
A short stroll from the cruise ship port sits Istanbul’s Modern Art Museum that opened in 2004. Known as the museum that revived the dying contemporary art scene in Turkey, it displays the country’s talent and a new wave of interest in it from the younger generation of Turkey as a way of expression.
Further, up the coastline, is Besiktas, famous for its football team and the famous Dolmabahce Palace where the founder of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk passed away. There is more to the area than that, though.
The Ortakoy district is a favourite hangout place for Istanbul locals, especially on weekends, who enjoy the waterside cafes and a simple jacket potato takeaway of which Ortakoy is famous for. Its mosque sitting by the side of the Bosphorus appears on many picture postcards of the city, and romantic couples will enjoy a stroll around Yildiz Park, a historical urban park that was a favourite of the later Ottoman dynasty.
Head further inland away from the coastline and you will arrive at the Sisli district that is famous for the Nisanti neighbourhood, nicknamed the fashion capital of Turkey. This is where designer shops sell highly priced brand labels and people watching from expensive cafes and restaurants are a favoured activity. As a popular place for property investment, it has also become an expat hangout thanks to its typically European ambience.
Heading across the Golden Horn, young and middle-aged travellers eagerly sign up for traditional guided tours exploring the streets of Fener and Balat neighbourhoods. This area is about as neighbourly as you can get but the attraction lies in its history as home to Greek, Jewish, and Armenian communities who for centuries under Ottoman rule settled in the area.
Unfortunately, at the turn of the century, both neighbourhoods faced neglect, as well as wear and tear but the UNESCO Heritage scheme pumped money into restoring the old buildings, therefore preserving tales from the past. Fener’s claim to fame stems as the home of the Greek Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. Nearby, locals, because of its unique architectural style, famously call the iconic landmark of the Greek Orthodox College, the red building.
The previously dominant Jewish Balat neighbourhood and its colourful houses are one of Istanbul’s most iconic picture postcards, and visitors enjoy the cultural insight through the Turkish barber shops and cafes serving Turkish cuisine. Anyone with interest in Jewish heritage of Istanbul will also enjoy a tour of the Galata neighbourhood although prior confirmation is required to see inside the synagogues.
Princes Islands: Neighbourhoods from the Past
Although it has turned into a tourist attraction and favourite weekend hangout for locals, walking the streets of Buyukada, one of the largest Princess Islands is an insight into the cultural heritage of old Istanbul. During the Byzantine and Ottoman eras, royal members of both dynasties were exiled there.
By the 19th century, though, the island was home to Turkey’s richest families and jointly shared by both Greek and Turkish citizens. Visitors can tour old ruined churches, but the large and elaborate Ottoman mansions attract the most attention. Read more about visiting the islands. Alternatively, our area guide to Istanbul features more information including sightseeing, shopping, nightlife and more.