Tradition and modernism stroll happily along arm-in-arm fueled on espresso, tea and cigarettes. While car horns are the soundtrack, streets are as busy at midnight as most cities during rush hour. Men stroll down the road blasting their bazookas and the call for worship from the mosques mixes with the latest cutting-edge sounds. This sensory overload of sights, sounds and smells is Istanbul. Stray Cats roam around freely taking a seat on parked-up motorbikes along the steep cobbled pavements taking no notice of those snapping away for a fun Instagram shot.
This is a city where the locals are equally as passionate about their fine heritage, as seen in the recent clashes at Taksim Square, as they are to giving tourists directions (seriously we caused quite a commotion in a white goods store).
We hung out in the bustling area of Beyoglu; an area of hip bars, high-end hotels, fine eateries, fun spaces and amazing art galleries.
EAT AND DRINK
Havana Club bottles of rum hang from a string bag and empty bottles of Duval sit in wooden crates. Raw brick walls and rough wooden shelves hold bottles of liquor. It’s industrial but small and cosy at the same time offering a perfect place to grab a drink, listen to some music and enjoy the atmosphere.
ADA Cafe & Bookstore
158-A Istiklal Caddesi
Sit with the Istanbul literary glitterati while supping a Mexican beer and listening to New Orleans style jazz busking street band in a Turkish alleyway watching the locals go by. Half book store half restaurant / bar makes for a pleasant crowd at this Istiklal local.
Dada Restaurant Cafe Bar
12 Siraselviler Caddesi
Just round the corner of bustling Taksim Sq escape the throngs of people, heavy traffic and beeping horns with a tipple inside Dada. With a long bar of art littered walls staff offer your extensive drinks menu via a tablet – our choice was Efes Dark Beer. Head towards the end there’s a tropical garden style greenhouse (with glass covered roof that opens when it’s warm enough) with foliage hanging from the walls and a neon Bob Marley image above the cocktail bar. Multi coloured table chairs liven up the courtyard giving you the feeling of being outdoors when you are in.
Yeni Çarşi Caddesi No. 54 Galatasaray
When you’ve eaten the supermarket version of hummus then go to Dai Pera and try the most smoothest and creamiest of hummus served-up warm with fresh bread then eating anything but this version will never be the same. Vegetables never tasted so good as they manage to at Dai Pera: the Meze starters of smoked aubergine and red bell pepper with coriander and lime or the Zucchini in yogurt with garlic and crushed almonds, served up tantalisingly in ramekins with wooden spoons, is plentiful in itself.
The warm appetizers of vegetable cakes with zesty fresh yogurt or the King Prawns wrapped in a special Turkish pastry called Kadayif almost finish us off. We still have a main course of Dai’s Caramelised steak (with honey and red wine), that is so tender and delicious, and the waiter recommended sole roasted with saffron, which is just about light enough to cope with after the Meza and Appetizer overload.
During our dinner the waiters in the small kitchen-style restaurant had to continually turn away customers or ask them to wait. We felt sorry for them knowing just what they were missing out on.
Charming chef-owner Arzu packed in her demanding day job to pave out a career as a restauranteur, and we’re very glad that she did, as it’s her warmth and character that is presented through her hearty food.
50 Istiklal Street
Any bar that uses Rubber Rings as a design focal point has to be OK. The Philippe Starck designed urban chic hang out for the young and hip is housed above a controversially built new shopping centre and as a result has been boycotted by many locals due to the original building being torn down rather than re-modernised. The substantially sized bar and restaurant also spills out on to a beautiful rooftop terrace with amazing views of the sprawling city. A great place to head for a pre-dinner cocktail and bar snack.
Kuloğlu Mh, Adile Naşit Sk (G-4 Sk.), No:6, 34433
We caused a fight in an electrical appliance store asking for directions to Heirloom. Two men started shouting and hitting each other over which way we should head. Meanwhile, outside a mosque at the top of a very steep hill, a man wondering why we were hanging around looking puzzled, slightly sweaty after dragging a suitcase up a very steep hill eventually sent us in the right direction. Despite our slightly unconventional start to our stay at Heirloom we can say with some authority that it is definitely a ‘hidden gem’.
Sustainability is the key word at Heirloom where original features have been painstakingly restored by owner Dilek Çamlı. While you won’t find a doc for your iPhone it more than makes up its lack of gadgets with heritage and warmth. Natural materials are king and those that were once covered over with layers of paint have been lovingly stripped back and laid bare again. Give her the chance and the enthusiastic owner will happily wax lyrical about the history and restoration, which took just 11 months.
This boutique hotel includes all suites with each space made up of a double bedroom, a kitchenette and a living room. William Morris paper covers part of the walls in the living and bedroom with a nod to the original building decor as it would have been over 100 years ago. Shoes are a strict no-no; as soon as you enter the building and a set of wooden lockers to house your footwear encourages you to make your ascent up the stairs barefoot to keep the wood free of marks.
Downstairs the secret garden is a lovely space to get a panini, a sugar free organic cake or a siphon coffee that is made in front of you. All shabby-chic with handmade signage, pots of Lavender and Thyme it’s the perfect place to pick up locally produced goods by artisan crafters.
More than all the things mentioned above it is probably the warmth of the small team at Heirloom that make it just that little bit extra special. Nothing is too much trouble and you are made to feel like a worthwhile guest rather than a hotel number.
Tricky to find but very much worth it and brilliant if you like vintage clothes, furniture and antique stores as the hotel is surrounded by them.
Boğazkesen Caddesi. Tomtom Kaptan Sokak, No.18 Beyoğlu
Hidden away in a quiet street made secure thanks to its neighbour, the Italian Embassy, this old Monastery has been restored to the highest standard with lush finishing all around. The huge marble bathroom includes a jet spa bath, walk in shower and double sink. The oversized super-comfy bed comes complete with a pillow menu for all needs, ailments and allergies.
A library just off the reception is filled with books about Istanbul, if you are looking for inspiration, while the roof top restaurant has quite brilliant views of the Bosphorous and beyond.
Art speckles the walls including a lovely ceramic bird feature in the restaurant. Everything is airy, bright and light and despite being renovated 5 years ago looks as if it was done just yesterday.
The location is perfect for checking out indie art galleries and is just a 5minute walk, all be it up a very steep set of steps, to the main Istiklal shopping area.
Pera Palace Hotel Jumeirah
Meşrutiyet Cd No:52 34430 Tepebasi
For a taste of historical elegance then follow in the footsteps of Agatha Christie, Earnest Hemingway and Greta Garbot and the passengers of the luxurious Orient Express for which the hotel was built in 1892. Steeped in history Pera Palace was home to the first electric lift in Istanbul which is still working today. You’ll have to ask staff to request a ride but it is worth the effort.
The original antiquated air condition system resembles six daleks and opened like a flower to let the air in. They don’t do that anymore but still make up part of the beautiful decor of the building.
Although the exterior landscape may have changed since it was built with football stadiums and main roads as neighbours you can still relive the glory days with a very classy take on High Tea, or a G&T, in opulent surroundings which is open to non-guests.
The rooms are covered in lush drapes and a wall of pillows with every detail sympathetically restored and styled to honour its home.
The free standing bath and rainforest shower waterfall is another contrast of historical elegance with modern function. Nowhere in Istanbul can you walk without an expresso being far away and the Nespresso machine and iPod doc certainly brings rooms in to modern day luxury.
Pera Palace is the perfect place to read Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express which legend has she wrote part of whilst staying at the hotel.
The location is perfect for fine dining and bar culture.
Istanbul’s art scene is big and vibrant. Galleries line roads in the city like cafes and fashion stalls would in most others. They are tucked away in ally ways and they are next to Banks on the High Street. Essentially you don’t have to look far for some excellent examples of contemporary art and fine exhibitions.
Arter Space for Art
Iskital Caddesi No: 211
This contemporary gallery is a heavy hitter on the Istanbul scene. Centrally located on the busy shopping street of Iskital the exhibition space provides an experimental testing ground over several floors. The impressive space features a mix of internationally recognised artists who exhibit over several months. The extensive space means several artists are exhibited at any one time including a recent exhibition by Matt Collishaw. Collishaw’s first solo exhibition in the city (2 May – 11 August 2013) brings together 18 works dating from the 90s to the present.
Exploring the darker side of human nature Collishaw’s works forms a myriad of media, material and conceptual themes: his photographs, sculptures and installations use light, surface and projection in unconventional ways. The exhibition includes his stunning animated ‘Garden of Unearthly Delights’ piece.
Mumhane c. no:67 Laroz Han, Karakoy 34425
The up-and-coming Karakoy sits on the edge of the Bosphorous and is becoming an area known for its cool galleries, hip bars and fine cuisine. artSümer focuses on representing the cutting-edge contemporary art of Turkey. The gallery works with artists at early stages of their career development, whose diverse practices include painting, drawing, sculpture, photography, video and new media.
Asmah Mescit Caddesi 32/A Beyoglu
Relatively new to the scene (opened in 2011) the 2-floor gallery space aims at establishing its presence both in the local and international contemporary art scene through its portfolio of artists including local and foreign, young and emerging, as well as established and internationally renowned ones. Dedicated to featuring works in a professional gallery setting this is a space to collect editions of works at more affordable prices.
Poligon/The Shooting Gallery
This exhibition space is run by The Empire Project to showcase experimental projects and create a space for artistic expression and production. The new studio gallery is a spaced where artists are encouraged to take risks and share their works, rejecting an over-commercialized art scene that does not support experimentation. Poligon by its very nature is a space for experimentation and breaking frame, a spring board to get back to the joy and fundamentals of Art.
Asmalı Mescit Mh. İstiklal Cd No:136
SALT Beyoğlu is a six story building situated on the busy İstiklal Caddesi. The beautiful building was constructed between 1850 and 1860 and is filled with contemporary art over an impressive 1130 square meters over 3 floors of exhibition space. Free to enter the space included works by Ai Weiwei on our visit. A walk in cinema and book store along with a cafe are available for visitors to use.
HELP WITH YOUR TRIP
Get a guide
For a true reflection of the city and for the best insider tips take a tour with Locally Istanbul who will produce a totally tailor-made ‘Discover Istanbul’ guide. Erk and Umit know the city inside out. Friendly and fun their personal touch means they’ll take you for a Turkish Tea, get to know your interests and then start your tour. Total gastrophiles their tips for food lovers will mean you won’t go hungry during your stay.
Watch your step
Be careful what kind of footwear you take to Istanbul. The roads are cobbled, the curbs often large and the streets very steep.
Flights: Regular flights from Birmingham International Airport to Istanbul are available with Turkish Airlines.
For further information about culture in IstanbulINNLondon.
Words: Kerry Thomas