Istanbul is enormous. It has over 15 million people. That’s almost double the largest city in the United States. And it would take a few lifetimes to actually see it all. In my two weeks I barely scratched the surface on the city’s central neighborhoods (there are 936 neighborhoods in the Istanbul province). But I gave it my best shot. So here’s what I discovered and what you can expect. The tourist center of town is Taksim Square. So let me take you on a walk from there, through Galata, across the Golden Horn, and up into Sultanahmet where the seat of the Roman Empire once ruled and later the Ottoman Empire and the sultan’s palace and where you can find some of the city’s most popular attractions. Hopefully I can give you a flavor of each neighborhood and why you want to go there.
Taksim Square and Tarlabaşı
Taksim Square and the Tarlabaşı neighborhood immediately south is the bustling center of Istanbul tourism and shopping. Tarlabaşı is a gridlocked honking mess of a road forming the north edge of the Tarlabaşı neighborhood (that our first apartment overlooked) but a few blocks south is a wide pedestrian thoroughfare (İstiklal Street) bustling with people at all hours of the day or night filled edge to edge with shopping, restaurants, and street food. The endless churn is a bit overwhelming but turn left or right and you’ll discover a maze of side streets filled with narrow lanes of fresh fruit and fish stands, whole lanes of tiny restaurants meeting right at the center of the road, hookah joints, and all manner of exotic sights and smells that invite you in, sometimes with a firm pushy hand.
The north end of this lane is Taksim Square and you can find some of the more famous street food here like the wet hamburgers of Kazilklayalar, great döner, and tantuni. And as you travel south you can find the entire encyclopedia of yummy Istanbul snacks and dishes from kokoreç to kumpir, tavuk göğsü to söğüş kelle. It’s a straight shot down İstiklal until the road curves down and to the left at the funicular stop and merges into the Galata neighborhood around Galata Tower.
As the road turns downhill it gets decidedly more narrow and is no longer pedestrian only. Thick crowds of pedestrians fill the streets as taxis honk their way through and delivery scooters zoom up in the wrong direction weaving through the people. The shops become more local, the coffeeshops smaller, and the vibe changes as you make your way to Galata Tower, one of the highest and oldest towers in Turkey built in the 14th century, that you can see from all over the city. Our apartment window is filled top to bottom with the view of the tower on the front side and a view of the Bosphorous river from the back. The road continues down steeply until you reach the bottom in the Karaköy neighborhood, right at the banks of the Bosphorous and the Galata Bridge heading to Eminönü and many of the big tourist spots.
At the base of the hill along the banks of the Golden Horn is the hip Karaköy neighborhood. We discovered this area a bit late in our trip and regret not exploring more. We found lots of hipster places and cheap eats along with gourmet markets, specialty places, and outdoor stores. We found a great soup place (Karakoy Çorba Evi) and some cafeteria style places with high end food. Definitely worth exploring. The ferry docks with access to the Asian side of town can be found here. Walk along Mumhane Street to find a bunch of little food joints and coffeeshops.
The Galata, Atatürk, and Haliç Metro Bridges
Spanning the Golden Horn and connecting the Karaköy neighborhood with the Eminönü are two large bridges, the Galata and Atatürk with the Haliç Metro Bridge between them. The Galata bridge is lined with locals fishing at any time of day with long poles attached to wooden bases bungie-tied to the railing. I’ve yet to see anyone catch a fish but it seems to be a very popular activity. A whole series of side businesses seem to function around this activities with vendors selling food and bait to the fishermen. On either side you can find a long section built under the bridge with restaurants and shops. The Haliç Metro Bridge is a modern railway bridge with a metro stop right in the middle. You can ride this metro one stop back over the water towards Karaköy then grab the underground funicular back to the top of the hill towards Taksim.
Eminönü and Sultanahmet
Eminönü and Sultanahmet are where many of the main tourist attractions are: Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, Süleymaniye Mosque, Basilica Cistern, Topkapi Palace, and the city’s Spice Bazaar and Grand Bazaar. This entire region is loaded with hotels, restaurants, and shops but it seems like most people recommend staying on the Taksim side for better nightlife.
This entire peninsula, once a walled city, was the location of the great palace of Constantine and the seat of power for the Roman Empire and later the Ottoman Empire after Constantinople fell. It’s easy spending multiple days getting lost here. Honestly at points it was almost overwhelming. The crowds are thick and ceaseless in some of the shopping streets around the bazaars. Be sure to take your chill pills before you venture out.
Bonus neighborhood! Kadıköy
Due to the bad weather we only discovered this area on our last day. The ferry ride to the asian side of town was quick and easy and you can use your metro pass to ride it. Runs every 15-20 minutes from Karaköy.
Kadıköy blew my mind! It was a dense market with every sort of fresh food for sale and dense with great restaurants and food places. I came to Kadıköy looking for the best lahmacun in Istanbul at a small shop called Halil Lachmacun, and it was indeed the best! But right next door we had my favorite meal in Istanbul at Çiya Sofrası, one of the best restaurants in Istanbul. But just wandering around the food and spice shops of the market is worth the trip all on it’s own.
After our food orgy we walked north a bit to check out the street murals and casual artist community. A great area that you should not miss if you visit Istanbul.