The Coolest Neighbourhoods in Istanbul

Hipster neighbourhood Karaköy in Istanbul is crammed with coffee joints, art galleries and trendy bars
Hipster neighbourhood Karaköy in Istanbul is crammed with coffee joints, art galleries and trendy bars | © Santi Rodriguez / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo of Sara Faruqi
3 April 2021

Istanbul, the capital of Turkey, has a dynamism born of a fusion of ancient traditions with vibrant contemporary culture. Old neighbourhoods such as Galata and Balat, home to ancient churches and synagogues, are blossoming with hip new spaces to explore, while younger hotspots such as Karaköy make the diverse districts of Istanbul a treasure map for the urban explorer. Before you decide where to stay, read our guide to the coolest neighbourhoods in Istanbul.

Sultanahmet

Architectural Landmark
Map View
Elevated view of Aya Sofya (Sancta Sophia), UNESCO World Heritage Site, in Sultanahmet, Istanbul, Turkey, Europe
© robertharding / Alamy Stock Photo

A trip to Istanbul isn’t complete without a visit to Sultanahmet Old City, once the social and political centre of the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman empires. This neighbourhood takes you through the rich history of Istanbul and some of the most stunning architecture is within walking distance of the main square. The 6th-century Hagia Sophia dominates the skyline and is easily recognisable with vast dome, colourful marble columns, Islamic art and glittering Christian mosaics. Other must-sees include the Ottoman-era Topkapi Palace, the 15th-century Sultans’ residence transformed into a museum in 1924; the Blue Mosque, renowned for tiles and minarets – and the 6th-century Basilica Cistern, the largest surviving Byzantine cistern in Istanbul.

Taksim Square and Istiklal Street

Architectural Landmark
Map View
Nostalgic red retro tram on famous Istiklal street. ISTANBUL, TURKEY - NOVEMBER 13, 2018.
© Elizaveta Larionova / Alamy Stock Photo
Taksim Square and Istiklal Street are lively year-round, offering premium shopping, places to eat, cafes, bars and clubs. Starting at the Republic Monument (built to commemorate the founding of the Republic in 1923) you can stroll down commercial Istiklal Street and see the novel Taksim Tram running its length, and end at cobblestoned Galip Dede Street. SALT Beyoğlu, the modern art museum, is a great place to escape the crowds and immerse yourself in an exhibition. The ground floor hosts free film screenings each Wednesday, while the top floor houses the beautiful winter garden – an oasis of calm in the heart of the city.

Galata

Architectural Landmark
Map View
Galata Tower, Golden Horn, Beyoglu District, Istanbul, Turkey, Europe
© robertharding / Alamy Stock Photo

Part of the larger Beyoğlu district, Galata is most clearly identified by its tower, overlooking the cobblestoned streets and neoclassical buildings of the neighbourhood. The streets around Galata Tower are full of tiny, interesting shops and cafes, great for browsing. After admiring the city views, explore the Mevlevi Museum – the Whirling Dervish hall – and the Museum of Turkish Jews. For something nice to take home, stop by the Home Spa shop on Galip Dede Street for bath and body products including locally sourced soaps and oils. Venture down Serdar-i Ekrem Street for boutiques, galleries and gift shops. After sightseeing, enjoy a cocktail from the rooftop bar of the Georges Hotel with views over Galata.

Karaköy

Architectural Landmark
Map View

Formerly a crucial city port, Karaköy was allowed to deteriorate until it started to become a hotspot around 2012. Today, maze-like streets offer a glimpse of the city history with churches and synagogues blending seamlessly into the newer parts. Home to the financial district in the 19th century, the SALT Galata building was formerly the Ottoman Bank headquarters, and is now a well-established art space. Venture down Mumhane Street and check out Pi and the Mixer Art Gallery. Along this street (and those running parallel to it) you’ll find plenty of fresh places to eat and drink, such as Karaköy Lokantasi serving traditional Ottoman food like Hünkar beğendi (pureed eggplant topped with lamb).

Besiktas

Architectural Landmark
Map View
Besiktas, Istanbul / Turkey - September 29 2019: Facade of Bahcesehir University Besiktas Campus Building. View from sea side.
© Melih Evren Buruş / Alamy Stock Photo
Besiktas, one of the oldest regions of Istanbul, is home to three major universities, and the students who frequent this neighbourhood give it a laid-back vibe. It’s the ideal place to socialise with friends, in coffee shops playing carefully curated music, dozens of pubs offering cheap beer on tap and plentiful food options. This district is also home to Besiktas Football Club and is a gathering spot on match day when it’s overrun with marching bands and fans waving flags and singing. Try a fish sandwich from the local market or a plate of chicken and rice from the tiny pilavci (rice vendors) around the square. Round it off with dessert at the popular halva cart that sells a sweet dish made from carrots and semolina with ice cream. The many bars and pubs make Besiktas an easy place to bar hop: Joker No.19 offers cocktails and space to dance, talk and eat, while the United Pub has a selection of local and imported beers. If you’re in the mood for caffeine, Black Owl Coffee and Bettys are popular options – though there’s no shortage of excellent coffee in the area. Pro tip: begin exploring at the Black Eagle Statue, which marks the centre of the market – from here you can head in any direction and find something good to do or see.

Balat

Architectural Landmark
Map View
Istanbul, Turkey - even if almost unknown among the tourists, the districts of Fener & Balat are maybe the most typical and colorful areas of Istanbul
© Sirio Carnevalino / Alamy Stock Photo

Formerly the Greek Orthodox and Armenian neighbourhood of Istanbul, Balat is full of colourful old houses and churches. Take a trip to the main market, full of vintage stores and craft workshops. There’s plenty to see here, particularly religious architecture including the prefabricated St Stephen Bulgarian Church, made of cast iron in Vienna and assembled on site. Further up the hill, stop by the Byzantine-era Chora Church for splendid examples of 14th-century mosaics and frescoes, and then visit the Ahrida Synagogue, one of the oldest in the city. You’ll find a lot of young businesses, including micro coffee roasters, ceramic ateliers, art galleries and vintage shops.

Arnavutköy

Architectural Landmark
Map View

The heart of the nightlife scene in Istanbul, Arnavutköy is an upscale neighbourhood by the Bosphorus known for Ottoman waterfront mansions and fish restaurants. Nowadays, you’ll find a frenzy of cocktail and gastro bars have taken over, and during the evenings they get so full that punters spill out onto Bebek Arnavutköy Street, drinks in hand. During the day it’s great to wander round the picturesque neighbourhood, ogling the many beautiful houses that punctuate the banks of the glittering water.

This article is an updated version of a story created by Feride Yalav.

These recommendations were updated on April 3, 2021 to keep your travel plans fresh.

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