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You could spend weeks exploring high-octane Beyoğlu, but if you are short on time, this cheat sheet lists some of the best things to do in Istanbul’s most bohemian district.
Immerse yourself in modern art, hit the hammam, have dinner in an 18th-century building and end the night at a rooftop bar overlooking Istanbul’s historic skyline. These are some of the best things to do in Beyoğlu.
In Beyoğlu, you can see what the city looks like from the Galata Tower. Ascend this 14th-century tower for a 360-degree aerial view of the city and see Istanbul’s historical skyline grazing the shores of the Marmara Sea. The tower has two elevators to take you up to the top, where you will get stunning panoramic views of the city. If you do this in the daytime, you will most likely miss the long queues of people waiting to see and photograph the sunset.
Miniaturk, Istanbul’s miniature park, will give you a similar experience, but from ground level. The park is filled with detailed, scaled-down models of buildings, monuments, people and landmarks from across Turkey, including the Hagia Sophia, Topkapı Palace and the Taksim monument and Sultanahmet Square. If shuffling alongside tour groups isn’t your thing but you are curious to experience the marvels of Istanbul, have a Godzilla moment and see it all in one go here.
Just a short walk away from Taksim Square and Istiklal Street is the bohemian heart of Istanbul, once home to artists and writers who couldn’t afford the more affluent parts of Beyoğlu. Today, Cihangir is dotted with cafés, cocktail bars, restaurants and galleries. Have brunch at Journey, which serves deliciously healthy food such as Mediterranean platters and rye-dough pizzas, before setting out to explore Cihangir’s narrow lanes – home to late-19th century apartments and interesting stores such as Madam Mare Vintage and the record store Opus3a.
A notable attraction in the area is the Cihangir Mosque, which was built in 1559 in memory of Suleiman the Great’s two sons – both of whom died at a young age – and then later rebuilt in 1889. At night, the neighbourhood comes alive, turning from a sleepy spot to a buzzing nightlife hub. Cocktail bar Geyik offers drinks and music in the evening, while Café 21 and Rose Marine are both great for dinner and drinks.
Home Spa has organic soap handmade from locally sourced ingredients, ranging in scent from lavender and basmati to the traditional olive oil. Cutely packaged with ribbon and tiny evil-eye ornaments, the soap and Turkish towels are the perfect presents to take home. If art is more your thing, stop by Galata Sanat for paintings, ceramics and sculptures by local Turkish artists, ranging from the well known to up-and-coming, including Tevfik Karagözoğlu’s bold ceramic sculptures and Isil Ozisik’s watercolours. Lunapark, with its slogan ‘Very much Turkish’ is another great store in Galata with products by over 170 Turkish designers. Items range from cute and quirky stationery to brass jewellery and household items.
The modern art museum, SALT Beyoglu, on İstiklal is a great place to escape from the crowds and immerse yourself in some culture and art. Stop at Robinson Crusoe, the centre’s bookstore, visit the gallery space and don’t miss the rooftop garden overlooking Beyoğlu’s hidden courtyards. If you visit on a Thursday you can catch one of their walk-in cinema films; from Linklater to Kiarostami, they screen some great movies.
You can also visit the Museum of Innocence, founded by Turkey’s Nobel laureate author Orhan Pamuk, who wrote the book of the same name. Both the museum and novel offer a glimpse into upper-class life in the city from the 1970s to the early 2000s.
Rumour has it that Miguel de Cervantes, the author of Don Quixote (1605), worked on the construction of the Kılıç Ali Pasha Complex after he was captured by the Ottomans in 1875. While his captive life wouldn’t have been one of luxury, the hammam he helped build continues to offer comfort to visitors today. Make an appointment online at this historical hammam for a traditional Turkish bath experience. A massage, scrub and bath will freshen you up for a fun evening ahead. If you like architecture, note that architect Mimar Sinan was inspired by the Hagia Sophia when designing the mosque in the complex – see if you can spot the similarities in the facade.
For some of the best Turkish appetisers, make reservations at Karaköy Lokantası. Choose from the cold mezes on display, including pureed aubergine and swordfish carpaccio. If confused, ask the extremely knowledgeable servers to help you decide. Follow the mezes with their limited yet perfectly cooked meat dishes such as the popular lamb ribs. They offer a wide selection of wine as well, or raki if you want a traditional drink.
Yeni Lokanta restaurant is also a great choice for dinner if you are in the mood for innovative and experimental Turkish cuisine. Chef Civan creates Anatolian dishes with a spin, and only uses seasonal produce so every visit has something new in store. Reservations are required.
As evening descends on the backstreets of Beyoğlu, you may hear soulful jazz notes drifting through the cobbled streets. Follow the music to the cosy Nardis Jazz Club, one of Istanbul’s few jazz venues. Known for top-quality sound, this 120-capacity venue fills fast, so try to get there an hour before the daily performance.
If you are into house music, NEST is the place to go, hidden among the shuttered shops of Karaköy’s trade district, and open only on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. You can dance on the roof here with a view of Istanbul’s famous old-city skyline. It’s perfect for starting your night before heading to Karaköy’s noiser bar street, or ending your night with chilled-out vibes and a great view.