The culture in Istanbul is impossible to stereotype. As the place where two continents come together, many empires have fought for, won and lost control for this land once known as Constantinople. Turkey was the connecting pathway to new territories and new markets, so it was invaluable to any nation or tribe trying to make their mark. Hence today, Istanbul is a subtle blend of conservative, bohemian, hedonistic, trendy, and traditional cultural values.
As home to some of Turkey’s trendiest neighbourhoods, many foreigners take advantage of affordable prices, strong local and global demand, and the wide variety of property types to set up boutique hotels in Istanbul, purchase buy-to-let homes or build their retirement home. Additionally, Muslims find some neighbourhoods to be their ideal destination to raise a family with Islamic values. At the same time, artisans gather in small corners for sources of inspiration and to make their name globally.
To learn about cultural trends, we recommended visiting specific neighbourhoods boasting of individuality. Explore the streets, taste local food, visit the attractions and people watch, to find out what makes them tick and how they contribute towards the city’s magnificent glory. An excellent place to start is Sultanahmet old city. But wait you might say! This is where all the tourists go sightseeing.
Yes, it is, but it does a marvellous of explaining how Istanbul started and eventually grew to become one of the planet’s most culturally diverse cities. By exploring old landmarks from the Byzantine and Ottoman empires like the Hagia Sophia, Basilica cistern, Archaeology Museum, Blue Mosque, hippodrome and Topkapi palace, the pleasant blend of eastern and western trends is plain to see. After, head across the Golden Horn via the Galata Bridge to explore our first recommended neighbourhood.
Neighbourhoods Showcasing the Culture in Istanbul
Istiklal Avenue and Taksim Square
The Beyoglu neighbourhood, specifically Istiklal avenue and Taksim is young, hip, and busy, therefore brimming with artesian studios, pubs, nightclubs, and tons of people. Explore on foot for the best experience, but also jump on board the iconic red tram running the length of Istiklal Avenue. Also pass through Flower Passage, named after its historical past; however, these days, Turks, tourists, and ex-pats enjoy dinner and entertainment in numerous restaurants that replace the florists. This shopping and nightlife centre, known as the new city, is an excellent insight into modern-day living, where culturally, anything goes, and everyone fits in. (More about the Beyoglu neighbourhood and surrounding areas.)
Cihangir is another neighbourhood boasting of a bohemian mix of writers, artists, and musicians, so imagine what treasures await in tiny stalls on each street. Often favourably compared to New York City’s Soho, writers living here are Turkey’s literary mafia. This neighbourhood is more residential than Beyoglu, but there’s still plenty to see and do here, while Istanbul property prices here are at a premium. The mosque sits at the top of a hill with a fantastic view, but seek out the antique dealers selling old books, carpets, furniture and more. To people watch, find a seat along Siraselviler (Cypress Avenue), and grab a cup of Turkish coffee while surrounded by art dealers, artists, and their patrons.
Old Istanbul in Cukurcuma
Cukurcuma is where old and new meet. Stop by Cukurcuma Koftecisi for the famous meatballs before touring the area. Discover an eclectic mix of renovated homes and businesses blending into buildings that still show their character and age, as well as antiques, vintage clothing, and trinket shops. Stay away from the touristic areas to enjoy exploring because it closely guards its local treasures. A must visit is the Museum of Innocence, a project by Orhan Pamuk, who is Turkey’s most famous male writer. Here, see everyday objects from past people who lived in Istanbul, and inspiration for his famous novel of the same name. Cukurcuma is full of art galleries for those who want to understand this cultural aspect of Turkish artists.
To see how the middle and upper class live, take a walk around Besiktas sitting on the Bosphorus strait shores. This district, not only commands an esteemed reputation but includes many prominent neighbourhoods like Levent, which thrives as a white-collar environment. Also, witness the sky-line and high-rise living status of locals since some of Istanbul’s tallest buildings sit on Buyukdere avenue running through it. Its prestigious status isn’t anything new because, for centuries, Ottoman Sultans flocked here as seen in the landmark Dolmabahce and Yildiz palaces. More about the Besiktas area of Istanbul.
Kadikoy: Where It All Happens
Kadikoy, on the Bosphorus shores, it is cultural and beating heart of the Anatolian side. Thousands of people pass through every day thanks to its ferry links, but it also has a large student population attending some of Istanbul’s best universities. For locals and tourists, the go-to place that puts it on the map is the fish market. Choose fresh fish and seafood from vendors and then take it to a surrounding restaurant, who will serve it Turkish style. Aside from that, it offers everything and anything from shopping to art to opera and a vibrant nightlife scene to experience Istanbul’s culture after dark. Kadikoy’s prime position on the Asian side makes it a must-visit destination so learn about where to go and what to do here.
Nisantasi: High-End Luxury Living
Heading back to the European side, and to the Sisli district, we now come across one of Turkey’s most elite and expensive places to live and work. Abdi Ipekci Street, runs through Nisantasi and the only shops appearing are your high-end brand names like Louis Vuitton and Calvin Klein. Indeed, Nisantasi is an in-depth look how the rich and famous live, but take time while strolling the streets to admire the old Art Nouveau architecture. Such is Nisantasi’s lure, many foreigners choosing to live in Istanbul settle here. Discover other high-end neighbourhoods of Istanbul.
Jewish Culture in Galata
To understand Istanbul’s cultural heritage, visit the Galata area that was for many years, home to communities of Jews, Turks, and Armenians. A few synagogues still operate although special permission is needed to enter them. Otherwise, visit the Quincentennial Jewish museum, and sign up for a Jewish cultural heritage guided tour around the neighbourhood. Additionally, the Galata Mevlevi museum highlights the historical journey of whirling dervishes, a sect of Islam. While there, tour the wine shops and visit the Galata tower viewing platform for a marvellous view over the Golden Horn.
Balat and Fener
In recent years, Balat and Fener guided walking tours have risen in popularity as travellers look for their cultural heritage based in Jewish and Greek communities. Sitting side by side in Fatih district, they are an excellent insight into daily life for locals. Popular photography tours walk around every corner and past cafes because it holds a natural photo opportunity and a vast difference from the mainstream touristic landmarks. Watch out for the iconic multicoloured restored Ottoman houses and the famous red brick Greek orthodox college. If the Faith district interests you further, read here to discover other things to see and do.
Colourful Istanbul: When many people think of urban landscapes, they assume them to be dull, boring, and bland, yet certain areas highlight the culture in Istanbul through colour. Whether it is a landmark building, streets, murals or Bosphorus landmarks, find where to see them in this article.
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