Istanbul is an internationally famous historical collection of famous landmarks from the Byzantine and Ottoman Empire, yet the busy city is about much more than that. In the new part, running through the Beyoglu district sits Istiklal Caddesi.
Stretching for more than 1 mile, from the tunnel funicular to the independence monument in Taksim square, its primary function is shopping and entertainment but old buildings still stand among modern and new builds. Such is the hype and attraction; more than 3 million people walk it every day, officially earning it the title of Turkey’s busiest street.
Recognised in international travel magazines, by the distinctive red tram, operating up and down it three times a day, exploring the shops, landmarks and characteristic neighbourhoods leading from the small roads running off it should be a must on your agenda.
The History of Istiklal Caddesi
The street has always been popular throughout its history. Called Grande Avenue during the Ottoman period, it was a trendy place during the 19th and 20th centuries, where name-dropping to socialise in prestigious circles was the order of the day.
European travellers and the rich Levantine culture called it the Grande Rue de Pera, as it was the centre of their world, holding many embassies. They flocked to the eateries and social gatherings but the First World War ended that cultural trend. Followed closely by the Turkish war of independence, Istiklal Avenue gained its current name in 1923, and it simply means Independence.
Unfortunately neglect in the 1970s prompted its demise and the street, now widely criticised, became a sore spot and an embarrassment for Istanbul citizens. Massive restoration took place in the years that followed, and such was the success of the work, new shopkeepers, hotels and foreign investors interested in the potential for real estate prices, moved in to make it Turkey’s busiest street.
Landmarks to Visit on or Near Istiklal Caddesi
Saint Anthony of Padua Church
Much to the surprise of foreign visitors, Saint Anthony of Padua church still holds service on Sundays. Even non-religious people cannot help but admire the intricate neo-gothic architecture of the inside and the impressive Italian style of the exterior. Marked by a statue of Pope John XXIII in the grounds, this version of the church, built in the early 20th century is one of Istanbul’s most important and historic places of worship.
Flower passage: Cilek Pasaji
Filled with traditional Meyhanes (old Ottoman style restaurants) Flower Passage is a popular place to eat and drink, but its architecture and interesting history makes it one of Istiklal Avenue’s most iconic landmarks.
Originally, starting life as a theatre during the 1800’s, a fire devastated most of the interior and following restoration, the bottom floor became shops while the second floor became offices. Russian immigrants fleeing the revolution promptly snapped up shop rental contracts, and sold flowers hence its current name.
By the 1960s, the shops had become traditional meyhanes specifically serving workers of Istanbul, with mezes and booze. Walking through narrow doors into the long L-shaped corridor, visitor’s eyes naturally drift to admire the dome-shaped glass roof before settling to gaze at the second floor holding iconic black and white portrait photos of previous customers.
The Galata Whirling Dervish Museum
For many years, whirling dervishes were a popular feature of the Ottoman era. Practising their Sufism religion, all over the country, they were particularly prominent in Konya and Istanbul. Following the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, they fell out of favour with political leaders and their old houses lay in rack and ruin for many years.
Eventually, attitude towards them softened and local council officials restored the old houses to portray the lives of their former residents, typically recognised these days by tourists, because they perform the whirling sema ceremony while wearing their long skirts and cone shaped hats.
The ethnographic section of the Galata Whirling Dervish displays items such as musical pieces, ancient scripts, personal items, and clothes. Within the grounds is the hall used for sema practises, a graveyard and a room holding three Ottoman turbe (tombs.)
Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk
Established by Turkey’s most famous author called Orhan Pamuk, the Museum of Innocence, reflecting the plotline in his book of the same name, tells the story of a lost love. Personal items that the author collected while writing the book take pride of place in bookcase style cabinets on floors of an old Ottoman house.
Aptly called after the original name of the Beyoglu district, the Pera museum is an impressive and extensive private collection of Anatolian art. It gained considerable fame after it purchased Turkey’s most expensive painting for a record-breaking 2.4 million dollars.
Named “The Tortoise Trainer,” and painted by Osman Hamdi Bey in the early 20th century, it depicts a whirling dervish, standing by a windowsill and surrounded by tortoises. Many art experts suspect, it actually reflected the demise of the Ottoman sultans and their empire at that time.
Eat, Drink, Shop and Be Merry
Naturally as part of the entertainment and cultural scenes, eating, drinking and shopping are the order of the day. Turkish lokantas are everywhere, serving up traditional food otherwise the back streets hold local watering holes such as French Street, where live music is the feature, especially during the summer evenings.
The Atlas Bazaar is a glimpse into the old Turkish way of life, away from the western brand name stalls and there are many more, just the same that are dotted along the avenue while Pandora is one of the long standing bookstores stocking an extensive collection in both Turkish and English.
Finish the day with a visit to Galata
Near the end of Istiklal Caddesi, is the Galata district and most notably the home of the famous Genoese tower. A marvellous end to exploring Istiklal Avenue is a panoramic view of Istanbul from the top of the tower built in the 14th century. As one of the most striking landmarks of Istanbul, it holds fabulous views over the Golden Horn and Bosporus.
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