Istanbul would be nothing without its waters. Acting as barriers, shipping lanes, and passages, they’ve come to define the city. The Bosphorus links the Sea of Marmara in the south to the Black Sea in the north, marking the border between Europe and Asia. Meanwhile, the Golden Horn (Haliç) divides the European side into north and south. Istanbul is a single city, but its components are vibrant and distinct. European Istanbul, which features most of the historic and cultural sights, is the better-looking half (sorry Asia!), although that also means it’s crammed with tourists (and those trying to make money off of them). Walk around Sultanahmet for the most famous sights, but cross over to Beyoğlu to find the soul of modern Istanbul. Heading north on the European side, you’ll find bustling Beşiktaş and opulent Ortaköy, where Istanbul’s glitterati spend and party. On the Asian side, the mostly residential Üsküdar is bordered in the south by Kadiköy, the unofficial center of this half, while farther south, the quiet and comfortable life of Moda might tempt you to move there. With all these neighborhoods stretched between two continents, you’ll have a lot to take in. Thankfully, between the city’s buses, trains, and trams, you’ll never find yourself far from Istanbul’s cheap, convenient public transportation network, and the city’s ferry service is the cheapest intercontinental cruise you’ll ever take.
SULTANAHMET AND ENVIRONS
Home to the Hagia Sophia and the other crown jewels of historical Istanbul, Sultanahmet is the first stop for anyone who wants to explore the city. Sultanahmet proper is the area teeming with tourists around the Blue Mosque, where many budget accommodations and historical sights can be found. To the north are the Sirkeci and Eminönü neighborhoods, known for the Spice Bazaar, bustling streets, and gorgeous mosques. The Galata Bridge above Eminönü connects the historic peninsula with Karaköy, across the Golden Horn. You’ll find ferry terminals and tram stops on both sides of the bridge. The eastern tip of the peninsula is occupied by Topkapı Palace and Gülhane Park. To the west of Sultanahmet are Çemberlitaş and Beyazıt Square, the location of some nice tea houses and cheap restaurants. The tram conveniently connects all of these neighborhoods, though it’s also possible to walk. Shopaholics and hardcore hagglers can spend hours in the Grand Bazaar, a maze-like warren above Beyazıt. Below Beyazıt is the Kumkapı neighborhood, renowned (or infamous) for its overpriced fish restaurants. Come to Sultanahmet for the fabled sights and the full tourist experience, but look elsewhere for a more authentic (and cheaper) vision of the city.
You will hear two different Fatihs talked about in Istanbul. The municipality of Fatih covers the entire historical peninsula and includes Sultanahmet, Beyazıt, and all the nearby neighborhoods. Fatih proper, on the other hand, is a small neighborhood around Fatih Mosque where government officials dwell and fun goes to die. It’s more conservative than other neighborhoods, which can be a refreshing change from İstiklal Caddesi. One of the liveliest roads here is Fevzi Paşa Caddesi, which runs northwest from Fatih İtfaiye Park. If you follow the Valens Aqueduct from its southern end, you’ll find the Siirt Bazaar, a square with plenty of small restaurants. A marginally classier cluster of restaurants can be found on Atpazarı, a square just a few blocks east of the mosque, but almost no establishment in Fatih serves alcohol. To the north of the Fatih Mosque is Çarşamba, which makes Fatih look like a hippie commune.
FENER AND BALAT
Fener and Balat used to be home to the Greek, Jewish, and Armenian minorities of Istanbul, but today they are populated mostly by poor Muslim migrants. It’s a very dilapidated area, but it doesn’t feel unsafe. Housewives chat across windows and children play while old men sip tea and comb their beards in the streets. Of course, be vigilant, even if tourist traps don’t lurk behind every corner here (we’re looking at you, Sultanahmet). This isone of the most conservative parts of Istanbul, so you’ll never see the words “nightlife” and “Fener and Balat” in the same sentence—except when the sentence is, “The neighborhoods of Fener and Balat have no nightlife.”
The fastest way to get here is by bus, but the prettiest is by ferry from Eminönü. Since the street plan is rather confusing, bring a good map and use landmarks to navigate the area. Public transportation sticks mainly to the periphery, so get ready for a rigorous walk. Vodina Caddesi runs parallel to the shore between Fener and Balat and is packed with local stores. The impressive red-brick Phanar Greek Orthodox College (Özel Fener Rum Lisesi) can be found some 300m inland from the Fener ferry jetty. The Edirnekapı neighborhood is a 15min. walk inland, close to the city walls, and home to the mosaic-filled Chora Church. You can find Eyüp Sultan Mosque and the Pierre Loti Cafe in Eyüp, a few kilometers north of Balat.
Beyoğlu is the beating heart of modern Istanbul, brimming with galleries, restaurants, bars, and clubs. Many of these establishments are located off İstiklal Caddesi, a throbbing promenade that connects the transportation hub of Taksim Square in the north with Tünel Square in the south. You’ll findbrand names, consulates, and an almost constant flow of people on and around İstiklal. Halfway into İstiklal, you can’t miss the ornate gates of Istanbul’s most prestigious high school, the Galatasaray Lisesi. A bit below Tünel is the Galata Tower, the most recognizable point on Istanbul’s European skyline. The blocks around it house designer shops, cafes, and a revitalized creative scene. For a calmer, residential feel, head to Cihangir, a bohemian neighborhood popular with expats, located south of Taksim Sq. and bordered by Sıraselviler Caddesi to the west. The Sultanahmet tram doesn’t run to İstiklal; to get there, either get off at Karaköy and take the funicular to Tünel, or go to Kabataş and take the funicular to Taksim.
BEŞIKTAŞ AND ORTAKÖY
Beşiktaş is a village a few kilometers up from Kabataş, with a small pedestrian center that is popular with students. The eagle statue near the triangular fish market is a good orientation point. To reach it, head inland from the ferry terminal or the bus station onto Ortabahçe Cad. and take the second right. There are a few expensive places here, but it’s Ortaköy that’s known as Istanbul’s leading site of conspicuous consumption. Not much has changed here over the years. Instead of sultans, millionaires now live in the waterside palaces, and you can’t swing a Louis Vuitton bag without hitting a BMW. Ortaköy’s small center is near the water, around the Ortaköy Mosque, where you’ll find plenty of shops and pricey eateries. The city’s famous clubs are mostly concentrated on Muallim Naci Caddesi, which runs from Ortaköy to Kuruçeşme. Muallim Naci is part of the main road (at some points Dolmabahçe and Çirağan) that runs along the shore, connecting Kabataş with these neighborhoods. Although you can take one of the many buses, the frequently bad traffic means that you’re better off walking and basking in the opulence of your surroundings.
The Asian side of Istanbul tends to be confusing for travelers, since it isn’t laid out like most European cities. However, make your way through this part of town to discover a lively alternative art scene and an abundance of cafes and restaurants free from the mobs of tourists common across the Bosphorus. Window-shoppers might never leave Bağdat Caddesi, İstiklal Cad.’s fancier sibling, where high-end luxury stores compete with sexy cars for the greatest glitz. There are a few streets in the historical Kadıköy neighborhood to keep in mind: Söğütlüçeşme Caddesi runs inland from the ferry terminal and intersects with Kadıköy’s important pedestrian street, Bahariye Caddesi. This intersection is home to a well-known statue of a bull. Parallel to Bahariye Cad. is the neighborhood’s “bar street,” Kadife Sokak. Güneşlibahçe Sokak, which intersects with Söğütlüçeşme Cad. near the ferry terminal, is known for Kadıköy Market and many restaurants with live music.
To the south of Kadıköy, you’ll find Moda, a well-to-do residential area with beaches, perfect for romantic sunset watching. Moda is accessible on foot, but you can take the nostalgic shoebox of a tram that follows a circular route around Kadıköy into suburbia. Üsküdar, home to over 180 mosques, is a rather sleepy historical neighborhood some kilometers north of Kadıköy. Visit the Mihrimah Sultan, Şemsi Pasha, and Çinili mosques for a sampling of the best. For easy travel between Kadıköy and Üsküdar, take public bus #12 or #12A. Farther into Asia, the suburbs have their own charms and personalities.