Part of Istanbul’s magic lies in its ability to keep on surprising, and it takes a true traveller’s spirit to be open to discovery. With everything from centuries-old passages hosting retro wonderlands to lush inner-city tea gardens and Eden-like roof terraces boasting jaw-dropping views of the city, some of the city’s best kept secrets lie within astonishingly easy reach of its most worn paths, and these needn’t put a big dent in your wallet.
Cats, cobblestones & sea vistas in Sultanahmet
Sultanahmet, at the heart of Istanbul’s historical peninsula, may be tourist central, but there is more to this area than first meets the eye. Avoid the heaving crowds and sneak off to Sultanahmet’s cobbled backstreets heading downhill from Hagia Sophia, where the cats (rather than the touts) will lead you past crumbling Ottoman houses, tiny hole-in-the-wall eateries and local fruit shops overflowing with juicy pomegranates and other fresh produce.
Sultanahmet’s main backpacker strip, Akbiyik (White Moustache) Street, is where most budget travellers end up. The area is packed with hostels, hotels, cafes, restaurants, travel agencies and carpet stores with Bollywood-esque salesmen trying to entice passing tourists. But although many of the places are on the higher end of the spending scale, there are a few hidden delights for those in the know.
Travellers are often surprised to discover that some of the best views of the city and water can be enjoyed from the roof terraces of hostels in the area. Many have been converted into restaurants and bars, offering super relaxed spaces in which to meet other travellers while lapping up the cheap beer and food with a backdrop of major historical sites and the Bosphorus. Some of the best value roof terrace venues in the area include the Sultan Hostel Sea View Terrace (Akbiyik Caddesi No. 17) and the Orient Hostel Terrace Cafe & Restaurant (Akbiyik Caddesi No. 9), which hosts special events like belly dance evenings.
Underground glory in Galata
Those after a more genuine local experience are advised to head over the Golden Horn to Beyoglu-Taksim, Istanbul’s main shopping, dining and nightlife district. This lively area is replete with fascinating sites, wonderful restaurants and bars and interesting streets, and just about any budget is catered for. Beginning in the Galata area just up from the iconic Galata Bridge is a little-visited piece of history.
Yeralti Camii- the Underground Mosque– (Karatina Sokak, Karakoy) is, as its name suggests, set below the earth in an eerie crypt belonging to the former Castle of Galata. It is believed that the colossal chain which once prevented unwelcome shops from passing through the Golden Horn used to be anchored here, though in 1757 the building was converted into a mosque. The ancient interior sports a series of columns which support low vaulted ceilings, allowing space for private prayer. The Mosque’s side chapel also hosts the tombs of two Arab soldiers.
Take the stairways to heaven
Some of Istanbul’s most charming restaurants and bars are notoriously difficult to find, situated within decidedly uninviting apartment blocks all around the city. Locals have learnt that one of the best ways to discover hidden Istanbul is to simply look up, where the most interesting terrace bars and restaurants are situated. Signage is often either poor or non-existent, so be prepared to brave several flights of stairs in search of your Eden.
One such restaurant is Tavanarasi Restaurant (Asmalımescit Sokak No. 26/11, 6th floor) in Istanbul’s charming Asmalimescit district. Perched on the sixth floor of an otherwise bland looking apartment block, this loft style eatery has one of the best atmospheres around. Popular with university students due to its very reasonable prices and charming surroundings, Tavanarasi serves a range of traditional Turkish dishes, fresh seafood and many vegetarian options. Diners crowd around the restaurant’s wooden tables and can take in the views of the charming city street below.
Party it up in purgatory
About halfway along Istiklal Street just past the Nevizade district is Araf (Balo Sokak No. 32, 5th Floor), a nightlife secret which is spreading like one great game of Chinese Whispers. Situated on the top two floors of – yes- another apartment block, this legendary nightclub is named after purgatory, the mythical land between heaven and hell. Take the tiny elevator to the top, where you will burst out onto a real Turkish style fiesta complete with views over the city. There’s no door fee, the beer is cheap and live bands play frequently, making Araf a special hit with foreign university students, expats and locals.
Other hidden nightlife gems in the area include Peyote Bar (Kameriye Sokak No. 4), a 3-storey indie music dream; Haymatlos (Istiklal Street, Rumeli Han Block C, No. 96, 2nd floor), a live music venue for the anti-establishment crowd tucked away down a darkened passage; and Nayah (Kurabiye Sokak No:19), Istanbul’s only dedicated reggae bar with panoramic views over the city.
Secret passages galore
With the huge number of shops in Istanbul, it’s easy just to stick to the main drag, especially along the famous Istiklal Street. But to do this would be to miss some of Istanbul’s most interesting shops, which are situated on the side streets and historical passages leading off Istiklal. Though they may not look like much from the outside, these passages have been places of trade, culture and even politics for well over a century.
Some of the finest of Istiklal Street’s passages include the beautifully restored (but pricey) Cicek Pasaji with its many traditional Turkish taverns; Avrupa Pasaji, which these days mainly deals in antiques and souvenirs; Suriye Pasaji, which houses the world’s largest retro store, By Retro; and, last but in no way least, Hazzopulo Pasaji, a more low-key arcade which opens up into a pretty tea garden, complete with dreamy grape vines and the laziest resident dog in the city.