Featured, Turkey

Istanbul’s Diverse Neighborhoods – how to choose?

24 Comments 02 October 2012

Istanbul modern art museum sign

In a city of 13 million people covering 2000 square miles how do you know where to begin? Istanbul is one of the largest cities in the Mediterranean and it is easily the largest city in Turkey. It’s been growing since the 1950’s when migrants from Anatolia flocked to the city in search of economic prosperity and the city has been expanding to accommodate them.

What does this mean for you – one of 7 million visitors to Istanbul every year? It means you have some tough decisions to make when you are trying to decide where in this vast metropolis you want to stay and what you want to do!

During my four week stay in Istanbul I stayed in 3 completely different neighborhoods and visited about 4 more in depth via some great walking tours. Like most cities, each neighborhood has it’s own feel so I’ve tried to provide you my opinion on what each neighborhood can offer you – the visitor – as well as give you a peek into what the neighborhood culture there was like.

This isn’t the best map – but it’s the best one I can find.  Some of the neighborhoods I’m talking about aren’t really marked on this map – but I’ll try to do my best to describe their location

map-of-istanbul-neighborhoods

 1- Sultanahmet

2 & 3 – Eminoju and Grand Bazaar

4, 5, 6, 7 – Beyoglu District  (4 represents Galata)

8 – Fener and Balat

Northwest of 9 – Eyup

North of 5 – Tarlabasi

North of 6 – Sisli

East of 1 – Kadikoy

 

Sultanahmet & Eminönü

Tourist central – the easiest place to stay to tick off all of the main sites. Not many ‘real’ Istanbul locals living in this area though. However at certain times, such as Ramadan (while I was there), the historic sites draw a local crowd that is impressive to see and experience. Here you’ll find a ton of hotels, Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, Grand Bazaar, Topaki Palace, Basilica Cistern, and a ton of tourist restaurants and souvenir shops. Good public transport…but not what I would call the ‘real Istanbul’.

View of the Blue mosque from Hagia sophia

A view of the Blue Mosque from the Hagia Sophia upper level

Local commuters arriving in Eminonu and Sultanahmet for work

Local commuters arriving in Eminonu and Sultanahmet for work in the tourist district

Hagia Sophia

Inside Hagia Sophia

chicken kebab prepared in the morning

Chicken kebab prepared in the morning for eager tourists at lunchtime

Karakoy/Galata

Galata’s modern name is Karakoy, but I found the two interchangeable. The area is actually a part of a much larger district called Beyoglu which also includes Taksim Square.  This neighborhood is touristy, but intertwined within cruise passengers, and souvenir shops are locals who have lived in the area their whole life. I stayed for 2 weeks in Galata  and felt like it was just the right mix of tourism and local culture. It’s great for shopping as little hipster boutiques are dotted among the old run down abandoned buildings giving you the preview of what is to come for this popular neighborhood. Plus – you’ll find the Istanbul Modern Museum in this area too – a great stop to make if you are in the area. I really did love the mix of visitors/locals/expats here. It was a neighborhood of diversity but most days I really felt like I was a part of the neighborhood as opposed to simply a visitor in a neighborhood.  My pick for best location so you can get a bit of everything out of your stay.

Galata tower

Galata tower provides a nice view of Beyoglu and beyond

Istaklal Street

Istaklal Street – the retail heart of Beyoglu

beyoglu restaurant istanbul

Trendy restaurants and cafes line the streets of Galata

galata neighborhood

The Galata neighborhood is built upon hills!

men playing backgammon in galata

Men playing backgammon in Galata

Şişli

This is where you’ll find everyday life of the business population – the streets are filled with banks, businesses, and shopping malls. In fact Europe’s largest and the world’s second largest (urban-area) shopping mall, Cevahir İstanbul, is situated here.
It’s more modern and tidy than other parts of the city. It’s well served by transportation routes and subway and quite frankly – it’s where real middle class life takes place. I stayed for a week in an (very strange) apartment right behind the Cevahir Mall and thoroughly enjoyed it. It was a completely different feel and vibe to Istanbul – one that felt very European/western and if you have been traveling for a while and are searching for something familiar – Sisli is the place to be!

Tarlabasi

Tarlabasi is part of the larger district of Beyoglu – which includes many of the hot smaller neighborhoods of the city. However Tarlabasi is more like the unwanted stepsister of Beyoglu – and because of that – I loved it. Originally a Greek and Armenian neighbourhood, diverse ethnic groups live here today: Kurds, Turks, and Roma. It also houses different social groups that are often marginalized in the city: transsexuals, sexworkers, or illegal immigrants on their way to Europe.

I happened to be staying my first week in Istanbul in Tarlabasi and it honestly seemed no different than many other countries I had been in. However when you say you are staying in Talabasi, locals do crinkle their nose and think you are a bit nuts for staying there – it is considered the ‘bad part of town’. I loved the fact that I was staying in this area where everyone immediately get tense about – I love it because in some weird way I wasn’t suppose to be there….at least not as a tourist. Yet I was. I stayed in a redesigned old 6 story house – and yes – it’s much cheaper to stay in that neighborhood, but you are easily within walking distance to all of the Galata hotspots. The neighborhood was a bit dirty and rundown – but I loved it as a cultural immersion stay. However if you are after a more tourist and upscale environment – then I would recommend staying in Galata and simply stopping by Talabasi for the Sunday market to get a feel for this ethnic and well worn neighborhood.

A view of Taralbasi

A view of densely packed Taralbasi from my rented apartment. Photo credit – Charlie Grosso

Taralbasi Sunday market

Taralbasi Sunday market

Fener, Balat, & Eyüpf

I did a brilliant walking tour through these lesser visited neighborhoods of Fener, Balat, and Eyup – and found that being able to take these neighborhoods in at a slow pace was best. There were really no tourists to speak of, but instead the streets were filled with locals and were generally pretty quiet. The neighborhood is best known as the Jewish and Greek Quarters of Istanbul. A walk through the cobblestone winding streets of this neighborhood will take you by mosques, churches and synagogues. One of the most important religious buildings is the Church of St. George, located in Sadrazam Ali Paşa Avenue. It is the most sacred place for Orthodox Greeks – our guide described it to us as the Vatican of the Greek Orthodox religion. Inside, the church was bejeweled in gold – a sight to see. The iconostasis (wall of icons) was in the front of the church and practically hurt your eyes ot look at it! Plus – it is believed to have the cross that Jesus Christ was crucified on inside the church.

Eyup is located just outside of the city walls on the south bank of the Golden Horn and is named after Eyyub al Ensari, a companion of theProphet Mohammed, who is believed to have died here when Arabs sieged the city in the 7th century. It’s home to one of the most sacred and religiously significant mosques in all of Turkey. However since our walking tour was during Ramadam, the mosque was so crowded that we weren’t even able to get inside! Instead we sat in the main square, had coffee and talked about the history of the neighborhood further.

clothes hang on the line in Balat

Clothes hang on the line in Balat

Inside the Church of St. George

Inside the Church of St. George.  Iconostasis in background.

Church of St. George

The ‘Vatican’ of the Greek Orthodox religion – Church of St. George in Istanbul

Balat street vendor

Balat street vendor

Kadikoy (Asian Side)

Kadikoy is one of the fastest growing districts in Istanbul for the last 25 years, it has areas of a great deal of shopping, fine dining, and entertainment making it popular especially for wealthy local people. They have nice promenades along the Bosporus – and great views of the European side of course. You’ll also be greeted by lovely food markets where you can do all of your shopping for dinner. This neighborhood definitely has a more local feel to it. Sure – it has a few sites, but mostly it’s just a functioning middle class neighborhood – a super place to really immerse yourself and less expensive than the European side. And since it’s a transportation hub, it’s quite easy and cheap to get to the European side of Istanbul to see all of the tourist sites in Sultanahmet.

Haydarpaşa Garı train station in Kadikoy

Haydarpaşa Garı train station a main stie in Kadikoy

old cafe in Kadikoy

Old cafe in Kadikoy

Princes’ Island

These four islands once served as exile islands (for naughty Princes!) for the Ottoman Empire. Situated in the Sea of Marmara parallel to the Asian coast, the Princes’ Islands are accessible by ferry from both the European and the Asian sides of Istanbul. If you are looking for a little peace, quiet, and relaxation on your Istanbul travels then be sure to escape to these beautiful islands for a day – or two! It’s a one hour ferry ride and when you arrive at the islands you will be treated to quiet environments, good seafood, and relaxation. There are no cars allowed on these islands so all wheeled transportation is conducted by horse and buggy. If you do during the week, you’ll only find a handful of people, but on the weekends in the summer many of the local Istanbul residents escape the city and come to the islands. I dream of going to Princes Islands and staying for a few weeks to simply wind down and write. It would be a perfect place to write a novel and hide away for a bit while watching the twinkle of Istanbul in the distance.

Princes island

Horse and buggy is the only transportation on the islands and the architecture is different than anything you’ll see in Istanbul

Sunset over Princes' islands

Sunset over Princes’ islands

Decisions, Decisions!

You have a lot of choices – do you want to be near the sites, near locals, near religion, on a different continent, on an island, or in the ‘bad part of town’?  Maybe like me you’ll want to move around a bit and get the feel for multiple neighborhoods. But you can’t really go wrong anywhere in Istanbul – it’s a diverse, energetic city – and so are it’s neighborhoods.

What are your favorite neighborhoods to stay in while in Istanbul and why?

Your Comments

24 Comments so far

  1. Wow Sherry! This is the best guide ever to Istanbul. I’m saving it for my visit next year.

  2. I stayed right near Galata when I visited Istanbul in April. Apart from being a hub for tourists and commerce, they had live music pulsating around the clock! Great choice, as you say, for being in the center of the action.

  3. Mark H says:

    What a tremendous summary and unsurprisingly offering vastly different experiences depending on the suburb chosen.

  4. Marcia B. says:

    Just left Istanbul a couple of days ago for a driving trip around Western Turkey. I stayed in Sultanamet/Old City and loved it. I only had four or five days in Istanbul, and like many other travelers, will likely only visit once in my lifetime. I would have loved to have spent more time in other neighborhoods, but, the convenience of staying within walking distance of many of the well visited sights was wonderful. There are many boutique hotels, great sidewalk restaurants, night life and whatever you might want for a few days. I would love to have the time to stay as long as you did!

  5. rl reeves jr says:

    Love Tarlabasi. One of my favorite neighborhoods in the city but I think you should’ve included Kumkapi. It’s ancient and has a good mix of tourist sites as well as back streets filled with incredible food and markets. It’s also the site of my favorite lokanta in the city:Doyuran Lokantasi. My review http://chowpapi.com/wordpress/wordpress-2.8.6/wordpress/who-polishes-the-horns-adventures-in-eating-in-istanbul-turkey-part-1/

  6. Adnan says:

    This is the most detailed guide I read recently. Your readers may find the following website of use: http://bit.ly/OJPzKJ

  7. This is honestly the best Instanbul travel guide I have ever seen! I will go to all of the places you recommend once I get there. Happy travels

  8. Chris says:

    Really great that you mentioned the Asian side, I think it’s a great way to see modern Turkey that gets overlooked by many travelers. Did you get a chance to travel out into any of the newer areas that are sprouting up around the edges of the city?

  9. I love visiting Istanbul for the main reason the Turkish cuisine and the tourist spot. I was at Kadikoy last April. What I did was to shop and to eat at some fine dining restaurants.

  10. Traveler says:

    Istanbul is very big city and there are many things to see. You must need to spend more time to visit all places. I love the Turkish food, very nice photo of Chicken Kebab.

  11. Emilia says:

    Having stayed in two different Sultanahmet places (Cankurtaran and nearer Küçük Aya Sofia), the Bosphorus and now in Galata, I must say that Galata is so much better for restaurants and nightlife and little interesting shops. It is easy to go to the historical quarter and to explore the places on the Bosphorus shore.
    Great guide, Sherry, every city should have one like this to help with choosing!

  12. ALI says:

    I need an apartment in Kadikoy or other Turkish-Turkish Muslim neighborhood (no gavurs or westerners or greeks or armenians or romas) for no more the 600 TL per month and I need an ESL teaching job right away. Thank you. ALI.

  13. Christine says:

    Hi Sherry, Thanks so much for this guide to Istanbul. I’m going over the New Year’s holidays and feel like you have the same sensibility as I do. I can’t decide between Galata and the islands (particularly the place the horses are stopped in front of!). Maybe I’ll split my time. Thanks again for the knowledge.

    • Sherry says:

      Hard choice! They are both so different. One is big city and one is secluded island. You can always take a day trip to the islands too – or spend a couple of days there to get the feel of it. I love the city though! Let me know where you end up!

  14. Cynthia says:

    I am moving to Istanbul this summer to work for two years. You have been REALLY helpful in helping me understand my new adopted city and in selecting possible areas to live in. Any other suggestions, if you were going to live there?

  15. Sandy says:

    Hi Sherry! great site! my favourite city in the world! Planning to go there for a couple of months later this year (been there few times..)
    I also found a place in tarlabarsi & like what You’ve written..comments are not positive…! but the rent is sooo cheap & do u think it’s a good idea for me (single woman) to stay there? ..I’ll also stick out like a sore thumb because I’m Asian : /

    another option is Balat~ can u give me some advice?
    cheers:)

    • Sherry says:

      Sandy – I can only tell you about my experience there. I was fine – but I didn’t go out a lot at night. However during the day I walked all over! Or if I did go out at night I stuck to the main road where there are always lots of people – and it was very close to the tourist areas too.

  16. Omer says:

    Hello Sherry,
    Thats a fantastic review. I’m heading to Istanbul in mid August for a 9-day vacation with my wife and two little children (ages 2 and 4). We are not interested in the nightlife. We just want to visit the main sights, eat some good food and do a little shopping. I’m currently torn between two apartments for rent, one in the Asian side (near the ferry terminal) in Kadikoy and the other near Taksim square in Cihangir.

    What do you recommend we do? Thanks in advance for the help

    • Sherry says:

      Omer – how exciting! Both neighborhoods would be great. If you did Taksim then you’d have the option of walking around to the sites – and not have to deal with a ferry – however some of them are pretty far (you have to cross the Galata Bridge) – and with that young of children I doubt you would do that much walking! So – I don’t think you can go wrong with either. Taksim is much more crowded and hillier (think San Francisco!) so it might be harder with kids. So – I would actually lean towards the Kadikoy side as long as you know that you’ll have to take the ferry to get to the main sites. But the ferry is nice and the kids might like it. The views from Kadikoy are great – there are super restaurants and it’s a bit more low key. Let me know if I can help with anything else and please do write back and let me know how it goes!

  17. Tash says:

    This is so helpful! I’m going to Istanbul for about 7 days in a month (mid-Aug)… solo female traveler! I want a night or two of “nightlife” stuff, but other than that will mostly see a lot of stuff during the day and go to cafes and restaurants and bars too. I want to hit most of the big sites in a day or two so that I can spend more time with the less touristy things– more “authentic” Istanbul stuff. More off-the-beaten-path stuff. Any particular suggestions for someone like me?? Thanks in advance!!

    • Sherry says:

      look to see if they have any Eatwith.com experiences there or stay with a local in one of those neighborhoods I mentioned via Airbnb.com and then you’ll get a lot more access to locals and authentic experiences! I do both of these things when I travel solo – it’s a great way to meet people and stay away from the typical tourist stuff!

  18. Natasha says:

    Hi! But where is Taksim? Many of my friends stayed in Taksim area and they said it was great. Any idea? Thanks!


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Sherry traveling the world

I'm Sherry, a corporate cube dweller turned nomadic traveler. I travel to off-the-beaten-path destinations to bring you unique travel experiences and photography. But it's not just about travel, it's also about life experiences of a middle age wanderer.
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