10 Sightseeing Walks During Covid-19. Read it here.

Old European Quarter Walk (Self Guided), Istanbul

In the Ottoman era, Beyoğlu (then known as Pera) was, along with Galata, the European Quarter of Istanbul. Home to embassies and trading centers, as well as fine 19th-century, Parisian-style apartment houses, the area was much-loved by the city's non-Islamic minorities, with names of Greek and Armenian architects still adorning the fronts of some of Istiklal Avenue's grander buildings.

Growth was encouraged by the opening of the Orient Express line from Paris to Aleppo, bringing tourists to the area and resulting in the construction of many grand hotels. Beyoğlu continued to prosper into the early 20th century, but has seen more than its share of ups-and-downs ever since: by the 1980s, it had fallen into ill repute. The pivotal turning-point only came in 1990, when Istiklal Avenue was pedestrianized and saw elegant clothing stores, smart cafes and art cinemas springing up like mushrooms once again. In sum, what you see in Beyoğlu today represents both continuity and a major urban renaissance.

A full account of the area's diverse attractions would require an entire guidebook, and would be outdated as soon as it was written, so take this self-guided walk to find suggestions for a long exploration!
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Old European Quarter Walk Map

Guide Name: Old European Quarter Walk
Guide Location: Turkey » Istanbul (See other walking tours in Istanbul)
Guide Type: Self-guided Walking Tour (Sightseeing)
# of Attractions: 10
Tour Duration: 2 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 2.4 Km or 1.5 Miles
Author: kane
Sight(s) Featured in This Guide:
  • Taksim Square
  • Istiklal Caddesi (Independence Avenue)
  • Cicek Pasaji
  • Grand Hotel de Londres Bar
  • Pera Museum
  • Istanbul Modern (Art Museum)
  • Galip Dede Caddesi (Street)
  • Galata Mevlevi Museum
  • Neve Shalom Synagogue
  • Galata Tower
1
Taksim Square

1) Taksim Square (must see)

Every great city has a central square, and Istanbul does not disappoint. Aptly named 'Taksim' (meaning “division” or “distribution”) for the place where the main water lines once met, this square has a little bit of everything and is worth a trip to witness people and their interactions.

The Istiklal pedestrian shopping street begins here, and there are dozens of places to eat; rather unfortunately, many of these are American restaurants, but there's no shortage of options for kebab, baklava, boiled and grilled corn, hot yummy chestnuts, local breads or ice creams. With a few hundred shops at walking distance, the opportunities are seemingly unlimited, and the area is also good to get around the city as it has a metro station, a bus stop, a tram line, and taxi stands all around it.

While in the square, you'll see many Turks circling the Monument to the Republic and taking photos from all directions: mostly they are paying respect to Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the father of the Republic, depicted in his double aspect: soldier and statesman.

At dusk, there are lots of groups who sing and dance, changing the atmosphere completely.

Tip:
Meandering through the side streets, you will find quite a few interesting stores and cafes.
If you take a taxi, be sure to check the "taxi meter" first; also be wary of scammers and pickpockets.
2
Istiklal Caddesi (Independence Avenue)

2) Istiklal Caddesi (Independence Avenue) (must see)

This is the modern, most organic facet of Istanbul: full of life, restaurants, consulate buildings, bookstores, music stores and art galleries: a nice mix of everything. One could also say that it's the city's most Westernized part and clearly very fashion-forward in a distinctly European way. Traveled by millions of people and vibrant every hour of the day, it comes to life especially at night with street vendors, live music, cafes, bars, pastry shops... you name it – it's probably there.

Perhaps the main feature of Istiklal is the nostalgic red tram – the only vehicle permitted – that links the Taksim and Tünel squares; while it doesn't take you far – just up and down the street – it is a must-try experience to feel the impact of so many pedestrians around you: different people from all over the globe, diversity in all its glory!

Aside from shopping opportunities, look out for historic cinemas (like Atlas, Beyoglu), historical passages (Hazzopulo, Suriye and Çiçek), churches (the ancient St. Mary Draperis, the impressive Venetian Gothic gatehouse of the Church of St. Antoine), consulate buildings, and innovative art galleries (check out SALT Beyoğlu, ARTER, and the Mısır Apartments), as well as excellent examples of 19th-century Neo-Classical and Art Nouveau architecture to admire.

Lots of small interesting alleyways lead off the main street, so do not hesitate to take little excursions – you can find a bevy of food (including the Turkish variety of tapas), drink, coffees, trinkets, souvenirs... at generally better prices. Climb up and down the stairs, have a view of the colorful taverns and terraces around, or get dramatic and attend the so many live show music of Turkish singers.

Safety tip:
Keep a hand on your valuables and eyes anywhere but in front of you (a neat trick that clears your path). Avoid walking the minor streets after midnight.
3
Cicek Pasaji

3) Cicek Pasaji

About halfway along Istiklal Caddesi, the famous modern avenue that starts from Taksim Square and leads to the edge of Galata, there are numerous "passages", or arcades – part covered and part free in the sun – abounding with shops and restaurants. The most famous of these, the Çiçek Pasajı, dates to 1876 and bears a particular history. At one time, in fact, it was one of the swankiest places in the city: built in direct imitation of Parisian models, it housed a shopping arcade and apartments. Following the Russian Revolution of 1917, many impoverished noble Russian women, including a Baroness, found themselves selling flowers here. By the 1940s the building was mostly occupied by flower shops, hence the present Turkish name: "Flower Passage".

Recently renovated, the place may have lost some of its past charms, but can still offer an experience you won't find anywhere else in Europe. It's a unique place to take a stroll, especially to admire the glass roof or the old signs and to poke around inside the many shops and "meyhanes" (taverns) serving seafood and traditional "raki", the local anise-based firewater (beginners are advised to dilute it with a copious amount of water if they plan to rise from the table unassisted).

A great way to mix with locals, the passage allows for outside seating even on cold and rainy days. At night, it is lit up with colorful lights and live musicians tableside.
4
Grand Hotel de Londres Bar

4) Grand Hotel de Londres Bar

Decorated in grand 1920s style and with a stunning view of the Golden Horn and the Old City, the rooftop bar of this ages-old hotel is still one of the best of Istanbul, where locals and expats come for a cool beer or typical Turkish tea in a relaxed, unpretentious atmosphere.

Largely devoid of tourists, the lounge bar serves drinks and meals at affordable prices, from 4pm to late at night for those who missed dinner time. Allow yourself a couple of hours between 7 and 9pm, and you will get to see all the colors and faces of Istanbul against the backdrop of the Bosphorus.

The building itself is a city landmark and has served as an elegant city hotel since the 1800s for European (and mostly British) travelers. Examine the old artwork on the walls as you walk up or down the stairs and appreciate historical Istanbul without getting too nostalgic.

Tip:
If you're visiting when the weather is still chilly, check out the main hall and have a coffee in the lobby bar, taking your time to feel the graciously faded elegance.
5
Pera Museum

5) Pera Museum

A century ago, three of Istanbul's grand hotels were catering to passengers arriving on the Orient Express: the Pera Palace, the Grand Hotel de Londres and the Bristol. While the first two still survive as hotels, the latter has been privately acquired and reborn in 2005 as Pera Museum with a compelling mix of culturally significant Turkish works, contemporary international exhibitions, and ancient weights and measures.

The museum covers five floors, two of which host outstanding permanent displays of antiquities, Anatolian and Oriental art. The second floor has a small, but impressive collection of paintings, including the iconic $3.5 million "Tortoise Trainer" by Osman Hamdi Bey, who has five other pieces on display here. The top three floors are given over to temporary shows, having previously featured work from Joan Miró and Andy Warhol; to find out what you can see right now, be sure to check the website.

On the whole, the floor plan is quite neat, with a clean and understandable layout; the staff is friendly and doesn't hover about while you are viewing. There is a good coffee shop on the ground floor, in addition to a gift shop full of costly but stylish souvenirs. Among other things, the museum arranges educational events aimed at making children aware of art and encouraging creative expression, while Pera Film appropriately features experimental cinema, animation, documentaries, etc.

A visit here won't break the bank, but they kindly offer free entry during extended hours (6pm to 10pm) on Friday evenings.

Opening Hours: Tue-Sat: 10am–7pm; Sun: 12–6pm
Long Fridays: 6–10pm (open and free admission)
6
Istanbul Modern (Art Museum)

6) Istanbul Modern (Art Museum) (must see)

Spotlighting artists who have been left out of the modern art conversation in a wonderfully curated, thought-provoking way, the Istanbul Modern gives visitors a taste of the "new city", breaking from the centuries-old mosques, churches and architecture elsewhere found.

The museum was opened in a former maritime warehouse on the Sea of Marmara and features exhibition spaces on both floors. The top floor hosts the permanent collection, rooms for education programs, a shop, and a café, while the lower one is used for temporary exhibitions, Istanbul Modern Cinema, and the library.

While from the outside the building is not anything special, inside it has a light and airy space with magnificent views of the city. While the entry price is on the steeper side by local standards, the extra investment is well worth it. There nice little café – a must for any museum worth its salt – has more (than) reasonable prices, so it all balances out. Audio guides – good to have if you're interested in hearing directly from the artists – are available in English and Turkish, with a duration of ~45 minutes.

Why You Should Visit:
To get a new perspective on Turkish culture; a must for anyone interested in art and the question of identity and expression.

Tip:
The gift shop has a great selection of souvenirs, including some interesting jewelry.

Opening Hours:
Tue, Wed, Fri-Sat: 10am–6pm; Thu: 10am–8pm; Sun: 11am–6pm
7
Galip Dede Caddesi (Street)

7) Galip Dede Caddesi (Street)

This narrow, rather steep cobble-stoned street in the Tunel district is a real mecca for musicians and lovers of musical culture! Dotted with a myriad of shops selling instruments of all shapes, for all tastes and budgets, it's arguably the best place to find unique gifts for melophiles and collectors – just make sure to discuss your needs with a shop owner before making a purchase. Meys are on sale for ~30TL, a basic Baglama starts at 100TL, and prices for the famous Turkish cymbals and ouds aren't too steep, either.

The best time to visit here is on the weekdays, early in the afternoon, when the street are not very crowded. In a row, among the narrow sidewalks, there are also lots of other alternative shops, selling craft and artistic creations. The atmosphere is colorful and cheerful. Further along, the wonderfully smelling Home Spa store sells reasonably-priced organic soaps and oils, in addition to colorful bathrobes and other bathroom accessories.

Tip:
Use the numerous fresh juice watering holes to revive and replenish en route!
8
Galata Mevlevi Museum

8) Galata Mevlevi Museum

This former tekke (Whirling Dervish lodge) is both a museum and one of the few Istanbul venues to see an authentic Whirling Dervish performance. To get the most out of the experience, one should strongly consider visiting the museum before witnessing the performance, which takes place on Sundays at 5pm. Alternatively, one can freely wander around the beautiful, peaceful grounds, which features a small cemetery where former tekke members are interred.

The first thing to say about the Sema (Whirling Dervish) ceremony is that despite many of the audience being tourists, it is not some kind of tourist show thrown together purely for entertainment. The performance forms an integral part of a religious service, which one has to experience in its entirety to be able to put the whirling component into context and understand its significance. The ceremony builds from a near-silent, motionless beginning through several precise stages – each with its own importance and meaning – to the rhythmic movement that is known as whirling. Everything in the ceremony is laden with symbolism and is about transition, a representation of our journey through life and the desire to gain a meaningful understanding of our own existence.

Handout brochure explain the basics, seats are provided, and the whole thing takes around 50 minutes (be aware that this is an abbreviated version of the "real" ceremony that would take up to 3 hours). Come early if you want a full view seat – though standing and watching is also acceptable.

Tip:
Tickets for the museum are sold at a kiosk inside the grounds (walk in from the street, pass an information office on the right, keep going and you will see the kiosk on your right), while tickets for the Dervish ceremony are sold at a small table on the sidewalk in front of the main entrance to the museum, beginning from noon on Sunday.

Opening Hours:
Tue-Sun: 9am–4:30pm
9
Neve Shalom Synagogue

9) Neve Shalom Synagogue

While this little gem could easily be overlooked, it is well worth visiting if you're interested in a centuries-old Jewish presence in a centuries-old Ottoman culture. Only a few minutes walk from the heart of modern Istanbul, Istiklal Cd., it houses the only Jewish museum in Turkey, having still preserved the unfortunate bullet holes and bomb blast damage from three separate terrorist attacks (1986, 1992, 2003) – albeit these are sealed up with heavy-duty steel to obscure them from the public.

Apart from showing how the Turkish Jewish Community was established and how open and accommodating previous Turkish rulers and governments were to Jewish people, the museum also provides good insights into traditional Jewish life and the contribution Jews have made to Turkish society over the decades and centuries.

The synagogue itself doesn't look that charming (and isn't really noticeable) from the outside, but once you enter the building you will notice its striking stained glass windows (imported from the UK and especially designed by the Academy of Art) and the stunning eight-ton chandelier that hangs from the dome – a loan from the Buenos Aires Jewish community that has also sustained brutal attacks over the years.

Tip:
No need for advance appointments, but to get in (Sun-Fri) one must surrender one's passport and go through security screening as part of security measures.
10
Galata Tower

10) Galata Tower (must see)

One of the city's most distinctive sights, this great fortification dating back to 1348 was erected by the mercantile Genoese Italians as a vantage point over the city walls and was subsequently used as a fire lookout tower until as recently as the 1960s. At nine stories and 67 meters in height, it is one of the best places to put Istanbul's defining landmarks in a cityscape perspective: all major sights are within easy view and you can walk around the outside platform for a full 360-degree look – provided, of course, the weather is right.

The walk to the tower, which is situated on high ground, can be strenuous for some; don't be afraid of the tower climb, however, as you'll ride in a very modern elevator. While you're there, you can have a drink from the cafe upstairs and prolong your time just a bit more. The lively area around the tower is home to some interesting restaurants, bars and cafés, and you can also take a leisurely walk up Galip Dede Caddesi with its abundant musical instrument shops.

Tip:
Be sure to pick an off-peak time. The tower opens at 9am, so aim to make your way up around then or around sunset. In the evenings, the restaurant hosts a dinner/cabaret show including the always popular belly-dancing.

Opening Hours:
Daily: 9am–8:30pm

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