Byzantium, Constantinople, Tsarigrad, Istanbul. The city of a hundred names may be rich with history, but it’s fiercely determined to redefine Turkishness for the twenty-first century.
There are lots of clichés about Istanbul. People talk of it sitting at the crossroads of the world; of it being Europe’s bridge to the East. They imagine incense and whirling dervishes, veiled women and platters of Turkish Delight.
But a night in one of the rooftop bars of Karaköy, one of cosmopolitan Beyoğlu’s most painfully cool neighbourhoods, is enough to destroy all your preconceptions. Above streets that were once no-go areas, a heady mix of international partygoers raise a glass of raki to one of the world’s most dynamic, exciting cities.
Traditionally, visitors to the city have headed straight to Sultanahmet, the atmospheric quarter that is home to Hagia Sophia, Topkapı Palace, and Sultanahmet – and a lot of tourist tat. Now more adventurous travellers are joining the locals on ferry trips to Princes’ Island, and exploring the gorgeous Art Nouveau neighborhoods of Nişantaşı and Teşvikiye.
But it’s Beyoğlu where the city’s new confidence can be most strongly felt. In the old Ottoman Bank building you’ll find Salt Galata, a beautifully designed art and research space that’s brought an audible buzz to the neighbouring streets. When you’re done strolling around the local galleries and boutiques, you can refuel at one of the glossy local eateries that specialize in what foodies are dubbing the ‘New Turkish Cuisine’ – fresh, locally sourced food with an inventive twist.
But that’s not to say you should scorn Istanbul’s more traditional delights. After a hard day of bartering in the Grand Bazaar, nothing beats an old-school hamam and a chilled-out night in a meyhane. Just don’t expect fast food. In these Turkish taverns, patrons spend hours eating small plates of mezes, drinking, smoking and shooting the breeze. So fill your glass, sit back and take in this both modern and ancient city that has so much to say for itself.