Although we always feel the urge to explore a new destination by hitting the ground running, sometimes slow travel really is the best travel. Bustling cities like Istanbul are jam-packed with amazing landmarks, but if you really want to get a taste of the local life, taking your time to stroll leisurely around a new city really is the way to go. And if you’re headed to Istanbul, make sure to take a little extra time to explore bustling Istiklal Street.
Guest contributor Shaly Pereira from traveltoes85 has just visited Istanbul and is here to tell us all about the city’s most vibrant area. From trying out the local street food to listening to the young musicians, take a look at her list of Ten Fun Things To Do On Istiklal Street, Istanbul.
Ten Fun Things To Do On Istiklal Street, Istanbul
I had heard a lot about Istiklal Caddesi or Independence Street prior to visiting Turkey from people who had already been there and experienced its vibrancy and charm. When I actually stood in the middle of the street and looked all around me I realized they were all right. So much so that it was impossible to experience this vibrant street on just one visit.
The trick is to fully experiencing Istiklal Caddesi is to stay close by in one of the many hotels around the street, so you can easily fit in two or more leisurely visits. This allows you to do reasonable justice to all that’s found here—boutiques, bookstores, tattoo studios, theaters, cafés, pubs, restaurants, street food, and the variety of street music.
Where is Istiklal Street?
Situated in Beyoglu, Istiklal street is almost 1.25 miles long and meant only for pedestrians. It starts at the Taksim Square and ends near the Galata Tower. The Beyoglu district was formerly known as Pera— explains why many restaurants and shops here have the word Pera in them.
As you walk down the cobbled street you will notice Ottoman-style buildings, interspersed periodically with Art Deco and modern styles. It’s easy to be inspired and awed at the same time.
The vibe, however, is predominately European with world travelers adding that modern cosmopolitan touch. Lending credence to this scene is the tram that jangles through the middle of the street usually crowded with young tourists, taking selfies and waving for all their worth. Oh to be young and carefree—that too in Istanbul!
Though I had parted ways with youth a while ago (chronologically speaking of course), I still did the leisurely walk on Istiklal Street three times. Here are the ten fun things to do on Istiklal Street that I would recommend for future visitors.
Enjoy Istanbul’s eclectic architecture
Start at the Taksim Square, which in the evenings is crowded with locals and tourists alike. Take pictures of the statue of Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish Republic.
As you begin your walk down Istiklal Street, you’ll find it difficult to ignore the deco style artistic buildings that rise up to considerable height on either side hemming in your walking space into a tapered zone. You do not have to be a connoisseur of structural design to appreciate the architecture around you.
The entrances to arcades, shops, and alleyways are almost always arched. If you glance upwards, it’s easy to catch sight of wrought-iron balconies of apartments where people still live.
The Ottoman-style architecture gives one the impression that you’re walking through an ancient bustling street until you come face to face with the entrance to McDonalds and are slapped with a dose of modernity.
One of the most striking buildings is the domed Cicek Pasji or Flower Passage so known for the flowers that were sold here by formerly wealthy Russian women after the Russian revolution of 1917. Adding to the local architecture are the Hussein Agha Mosque and the historic churches of Saint Antony, Santa Maria, and the Hagia Triada. Oh yes, do not miss the French Consulate building right at the beginning of the street.
Do some serious people watching
The atmosphere is thrilling, to say the least. Though a huge mass of humans walk this street all day and well into the early hours of the morning, its difficult to put the streetwalkers here into a box. There are all types—families, young parents pushing prams, lovers, serious shoppers, food samplers and music lovers. The youngsters are usually riding the tram or taking videos of the buskers or street musicians.
Frequenting the pubs and roadside cafes are political activists and serious thinkers—at least that’s what they seem to be judging from their animated expressions and hand gestures. Coffee and tea lovers are found in plenty, so are the foodies who walk around sampling the street food and who then venture into the restaurants for a more filling meal.
Add to these the architect admirers, the selfie-takers, the shoppers, and those that simply walk by and people watch. Strangely no one bothered me as I weaved my way in and out of the crowd. Inevitably, there was some mutual bumping into strangers but we smilingly stepped sideways and continued walking. All good.
Sample the street food
Experiment with the street food and sample a little bit of everything. On Istiklal Street, it seems like the most natural thing in the world to get in line to sample fresh mussels with a dash of lime or bite into a crisp ‘Simit’ a Turkish bagel of sorts made out of flour and coated with sesame seeds. I also tried the roasted chestnuts, lamb kebabs, and shawarmas where the meat was weighed before it went into the wrap.
Amidst all this, it’s impossible to ignore the seductive cries of the ice cream man calling you to enjoy the experience of getting an ice cream cone. This is the famous Salep Donduras Ice Cream.
The ice cream man is local, dressed in a traditional Turkish outfit and does several Houdini acts with your ice cream before you finally get it in hand. The tourists enjoy this entertainment judging by the crowds around the ice cream stands.
Finally, as a salute to the fidelity of your taste buds, sip some strong Turkish coffee or the more palatable Turkish tea which incidentally comes in delicious flavors like apple and pomegranate. I literally fell in love with their apple tea and bought some to take home.
Indulge Your Sweet Tooth
The street is also lined with patisseries displaying mouthwatering cakes inside glass cases. The famous middle-eastern Baklava and Kunafa is artistically arranged in large trays and tourist and locals alike are tempted to buy. Turkey is also famous for its chocolates and the number of chocolate shops on Istiklal street attest to this fact.
Okay if you don’t care for sweets you can always take some for the people who love them. There’s an unimaginable variety of Turkish delight in all the flavors you can possibly name—apricot, lemon, pomegranate, coconut, chocolate, etc.
The cheaper variety is sugar-based while the more expensive, high-quality one is honey-based and blended with nuts like cashews, pistachios, hazelnuts, and almonds. Most shops have miniature samples for buyers so once you’re done with the sampling you’ll long for some more of that Turkish coffee or tea you had earlier.
Istanbul’s best cafes and restaurants
Walk down the interconnected alleyways to find those pubs with the cheapest beer in town. However watch out for the dimly lit ‘shady’ alleys. If you sit down for a beer here, you’ll get ripped off royally.
Walk more towards the middle of the street and venture directly into the cobbled street opposite the departmental store, Mavi. Here you’ll find a treasure trove of cafes and pubs, including a couple of Irish pubs. Most of them have outdoor and indoor seating and serve delicious food.
There are also canteen-style self-service restaurants, along with sit-down eateries for a more leisurely meal. The restaurants mostly serve Turkish food and this is a good place to sample the more elaborate dishes that are not found on the streets. One such street is the Nevizade Street located just behind the flower passage. Then there’s the Hafiz Mustafa Terrace Café which has a Turkish sweets section on the ground floor. Some passageways lead to restaurants that serve only seafood. It’s not uncommon to catch sight of waiters transporting huge fish from a centrally located freezer to their respective restaurants across the street.
Enjoy the street performances
The street performers or buskers are veritable feet magnets. Before you know, it you’re drawn to the crowds surrounding them. From violin wielding solo singers rendering soulful classical melodies to the more foot-tapping Turkish folk songs, it’s a treat to witness it all.
Most Turkish folk music has a lead singer who usually plays the saz or bağlama, which resembles a long-necked lute. The accompanying singers join in the chorus amidst a lot of clapping and rhythmic foot tapping.
Of course, I didn’t understand a word they were singing but enjoyed the experience thoroughly. Music, as they say, has no boundaries and connects with all cultures.
Ride the renowned tram
The tram is the heartline of Istiklal street and runs through the middle of the street several times a day. According to the Hurriyet Daily News, this tram operates with three mortises and two wagons, making 14,600 trips per year amounting to 23,944 kilometers. The tram carries an average of 6,000 passengers per day and has become one of the most recognizable symbols of Istanbul.
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Even though I didn’t ride the tram, I enjoyed watching it jangling across the street several times packed with tourists. Since this is the only vehicle permitted on the street besides official vehicles, it’s pretty hard to miss it, especially as it adds to the beauty of the place with its bright red color.
Cost to travel the street length of a little more than one mile is a reasonable 2.6 Turkish Lira (about 45 cents U.S.). But you may have to wait in line to get on board.
Visit the museums
The Galata Whirling Dervish Museum is located at the end of Istiklal street close to the Galata tower. It has an impressive collection of antiques from the Sufism era depicting the particular culture and sect.
Every Sunday at 17:00 hrs one can attend the Sufi shows, where you can buy tickets to see the whirling dervishes perform their mesmerizing Sema routine. The house also has a marvelous collection of antiques portraying the life of the followers of this sect of Islam.
The Pera Museum is also one that is not to be missed. Originally founded as the Bristol Hotel, the first two floors house the Madame Tussauds Wax Museum and has themed galleries covering music, culture, sports, and politics.
The Pera Museum is historical and has an original collection of paintings, publications, and ceramics. Other museums on the street are the Salt Beyoglu a modern art museum and the Galatasaray Sports Museum.
Visit art galleries and cinemas
The art galleries on Istiklal Street bring to the surface Turkey’s distinctive modern side that seems to exist companionably with its impressive ancient history. A small but famous modern art gallery called the Arter is located on the main street and is very easy to find.
The Arter holds periodic exhibitions on-site and showcases modern art from contemporary Turkish and International artists. Bang opposite the Arter is the Gaia Art Gallery which is within the Alhambra Passage. The Galeri Nev, Galeri Zilberman, and Pi Artworks are a collection of art galleries housed within the Misir Apartment complex, whose architecture is artistic by itself.
Indulge in some extreme shopping
I noticed Turkish clothing is of the highest quality and on Istiklal street, there are quite a few local boutiques selling women’s clothing and handbags. High-end brands like H & M, Sketchers, Marks & Spencers among others vie for space among the local brands.
Even though you have been to these shops in other countries, the style of clothing available in their Turkish outlets caters more to locals. For example, M & S had a wide variety of evening dresses and blouses that I have never seen in their outlets elsewhere.
Other things to shop for are souvenirs (try the novelty store called Mrs. Pera), Turkish delight, chocolates, vintage clothing, and jewelry. Even if you don’t want to buy anything, you can spend a lot of time just window shopping.
Additional Tips for Exploring Istiklal Street:
- Some of the hotels are not on the main street hence your taxi will drop you off at the nearest intersection to the inner road. Travel light and even if you have wheels on your suitcases, it may be a bit challenging lugging them on the cobbled streets.
- Carry smaller denominations of currency including change. Credit cards are not accepted everywhere. Many local shops on Istiklal street charge you less if you pay in cash.