Istanbul is one of the most fascinating cities that a human being can see. Cradle of civilizations, punished, reborn from its own ashes. It is a spectacle for the senses, always bathed in magic light in its strategic location on the Golden Horn.
Being the only city in the world that is both in Europe and Asia at the same time, it gathers a large number of attractions of all kinds. Its gastronomy, its sunsets, its decadent air. Its monumentality, to see the grandeur of those who left their mark. Istanbul is not only a destination to know, but to be enchanted by its magic.
I traveled to Istanbul for the first time in 2011. I came from crossing China from north to south and I was impressed so much by its beauty and art. It’s indescribable. The coexistence of religions, something that makes it special. I promised to return to explore every inch and so I did.
Each neighborhood denotes its strong identity. You can cross a street and realize the historical legacy that represents it. Given that I had time, I decided to cross the tourist borders to delve into other points of the city where you can touch the local culture and mix with it. I like to savor the neighborhoods, I’ll admit it.
A Walk on the Bosphorus
Eyüp, or one of the most important mosques in Islam was the first stop. From many of the docks you can catch the local ferries, which link the different neighborhoods for a ridiculous amount for visitors and that allow you to see the city from the water, without the need to dive into tourist cruises. It has a system of lines that are joined crossing the waters either end to end, or simply, crossing from one shore to another.
So we took the opportunity to go on a quiet journey to this traditional neighborhood. There are not many guides that go into it and it is that perhaps, this whole area is a little away from the great landmarks of the city. But as an urban chronicler that I am, I did not hesitate to delve into its streets of local bazaars and cafes.
After a tour of the mosque, we went to what was considered to be a more popular place: the Pierre Loti Café. The name does not sound especially Turkish and it’s because this writer, like many other contemporaries, sought romantic beauty in these cities steeped in culture. For this reason, the café ended up being called as the writer who spent so many afternoons there, as a resident of the neighborhood.
To access the café there are two options: cross a cemetery full of hills or take the cableway, for the same price as a single bus ticket. Since the heat was stifling when I was there, go for the more comfortable option. It is a simple place, but with views towards the city, you will hardly erase them from your retina.
Balat, the Next Stop
The prelude helped me fall a little more in love with Istanbul but I had a definite goal for the day: Fener and Balat.
The exquisite friendliness of the Turkish people led me to get off at the correct stop as I took a city bus to go from Eyüp to Balat. And it seems unbelievable that about 15 minutes in this medium, we go back to centuries of history.
Once you stop there, breathe the customary life of the city. Women doing the daily shopping and clothes hanging on ropes from building to building. Children running around the steep streets. Neighborhood life.
Our first daring was to visit San Salvador in Cora, on one of the hills. It is undoubtedly one of the most spectacular examples of Byzantine architecture and although the walk is not very comfortable on the slopes (and the more than 30 degrees that made 90% humidity), it is worth the final reward. One more treasure.
But there was still something more to discover in this area. Whenever I travel, I like to accurately measure the pulse of cities and of course, the forefront. Every city, no matter how classic it is, has that small redoubt that opens up to today’s world.
And although Istanbul leans heavily on tradition when selling its tourist offer, it is a much more open and a cosmopolitan country than we can imagine. At a tourist level it would be its unthinkable obvious architectural and natural wonders, but it begins to have a hard core where other factors take on weight: local design shops, art galleries, restaurants looking to the future.
For these reasons, they wanted to get to know Fenen and Balat, the ancient Greek and Jewish quarters respectively. Like all these nuclei, they are at the small disturbing risk of gentrification although they still enjoy being able to share daily life with modern cafes, vintage shops and lots of color.
Plowing through the Neighborhoods of Istanbul
They call it a hipster neighborhood, but beyond that, I think that Balat is intended for citizens to find other traces of identity, with renewed airs, in their own city. I did not see tourists, except me with my companions, but I did see young people undertaking, which pleases me and generates equal admiration for me.
Balat is one of those neighborhoods that inspires you. Its architecture remains intact. Its colorful houses made of wood that fortunately have been recovered thanks to the intervention of Unesco, make it even more alive. It joins the environment, which as I indicated before, is a real melting pot, generating special prints. Strolling around Vodina Caddesi is a pleasure. Seeing how one of the most impoverished neighborhoods in the city, composed until recently by refugees, is a delight.
Although the local gastronomy fascinates me, sometimes one needs that more western bite. For this reason, we dropped our tired bodies in Cooklife Balat, a place with charm, taste and lots of Wi-Fi.
A hug to the comfy food and the European delicacies, that when one has spent several days in an exotic country, the body asks for other things. With prices closer to what we are used to driving in Madrid, we ate luxurious in a cozy, quiet and stylish place.
Returning to Classic Istanbul
Wandering around the adjacent streets and visiting its shops of curious second-hand items is a wonderful closing in the afternoon to catch one of the municipal ferries that will take you back to chaotic and crowded Istanbul. Same city but on two levels.
I will always remember certain stamps and of course, I invite you to do it yourselves as soon as you can travel.
+ Travels in Urban Moon