Growing up on a farm “smack dab” in the middle of the USA, commonly known as The Midwest, the term “neighborhood” means something totally different to me than to someone who lives in a big city. Our neighbors were several miles away, on down the gravel country road at the next farm and the next farm after that. We did not walk across the street to say Guynadin! or to share a cup of morning Çay and a simit before beginning the work of the day. Nevertheless, a sense of community did exist and families knew they could count on one another in times of crisis or need, or when there was a wedding or other happy event to be celebrated.
Neighborhoods in cities were the building blocks that triggered development of commerce and industry that allowed that city to grow. For example, with a population of 8.5+ million people within the five boroughs of the City of New York, there are literally hundreds of neighborhoods. The Borough of Manhattan alone has 53 different neighborhoods. Comparing this number to other big cities around the world, I found it interesting to learn that there are 44 neighborhoods in San Francisco, California; 37 arrondissements (neighborhoods) in Paris, France; 15 in Rome, Italy; 21 in Madrid, Spain; and 48 in London, England. I can only imagine the myriad of interesting stories about each of these neighborhoods and how they came to be. Ah, another story for another time.
However, this did lead to asking myself, “What about the cities in Turkey? What are their neighborhoods like?” In researching the question, I learned that mahalleler (neighborhoods) are classified within a district and can be many in number. The three largest cities in Turkey are Istanbul (with 39 districts), Ankara (the capital of Turkey, with 25 districts), and Izmir (with 30 districts). As a sample, looking at the statistics for two districts in Istanbul, I found that there are 23 neighborhoods in the Beşiktaş District, and 25 in the Beykoz District. With a total of 39 districts in Istanbul, the number of mahalleler in all of Istanbul is probably close to 1,000 — or maybe more.
Obviously, it is not possible to talk about all of the neighborhoods of Istanbul in one blog piece. So I will focus on those considered by travel writers and bloggers to be “the top ten”. First, a bit of additional background might be helpful in understanding the structure of a Turkish mahallesi (neighborhood).
In Istanbul, mahalleler have legally established borders and a “head man” (muhtar in Turkish). The muhtar is elected by universal vote and has minor duties like certifying copies of certain documents, especially those related to the “official residence” of the people living there. This documentation is required by Turkish legislation for citizens and resident foreigners alike who need to enroll in electoral registers, apply for a job requiring being a resident of the district, or to request certain public or municipal services.
As well as the traditional and officially recognized mahalleler, there can also be quarters (semt in Turkish) which do not have officially determined borders. This term is used in a more casual way to refer to more than one neighborhood. In some cases, they might have both an official name and a traditional one. Istanbul’s cultural dynamism is born of the fusion of ancient tradition with vibrant contemporary culture. Each of the city’s diverse districts and mahalleler offers something unique. The megalopolis that is Istanbul has been continuously inhabited for the last 3,000 years. It is an amalgamation of diverse communities that expands well beyond the shores of the Bosphorus. Once a trading port and an idyllic fishing village, Istanbul is now a vibrant city with a population of millions of people.
Over time, Istanbul has seen the emergence of exciting neighborhoods that visitors can spend hours exploring. While much of Istanbul has changed beyond recognition in the last 100 years, many neighborhoods still retain a link between Turkey’s Ottoman past and its cosmopolitan present. Hidden among the multi-colored ruins and riches of these historic neighborhoods is the legacy of Istanbul’s old Christian, Greek and Jewish communities. Mahalleler generally bear the name of a major landmark, such as the mosque that serves the quarter, and neighborhood delineations can be anything but clear-cut.
The European and Asian sides of the city are bisected by the churning north-south artery that is the Bosphorus Straits. A strategic waterway and the stuff of legends, the Bosphorus is the conduit for nations of the Black Sea to access the coveted trade routes of the Mediterranean and beyond. The European side of Istanbul is separated by the estuary known in English as the Golden Horn and in Turkish as the Haliç. The Asian side of the Bosphorus is a sprawling collection of quiet and surprisingly Europeanized residential neighborhoods with varying degrees of historical and cultural interest. The following list of “the top ten” includes mahalleler on both sides of the Bosphorus.
#1 Sultanahmet Mahallesi – European Side/Old Istanbul:
A visit to Istanbul would be incomplete without a visit to Sultanahmet, the heart of the Old City. It was once the social and political center of the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman Empires. It is still the cultural and historical heart of the city and its most magnificent architecture, all located within walking distance of the Sultanahmet Square.
The 6th Century, majestic Hagia Sophia dominates the skyline of Sultanahmet. It is easily recognizable from its vast dome, colorful marble columns, Islamic art and glittering Christian mosaics. The layers of history in this former cathedral, turned into a mosque and now a museum, are hard to beat. Other must-sees in this neighborhood include the Ottoman-era Topkapi Palace, a former residence of the Sultans in the 15th Century; transformed into a museum in 1924. The Blue Mosque, renowned for its blue tiles and six minarets. And the 6th Century Basilica Cistern, the largest surviving Byzantine cistern in Istanbul.
#2 Taksim Square Mahallesi – European Side:
This neighborhood offers lively, year-round shopping, places to eat, cafés, bars and clubs. Starting at the Republic Monument, erected to commemorate the establishment of the Republic in 1923, the area extends down Istiklal Street where the historic Taksom Tram runs the entire length, ending at the beginning of the cobblestoned Galpi Dede Street.
The modern art museum, SALT Beyoglu on main Istiklal is a great place to escape from the crowds and immerse yourself in some culture and art. The ground floor offers film screenings every Wednesday, while the top floor houses their beautiful winter garden, a true oasis in the heart of Istiklal.
#3 Galata Mahallesi – European Side:
Part of the Beyoğlu District, it is most clearly identified by the historic Galata Tower, which overlooks the its old cobblestone streets and neo-classical buildings. The main street and other streets around the tower are full of interesting shops and cafés.
Enjoy a bird’s-eye view of the city from the top of the Tower and explore points of cultural interest such as the Mevlevi Museum and the Museum of Turkish Jews. Stop by the Home Spa shop on Galip Dede Street, known for its bath and body products including locally-sourced handmade soaps and oils. Venture down Serdar-i-Ekrem Street, right across from the Galata Tower, to its many boutiques, galleries, and accessory stores. After sightseeing, head to the Georges Hotel and enjoy a cocktail on their rooftop bar which offers gorgeous views of Galata.
#4 Karakoy Mahallesi – European Side:
Descending from the Galata Tower in the Beyoglu District, often regarded as the “pulse of Istanbul”, one of the city’s steepest hills leads to Karakoy, an up and coming neighborhood that hems the Bosphorus Straits. At one time an industrial neighborhood, it is still home to many shops where such items as fishing equipment and Bunsen Burners can be procured. But the hardware stores and workshops now negotiate for space with new galleries and cafes that have become a hut for young hipsters.
Past the Karakoy Ferry Terminal, one street over from the water, look for Namli Gurme, a restaurant and small marketplace offering a large selection of mezes (cold appetizers). Also served here is a cut of meat called lokum, which means Turkish Delight and the term used for anything tasty and juice. One of Istanbul’s busiest baklava shops is next door, known for sutlu Nuriye, or milky Nuriey, a puffier and creamier version of baklava. Farther north along the road parallel to the Bosphorus and on past a few deserted buildings and construction sites, a green iron gate opens into the Franciz Gecidi Is Merkezi, a small collection of cafes and restaurants. Around a corner toward the Mother Mary Turkish Orthodox Church is another hidden nook for cafes.
You can wander through galleries and boutiques which punctuate rows of nondescript buildings before reaching the luxuriously renovated Kilic Ali Pasha Hammam and the more widely known Istanbul Museum of Modern Art.
#5 Balat and Fener Mahalleler – European Side:
Formerly the Greek Orthodox and Armenian neighborhood of Istanbul, Balat is full of colorful old houses and churches. It is a quiet historical area near the Golden Horn, at the narrowest section of the Bosphorus. The twisting streets and weathered houses stand like antiques in an open museum, echoing a past that was occupied by waves of Jewish, Greek, Bulgarian and Armenian residents.
At various points in the 20th Century, responding to political events or socio-economic conditions, these ethnic groups were forced out or chose to move out. The area is now mainly home to working-class Turks from towns in the Black Sea Region and Central Anatolia. The main market is filled with vintage stores, accessory shops, and craft workshops. Many young people have set up businesses in the historic streets of Yildirim and Vodina. You will find micro coffee roasters, ceramic ateliers, art galleries and vintage shops.
There is plenty to see here, particularly in the religious architecture. Walking from the Galata Bridge by the seaside towards the end of the Golden Horn, you do not want to miss the Gul Mosque. Formerly known as Saint Theodosia, an Eastern Orthodox Church, the Ottomans converted it into a mosque. Farther along the spine of the horn, the Church of St. Mary of the Mongols and St. Stephen’s Bulgarian Church, which is made entirely of iron, are among the markers of the neighborhood’s mixed history. Further up the hill is the Byzantine-era Chora Church, another splendid example of 14th-century Byzantine mosaics and frescoes. Visit the Ahrida Synagogue, one of the oldest synagogues in the city. The Church of St. George, former seat of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, can also be seen here.
Walking uphill towards the Fener Quarter, you will see the Rum Lisesi (Greek Boys School), a predominant feature in the Golden Horn skyline. Perched at the top of a hill, it draws visitors with its lacquered, blood-red hue. Near the foot of this structure is a famous street corner that appears in many Turkish TV series and films.
During Ottoman times, the Fener Quarter of the Balat District was the residential neighborhood for the dragoman, multilingual Greeks who often served as diplomatic attache’s between the Ottoman Empire and its European neighbors. It was also the seat of the Greek patriarchate and a refuge for Bulgarians, Armenians and Jews.
Restoration projects have begun to address some of the dilapidation, seeking to turn the district into a café-filled boutique neighborhood of ateliers. Adventurous tourists who find beauty in decaying buildings, and are willing to forego the reliability of a map or definitive street names, will enjoy wandering the hilly streets of Balat.
#6 Kuzguncuk and Cengelkoy Mahalleler – Asian Side:
On the Asian side of the continental crossroads of Istanbul, is the quiet and picturesque village of Kuzguncuk. It is not a village in the traditional sense but is a leafy residential district lined with shops and restaurants. It is lauded as a quieter, less jaded version of upscale Ortakoy on the European side. It is another well-known Jewish quarter and home to two synagogues.
Among the seaside fish restaurants bearing views of the Bosphorus Bridge, Ismet Baba generates the most fanfare. Uryanizade Sokak is a restored street that is perpendicular from Ismet Baba and the seaside and lined with Ottoman houses and artist’s studios. Farther north, the waterside showcases a string of Istanbul’s famous, classic, wooden-framed mansions known as yali.
A bit beyond the Bosphorus Bridge is Cengelkoy District, with its part of the shoreline caving in for about half a mile. Among the most conspicuous structures of this village is the red yali named after Sa’dullah Pasha, a literary figure during the mid-1800s. Another notable feature of the waterfront is the boutique hotel of Sumahan on the Water. It was converted from a distillery that once produced raki, Turkey’s much-loved aperitif.
Kuzguncuk and Cangelkoy cater to a nostalgia that is common among Istanbulites for a bygone era of neighborhood camaraderie and etiquette. Fine street manners were the norm against a backdrop of local shops, tea gardens, and fish restaurants.
#7 Arnavutköy Mahallesi – European Side:
Currently the heart of Istanbul’s nightlife, Arnavutköy (which means “Albanian village” in Turkish) is an upscale neighborhood right by the Bosphorus. Its history is multi-cultural, and the population was once made up of mostly Armenian, Greek, and Jewish communities. It is known for its wooden yalis (Ottoman waterfront mansions), numerous fish restaurants, and attractive side streets. The passion for fishing in Arnavutköy (a hobby you can still see being practiced on the coastal promenade) has resulted in a number of excellent seafood restaurants. Some of the most popular are Sur Balik, Adem Baba, Hayri Balik and Arnavutkőy Balikçisi. Not in the mood for fish, there is an outstanding Italian restaurant, Antica Locanda, or the famous casual restaurant for meatballs called Köfteci Ali Baba.
One of the most picturesque of all the city’s neighborhoods, Arnavutköy retains a charming village feel, even though many cocktail and gastro bars have taken over the neighborhood. In the evening, the venues become so full that people stand on Bebek Arnavutköy Street with their drinks in hand enjoying a late night out. During the day, it is enjoyable to wander around Arnavutköy to look at all of the many beautiful houses that decorate this picturesque neighborhood right by the glittering water of the Bosphorus.
An historical note of interest: The area is known for the famed Arnavutköy strawberry (also known as the Ottoman Strawberry). These small pale pink gems were so in demand, that even just a few decades ago, 40 hectares (100 acres) of Arnavutköy were covered in strawberry fields that produced between 25,000 and 35,000 kilos of Ottoman strawberries and between 40,000 and 45,000kg of European strawberries each year. Now, they are much rarer and mostly grown in the Karadeniz Ereğli region, on the Black Sea coast.
#8 Bebek Mahallesi – European Side:
One of the nicest neighborhoods on the Bosphorus, Bebek is located on the European side of Istanbul, within the Besiktas District. It is a favored neighborhood of wealthy Istanbul locals who either live there or flock in from neighboring Etiler and Arnavutkoy.
It is full of expensive waterside apartments, a small bay where yachts are anchored, fancy restaurants and quaint cafeterias which gets very busy especially on the weekends. It is a place to see and be seen, and on the weekends you can barely move for the expensive cars, “ladies who lunch”, and lycra-clad power walkers promenading along the coastal path, mingling with the old fishermen.
Bebek was a distinct area of Istanbul during the late Ottoman Period as well, for its wealthy shore mansions are surrounded by forest. In Turkish, Bebek means “baby”, probably derived from a Turkish saying “Beautiful as a baby” to outline the beauty of a person or place. It is also said that the name comes from Bebek Çelebi, the head of law enforcement appointed to control security in this area during the Conquest of Constantinople.
#9 Beyoğlu Mahallesi – European Side:
Located on the north bank of the Golden Horn. In the 1800’s, this was the newer, more European section of Istanbul (Constantinople). Embassies were built here, foreign merchants lived and worked here and shopped at the posh boutiques along Istiklal Caddesi. Beyoğlu was also one of the neighborhoods favored by the sultan’s Jewish subjects and still has a few beautiful small synagogues.
Midway along Istiklal Caddesi, at Galatasaray Square, is where the first European-style high school was built by the Ottoman sultan during the 19th century. Here also is the famed Çiçek Pasaji (Flower Passage) dining and taverna district. At the southern end of Istiklal Caddsi near Tűnel Square is a Whirling Dervish hall where the Mevlevi dervishes still whirl.
Beyoğlu is enjoying a cultural and architectural revival. The hugh embassies are now consulates, the ships are posh again, and Istiklal Caddesi is a popular pedestrian mall filled with strollers day and night. The pedestrian avenue and its side streets boast lots of nightlife with chic cafés, bistros, restaurants, and music clubs.
Kadıköy is a laid-back residential neighborhood on Istanbul’s Asian shore, at the southern tip of the Bosphorus Strait opening to the Sea of Marmara. Before the foundation of Byzantium, it was known as “the land of the blind” according to a legend, and its ancient name was Chalcedon. It is one of the fastest growing districts in Istanbul and famed for its bustling fish and produce market offering Turkish pizza, olives, stuffed mussels, and more. On curving streets, buildings with colorful murals are home to indie boutiques, hip cafes, and Anatolian eateries. It has areas of upscale shopping, fine dining, and entertainment making it popular with wealthy locals.
The views from the Moda neighborhood’s shores stretch across the Sea of Marmara toward Sultanahmet, showcasing the skyline. The bustling portside center of Kadiköy is a popular choice for day-trippers drawn to the typical cobbled walkways lined with fishmongers, neighborhood lokantas, coffee shops, antiques shops, and bookstores. Nice promenades along the waterside, especially around the marinas and yacht clubs, add value to the district. On Tuesdays, the neighborhood pulls out all the stops with the very well attended Sali Pazari (“Tuesday Bazaar”).
Other mahalleler on the Asian Side of the Bosphorus:
Anadolu Kavagi: On the northernmost shore, it harbors the remains of a Genoese castle refortified numerous times under the Ottoman sultans.
Kanlica: A sleepy fishing village, it is best known for its fabled yogurt, more so than for its two major landmarks of the Iskender Pasa Mosque, built by Sinan in the 16th century, and the Ismail Aga Coffee House, which now dishes out more yogurt than the coffee that made it famous in 1871.
Çengelköy: A tiny and enchanting village, it owes much of its popularity to the thousand-year-old oak trees whose colossal limbs enfold themselves around the waterside cafes and restaurants clustered around the boat landing.
Beylerbeyi: In the 17th Century, it was the location of choice for summer palaces for the elite. The crown jewel was naturally Beylerbeyi Sarayi, which commands the banks above the Bosphorus Bridge.
Üsküdar: Many of the Bosphorus villages of Istanbul’s Asian side have developed to mirror Istanbul’s decidedly European lifestyle. But with its numerous Ottoman-era mosques, fountains, hamams, medreses, and tombs, it maintains a more traditional vibe.
In many ways, time seems to have stood still in Istanbul, especially in the neighborhoods of the Old City. Yet progress in the form of transportation, technology, academics, and global engagement continue to set Istanbul and Turkey on a forward-moving course. One might visit Istanbul a dozen times over a lifetime, and at each visit be greeted both by the familiar and by something altogether unexpected.
On my next trip to Turkey later this year, it is my hope to visit and experience firsthand many of Istanbul’s historic mahalleler. I know it will be another memory to be treasured!