In the past few years Istanbul has become a must-visit destination for travelers from around the globe. The Turkish city is a beautiful old-world metropolis suffused with religious history and boasting iconic tourist sights like the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, and the Grand Bazaar. That much you know.What you probably don’t know is the other, younger side of Istanbul. It’s not about centuries-old mosques but instead warehouse art galleries, Bosphorous-facing rooftop bars with artisanal cocktails, and chefs with Michelin-star-restaurant training crafting seasonally-sourced menus, their bistro doors flung open onto cobblestone streets.
Delicious cafes, hip bars and hidden art galleries—these are the reasons the cool kids are flocking to this Istanbul neighborhood. (All Photos: Nadine Jolie Courtney)
Welcome to the new Istanbul—a veritable magnet for millennial travelers.
It’s the younger, trendier side of the city that’s redefining Istanbul. The epicenter is the Karaköy area, a port neighborhood that used to be home to fishmongers and hardware stores, but is now the art district of the city, as well as home to Istanbul’s hippest bars, buzziest restaurants, and cutest boutique hotels. “For Turkish millennials who feel more affinity for the country’s European influence than traditional past, Karaköy is the embodiment of all that is fresh and new,” says Katie Nadworny, Istanbul docent manager for Context Travel walking tours.
The neighborhood feels like Chicago’s West Loop or New York’s Meatpacking District fifteen years ago: urgent, magnetic, alive.
“When Millennials travel, they’re seeking ‘authentic’ experiences. They want to feel as though they’re discovering something new around every corner—and preferably something that hasn’t already been seen by thousands of other tourists that day,” says Rachel Rudwall, host of HLN’s travel show Vacation Chasers. “Karaköy is one of the travel world’s hot new neighborhoods because it embodies the rough-around-the-edges mystique that Millennials seek.”
Serif Yenen, founder of Serif Yenen Travel and one of Istanbul’s longest running tour guides, adds that Karaköy is a magnet for younger people who want to bypass a hotel altogether. “Those who prefer staying in local apartments for authenticity enjoy Karaköy. Plus, modern art galleries are most popular here, and with the new restaurants, designer shops, and creative cafes, Karaköy is one of the most attractive destinations in the city.”
Related: Wreck Diving for Beginners in Turkey
Christmas lights thread through the grapevine leaves shading the colorfully graffitied streets in Karaköy. My husband and I immediately surrendered to its ample charms. Later that night, over rooftop drinks at the new Soho House Istanbul—stocked to the rafters with the city’s young and fabulous—I heard somebody give the city twinkling at our feet the most perfect nickname:
Where to stay
Opened less than a year ago, this boutique hotel is the first in Turkey from the Morgans Hotel Group, owners of the Royalton, Mondrian, and Delano. With only 71 guestrooms, including large Loft and Loft Terrace suites, the hotel also features the Rudolf Bar and Sky Terrace with a retractable roof, heated floors, and regular guest DJs.
Located in a former 19th century bank, the original vaults remain intact and work double-duty as wine cellars and event spaces, while the rest of the hotel has a modern vibe and boasts an in-house art curator on staff. The 63 rooms feature floor-to-ceiling window views of the waterfront from the enormous circular marble bathtubs.
Where to eat
Chef/owner Didem Senol spent time in the kitchens at 11 Madison Park and Le Cirque in New York before returning home to start this bistro focusing on fresh, seasonal ingredients. Her mücver zucchini fritters are so famous and obsessed over that a mirror in the restaurant displays the recipe.
Known for their mezze, this is a Karakoy institution. These guys dish up traditional Turkish food with a daily rotating menu—think fried zucchini with homemade garlic yogurt and cucumber, or grilled baby lamb chops. It doesn’t hurt that the space is gorgeous, with turquoise tile walls, checkered tile floors, and a wrought-iron circular staircase in the center of the first-floor dining room.
Possibly the world’s best-known baklava shop, this pastry paradise has been serving customers homemade confections since 1949. The flaky, sweet pastries come in scores of flavors, including classic baklava with pistachio or walnuts, or chocolate baklava—which is just as over-the-top and delicious as it sounds. Don’t forget to bring a box home: they’ll seal them so you can travel safely without creating a sticky, honeyed mess.
Where to drink
This whimsical little coffee shop, a former metal workshop, is one of Karakoy’s hottest hangouts. The elegant but eclectic design gives it a cozy feel, and two floors, outdoor seating, and wi-fi means it’s always packed with trendsetters—young and old alike—sipping on their Turkish and Viennese javas. Patrons grumble a bit about the high prices, but students get a break with the “Yellow Box” deal: show your student ID for certain drinks, and you pay only what you can afford.
During the day, it’s a delicious restaurant—worth checking out for brunch or dinner on its own merits. But come nighttime on the weekends, the tables are cleared out and the three levels turn into a packed nightclub, complete with DJ, full bar, and an extensive cocktail list.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a better view in Karakoy than Fosil’s third-floor location overlooking the Bosphorous. Enjoy the spectacular view of Sultanahmet mosque and Istanbul’s Asian side from each of its small balconies with a delectable cocktail in hand. Open until 4 am, the industrial chic loft features exposed brick, filament light bulbs hung from the metal air conditioning ducts, and a list of flavored shots inspired by Star Wars and Game of Thrones.
This two-story lounge comes from Ferit Sarpar, who runs popular the Beyoglu restaurant Munferit. Though the space used to be a printing shop, design studio Autoban (including Sarpar’s wife Seyhan Ozdemir) has completely renovated it, creating a modern, Asian-inspired space that’s unlike anything else in Karaköy. If you’re there on the weekends, be prepared to arrive early or queue: It’s popular and becomes packed.
Where to shop
The secondhand knick-knacks found at Karakoy Junk aren’t so much junk as a geek’s vintage delight. Stocked to the rafters with finds from the owner’s trips around the world, highlights include neon signs, vintage toys, costumes, and furniture.
A novelty stationary shop in the historic French Passage arcade featuring souvenirs like handmade jewelry, quirky printed t-shirts, porcelain decorations, trompe l’oeil coasters, and gorgeous pattered wrapping paper.
Porcelain, ceramics, sculptures, stemware, paintings, and leather bags are just a few of the smaller pieces you’ll find at this store highlighting local artists, which also sells vintage carpets and contemporary furniture.
Where to find art
There’s an embarrassment of art riches in Karakoy, and Istanbul Modern is at the heart of the scene as its crown jewel. A former warehouse, the 86,000 square foot art museum opened in 2004 and focuses heavily on Turkish artists. The space includes an art-house cinema and a restaurant with gorgeous views of the Bosphorous.
A culture gallery in the massive former headquarters of the Ottoman Bank, all of its events, talks, and exhibitions are free, and the beautiful building itself is a work of art.
Devoted entirely to photography, with photographers from all over the world, this gallery also has a particularly strong focus on emerging Turkish talent.
Check out our original adventure travel series A Broad Abroad.