Through tall windows looking onto the Bosporus shimmering light pours into the room and illuminates an astonishing sight, a row of gloriously repainted caiques, the long, slender boats that were once used to row the sultans around İstanbul.
It's been a long time in the making, but finally the city's new-look Deniz Müzesi (Naval Museum) has opened its doors to the public and it's good to be able to report that it was well worth the wait. The caiques were always the jewel in the crown of a collection that is otherwise heavy on the sort of nautical knick-knacks that seadogs find interesting but leave the rest of us cold, but now, in their new setting, they shine even more brightly, so brightly in fact that you could be forgiven for immediately heading for the exit on the assumption that you'd seen all there is to see.
But of course the new premises also allow other items to shine as well, including many of the paintings that show the lost İstanbul of the 19th century when the Bosporus suburbs were still just villages accessible only by boat. For me the standout pictures are two drawings made by the British traveler Henry Aston Barker in 1800 while sitting on the balcony of the Galata Tower. Who can resist standing in front of them and painstakingly ticking off those buildings that have stayed the same and those that have completely vanished?
The Naval Museum stands in the heart of Beşiktaş, a curious suburb that rarely seems to attract as much attention from tourists as it deserves, despite the fact that it offers more than enough of interest to while away a couple of days of their time. But over the past few years several upscale hotel chains have opened properties here, which should mean that it starts to come into its own soon.
The Çarşı (Market) area
The Naval Museum stands right beside Beşiktaş's furiously busy waterside Meydan (Square) where frequent ferries leave for Üsküdar and Kadıköy on the Asian side of the city. Here a statue of the great Ottoman Admiral Hayreddin Barbaros (c. 1478-1546), known as Barbarossa (Red Beard) to his Western foes, stands gazing across the skateboarders to the two-storey tomb designed to house his remains by Mimar Sinan, the architect also responsible for the Sinanpaşa Camii just across the street. This dramatically striped mosque was built for the admiral brother of Rüstem Paşa, the grand vizier to Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent whose mosque near the Galata Bridge attracts so much more attention from visitors.
Behind the mosque, Beşiktaş's wide open boulevards collapse into a labyrinth of tiny shopping streets where you can find one of the city's finest choices of places to eat, especially if your budget is student- rather than sultan-sized. There's everything here from Pando's, the famous little Bulgarian breakfast place where you can tuck into the tastiest balkaymak (honey and cream), to the Beşiktaş Köftecisi that has been doling out meatballs since the 1960s, and a range of meyhanes grouped around the fish market that could give Nevizade Sokağı, off İstiklal Caddesi, a run for its money.
In among the shops you'll spot a number of monuments, some of them a great deal easier to recognize than others. All of them depict a black eagle, the symbol of the suburb's ferociously popular football team, also called Beşiktaş, whose stadium, just up the road near Dolmabahçe Palace, is currently being rebuilt.
From the waterfront Barbaros Bulvarı strikes straight uphill, and after taking one look at the ceaseless traffic you might decide to give it a miss. Those with steelier nerves, however, might like to stroll up the right-hand side of the road in search of a curious novelty, the shrine to a Sufi saint named Şeyh Zafir that was designed in a shape vaguely resembling a stone tent by the expat Art Nouveau architect Raimondo d'Aronco in 1904.
On the opposite side of the street if you cut inland you will come to Abbas Ağa Park, where a group of statues commemorate Turks killed during the course of the 20th century in the cause of greater democracy. In a poignant twist a banner facing them now commemorates the six young men who died during this summer's protests sparked by plans to redevelop Gezi Park in Taksim Square.
Yıldız Park and Palace
Today the popular image of Beşiktaş is of a frantically busy, slightly down-at-heel suburb that is gradually pulling itself upmarket, which is rather odd since in the late Ottoman period it was one of the swankiest parts of town, its shoreline adorned with a string of palatial homes inhabited by the city's great and good. Dolmabahçe Palace stood at the western end of these palaces with the Çırağan Palace further east.
The later sultans had already retreated from Topkapı Palace to Dolmabahçe in an attempt to remake themselves in a more modern image when an attack on the palace launched from the Bosporus in 1878 exposed its vulnerability and caused the nervy Sultan Abdülhamid II to retreat inland and uphill to the last of the great imperial palaces, the Yıldız complex, which stands in extensive wooded parkland to the right of Barbaros Bulvarı.
For the time being, Yıldız Palace is a much-underrated tourist attraction (“a hidden paradise unknown even to most İstanbullus,” as the guide told me) not helped by the fact that it is divided into two parts separated from each other by a wall. As far as visitors are concerned the main part of the complex consists of the Şale (Chalet), a wood-faced guesthouse with 110 rooms designed in part by Sarkis Balyan and in part by Raimondo d'Aronco to accommodate the sultan's guests. This is open to the public, who can gaze in awe at the lengthy dining table in the Moorish mother-of-pearl room, then admire the largest Hereke carpet ever woven in a reception room that hosted Bill Clinton not so very long ago.
The Şale is accessible via Yıldız Park. Meanwhile, the sultan himself originally lived in a complex of buildings only accessible now from Barbaros Bulvarı, which means that you really need to make a separate visit to see it. The Büyük Mabeyn (State Apartments) are currently undergoing restoration prior to being opened to the public, who must in the meantime satisfy themselves with ambling round the Yıldız Sarayı Müzesi partially housed in a suite of rooms called the Küçük Mabeyn. It was here that Sultan Abdülhamid was informed that he had been deposed in 1909. On display are some of the tools the sultan, a keen carpenter, had used as well as fine Art Nouveau pieces ranging from a prosaic dustpan to gorgeous picture frames and vases. Right next door the Şehir Müzesi (City Museum) contains some of the palace's painting collection, including a magnificent pointillist rendition of the Chora Church by the poet-artist Bedri Rahmi Eyuboğlu (1911-73).
Also forming part of the Yıldız complex are two fine late-19th-century mosques, the Küçük Mecidiye Camii, across the road from the Çırağan Palace, and the Hamidiye Camii near the entrance to the Büyük Mabeyn. Both are currently undergoing comprehensive restoration as is the stone clocktower beside the Hamidiye Camii.
While visiting Yıldız Palace you might also like to take a quick look at one of the city's most popular shrines, that of Yahya Efendi (1495-1570), which sits in a rambling cemetery full of cats just to the east of the park wall. Unfortunately, there's no direct access from one to the other.
Before deciding that you've “done” Beşiktaş, it's also worth taking a stroll along Ortabahçe Caddesi to visit the Ihlamur Kasrı, designed in 1856 by Nikoğos Balyan to serve as a resting place for the sultans when they were traveling to inspect the Golden Horn shipyard. A pair of delightful stone kiosks stands in a landscaped park that provides a very popular backdrop for wedding photographs since the Beşiktaş Registry Office is just across the road.
WHERE TO STAY
Çırağan Palace Kempinski İstanbul. Tel.: 0 (212) 326 46 46
Conrad Hotel. Tel.: 0 (212) 310 25 25
Four Seasons İstanbul at the Bosphorus. Tel.: 0 (212) 381 40 00
La Maison. Tel.: 0 (212) 227 42 63
Shangri-La Bosphorus. Tel.: 0 (212) 275 88 88
W Hotel. Tel.: 0 (212) 381 21 21
HOW TO GET THERE
Beşiktaş is readily accessible by bus from Kabataş or by dolmuş from the top of Gümüşsuyu Caddesi near Taksim Square.