It’s very tempting to head into the bustling entertainment and shopping quarters of Beyoğlu and Galata and do nothing but shop till you drop, eat and drink until you’re stuffed, dance into the small hours or maybe take in a movie or an art gallery.
And why not? For despite the plague of malls spreading across the city and burgeoning alternative scenes like Kadıköy, across the water in Asia, this part of the booming city of İstanbul retains its “happening” heart. But to really get to grips with these vibrant quarters, it’s well worth spending a bit of time exploring their past –- and there’s no better way to do this other than on foot.
What follows, then, is a walking itinerary that will take you from the Galata Bridge to Galatasaray Meydanı and back again, taking in some of the district’s most interesting sights, both major and minor. The walk could take as little as three or four hours, but with pit stops for tea or coffee, lunch, dallying in shop windows and giving the various museums more than a cursory inspection, it may well spread over a full day.
The Galata Bridge to the Christchurch
In his highly readable “The Bridge,” Dutch author Geert Mak has done more for the Galata Bridge and its lively scene than Lionel Messi has done for Barcelona, so it’s worth a quick look back across the angler-festooned bridge spanning the Golden Horn to the domes and minarets of old imperial Istanbul before entering museum number one. Tucked away up a side street just to the right of the Tünel funicular as you face Galata, is the Jewish Museum (www.muze500.com, Mon-Thurs 10 a.m.-4 p.m., Fri & Sun 10 a.m.-2 p.m., entry TL 10). Housed in the former Zulfaris Synagogue, which dates back to the 17th century but was completely rebuilt in 1904, this small but fascinating museum focuses, through a series of explanatory boards, on the generally excellent relations between both Ottoman and Republican Turkey and the Jews. Many Jews persecuted in Spain founded refuge in Ottoman Istanbul from the late 15th century onwards and in the 1930s, Jewish academics, persecuted in Nazi Germany, were welcomed by the fledgling Turkish Republic.
To save your legs for later and enjoy a ride on the second oldest underground railway in the world, built by French engineers and opened in 1875, hop onto the Tünel funicular train linking the waterfront area with the southern end of İstiklal Caddesi. Despite the new carriages and tiling, this is a piece of the city’s history and well worth the TL 3 fare. At the top you’re greeted by another piece of Istanbul’s transport history, the smart red and cream antique tram that rattles its way up the city’s premier shopping and entertainment street. Your next stop, however, is reached after a short stroll up İstiklal followed by a sharp right and a steep walk down Kumbaracı Yokuşu to Christchurch, more usually known as the Crimean Memorial Church. Built in 1868 by the city’s British community to remember those who lost their lives in the Crimean War (when Britain fought alongside the Ottoman Turks against Russia), it is set in a pretty, walled garden, with fine, stained-glass windows and an imposing bell tower. It’s possible to visit on Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday -- just ring the bell for entry -- plus there are services every Sunday.
St. Mary Draperis to the Grand Hotel de Londres
Heading back up Kumbaracı Yokuşu, you may notice a faded shop-front on the left, with the long-closed shop’s name written in Greek, Armenian and French -- a testament to Beyoğlu’s (or pera as it was then known) cosmopolitan past. Turn right again on İstiklal (known until 1923 as the Grand Rue de Pera). Almost immediately on the right, steps lead down to another famous church, St. Mary Draperis, originally built in the 17th century for the area’s Catholic population but completely rebuilt in 1904. Further up İstiklal, beyond the fine neo-Classical Palais de Hollande, the Dutch consulate building completed in 1858, is another beautiful Catholic Church, St. Antoine. Boasting a red-brick, neo-Gothic facade and gorgeously decorated interior, the present structure dates back to 1913, though it was originally founded much earlier. Both Catholic churches welcome visitors, and Mass and visiting times are posted outside each one.
Continue up to Galatasaray Meydanı, with the famous Galatasaray Lycee, dating back to the late 19th century, on your right. Still educating the nation’s elite to this day, in 1905, a bunch of students there decided to form a football club, and thus Galatasaray FC was born. Turn left from the square along Hamal Başı Caddesi before turning left again to walk in front of the British Consulate General. This fine, neo-Classical building was designed by the architect responsible for the Houses of Parliament in Westminster, London, Charles Barry, and was completed in 1855. Head south down Meşrütiyet Caddesi and after a hundred meters or so, pause to admire the facade of the wonderful 19th century Grand Hotel de Londres (and possibly worm your way inside to admire its virtually untouched Victorian bar where, no doubt, Ernest Hemingway, who stayed here whilst covering the Turkish War of Independence, enjoyed a drink or two), before visiting the Pera Museum.
The Pera Museum to the Galata Mevlevihanesi
This state-of-the-art museum (www.peramuzesi.org.tr, Tues-Sat 10 a.m.-7 p.m., Sun noon-6 p.m., entry TL 10 is housed in another of the area’s wonderful period buildings. It has a permanent exhibition of Anatolian weights and measures (far more interesting than it sounds!) and exquisite Kütahya pottery on the first floor and some fine paintings -- including the famous Tortoise trainer by the founder of Istanbul’s Archaeology Museum, Osman Hamdi Bey -- on the second. Floors three, four and five have temporary exhibitions - see the website for details. Diagonally opposite the museum, dwarfed by the towering Marmara Pera Hotel, is the famous Pera Palace Hotel. It’s a must for nostalgia buffs keen to see where well-heeled travelers arriving from Europe on the Orient Express laid their weary heads. Atatürk stayed here, as did the notorious spy, the Mata Hari, Greto Garbo and, of course, Agatha Christie. It’s been given a massive makeover recently, and a glass of tea will set you back TL 7 in the atmospheric tea rooms, a cake TL 15 or thereabouts.
Cut through narrow Asmalimescit Sokak back onto İstiklal Caddesi and head back down towards Tünel. Instead of veering right to the Tünel entrance, go straight down the cobbled Galipdede Sokak. On the left here, recently reopened after several years’ restoration, is the Galata Mevlevihanesi Museum (9 a.m.-4.30 p.m. except Mon, entry TL 5). There’s an immediate sense of peace when you enter the spacious courtyard from the melee of Galipdede Sokak, which is very fitting for a Dervish lodge. The so-called whirling dervishes capture the Western imagination like no other Islamic Sufi sect, and you can see where they performed in the beautifully restored semahane, on the first floor of the main building. The ceiling of the octagonal space is beautifully, if incongruously, decorated in a Baroque style. The pillars of the galleries surrounding the wooden “dance” floor sport equally incongruous mock-Ionic and Corinthian capitals. Proceed clockwise around the series of rooms on the ground floor below the semahane to see a wonderful display of artifacts used by the Mevelevi disciples in their lodge (tekke). There’s even a hologram of a whirling dervish spinning graciously around.
The Galata Tower to SALT
The next stop is the most obvious in the area, the Galata Tower (Daily 9 a.m.-8 p.m., TL 10), built by the Genoese in 1349, at a time the area was a walled settlement in its own right, completely separate from Byzantine Constantinople across the Golden Horn. The views are worth the admission fee, but there’s little else to detain the visitor. Descend the tower and head straight down Galata Kulesi Sokak to the much broader Bankalar (or Voyvoda) Caddesi. Turn left along this imposing street and look out on your left for the curvaceous sweep of the Kamondo Steps. Built in 1860 at the behest of the wealthy Jewish Kamondo family, they add an Art Nouveau flourish to a street dominated by worthy 19th century bank buildings and were famously photographed by Henri Cartier Bresson in the 1960s. Last stop, just a couple of minutes walk from where we started, is SALT Galata (www.obmuze.com, Tues-Sun noon-8 p.m., free) an exhibition space/research library/museum housed in the grandiose former headquarters of the Imperial Ottoman Bank. This fine late 19th century building, designed by Vallaury (the French architect also responsible for İstanbul’s Archaeology Museum) has been thoroughly restored by the Garanti Bank, and the interior is a very successful amalgam of the original neo-Classical style and the ultra-contemporary. The gallery spaces on the upper floors are impressive, with picture windows affording views of the old city across the Golden Horn.
But the biggest surprise is just how interesting the permanent Ottoman Bank Museum, situated on the ground floor, is. In many ways the history of the bank is the history of the late Ottoman Empire, and this story is told most vividly on a series of 29 display boards. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries the bank counted amongst its customers Turks, Greeks, Armenians and a very large number of foreigners. Imams banked here, as well as judges, dervishes (no doubt from the mevlevihanesi up the road) and patriarchs. The bank’s employees too reflected the cosmopolitan nature of the empire (and this part of the city), with 35 percent Greek Orthodox, 20 percent Armenians, 20 percent Muslims, 18 percent Christian Arabs and 7 percent Jews.
Although few first-time visitors to İstanbul will put a stroll around the largely 19th and early 20th century sights of Galata and Beyoğlu first on their list of things to do, it makes a thoroughly refreshing change from the Byzantine churches and Ottoman mosques of the old city.