The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness
Skip to main content
By The Way
Detours with locals. Travel tips you can trust.
Fener and Balat neighborhood.
Fener and Balat neighborhood.

A local’s guide to Istanbul

Fener and Balat neighborhood.
Fener and Balat neighborhood.
  • By Jennifer Hattam
  • Photos by Emanuele Satolli

Istanbul has been on a tumultuous ride over the past decade: touted as the “new party capital of Europe,” reshaped by controversial development, riven by protests and repressive policing, targeted by terrorist attacks, hammered by economic woes and tussled over politically. But 10 years is barely a blip in the long saga of this energetic and complicated city.

In high and low times alike, Istanbul remains rich in both historic sights and contemporary life. Each neighborhood in this sprawling city is nearly a world unto itself. Dive into the crowds at the huge weekly outdoor market in Fatih, preen with the pretty people at gallery openings in Nisantasi or brunch in Bebek, explore the mosques of Uskudar, or sip tea (or beer) in the back streets of Beyoglu, Besiktas or Kadikoy and people-watch your heart out.

Meet Jennifer Hattam

Jennifer is a journalist covering environmental, political, social and urban issues, as well as arts, culture, food and travel. Originally from San Francisco, she loved Istanbul upon her first visit and has lived there since 2008. She still has no plans to swap her coffee addiction for the local tea habit.

Want to get in touch?

Read more about Jennifer


The cafe culture of next-door Cihangir, a longtime favorite area with a trendy artistic set, has truly spilled over into this once-traditional neighborhood. A central location within walking distance of the metro and tramway, plus boutique hotels and lots of opportunities to eat, drink, and browse along its narrow, undulating streets make this a lively place to be based. Find this neighborhood.
A leafy enclave with a handful of high-end hotels, Macka has a big selling point: its namesake park, a green oasis beloved by runners, dog-walkers, families, weekend picnickers and courting couples. The neighborhood is part of the posh Nisantasi area, which features plenty of high-priced shopping, restaurants and cafes; busier, more-budget-friendly Besiktas is just down the (steep) hill. Find this neighborhood.

Explore more of Istanbul


The Turkish word for breakfast, kahvalti, is a contraction meaning “under coffee,” and you’ll definitely want something lining your stomach before sipping on a cup of the rich, almost chocolaty Turkish brews here. Locals are mourning the passing of longtime coffee usta (or master) Cemil Filik, who died in early 2019, but his sons are ably keeping up the tradition of making brew so thick even “a water buffalo wouldn’t sink” in it, as the name translates. They’ve opened up a larger cafe space next door, but the narrow alley out front is still the prime place to sit.
BTW: Cups are made to order with the amount of sugar you request: “sade” (plain), “az” (little), “orta” (medium) or “sekerli” (super-sweet).
Mandabatmaz, Olivia Gecidi 1A, Beyoglu, Istanbul, 34430
Cesme Bazlama Kahvalti
Bring your biggest appetite to breakfast at this Aegean-inspired spot, an offshoot of a restaurant in the Turkish resort town of Cesme. The waiters will fill your table with dozens of small dishes — olives, cheeses, homemade jams, honey with thick cream, tahini with molasses, creamy eggplant dip, spicy pepper paste — and plenty of village-style bread to scoop them up with. The turquoise-and-white decor accents are redolent of a seaside cafe. It’s pricey, but you can have as much as you want of any items served.
BTW: Come early and avoid weekends, when the lines can be long.
Teşvikiye, Teşvikiye Mahallesi, Osman F. Seden Sk. No:8, Istanbul, 34365
Elde Borek
It’s hard to choose from among the array of home-cooked dishes on display at the entrance of this cheery lokanta, a kind of cafeteria-style Turkish restaurant popular for a quick lunch. Run by a mother-daughter team, Elde Borek has a nicer atmosphere, and more fresh, unusual salads on offer than you’ll find at many lokantas, which can be a bit bare-bones. Just point at whatever looks most tantalizing under the counter glass and the staff will plate it up and bring it to your table.
BTW: Want to try more dishes? Order yarim porsiyon (half portion). This trick works at most lokanta-style eateries.
Elde Borek, Ihlamurdere Caddesi 23, Besiktas, Istanbul, 34022
It won’t win any ambiance awards, but the welcome is warm and the food delicious at this lokanta just off Istiklal Caddesi. The specialties of the house are its Black Sea-style dishes, such as karalahana corbasi (kale soup with beans), karalahana sarmasi (kale leaves stuffed with meat, rice and spices and served with yogurt), and misir ekmegi (cornbread). When hamsi is in season, look for the little anchovy fish served up all kinds of ways: fried in a light corn batter, draped over seasoned rice, even cooked into the omeletlike kaygana.
BTW: The cream-stuffed phyllo-dough pastry laz boregi is a decadent way to top off a meal.
Hayvore , Turnacibasi Sokak 4, Beyoglu, Istanbul, 34433
Suvla Kanyon
One of Turkey’s best wineries has created a surprisingly sophisticated and secluded space within the Kanyon shopping mall to taste the fruits of its Gallipoli Peninsula vineyards along with a refined food menu. Pair a glass of wine — maybe a crisp kinali yapincak or soft, plummy karasakiz, both indigenous grapes — with a cheese or charcuterie plate, followed by a starter of oven-roasted beets with hazelnuts and local goat cheese, or grilled shrimp in garlicky olive oil. Mains run the gamut from pizzas and clam linguine to grilled liver with orange segments, quinoa and fresh herbs.
BTW: The tricky-to-find entrance is via an elevator in the back of the mall’s movie theater.
Suvla Kanyon, Kanyon AVM, Buyukdere Caddesi 185, Levent, Istanbul, 34394
Unlike many in Istanbul, the bartenders at this tiny cocktail bar in Cihangir have a firm grasp on mixology — and aren’t stingy with their pours. The stiff and well-made cocktails include a full range of classic tipples, served with popcorn or other bar snacks. On weekends, the crowd spills out the door, but don’t let that dissuade you. The sidewalk is the most popular spot with the city’s many smokers, so there might still be space in the stylish, intimate interior.
BTW: Don’t like anything on the menu? Let the bartenders make something based on your alcohol and flavor preferences.
Geyik, Akarsu Yokusu 22, Cihangir, Beyoglu, Istanbul, 34425
Durumcu Emmi
There’s no shortage of kebab stands where you can grab greasy late-night food, but for something higher on the culinary food chain, head to this 24-hour establishment in the Kadikoy district, on the city’s Asian side. The Gaziantep-style eats include the namesake durum, or wrap, stuffed with lamb, liver or chicken, as well as other kebab dishes. The spicy beyran soup, with bits of lamb floating in a garlicky, peppery broth, cures any ills. Save room for dessert if you can, such as a crepelike katmer filled with pistachios and thick cream or a cheese-stuffed, sugar-syrup-drenched kunefe.
BTW: It’s hidden away on a side street across from the Kadikoy fire station.
Durumcu Emmi, Mahmut Baba Caddesi 11, Kadikoy, Istanbul, 34722
(Istanbul illustrator Didem Ogmen for The Washington Post)
  1. Public transportation is solid while taxi drivers can be the pits. Buy a refillable IstanbulKart for 6 TL (about $1) and join us on the tram, metro, ferries and buses.
  2. If you’ve only seen the historic sights of Sultanahmet — as stunning as they are — you haven’t really seen Istanbul. Get out in the neighborhoods and explore.
  3. Istanbul isn’t the capital of Turkey, the Bosporus is not a river, the “bridge between East and West” metaphor is beyond tired, and we’ve heard all the “not Constantinople” jokes before, thanks.
(Istanbul illustrator Didem Ogmen for The Washington Post)


Princes’ Islands
A place of exile for Byzantine royalty, the four main inhabited islands off Istanbul’s coast are a favorite summer escape for the city’s concrete-smothered masses. While the day away lounging at a small pebbly beach or drinking raki by the sea, or head out on foot or a rented bike to see the impressive wooden mansions, flower-bedecked lanes and historic churches and monasteries. (Cars are banned, although electric carts are becoming annoyingly common.) Smaller Heybeliada, Burgazada and Kinaliada all beat popular Buyukada in the peace-and-quiet department.
BTW: Avoid making the trip on major Turkish holidays, when the ferries from the Kabatas pier will be packed.
Eminonu Adalar Iskelesi, Resadiye Caddesi, Eminonu, Istanbul, 34112
Yedikule Bostanlari
Not so many decades ago, large parts of Istanbul were covered with market gardens (bostan in Turkish), with neighborhoods acquiring a reputation for their strawberries or cucumbers. These vegetable gardens alongside the ancient city walls near the Marmara Sea are among the last remnants of that long tradition. Though they have roots going back to Byzantine times, they are perennially under threat from urban redevelopment plans. From the Yedikule Kapisi (Gate), you can follow the nearly four-mile-long fortifications to their ending at the Golden Horn.
BTW: Segments of the city walls can be isolated, so it’s best not to walk along them alone.
Yedikule Kapisi, Yedikule Caddesi, Fatih, Istanbul, 34107
Kadinlar Pazari
Sitting in the shadow of the Roman-era Valens Aqueduct, this plaza in the Fatih district offers a slice of life reminiscent of Southeastern Turkey, where many of the local business owners have family roots. Numerous restaurants around the plaza serve buryan kebabi, a style of pit-roasted lamb associated with the province of Siirt. Shops selling regional cheeses, honey, sheep heads, soap, dried fruits and all kinds of other goods spill out of the square and into small surrounding streets.
BTW: Go on a Wednesday so you can also explore the Fatih street market nearby.
Kadinlar Pazari, Itfaiye Caddesi between Serdap Sokak and Kendir Sokak, Fatih, Istanbul, 34083
The historic Bomonti beer factory has been converted into a wildly popular entertainment complex that’s starting to transform the previously sleepy neighborhood around it. It’s anchored by the Babylon nightclub, which moved here after 15 years in the Beyoglu neighborhood where it was founded. It hosts rock, world music, jazz, and other concerts many nights of the week. Grab a beer beforehand at the American-style microbrewery Populist, have a meal at stylish Kilimanjaro or check out the photography exhibits at the Leica Gallery or the Ara Guler Museum, which pays tribute to a master Turkish photographer who died in 2018. Currently, only parts of the complex are open, so check their website for details.
BTW: Creative studio Atolye, another tenant here, hosts periodic English-language events.
Bomontiada, Birahane Sokak 1, Bomonti, Sisli, Istanbul, 34381
Salt Beyoglu
The architecture is striking and the exhibitions intellectually rigorous at this cultural institution with a prime position on the Beyoglu district’s main pedestrian thoroughfare, Istiklal Caddesi. A cushion-laden screening area on the ground floor shows an eclectic program of films (usually with English subtitles), including a regular “Thursday Cinema” night. Upstairs there’s a small branch of the beloved bookstore Robinson Crusoe 389, which carries many English-language titles, with a particular focus on art and design. Need a respite? The top-floor “winter garden” is a soothing place to read a book or have a quiet chat.
BTW: Sister institution Salt Galata, down the hill near the Golden Horn, is worth a visit, too.
Salt Beyoglu, Istiklal Caddesi 136, Beyoglu, Istanbul, 34430
Borusan Contemporary
Lots of wealthy people collect art. Some hang it above their desks. But few turn their offices into a museum, as the owners of Borusan Holding have done. The company’s headquarters, a head-turning, castlelike red-brick mansion on the shores of the Bosporus, is open to visitors on weekends to view rotating displays of contemporary art amid the eerily tidy conference rooms and cubicles. (Employees are under strict orders to clean their desks each Friday evening.) Purpose-built gallery spaces downstairs show videos and new-media art. Make a day of it: The shore road alongside is packed with popular breakfast spots.
BTW: Don’t miss the sweeping Bosporus views from the roof terrace, where there are a few sculptures installed.
Borusan Contemporary, Baltalimani Hisar Caddesi 5, Rumelihisari, Sariyer, Istanbul, 34470
Jennifer Hattam
Jennifer is a journalist covering environmental, political, social and urban issues, as well as arts, culture, food and travel. Originally from San Francisco, she loved Istanbul upon her first visit and has lived there since 2008. She still has no plans to swap her coffee addiction for the local tea habit.
Emanuele Satolli
Emanuele is a photojournalist based in Istanbul. Since obtaining his Masters in Journalism from the University of Turin, he has specialized in stories about the human condition, social change, and armed conflict. He loves living in Istanbul, a city in two continents. Every day he tries to find an excuse to cross the Bosporus sea from Asia to Europe in a 15-minute ferry trip.