Karaköy: the hippest distict of Istanbul, Turkey
A few weeks ago, I sent an exhausted artist friend visiting from New York to the Turkish bath down the street from my flat, in Istanbul’s Karaköy district. Kılıç Ali Pasa Hamami (www.kilicalipasahamami.com; about US$60 [Dh220] for the total hammam ritual) was designed by Mimar Sinan, Turkey’s great 16th-century architect, as part of a larger complex that includes a tomb and a madrassa, plus a mosque that he modelled on Hagia Sophia, the iconic, Byzantine church, built in 537, across the Golden Horn. The hammam had fallen to near-ruin before a painstaking rehabilitation and its 2012 reopening.
Today, visitors enter a gorgeously minimalist reception area, all rough-edged tan stone and blond wood under one of Sinan’s largest single domes, then bask on a sea of grey marble, lathered, soaked and kneaded, as streaks of sunlight filter through star-shaped skylights. “I feel brand new,” my friend said when she emerged two hours later. “So luxurious, and in one of the most beautiful interior spaces I’ve ever seen.”
Awoken from its long post-Ottoman slumber, Istanbul may be the reigning Casanova of cities, seducing visitors with an intoxicating blend of freshness and aged urbanity. The Bosphorus Strait bisects the city’s European and Asian sides, prompting many foreigners to wax geopolitical about a bridge between East and West. But the more telling juxtaposition is that between old and new. LCD screens offer prices in Japanese at the 17th-century Spice Bazaar. The white-walled office of my dentist has a television display embedded in the bathroom mirror. And Kılıç Ali Pasa Hamami is a 21st-century update on the Turkish bath, tucked behind a 16th-century mosque that’s modelled on a 6th-century church.
Despite simmering social and political unrest, Turkey remains economically and politically stable, particularly in light of the upheaval of its neighbours. Ankara is the capital, but Istanbul is the economic engine, representing 20 per cent of the population and 40 per cent of tax revenues. The national air carrier Turkish Airlines is forecasting a near 25 per cent increase in passengers this year, and the city is one of the world’s top destinations for 2014.
If this year is Istanbul’s modern-day coming-out party, Karaköy may be the belle of the ball. A port since at least the 13th century, it was once one of Europe’s busiest harbours. Its ageing docks still welcome cruise ships headed to Black Sea ports such as Odessa or Mediterranean stops such as Athens and Rome. In Ottoman times, leading banks set up shop on Bankalar Caddesi (Avenue of Banks). Foreigners dominated finance, and Karaköy teemed with Italians, Greeks, Armenians and Jews. When banking declined at the end of the Ottoman era, many locals turned to industry.
By the end of the 20th century, derelict warehouses, dusty tea shops and gritty electricians’ and mechanics’ shops dominated. Then the Istanbul Modern Art Museum (www.istanbulmodern.org/en) laid anchor along the Bosporus in late 2004, bringing more than 8,000 square metres of exhibition space and a dash of style to the area.
On a sunny recent summer afternoon, the museum’s whitewashed walls and dull, grey floors directs visitors’ attention to the art. The permanent exhibit highlights aggressive, oversized works that contradict Turkey’s orientalist image, such a lively untitled piece from Haluk Akakçe that’s redolent of Ren & Stimpy.
In the rotating exhibition space is Plurivocality, a show that runs until November 27, highlighting the relationship between visual arts and sound, in connection with the museum’s 10th anniversary. It could also be called Sound and the City. Nevin Aladag’s six-minute video Session unleashes instruments on various areas of Sharjah – a drum played by water drops from a park sprinkler, a tambourine rolling across the desert, bells swaying from the branches of a palm tree.
In Fikret Atay’s mesmerising Tinica, a lone young man, using a grey bucket, two tin canisters and a piece of tin scrap as his drum set, bangs out a moving rhythm from a plateau overlooking the city of Batman, in eastern Turkey.
Now and then, the setting overwhelms the art. Strolling the main gallery, I catch an arresting glimpse, through floor-to-ceiling windows, of sunlight shimmering on the Bosporus, as a massive container ship chugs past. Many Istanbulites come here not for the art, but for the delicious views from the terrace of the museum cafe.
The Istanbul Modern blazed a trail; others followed. Next door is Antrepo 3, a vast former warehouse that’s home to the Istanbul Biennial and Istanbul Fashion Week. Just up the street is the Tophane-i-Amire Culture and Arts Center, a refashioned, 15th-century Ottoman foundry that recently hosted a Joan Miró retrospective.
It’s also where, in April 2009, Barack Obama made one of his first speeches outside the United States as president. He spoke, as so many foreigners do, of the divide between East and West; Christianity and Islam. “We can’t afford to talk past one another and focus only on our differences,” Obama told students from Mimar Sinan University, which manages the building.
There is also Salt Galata (www.saltonline.org/en/42/salt-galata), in the massive former headquarters of the Ottoman Bank, plus Ellipsis, Egeran Galeri, Mixer, the multipurpose Sumahan complex and a handful of others. All those gallery goers need a place to eat – and, living in the neighbourhood, I seem to stumble upon a new hot spot every week.
The latest is Colonie, a sleek, Meatpacking District-like bistro. Well-groomed, middle-aged men in dark blazers and open-collared shirts light cigars across from almond-eyed twentysomethings nibbling on burrata and smoked salmon. Later, servers clear away tables and a DJ entices diners to the dance floor with Macklemore and Michael Jackson.
Karaköy has emerged as an edgier nightlife alternative to the chic clubs of Ortaköy, where stilettos, miniskirts and cascading curls dominate, a few miles up the Bosporus.
Fosil complements great views with a crowded dance floor bouncing to rock and funk. Gaspar and Bej are for a slightly older crowd that still likes to cut loose.
Before Colonie, the hot spot was Naif, or Nar, or maybe it was Baltazar (www.baltazarkarakoy.com), where grass-fed beef sourced from a Thracian farm is aged four weeks and cooked on a charcoal grill. The result is burger bliss. Just across the alley is Muhit. Shaded by sprawling grapevines, its patio is one of the city’s more relaxing outdoor spaces.
Despite its emergence, Karaköy remains something of a throwback and a little rough around the edges. During a late, alfresco dinner at Unter (www.unter.com.tr), a chic neighbourhood favourite, a slim man with a wooden cart trudges past hawking melons, a few sliced open to reveal enticing green flesh. Minutes later, another man walks past carrying a tray of almonds, shelled and ice-chilled.
Pedestrians rarely need to dodge cars or flocks of tourists as they often must on the narrow, crowded streets of Istiklal, Galata and Cihangir. Yet graffiti abounds, the grating sounds of industry are rarely far away and many alleys are strewn with bits of trash.
But the days of hip, scruffy Karaköy may be numbered. The area surrounding the Istanbul Modern will soon be remade into a $700 million (Dh2.57 billion) cruise-ship terminal called Galataport, complete with hotels, shopping and a 2,500-seat concert hall. Many Istanbulites lament such projects, pointing to the proliferation of malls and skyscrapers, higher rents, greater congestion and lost heritage. In millennia-old Istanbul, balancing preservation and gentrification can be particularly difficult.
Plans for a makeover of the city’s central square, Taksim, sparked the Gezi Park protests that spread like wildfire in 2013.
Gregers Tang Thomsen, the Danish half of the Danish-Turkish husband-and-wife architecture firm Superpool, says that Karaköy hasn’t changed all that much since his firm moved here in 2006. “There are still a bunch of older guys sitting around drinking tea, and still a lot of small shops doing manufacturing,” he says. “But because of the different projects coming up, like the Galataport, three years from now all of the locals and hipsters will be gone and it will be all cruise tourists.”
At least for now, Karaköy can be as modern as London or New York, yet a visitor can still appreciate why Giovanni Galeni, a 16th-century sailor from Italy’s Adriatic coast who converted to Islam and became the Ottoman naval commander Kılıç Ali Pasa, chose to build his mosque and hammam here – and be thankful that he did.
Every Saturday afternoon, Art Walk Istanbul (www.artwalkistanbul.com) leads guests on one of four different strolls, including one that stops at 10 galleries in Tophane and Karaköy. The walks cost 75 Turkish lira (Dh128) per person, in Turkish and English.
Follow us @TravelNational
Follow us on Facebook for discussions, entertainment, reviews, wellness and news.
Updated: August 14, 2014 04:00 AM