What to do in Beyoğlu, Istanbul's buzziest neighbourhood

Many of Istanbul's big-hitting sights are concentrated in the historic peninsula, but cross the Galata Bridge and Beyoğlu offers plenty for travellers, too, from a thriving bar scene to intriguing museums and webs of atmospheric backstreets.

 Locals catch up at Factory Karaköy, an all-day dining spot.

Photograph by Richard James Taylor
By Connor McGovern
Published 21 Nov 2022, 08:05 GMT

You could spend a lifetime exploring Istanbul, one of the world's largest cities. Instead of cramming your days, pick a neighbourhood per day: many of the big-hitting sights – the major mosques, the Topkapı Palace and the Grand Bazaar – are concentrated in the historic peninsula, and require a good few hours to explore in their own right. Also worth exploring is Beyoğlu, just across the Golden Horn, with its buzzy bar and restaurant scene, antiques shops, intriguing museums and olourful, atmospheric backstreets (patrolled by the city’s famous, unfazed felines). Here’s how to while away a day.

9am: Fuel up at Cafe Privato 

Start your day the Turkish way with one of the country’s legendary breakfasts. Few places do it as well as this boho cafe near the 14th-century Galata Tower, where the köy kahvaltası is a must. Expect the works: Turkish charcuterie, cheese, fresh fruit, olives and gözleme, a folded flatbread stuffed with cheese and spinach. Bring a friend — it can easily feed two. 

10:30am: Get your culture fix at the Pera Museum

Housed in a former hotel, this grand, 19th century building was renovated in 2005 and now offers four floors of exhibitions that recount Turkey’s story, from its distant days as Byzantium all the way to the modern Turkish state. The art is perhaps the most impressive of all the collections, particularly the Orientalist paintings, which depict the Ottoman era through a masterclass of depth, color and texture. Don’t miss the ceramics either, among them a number of beautiful ewers and coffee cups (closed on Mondays). 

12:30pm: Stop for lunch at Güney

Watch the city tick by from the terrace of this stylish lokanta (bistro-style restaurant), right in the shadow of the Galata Tower. Take your pick from a menu of classic Turkish staples such as lamb kebabs with aubergine sauce, menemen (eggs scrambled in a spiced tomato sauce) and pide, a sort of boat-shaped pizza crammed with cheese and other fillings. There’s an excellent drinks menu, too, including plenty of full-bodied Turkish reds. 

Dating to the 14th century, the Galata Tower was originally built as a watchtower, and is ...

Dating to the 14th century, the Galata Tower was originally built as a watchtower, and is now a popular observation point for visitors.

Photograph by Richard James Taylor

2pm: Head to the Museum of Innocence 

In 2008, author Orhan Pamuk published The Museum of Innocence, which explored the obsessional romance between an upper-class man and his working-class cousin. In tandem, he curated a museum of the same name, which is full of objects worn, used and referenced by characters in the book as though it were all real life. Even if you haven’t read the Nobel Prize-winning writer’s work, the museum is worth a visit for the social history, with photographs, exhibits and artefacts that chart life in fast-changing, 20th-century Istanbul (closed on Mondays).

4pm: Hit the sweet spot at Karaköy Güllüoğlu 

Squeeze into this Istanbul institution for a slice of something sweet. Place your order at the till and take your receipt to one of the servers behind the glass counters, where trays upon trays of flaky, nutty baklava glisten with syrup. If the choice overwhelms, you can’t go wrong with one of the huge slices of pistachio baklava with a dollop of clotted cream and a glass of çay (black tea) to cut through the sweetness. As well as walnut and hazelnut varieties, vegan and gluten-free baklava are also available. 

5pm: Watch the dervishes whirl

Every Wednesday at the Galata Mevlevi House Museum, an order of Sufi Muslims (dervishes) perform elaborate, spinning dances in an attempt to commune with Allah. Their chants and billowing robes are spellbinding to watch and have become something of a symbol of Turkish culture. Afterwards, go for your own spin around the surrounding streets, admiring the eclectic architecture and browsing the wares in some of the antiques shops — El Dorado or Genova Art & Antiques are both full to the brim with period globes, lamps and clocks as well as vintage signage. 

Beyoğlu, Istanbul

Pistachio baklava with clotted cream and tea at Karaköy Güllüoğlu.

Photograph by Richard James Taylor

7pm: Scrub up at a Kiliç Ali Paşa Hamamı

If you visit only one hammam (Turkish bath) during your time in Istanbul, be sure to make it this one. Dating back to 1580, the hammam was restored in the 2000s and today offers a top-notch lathering and scrub down — followed by a glass of çay beneath the beautiful domed ceiling. There are fixed times for women (8.00am to 4.00pm) and men (4.30pm to 11.30pm). However, if that doesn’t suit, consider going to the elegant, pearl-white Cağaloğlu hammam, located just minutes from the Blue Mosque and Grand Bazaar, which has separate baths for men and women. 

8pm: Dinner and drinks

Karaköy Gümrük feels somewhere between a Budapest ruin bar and a Belgian brasserie, with gentle jazz music and mismatched artwork on the walls. The food, meanwhile, takes its cue from Turkey and beyond, with classics including böreği (cheese or meat pastries) and pilafs and as well as pastas and fresh fish mains. Afterwards, hit the buzzy bars around Mumhane Caddesi and Kiliç Ali Paşa Mescidi — Nostalji Cafe offers board games, hookah pipes and Turkish coffee until the small hours. 

Published in the December 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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