“There’s only one word to express the beauty of Istanbul: imperfection,” says Maksut Aşkar, the celebrated chef of Neolokal, gesturing toward the view out the window of his restaurant, where soot-stained warehouses and gray satellite dishes rub shoulders with centuries-old history. “You have these ugly buildings next to a 16th-century architectural masterpiece like the Süleymaniye mosque. It makes me feel alive and helps me create a kitchen where you don’t have to be perfect.”
Many Istanbulites feel that the balance has shifted too far toward the ugly side of the scales over the past decade, however, as eyesore modern skyscrapers, giant malls, glitzy Ottoman kitsch, and soulless restorations have run rampant over the urban landscape. A Twitter account documenting some of the most egregious aesthetic crimes, @CirkinIstanbul (Ugly Istanbul), has nearly 70,000 followers.
But a tough few years in Turkey have drained much of the investment that had driven the controversial construction boom, while dampening the energy that saw Istanbul become a symbol of the new Europe. Instead of its wealth of ancient ruins, sparkling Mediterranean coastline, rich cuisine, fine craftsmanship, and warm hospitality, Turkey became synonymous in many minds with war across the border in Syria and the subsequent refugee crisis; anti-government protests and increasing authoritarianism; jailed journalists, academics, and opposition politicians; diplomatic spats with allies in Europe and the United States; and a wave of terror attacks and attempted military coup that hit Istanbul particularly hard.
Businesses closed their doors; Western tourists cancelled their trips; and it was hard to go a week without hearing from one of Istanbul’s entrepreneurs, artists, architects, scholars, activists, and designers about their plans to leave. Just as the violence and outward strife had seemingly started to ebb, the value of the already slumping Turkish lira plummeted in 2018 and Turkey became embroiled in the global outcry over the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, believed to have been murdered by his countrymen inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
But this city that was besieged by the Romans, pillaged by the crusaders, conquered by the Ottomans, and neglected by the leaders of the early Turkish Republic, is nothing if not resilient. Inhabited for more than eight millennia and the capital of three empires, Istanbul has always been a city of layers, with each wave of inhabitants building atop the remains of the last.
“Istanbul keeps creating new hearts, new centers,” says Emre Erbirer of Atölye, a transdisciplinary design studio located in one of those nascent clusters. Its offices are in Bomontiada, a historic brewery converted into a modern complex of restaurants, and arts and entertainment spaces, including a wildly popular brew pub, the Populist, and the new location of the famous nightclub Babylon. Galleries, music venues, ateliers, and co-working startups are popping up in the industrial Sanayi area, the business district of Maslak, and the historic Fener-Balat along the Golden Horn. The Yeldeğermeni and Moda neighborhoods in Kadıköy, on the city’s Asian side, are bursting with art collectives, third-wave coffee shops, and vegetarian cafés.
Atölye has mapped the connections among more than 80 broadly defined “creative hubs” across the city, including university incubation centers, makers’ spaces, fab labs, design studios, permaculture collectives, film festivals, and archaeological research institutions. Other initiatives, such as Made in Şişhane and Crafted in Istanbul, aim to connect emerging designers with traditional craftsmen as a way of reinvigorating local metalworking, woodworking, glass, and textile production.
“Istanbul is reshuffling the cards,” says Alex Varlık, co-owner of the beloved Georges Hotel, in the Galata neighborhood, a progenitor of the local movement toward idiosyncratic, boutique-style properties. “It’s a very creative time of new beginnings for this city, a great opportunity to rebound,
to create a renaissance.”
RELATED LIST MEMBERS
It wasn’t too long ago that people were decrying the “death of İstiklal,” as rising rents and diminishing visitor attendance caused one business after another to shutter along the bustling pedestrian boulevard that runs through the heart of the Beyoğlu district, the city’s longtime cultural and nightlife epicenter. The outward wave included Galeri Nev and Pi Artworks, which left the historic Mısır Apartment on İstiklal and moved into a new building in the on-the-cusp Karaköy neighborhood near the waterfront, where they were joined by galleries Mixer and artSümer.
But the September 2017 reopening of the Yapı KrediCultural Center, with its towering new glass facade overlooking a prime İstiklal location on Galatasaray Square and revamped galleries inside, sent a strong message: Beyoğlu is back. The year since has seen the return of the pioneering cultural institution SALT Beyoğlu after a two-and-a-half-year hiatus, and the temporary relocation of Istanbul Modern, the standard bearer for contemporary art, to the nearby Union Française building, designed by French Ottoman architect Alexandre Vallaury in the late 19th century. This past summer, Galeri Nev moved back into the Mısır Apartment.
Arter has meanwhile been holding down the fort on İstiklal throughout its ups and downs with consistently strong, sometimes provocative exhibitions by Turkish and international artists in a gorgeously restored early-20th-century structure. It’s scheduled to move next year, however, to a vastly expanded space, a new Grimshaw Architects–designed museum down the hill in Dolapdere. Well-known galleries such as Pilevneli and Dirimart have already opened up amid this rough-edged neighborhood’s auto shops and gas stations in anticipation of its arrival.
As galleries, artists, and art fairs have come and gone, the Istanbul Biennial and Istanbul Design Biennial, organized in alternating years by the venerable Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts (İKSV), have provided an anchor for cultural events each fall. Weathering criticism for seemingly sidestepping controversial political issues at times, the Istanbul Biennial has just announced a high-profile curator, Montpellier Contemporain director Nicolas Bourriaud, for its 16th edition in 2019. And over the course of a mere four editions, the Istanbul Design Biennial has already gained a reputation for heady events that challenge the nature, purpose, and very definition of design.
The first names that probably spring to mind when it comes to hotels in Istanbul are foreign and flashy: the Four Seasons, in a former prison building in Sultanahmet, the city’s tourist heart; the Kempinski-run Çırağan Palace on the Bosphorus, once home to Sultan Abdülâziz; the Pera Palace of Agatha Christie fame, now operated by Dubai-based chain Jumeirah.
A more intimate experience combining top-notch service with subtler style can be found at smaller boutique properties presenting a local’s-eye view of neighborhoods without sacrificing five-star comfort. The forerunners of this class were the founders of the once-ubiquitous House Café chain, which made a splash in 2010 when they commissioned Autoban to revamp an 1890 apartment building in the then-emerging neighborhood of Çukurcuma. Economic ups and downs have left just two hotels standing in what was previously a rapidly expanding portfolio: the retro-style House Hotel Karaköy in an grand old bank restored by Turkish architect Han Tümertekin with interiors by Sinan Kafadar, and the sleek new House Hotel Bomonti, with clean-cut interior design by U.K. and Hong Kong–based Office Conran + Partners. Co-founded by one of the original partners in House Hotels, the unmarked black doorway of the 20-key Georges Hotel Galata opens into a moodily lit bar in lieu of a traditional lobby, setting the tone of understated elegance. The Georges’s restoration of a period apartment building seamlessly blends European and Turkish stylistic influences into its airy quarters, with wood parquet and floor-to-ceiling windows in many of the 20 rooms and a rooftop restaurant with a
daily Turkish breakfast and views of the Golden Horn.
Witt Istanbul Suites, in the nearby Cihangir neighborhood, has 18 loft-style rooms designed by Autoban with midcentury-inspired furniture, marble bathrooms and wet bars, and decorative laser-cut wood-and-steel panels on accent walls and closet doors. The newly opened Room Mate Emir, conceived by Lázaro Rosa Violán and part of a Spanish chain of international hotels in urban centers, hits more eclectic, whimsical notes, mixing stained glass, restored frescos, abstract art, and hanging lamps wrapped in their own cords in its 27 rooms. The colorful lobby’s cotton candy–pink accents stand in contrast to the somewhat gritty street outside, a small artery off İstiklal Caddesi.
The Sinan Kafadar–designed Gezi Hotel Bosphorus has a sedate palette of mostly black, white, and gray in its 67 rooms, all the better to highlight the views of the sparkling strait from many of the windows. Other international heavy hitters in the hospitality industry have established a presence in the city as well. Soho House Istanbul in Beyoğlu, with its plush members’ club and a 87-room hotel with warm, multitextured rooms, is located in a 1873 Italianate palace that previously served as the U.S. embassy and then consulate. The 118-room St. Regis Istanbul fills a city block in Nişantaşı fashion district; its design by Emre Arolat reflects a blend of minimalist and art deco influences with nods to the neighborhood’s 1920s architectural heritage.
Restaurants & Bars
Sure, you can find steaks and sushi, not to mention Georgian khinkali (dumplings) and Uyghur laghman (hand-pulled noodles), but when it comes to local eating habits, tradition still reigns. “Everyone is looking for food that tastes like their mother’s, the food on which they built their palates, their likes and dislikes,” chef Maksut Aşkar of Neolokal says.
From his serene dining room, located inside the strikingly refurbished cultural center SALT Galata (the former head office of the Ottoman Bank), Aşkar is helping lead what he terms a culinary “evolution,” a rediscovering and reinterpretation of Turkey’s wealth of homegrown ingredients and regional recipes. In Aşkar’s case, this might mean pairing grilled lamb hearts with mustard greens and thyme oil, or adding octopus, basil, and sundried-tomato broth to a traditionally humble dish of roughly chopped homemade noodles and crushed walnuts.
“The dishes at restaurants like Neolokal, Mikla, and Yeni Lokanta say so much about regional food culture and where it can go in the future; their chefs are tapping into tradition while also carrying it forward,” says Cemre Narin, the food editor at Vogue Turkey. A rich, dried-eggplant-stuffed mantı (a Turkish dumpling typically made with lamb) is one of the signature dishes served in the hexagon-tiled and dimly lit dining room at Yeni Lokanta, whose chef, Civan Er, is set to open an offshoot in London’s Soho. (Yeni’s vodka cocktail infused with smoky isot pepper shouldn’t be missed either.)
Mikla chef Mehmet Gürs started off with a menu reflecting his own Turkish-Scandinavian background, but subsequently hired a food anthropologist to help him delve deeper into the local products of Anatolia, the eastern part of the country, creating refined versions of balık ekmek (a simple fish sandwich), at his rooftop restaurant, one of the city’s most notable culinary addresses. He’s now branched out into consulting, lending his guidance to a hot newcomer, the rooftop restaurant Mürver in Karaköy, where a turquoise wood-fire oven provides both a central design feature and the means for cooking house specialties such as cedar-wood-smoked sea trout and bone-in slow-roasted lamb. The neighborhood recently welcomed Mitte Karakoy, a pan-Asian restaurant tucked inside the shell of a heritage theater that local interior designer Sami Savatli recasted with art deco touches.
Design firm Autoban, which put its stamp on Mürver with a garden terrace concept, is also behind the look of Kilimanjaro, including its striking curvaceous and skeletal bar installation. Part of the Bomontiada complex, it turns out a creative seasonally changing menu showcasing dishes like sea bass salad with apples, mint, and basil, or broiled Aegean greens with mustard sauce and rich, creamy Ezine cheese. Over in Bebek, a garden villa has been refashioned into the second branch of The Populist, Turkey’s first beer company that received a modern update from Barcelona studio Lagranja.
Inside the high-end Maçka Residences in Beşiktaş, Alancha, whose original outpost is located on the Aegean Coast, is a boundary-pushing tasting-menu experience with a spare yet plant-filled aesthetic by Cacti Architecture and Design. Diners can expect a gustatory tour rangingfrom the wild greens of the Aegean coast to the hot peppers of the southeast. The innovative cocktail menu plays with infusions of sumac, zahtar, and salgam (a pickled-vegetable drink often served alongside kebabs), and offers a more refined yet higher-alcohol take on boza, a thick traditional drink of fermented millet—a toggle between old and new that feels emblematic of Istanbul’s present culinary moment.
When it comes to design, Turkey is best known for its textiles and ceramics, and a new generation is still applying its creative talents to those mediums. Their creations, though, bear little resemblance to the traditional carpets and tulip-laden İznik tiles found in the Grand Bazaar, perhaps the world’s oldest shopping mall.
The Nişantaşı district retains its high-fashion reputation, anchored by the five-level flagship store of Vakko, Turkey’s leading luxury brand, which offers its own men’s and women’s apparel lines alongside international labels like Stella Jean and Badgley Mischka. Nişantaşı is also home to smaller trendsetting boutiques like former fashion editor Fatoş Yalın’s vintage-inspired Fey, and Shopi Go, which gained a devoted following as an online retailer before opening its concept store displaying the latest in elevated streetwear and limited-edition sneakers against a backdrop of exposed brick and weathered concrete.
The funkier Karaköy and Galata neighborhoods have been establishing their own reputations as style destinations. Münire Alabaz curates an eclectic range of handmade jewelry and and internationally sourced finds at her “life store” Mae Zae, while the showroom at Kameleon mixes and matches items like Turkish artist Gülnur Özdağlar’s ethereal bowls made from upcycled plastic bottles with the blocky, asymmetric clothing designs of Paris-based Crea Concept.
Another emerging design hub is nearby Tomtom, where Sir Çini produces modern and traditional tiles with intricate motifs for floors, backsplashes, and other accent notes in interior design, along with minimalist ceramic plates in metallic tones. Across the water in Kadıköy, Bizon Studio specializes in artfully imperfect ceramic espresso cups and other sculptural objects courtesy of co-founders and art school friends Murat Gökçe Yilmaz and Seçil Abdişler.
In the Akaretler area of Beşiktaş, Slow Public’s cheery shop puts the spotlight on Turkish female designers—of handbags, jewelry, art prints, kitchenware, and more. Well-known architectural firm GAD created a lavish split-level showroom in the Teşvikiye section of Nişantaşı for the international collection of furniture, lighting, and art at Haaz Design and Art Gallery. And far from Istanbul’s routine shopping locales, Sanayi 313 in Maslak brings together luxuriously embroidered handcrafted footwear and bags with a gourmet restaurant, an architects’ studio, and a gallery of high-end furniture. It’s another imaginative concept in a city that seems to be in no danger of running short of them.
Three Istanbul Insiders Reveal Their Go-To Spots
SERRA TÜRKER FOUNDER & CREATIVE DIRECTOR OF MISELA
“The textures, doors, and geometric details on the city’s buildings influence my designs. Antique shops are also an inspiration: For example, A La Turcain Çukurcuma, where the owner fills a townhouse with objects from various periods, and the Horhor bazaar in Aksaray, because you never know what you’ll find there. I’m so proud of all the inspiring Turkish designers, like Gül HürgelandBegum Khan, who are offering a modern take on our heritage with a bit of whimsy. Gül’s dresses resemble kaftans but with different embroidery styles. They’re like Ottoman-meets-Côte d’Azur.”
“I love Sundays. Rowing along theGolden Hornearly in the morning, through majestic mosques and landmarks, is so quiet and peaceful. It’s a stark contrast to the usual rhythm of the city. Sundays are also great for food shopping and discovering new and hidden eateries along the way. My personal favorite isKadıköy food marketand the little spots in the emerging neighborhood of Moda like Yer. If you need some local expertise for your gastronomic adventure, try one of Istanbul Tour Studio’s culinary experiences. I usually finish the day watching the sunset with a cocktail at Monkey Baron top of the İKSV building.“
ALEX VARLIK CO-OWNER, GEORGES HOTEL GALATA
“I’m a classic guy, an old soul. What excites me is how the past is kept alive at places like the meyhaneAsmalı Cavit, in Beyoğlu, or the fish restaurant Kıyıin Tarabya, where I can follow in the footsteps of my father’s life in the 1960s. The Bosphorus is the main point of energy in the city, the blood in the veins of Istanbul; I’m in love with its shores, especially around Çengelköy and Beylerbeyi. Galata has a privacy and an old sophistication. There’s a mixture of Greek, French, and Armenian buildings—the small Crimea Memorial Church, the German School—its streets give us life and we give them life back.”