Once a thriving port, Karaköy fell on hard times in the 20th century, and magnificent commercial edifices were divided into workshops. The opening of the nearby Istanbul Modern art gallery in 2004 sparked a renaissance that has gained momentum in the past couple of years. Now, hardware stores rub shoulders with galleries, restaurants and boutiques, creating a dynamic blend of urban grit and glitter. Hoping to cash in on this cachet is a swath of soon-to-open hotels, so Karaköy’s days as an “in-the-know” hideout may be numbered.
In the meantime this is a great place to while away a couple of hours, ambling along tight-knit streets that, as much as anywhere in the city, reflect its old multiculturalism in the many low-key churches and mosques. Best of all, the plethora of new cafes and restaurants mean that there’s always somewhere close at hand to take a break whether your fancy runs to an English-style cream tea (yes, really, at Dem), a sticky baklava blowout or a full-on three-course meal.
The best place to start a tour of Karaköy is the quay to the east of the Galata Bridge. Standing here you get a fantastic view across to Sarayburnu, the wooded peninsula that is home to Topkapi Palace, Ayasofya and the Sultanahmet (Blue) Mosque. Venture one street back from the waterfront and you will come upon the Yeralti Cami (Underground Mosque), built over the tombs of two Arabs killed during a siege of Byzantium in the eighth century. The mosque is believed to stand on the site of the Galata Fortress, a medieval tower to which the Byzantines attached a chain in a fruitless attempt to stop the Ottomans entering the Golden Horn.