North and uphill from the sprawl of Galata and Karaköy, the district of Beyoğlu is the beating heart of modern İstanbul. Locals head in droves to İstiklal Caddesi in particular, to shop, wine and dine, take in a film, club, gig or gallery – or simply promenade. So, too, do an ever-increasing number of visitors, who base themselves here to take advantage of the nightlife.
Beyoğlu’s pedestrianized main boulevard, İstiklal Caddesi, boasts a cute antique tramway, and bustles with life virtually twenty-four hours a day. Massive Taksim Square, at its northern end, is regarded as a symbol of the secular Turkish Republic, and holds numerous hotels as well as convenient bus and metro terminals. Side streets hereabouts are host to scores of lively bars, clubs and restaurants, many of which stay open until six in the morning.
What’s now Beyoğlu used to be known as Pera (Greek for “beyond” or “across”). By the mid-nineteenth century, Pera was where the main European powers chose to build their ambassadorial palaces, and this imported architecture still dominates today. The completion of the Orient Express Railway in 1889 encouraged an influx of tourists, catered for in luxurious hotels like the splendid Pera Palas.
The nightlife of the quarter was notoriously riotous even in the seventeenth century. By the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the area had become fashionable for its operettas, music halls, inns, cinemas and restaurants. Only after the gradual exodus of the Greek population from İstanbul following the establishment of the Turkish Republic in 1923 did Galata and Pera begin to lose their cosmopolitan flavour.
The exit from the upper Tünel station in Beyoğlu is fronted by a small square from which İstiklal Caddesi (known as the “Grand Rue de Pera” prior to Independence) heads 1.5km north towards Taksim Square.
Not far up İstiklal Caddesi on the right, the Botter House, a fine Art Nouveau apartment building with a carved stone facade and wrought-iron balcony designed by the Italian architect Raimondo D’Aronco, was under renovation (it will be a hotel) at the time of writing. Further up on the right is the Palais de Hollande. Built in 1858 on the site of the home of Cornelis Haga, the first Dutch diplomat in Constantinople during the fifteenth century, it now houses the Consulate to the Netherlands.
The oldest church in the area is St Mary Draperis at no. 429, which dates from 1789, although the Franciscans built their first church on the site in the early fifteenth century. Better known is the Franciscan church of St Antoine at no. 325, a fine example of red-brick neo-Gothic architecture. Originally founded in 1725, it was demolished to make way for a tramway at the start of the twentieth century, and rebuilt in 1913.
Just off İstiklal Caddesi, on Nuru Ziya Sokak, is the imposing French Palace, with its large central courtyard and formal gardens, the residence of ambassadors and consuls from 1831 until the present day. Below the Palace, on Tom Tom Kaptan Sokak, the Italian Consulate was originally the Palazzo di Venezia, built in the seventeenth century, and host to Casanova in 1744. Turning left off İstiklal Caddesi, Hamalbaşı Sok leads in 100m to the British Consulate, an impressive Renaissance-style structure, designed by Charles Barry, architect of the British Houses of Parliament.
The famous Çiçek Pasajı (Flower Passage) enjoyed its heyday in the 1930s, when the music and entertainment was supplied courtesy of anti-Bolshevik Russian émigrés. These days it’s home to an assortment of attractive but rather overpriced and touristy restaurants. Far better are Nevizade Sokak, a street dedicated to fish restaurants (all with outside tables) and incredibly lively bars and clubs and, further south near the Tünel entrance, the similar but trendier streets around Asmalımescit Sokak.