The weather was overcast but otherwise pleasant, so I spent the day walking around the neighborhoods along İstiklal Caddesi (Independence Avenue) from Taksim Square to the Galata Tower. Compared to Sultanhamet the area is much less touristy but bustling with people and activity.
The beguiling and exotic back streets are narrow, steep, cobbled, and absolutely fascinating. You must be aware when crossing streets, since motorcycle drivers seem to delight in speeding through them, and in Turkey vehicles have the right of way, not pedestrians.
I got lost trying to find Orhan Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence in the Çukurcuma neighborhood, known as a “hidden treasure for antique enthusiasts” and filled with shops displaying extraordinary items you can’t find anywhere else in the world.
The signs were unclear and no one in the area spoke English, so I gave it up – maybe another day. Orhan Pamuk is a Nobel-laureate Turkish novelist. I haven’t read his novel of the same name but heard about The Museum of Innocence and was curious. It’s a popular museum in Istanbul. When I finally connected with someone who spoke English – a young Turkish man named Malmut and his Iranian girlfriend – the museum was far away. My iPhone battery died, so I had to wing it without maps or translation apps. So far anyone I’ve asked for directions is friendly and helpful and likes to chat. While Malmut and I talked he told me one of his friends moved from Istanbul to San Francisco and is a hairdresser there.
Later, I caught a ride to Taksim Square on the historic Tünel to Taksim tram – the third oldest passenger railway in the world. Other than police cars, the tram is the only vehicle allowed on İstiklal Caddesi and it runs right down the middle of the street. It was a lovely experience and of course it reminded me of San Francisco’s cable cars.
Taksim Square is noted for its restaurants, shops, and hotels. It’s the “in” place to celebrate New Year’s Eve and is considered the heart of modern Istanbul. The square has the famous Monument of the Republic crafted by the Italian sculptor Pietro Canonica. “The monument commemorates the 5th anniversary of the foundation of the Republic of Turkey in 1923, following the Turkish War of Independence.”
On the way to Galata Tower I stopped for lunch along İstiklal Caddesi at Café Benne in Beyoğlu – a 7th floor walk-up on the top floor of a small department store. The café had great Italian food and sweeping views of the Bosphorus.
On the way to Galata Tower I noticed a group of demonstrators – not sure why they were demonstrating – but a few dozen ominous looking Turkish riot police were waiting nearby ready to intervene if necessary. I kept walking headed to the interesting streets of Galata and passed many appealing small shops with beautiful musical instruments displayed in the windows – including the traditional Turkish Saz which looks like a mandolin.
Next stop was Galata Tower – one of the oldest towers in the world. It covers the site of an older tower originally built as a lighthouse in 528 during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinianus.
Galata Tower was an observation point for the port and city. Now it’s primarily used by tourists and locals who enjoy spectacular panoramic views of the Golden Horn, Old Istanbul, the entrance to the Bosphorus, the Asian shore, and the Galata and Unkapani Bridges. A dramatic chase scene in the new James Bond Movie, Skyfall, was filmed on the Galata Bridge. At night Galata Bridge is magic!
An elevator takes you to the top floor of the tower now occupied by a restaurant and nightclub. From there you walk up a few stories of steep winding steps to the top and an outside deck encircling the tower. Nights in the club are colorful with belly dancers, folk dance groups, and singers performing against the panorama of Istanbul’s brilliant night skyline.
There are many incredible things to experience in Istanbul. Don’t see how visitors could spend less than two weeks here and do more than scratch the surface of this magnificent city! The main purpose of this blog is as a personal journal, so when I am no longer able to travel I can read back through it and remember the wonderful experiences – like today’s outing :).