Standing at the corner of Taksim Square, I gaze into the multi-faceted soul of Istanbul: Istiklal Cadessi (Independence Avenue) is a wide pedestrian-only street that stretches about a mile and half, from Taksim Square to Galata Tower, and from about noon to beyond midnight any day of the week, it heaves with people. Before arriving in Turkey, I knew nothing of Istiklal. With one glance, however, I knew it was a place I wanted to be.
For nearly ten months, I lived two blocks off Istiklal Cadessi, which is visited by somewhere around three million people a day, i.e. by more pedestrians than the entire population of Mongolia (or, if you prefer, the state of Iowa). A funny thing about it — and probably the reason for such popularity: After nearly a year of trekking, strolling, hurrying, squeezing, and pub-crawling my way up and down Istiklal, to the last day I was discovering unexplored alleyways, tucked-off cafes, and hidden shops.
In Your Bucket Because…
- One of the most frequented places in one of the most important cities in history, it supplies old-world atmosphere with a taste of new-age kitsch.
- Outside of the powerhouse attractions in Sultanahmet, Istiklal offers a less aggressively touristic experience and a place locals, expats, and tourists alike like to frequent.
- The street is packed with people, packed with experiences, and is not lacking in magnificent sights, either.
- A perfect place for history buffs, architecture enthusiasts, shoppers, walkers, and the slightly off-kilter.
From End to End
On one end, there is Taksim Square, which acts as the center point of the city, a sprawling organism bisected by waterways in so many directions its difficult to actually call anything the center. Nevertheless, the square is the hub of the Istanbul’s subway system, as well as home to fine hotels, a barrage of restaurants, and a wonderful little park where you can buy tea and sit at tables set in the shade. I loved to start here, for the calm and cool, before entering the churn of Istiklal.
From Taksim on, the street offers up diverse samplings. Restaurants vary from street vendors hawking kebabs to Pizza Hut to upscale Thai food. Mostly, however, there are humble specialty cafes filling the side alleys, often frequented by old men with tear-drop cups of tea, a bubbling hookah perched next to their table, spiriting over a game of tavla (backgammon). Equally, shops can range from second-hand clothes piles to boutique designers to tourist tat. Expect street performers, buskers, pink-tinted tourists with Nikons, artisans, students, and businessmen all bumping shoulders as they shutter between libraries, theaters, and ice cream parlors.
Of course, to warrant such a draw, Istiklal is rich with historic oddity as well. The street is flanked with many Ottoman-era buildings. There is an old red tram that runs from Taksim to the the Tunnel, the world’s second oldest underground transport system (opened 1875). Beyond the Tunnel, the street becomes thick with music shops displaying traditional instruments,; it then begins its descent to the Galata Bridge. Finally, at the pinpoint of Galata Tower, built in 1348, you can climb up for fantastic panoramas of the city, including the Bosporus Straight and Golden Horn.
Soaking It All Up
The list of highlights along Istiklal is a bit overwhelming. We’ve not even gotten to the churches, synagogues, or mosques, nor mentioned Galatasaray High School (one of the finest and most attractive in Turkey), the Flower Passage, or the Fish Market. The street is like a grand river with hundreds of tributaries. To not veer off the main drag, to not follow your nose (or your eyes or your ears) to something fragrant or noisy or sparkly, would be to miss a big part of it all. That’s why this mile-and-a-half easily fills a day of adventuring.
As a resident, I never tired of Istiklal. As a tourist, I can’t imagine missing a stroll on this street and feeling I’d properly experienced the city — in my opinion, one of the most interesting in the world. As an expat, I used to love taking visitors to the Turkish ice cream (dondurma) carts, where vendors dressed in Ottoman outfits perform a sort of gag reel of tricks, pretending to give you the treat before whipping it back and leaving a cone in your pocket or a little ice cream on your nose. It was always one of those perfectly hokey moments that went on way too long. The street never did.
- I’ve recommended starting at Taksim Square rather than Galata Tower, nearer to Sultanahmet, because the uphill walk from the Galata end nearly killed both my parents and in-laws.
- The Tunnel, which is actually a funicular (i..e. it uses a cable to move it up and down the hill) ends just off the Galata Bridge, from where it is an easy walk back to Sultanahmet.
- Be prepared for some shoulder-to-shoulder traffic at times, especially when the tram is passing. I’m a full-time flip-flopper, but if you worry about toes and such, consider your footwear.