The cobbled streets and old-fashioned charm of Galata are a world away from the hectic mosques and bazaars over the water in Fatih, yet no less integral to Istanbul’s rich and ancient history.
As you cross the river from Fatih and Sultanahmet – the ‘Old City’ where the majority of mosques are – you enter Galata, a sleepier quarter of cobbled streets and ‘olde world’ coffee shops. Once the financial centre of the Ottoman Empire, the neo-classical buildings date back to the 18th and 19th centuries, many now derelict or repurposed. Before that, the old neighbourhood was the home to the Genoese trade colonies, who settled here from the 14th century. Centuries of rich Italian and French influences have left their mark, not only on the buildings but on the nostalgic yet open-minded atmosphere in the neighbourhood.
Set between the Islamic heritage of Fatih and the cosmopolitan shopping street of Istiklar, the narrow, hilly streets are a place to lose yourself for a few hours among dusty bookshops and trendy cocktail bars, cafes and boutiques.
Things to do
Walking over the river towards Galata, the first thing you get to are the Camondo Stairs, an elegant and much-photographed stone staircase joining two major streets. The stairs are a blend of late Baroque and early Art Nouveau, architectural movements that swept through Europe in the 1870s, and were commissioned by one of the wealthiest Jewish families in Istanbul at the time, the Camondos, allegedly as a shortcut to reach Bankalar Caddesi (Banks Street) for their children to walk to school.
A stroll along Banks Street will give you a glimpse into the history of the area, too. As the financial epicentre of the late Ottoman empire, the grand townhouses still drip with faded grandeur. Some have been turned into luxury hotels, such as Old Bank Hotel, while others, such as Tütün Han, are practically derelict. Minerva Han, on the eastern corner between Bankalar Street and Karaköy Square, is decorated with mythological statues and busts. Inside, the underground bank vaults now operate as the Kasa Gallery.
SALT Galata, a modern art museum housed inside the former Imperial Ottoman Bank building on the same street, makes for a welcome juxtaposition among all the neo-classical splendour. The contemporary project, opened in 2011, focuses on art, architecture and design, and social and economic histories. Exhibitions vary from photography to experimental performance art, and there are also Thursday cinema screenings and workshops.
By far Galata’s most iconic landmark, as the name suggests, is Galata Tower, a 14th century cylindrical tower believed to have been built during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian. As the highest point around, it was used for centuries as a surveillance tower within the city walls, an observatory, and later as a fire detection tower and prison during the Ottoman Empire. Nowadays, climbing the 146 steps to the top of the tower is rewarded with panoramic views of Istanbul, looking out onto the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn.
No trip to Galata is complete without shopping in the neighbourhood’s glut of independent boutiques. Known as the Soho of Istanbul, you’ll find over 100 designer and antique shops, with unique vintage pieces tucked away in colourful shops like Mr Frog’s Record Store, Aponia’s hipster t-shirt shop and various vintage clothes stores.
Like Soho, the district has a long history of musicians and artists, and you’ll find many recording studios, guitar shops and record stores here today. Each summer, the Istanbul Music Festival hosts events in Galata Tower Square, with various classical orchestras and Jazz ensembles setting a wonderful atmosphere as the heat of the day fades.
In recent years, the once abandoned Galataport has been the subject of a vast urban regeneration project, making it one of the most exciting parts of modern Istanbul. The ‘megaproject’ is a 400,000-square-metre development, located along 1.2 kilometre of riverbank and featuring an underground cruise ship terminal. There are hundreds of shops, restaurants, bars, cafes and more, and a wide promenade along the waterfront.
World House Boutique Hotel (Şahkulu, Galip Dede Cd. No:85/A, 34421 Beyoğlu/İstanbul) in the heart of Galata is a prime spot for a long weekend in the area. Recently renovated, the hotel’s ten unique bedrooms exude contemporary charm, with soft linens, wooden floors and high ceilings, just a few steps from Galata tower. The trendy bakery downstairs, where breakfast is served, make it a winner.
For somewhere affordable yet comfortable to lay your head, Dorus Palas Hotel ( Emekyemez Mahallesi Nazlı Hanım Sokak No: 19 Galata, Beyoglu) does the trick, with a minimalist vibe that encourages you to unwind after a long day’s sightseeing. Opt for a room with a balcony overlooking the water if you can.
On historic Banks Street, Georges Hotel (Serdar-ı Ekrem Sokak No: 24 . Galata-Beyoğlu) is a chance to not only experience the history of this place but to positively immerse yourself in it. The rooftop bar and restaurant afford stunning views over the Bosphorus, and the meticulous interiors include furniture from local artisans and designers.
Restaurants & Cafes
A two minute walk from Galata Tower, Moise Karakoy (Bereketzade, Felek Sk. No:2, 34421 Beyoğlu) is all about the magnificent rooftop views. The food is light and flavoursome modern Turkish, with a great cocktail menu and plenty of healthy options.
Restaurant Mabou (Asmalı Mescit, General Yazgan Sk. 8b, 34430 Beyoğlu)’s slow and seasonal Mediterranean cooking and hand-rolled pasta are an antidote to the fast-food you’ll find elsewhere, making it a cosy and memorable dinner spot in the heart of Galata.
Pepo’s Galata (Bereketzade, Camekan Sk. no:1/d, 34421 Beyoğlu) is one of the neighbourhood’s most popular eating spots, serving traditional Turkish cuisine in a laid-back setting. Order a selection of mezze-style snacks, and try classic dishes dating back to the Ottoman empire.
For a splash-out night sampling some of the finest contemporary Turkish cooking in town, Aheste (Asmalı Mescit, Meşrutiyet Cd. 107, Beyoğlu) is a must-try. A daily changing menu of dishes like asparagus with nectarines or sourdough battered haddock with garlic walnut sauce, along with a wicked cocktail menu, attract local foodies and international visitors alike.
World House Coffee Co (Şahkulu, Galip Dede Cd. No:85/A) is one of the trendiest spots to get your morning brew, with their flat whites not just an imbibing option but a veritable lifestyle choice. Pot plants, industrial lighting and a resident grey and white cat add to the millennial vibe.
Right next to Galata Tower, Federal Coffee (Şahkulu, Küçük Hendek Cd. No:7, Beyoğlu) specialise in Australian coffee, with some of the best tasting cold brews in Istanbul. They also serve pastries, herbal teas, pancakes, cakes and more substantial lunch dishes.
A pair of coffee enthusiasts launched Coffee Sapiens (Kemankeş Karamustafa Paşa, Kılıç Ali Paşa Mescidi Sk. No:10 D:C, Beyoğlu) with the aim of sourcing the finest quality coffee beans. They have beans from all over the world, and use both modern and classic roasting methods, and you’ll find specials like Pumpkin Spiced Latte on the menu from time to time too.
Mavra Café Design Workshop (Şahkulu, Serdar-ı Ekrem Cd. 31/A) is owned by a ceramicist – hence the eclectic style of bowls and platters you’ll see on display. Classic Turkish dishes like falafel and kofte are served alongside homemade cakes and big leafy salads.