Taksim: Where the Orient Meets Boheme

by Halim Cillov  |  Published January 21, 2014

The Middle East is known for many things. Some of it notorious. Some of it gerontogeous. Yet bohemian is not a word commonly associated with the region. However, with its never-ending arcades, eclectic range of architecture and a buzzing nightlife, Istanbul’s iconic Taksim district is a haven for the modern iconoclast. Taksim is the other side of the Middle East. It’s where expats, artists, hipsters and other undergrounders freely roam the wide boulevards, pint-size cafes and dusty antique stores.

Taksim street scene | Photo: Maria Rosario Sanino via Flickr

Located on the European side of Istanbul, Taksim is one of the oldest and most popular neighborhoods of Turkey, both for locals and tourists alike. Istiklal Caddesi (Freedom Avenue)—a long pedestrian shopping street—is no doubt the main attraction of this idiosyncratic district. While during the day, this colorful street is swarming with people from all stratum of society, at night, it transforms into a fashionable masquerade of grungy hipsters, stylish party-goers and beatnik night-crawlers. Whatever your scene is, whether you are a coffee-table intellectual or a party-animal or a relentless shopaholic, there is a place for everyone in Taksim.

Historically, Taksim was a home for many of Turkey’s political revolutions and politically significant demonstrations—most notably the Gezi Park protests that took place last May. As a reaction to the authoritarian regime of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has moved to ban alcohol and condemned kissing in public, over two million people camped out at the streets of Taksim for weeks. What started as a peaceful sit-in to save Taksim’s last patch of green, Gezi Park, from demolition, soon turned into a violent confrontation between police and unarmed civilians; during the protests over 8000 people were injured and 11 died. The protests that started in Taksim and quickly spread all over Turkey were a turning point in not only Turkish History but the history of the Middle East and following the protests, there were many social reforms that rewrote Islamic history. The most significant of them was no doubt the 2013 Istanbul Gay Pride that took place right after protests, which attracted more than 100,000 people to Taksim, making it the biggest gay pride demonstration in an Islamic country.  This is proof that attitudes in Turkey are rapidly changing and many people are embracing the liberal lifestyle of the West.

Heavy European influences can be observed all over Taksim, particularly on Istiklal Caddesi. Not only does this shopping strip— that embodies all the prominent brands of the West—have many art nouveau style cafes, British pubs, and foreign language bookstores (such as the famous Robinson Crusoe Bookstore), but Istiklal Caddesi also has a long alley dedicated to anything and everything French. Called the French Street, this charming little street houses many authentic French restaurants and cafes as well as tiny stores that sell the most current French products to expats and tourists.

A couple embrace by the Bosphorus | Photo: Let Ideas Compete via Flickr

One of the most quintessentially Turkish activities that you can do in Taksim is to go to a Turkish Meyhane to drink Raki (unsweetened, anise-flavored Turkish alcohol) with the locals; Meyhane is a traditional Middle Eastern bar, roughly translated from Persian as ‘wine house’, that serves various local and exported alcoholic beverages with small plates of Mezes.  Since Meyhanes are quite popular in Turkey, particularly in Taksim, you won’t have a hard time locating one to end your night. Your visit is not complete until you drink at a Meyhane and afterwards soak up the alcohol with a Wet-Burger (a hamburger soaked with special tomato sauce) at Kizilkayalar, a famous Turkish Bistro located at the beginning of Istiklal Caddesi­­­.

Undoubtedly, the real reason behind Taksim’s popularity is its wild nightlife, from effervescent gay bars to steamy dance-clubs to snug lounges. Taksim has a spot for every kind of night owl.  If you are the type of person who loves to dance until the sun comes up then the nightclub Babylon —Istanbul’s most distinguished music venue that hosted musicians such as Patti Smith, The National, and Cat Power—is your destination. However, for a less hectic night-out, the much-publicized bar and restaurant 360 will impress you with its spectacular 360-degree view of the Bosphorous and always crowded dance floor.

Food in Taksim | Photo: Armin Rodler via Flickr

Regardless of Turkey’s unstable political climate, Taksim remains one of the most exciting and picturesque vacation spots in the world. It is a unique haven where it is not unusual to run into women in black burkas walking next to a gay couple hand-in-hand and school children gleefully playing with stray dogs. If you are looking to see a part of the world that is both exotic and familiar, bohemian and traditional, gloomy and kaleidoscopic, then you should bump Taksim to the top of your travel list as soon as possible.