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15 Reasons to Stay in Karakoy Istanbul

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Karakoy Istanbul is one of the oldest, most fascinating neighbourhoods in one of the oldest, most fascinating cities in Turkey. Or Turkiye, if you’re a stickler for detail (and it’s definitely not in Constantinople).

Names aside, Karakoy (or Karaköy) is located on the European side of the Istanbul right where the Golden Horn meets the Bosphorus. It was an important 13th century Genoese port and has always been an ethnic melting pot, full of narrow, winding streets built on steep hills and is essentially a slice of Istanbul in miniature.

Corn cart and busy Istanbul street

Istanbul has held a special place in our memories ever since it was the final stop in our 3-month Middle Eastern adventure after quitting our jobs back in 2008. So it was high time we returned, booking a week in a terrific traditional apartment in the classic old Karakoy, known for its architecture, atmosphere and wide variety of food options.

After landing at a completely different airport from the one we flew out of 15 years earlier – greatly relieved to escape the couple sitting behind us repeatedly coughing hard enough to make Laynni’s hair move – we hopped in a taxi to the city and got our first clue about the type of neighbourhood Karakoy was. Specifically, the kind of place where the taxi driver asks if he can drop you off a few blocks away from your hotel because “the roads are too small in there”. Absolutely, friend, looking forward to it.

Galata Tower visible between some colourful old buildings

First impressions of Karakoy Istanbul: equal parts traditional and bohemian, classic and touristy, similar to Greece in that there are lots of cats, lots of smoking and lots of kebabs, but all in a more Muslim way. Plus, impressive Galata Tower just keeps sneaking up on you when you’re least expecting it.

Karakoy also features lots of great restaurants, cafés, art galleries and even an entire street of vintage shops, all scattered among historic old Ottoman and Byzantine buildings, metal scrap shops and Islamic mosques and minarets. The kind of place where you can choose between traditional Turkish tea and craft beer while listening to duelling calls to prayer and ordering kofte on an iPad.

Row of men fishing off a bridge with a mosque in the background

Karakoy is historic, trendy, traditional, artsy and maybe even a little bit hip, if that’s still a word that hip people use. And the perfect base for your visit to Istanbul.

It can be difficult to keep track of exactly where Karakoy ends and the neighbourhoods of Galata and Tophane begin, but they are all very close and very intermingled so our list includes all the best things to see and do within a 15-minute walk of central Karakoy Istanbul.

15 Reasons to Stay in Karakoy Istanbul

1. Galata Tower

Galata Tower lit up at night

The obvious (and unavoidable) one, Galata Tower is visible from many parts of Karakoy and many other areas of Istanbul. It is 63m high, is filled with historic displays and the views from the top are among the best in the city (expensive, but unique).

2. Karakoy Streets

Classic old street covered in street art

The main streets of Karakoy lead southeast and down from Galata Tower and are lined with cool shops, great restaurants, random shops and, oh, so many vintage stores. Luleci Hendek Caddesi is one of the cutest, featuring some very Instagrammable street art, several cafés and some simple but excellent local restaurants serving borek (flaky bread filled with a variety of meats, cheeses and/or vegetables) and piden (fresh pita bread cooked with cheese and other fillings).

Vibrantly coloured wall of tiles

3. Galata Bridge

In a city with many important bridges, Galata Bridge stands out as one of the most unique and photogenic. Connecting Karakoy to Eminönü and Sultanahmet, it is built on two levels. The top level is for traffic (vehicles/trams) and pedestrians, not to mention a couple hundred fishermen at any given time. The bottom is only for pedestrians and features a series of local restaurants.

Two-tiered bridge with restaurants on the bottom and fishermen and pedestrians up top

Mix in the commuting workers, gawking tourists, very serious professional photographers and enthusiastic buskers and you’ve got a recipe for a pretty entertaining bridge.

4. Karakoy Pier

On the same side of the Horn but to the west of Galata Bridge, you’ll find Karakoy Pier, one of the main ferry terminals in Istanbul. It is also surrounded by fishermen and an eclectic mix of cafés, shops, mosques and mysterious doors with no markings (personal homes? how old school).

5. Wander the Alleys Between Kemankeş Caddesi and Kemeralti Caddesi

Cafe on a street with umbrellas hung along the way

Just in from the Karakoy Pier is a cluster of cute alleys and old French arcades lined with attractive restaurants, boutiques and art galleries. There are some great photo ops, excellent meals to be had and all sorts of art to browse. It’s probably no coincidence that this is also the part of Karakoy closest to the cruise ship dock at Galata Port.

Classic old wooden building in Karakoy Istanbul

Still, as long as you don’t find yourself there at the exact same time a ship has disgorged its tottering masses – disoriented, almost certainly overfull and looking to spend some cash – it is a great area to wander. Hoca Tahsin Street is a popular photo spot thanks to the picturesque umbrella ceiling, Ceceyan Han is an impressively classic Armenian building and Kemankes Karamustafa Pasa Mosque features a nice old fountain (Reisülküttab İsmail Efendi Çeşmesi) next to a very popular local tea shop and doner place (Kilavuz Doner). Aya Panteleymon Kilisesi is an interesting old church worth a brief stop, as well.

6. Kilic Ali Pasa Mosque

Kilic Ali Pasa Mosque in Karakoy Istanbul

The largest and most impressive mosque in Karakoy, Kılıç Ali Pasa Mosque was built by Sinan the Architect (the same guy who built the Hagia Sophia) and named for the highly admired Admiral Kilic Ali Pasa. Originally Italian, he was given the honorary name “kilic”, meaning “sword”, thanks to his heroic war exploits (and not, in fact, for any sexual reason, despite what he tried telling women at parties).

7. Relax in a Turkish Hamam

Front of an old Ottoman building

Next to the mosque of the same name is the Kılıç Ali Pasa hammam. Yes, a Turkish hammam, obviously. Dating back to the 16th century, it was renovated about a decade ago and now offers a luxurious, traditional experience. You have to book ahead and men and women bathe in separate areas.

8. Galata Port

The malecon at Galata Port along the Bosphorus

Technically in Tophane, Galata Port is literally right next to Karakoy and features the most modern and diverse set of attractions in the neighbourhood. It can be confusing to enter as there are only a couple of entrances where you have to pass through metal detectors, but it is still free, they just like to keep an eye on things.

Istanbul Modern is the big highlight. This world-famous art gallery was converted from a customs warehouse around 20 years ago, attracting artists and hipsters and the like, making it one of the most important factors in the resurgence of the Karakoy neighbourhood.

Sculpture and the Istanbul Modern art gallery

But there is also a concert stage, several outdoor art installations and the Galata Port malecón, where you can stroll along the Bosphorus. Plus lots of nice restaurants and high-end shops catering mainly to the cruise shippers who use the area as their main dock.

Just outside Galata Port is a pleasant park which is popular with locals (especially on Sunday afternoons), features a great angle of Nusretiye Mosque, along with another, smaller mosque, a nice fountain and a couple of colourful historic buildings.

9. Bankalar Caddesi (Banks Street)

On the opposite side of Galata Bridge, you’ll find this classic high-end street full of impressive buildings dating back to when it was the financial centre of the Ottoman Empire in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Sometimes affectionately called “Ottoman Wall Street”, none of the banks are still there (they’ve moved downtown, as banks do) but the street is still worth a wander.

Woman walking up the Kamondo Stairs in Istanbul

The original Imperial Ottoman Bank has been repurposed as SALT Galata – a multi-functional attraction housing a museum, library, art gallery, research centre and cultural centre. There also happen to be great views from the top of the stairs. And it’s free.

Bankalar Caddesi also features the Jewish Museum of Turkey, Neve Şalom Synagogue and the Intagram darling, Kamondo Stairs. These oddly curving steps were built in the 19th century by the rich Jewish banker, Abraham Salomon Camondo, supposedly as a shortcut for him to get to the bank and for his kids to get to school.

The odd design, if legend can be believed, was so it would be harder for the kids to hurt themselves falling down the stairs. Obviously, it wouldn’t stop them falling but, I guess, it would limit how far they would tumble. Incremental gains, I suppose.

Film crew filiming a scene on Bankalar Caddesi

When we visited, there was a TV crew filming right in front of the stairs. They were oddly accommodating about letting random tourists continually interrupt their shots to gawk at – and pose on – the famous stairs. Possibly they were finding the scene they were shooting – two teens alternately walking and fawning over each other, both quite unconvincingly – as thoroughly uninspiring as everyone else.

10. Karakoy Street Art

Street painting of a scene from Fight Club

There is cool street art, tile work and graffiti scattered all over Karakoy and Galata so finding it is really just a matter of moving your head from side to side occasionally. However, if you prefer to have a destination in mind, Galata Mahkemesi Sokak and Luleci Hendek Caddesi feature some of our favourite spots.

11. Arap Mosque

The Arab Mosque in Istanbul

Close to the Kamondo Stairs and Galata Mahkemesi Sokak you’ll find this classic old mosque that originally began as a Catholic church in 1325 before the Ottomans converted it into a mosque around 1475. The name, Arap Camii, simply means Arabian Mosque and refers to the arrival of a vast number of Andalusian Muslim refugees during the Spanish Inquisition of 1492.

12. Golden Horn Waterfront

People flock to this park/malecón/restaurant street every evening to exercise, watch the sunset, join Bosphorus cruises, drink random things, make out and feast on fresh seafood with great views across the water to Sultahahmet.

Row of seafood restaurants and an old mosque

There is a crumbling but cool old mosque – Makbul İbrahim Paşa Cami – and a number of interesting restaurants vying for your attention as you pass by. We picked up a couple beer at the closest alcohol shop (Turkiye is a Muslim country but most people don’t seem overly fussed about the whole no alcohol thing) and enjoyed the setting sun from the semi-comfort of a waterfront curb.

Halic Bridge at sunset

13. Tünel

Somewhat ineffectual and, imho, not all that necessary. But fun! The rather simply-named “Tünel” is a 90-second funicular that whisks passengers 500 metres up the hill from near Galata Bridge to Istaklal Caddesi, (sort of) near Galata Tower.

The Tunel funicular in Istanbul

Completed in 1874, it is apparently the second-oldest subway in the world (after the London Underground) and it only costs 75 cents so, hey, why not?

14. Istaklal Caddesi

Red tram coming down a pedestrian street

A little bit of a walk out of Karakoy but the biggest, most popular and, arguably, best street in Istanbul, Istaklal Caddesi is a wide avenue that leads from near Galata Tower to famous Taksim Square. It is semi-pedestrian-only, apparently, but don’t ask me what the exceptions are, I only know we had to dodge a few cars so there must be some.

It is also bisected by the “Nostalgic Tram” line and riding this should definitely be on your things to do in Karakoy list. It is cheap and slow and packed, so there’s that. Plus, hundreds of tourists will take your photo as you pass – meaningless celebrity, on demand.

Man hanging off the outside of a red tram

Among the other highlights are shopping (so much shopping), huge candy stores and St Anthony of Padua Church. Just a block or so off Istaklal Caddesi, check out Dernek Sokak with its umbrellas, bars, art and the classic Yesilcam Café, the perfect place to stop for tea and get a glimpse into the mind of a dedicated Turkish cinephile.

Woman having tea at a cafe on a side street in Istanbul

15. Taksim Square

War monument with Taksim Mosque in the background

Yes, it is VERY touristy. And, no, there really isn’t much there. I mean, there’s another impressive mosque (Taksim Mosque, shockingly), although those are not exactly hard to find in Istanbul. And there are some sculptures. And a little park. And, of course, the Nostalgic Tram, where you can enjoy watching the tourists jostle for spots every 15 minutes. And six identical doner shops in a row – queue the indecision.

Row of doner shops on Taksim Square in Istanbul

But, for some, the real highlight is buying ice cream from one of the traditional ice cream vendors. All dressed to impress in their Ottoman best, vigorously stirring their creams of the day with a large – arguably unnecessarily large – stick, before doling out their creamy treasures in a very enthusiastic and showy manner, holding it out for the customer to taste before – oh my! – suddenly pulling the cone back and quickly replacing it with a napkin or, I shit you not, a FINGER. In their mouth. Seriously. Obviously, hilarity ensues.

Side note:

We did not buy any ice cream.

Karakoy Istanbul Map

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Karakoy Tours

If you’re in the mood to supercharge your Karakoy experience, here are a few terrific tours that give you a deeper insight into Istanbul and Turkish culture:

As fun as Karakoy is during the day, it really comes alive at night. The Karakoy Night Walking Tour will show you all the best places to eat, drink and be merry.

Woman walking on a busy Karakoy street at night

For awesome views and a fascinating journey around the city, with Karakoy and Galata Tower at the heart of it, book a spot on one of the highly recommended Istanbul Yacht Tours.

Boats on the Golden Horn with Karakoy in the background

And foodies, rejoice, there are some highly experienced, extremely hungry local guides just waiting for the chance to show you all their favourite snacks, meals, drinks and local restaurants on a Private Istanbul Food Tour.

How to Get to Karakoy Istanbul

From the Sultanahmet and Eminonu areas (where you’ll find all the big Istanbul attractions) you can walk across the Galata Bridge in about 15 minutes (plus time walking to the bridge, which varies considerably) or take the T1 tram (Bagcilar-Kabatas) and get off at Karakoy stop.

From Taksim Square or Kabatas you can also take the T1 in the other direction. A more fun but less efficient alternative is to take the Nostalgic Tram along Istaklal Caddesi to the F2 funicular and ride the Tunel down to the bottom.

Karaköy can also be reached by ferry coming from all the main piers, including Kadiköy and Kabatas.

Karakoy Istanbul Summary

Karakoy is definitely our favourite place to stay in Istanbul. While some of the other neighbourhoods are a lot of fun to visit (i.e. Sultanahmet, Balat, Kadikoy), Karakoy is the only one that checks all our boxes for good value accommodation, great restaurants, major sights, diverse night life, cool street art and traditional food.

Birds flying around Galata Tower at sunset

Throw in all those evenings relaxing on a rooftop terrace, sipping a cold Efes while fending off begging cats and watching huge flocks of birds fluttering around Galata Tower in the twilight, and it’s easy to see why we enjoy Karakoy so much. Chances are, you will, too.

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