When you come to Istanbul the first time you usually meander around the golden triangle of Taksim, Karaköy and Sultanhahmet. Maybe Kadiköy too if you manage to hop on a ferry to go to “Asia”. If you only have three days to visit, this is enough to knock you off your feet as this triangle is mesmerizing and exciting to the nines.
Whenever you decide to come back and enjoy some further Istanbul quality time you might start hearing other districts’ names, such as Beşiktaş, Ortaköy, Sariyer, Üsküdar or: Nişantaşı. This is where I would like to take you.
Nişantaşı and the general perception of the fashionable district
Nişantaşı in Istanbul is today often called the fashion district of Istanbul, as it’s home to Abdi Ipekci Street, one of the most expensive shopping streets of Istanbul where a lot of posh luxury fashion brands are located. But even before the brands, hotels, trendy cafes and high end restaurants that now populate the district, Nişantaşı was always a fashionable quarter, right from its beginning in the middle of the 19th century when it first became populated.
A little bit about the history of Nişantaşı before we wander around the district of today
In the 1780s, Nişantaşı was a rural area with country coffee shops and large vegetable and strawberry gardens. Simultaneous to the building of Dolmabace Palace, the settlement of Nişantaşı, just behind the Palace, began in the middle of the 19th century, initiated by Sultan Abdülmecid I.
The word Nişantaşı means target stone in Turkish. Those stones were erected to mark the archery range records of the Ottoman archers and sultans. The first two obelisks can be found in the yard of what is now Teşvikiye Camii. Abdülmecid then erected two further obelisks to define the beginning point and the ending point of the quarter.
Teşvikiye Camii, now, the heart of Nişantaşı and one of the most famous mosques in Turkey, was rebuilt in the 1850s in Neo-Baroque style by two Armenian archtitects, Garibet and Balyan, who also built the Dolmabace Palace. It was officially named Teşvikiye Camii and the area around it took on the name Teşvikiye, which means Encouragement in Ottoman Turkish. This was the beginning of Nişantaşı as a proper district, with the wealthy citizens and families of Istanbul encouraged by the Sultan to settle and build their konaks and palaces here. Nişantaşı was always also home to diverse Greek, Jewish, Armenian and Levantine communities.
Fast forward to today and the reasons why I love my hood
Although Beyoğlu, the former Pera, is only one metro stop away from Nişantaşı, the spirits of the districts are diametrically opposed. Beyoğlu has undergone major changes while Nişantaşı has stayed somewhat same same but different since its inception in the late 19th century. Middle and upper class families who settled here ages ago made the quarter a bourgeois cornerstone among Istanbul’s districts and their legacy still prevails.
As much as I love Pera I am always happy to get out of the unbelievable crowds around Istiklal and Taksim, the touristic gridlock of Galata Tower and the über-hipsterized areas of Cihangir and Karaköy.
Not that Nişantaşı streets aren’t crowded, traffic isn’t a deadlock, construction sites aren’t ruining the aesthetic, or that the see-and-to-be-seen-rules of fashionable Istanbulites are not prevailing. All of this applies but still there are some truly original Nişantaşı experiences you couldn’t get anywhere else in the city.
My Top 5 of Nişantaşı must-see’s
1. Macka Park – one of the biggest and widest parks in the center of Istanbul.
As green spaces are a rare commodity in Istanbul, Maçka Park serves as a little Central Park of Istanbul. It stretches from Abdi Ipekci Caddesi down to Besiktas Stadium and boasts ponds, fountains and kids playgrounds. Between old trees and wide lawns teenagers find spots for make-out sessions, business people stop by for a breather, dog owners walk their pets, joggers enjoy running without the distraction of traffic, and cats enjoy being in the spotlight and being fed by the locals. It is an oasis where virtually every living creature can find peace and serenity.
To treat yourself to a day in the park: Get your friends, pack a goodie bag and have a picnic outside in spring, summer or autumn. In the winter you can enjoy the various cafes scattered around the park.
2. Reasürans Pasaji – an architectural monstrosity serves as a communal meeting point
Built in the 80s by two renowned architects, the passage and the building got its name from the insurance company it was built for. The passage connects the two main streets of Nişantaşı, Teşvikiye and Abdi Ipekci, with each other. It’s home to many cafes, pubs, bars, boutiques and specialty shops. During the day you can see the older ladies and gents of Nişantaşı sit around at Cafe Wien or Assk Cafe, immaculately dressed and coiffed, sipping their teas and mochas, chatting over god knows what. These folks in their 60s to 80s are the backbone of the Turkish republican society. They were born into the newly formed republic and then raised according to the republican principles implemented by Turkey’s founding father Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.
In the evenings younger folks take over and groups of friends or couples enjoy the neighbourhood atmosphere at local institutions like Touchdown or Koridor. The Patika Bookstore is well worth a visit as one of the best artbook stores in Istanbul. Weirdly enough, here in this awkward place you’ll get a good feeling of who the local Nişantaşı citizen is and why they love their hood.
3. House Cafe Corner – the corner cafe of all corner cafes
The House Cafe brand is a renowned institution turned hospitality empire comprising cafes, restaurants and hotels all over Istanbul. Their story started in Nişantaşı in Atiye Sokak in 2002 and this branch was added in 2008. Prominently placed right next to Teşvikiye Cami in one of its appendix buildings, the corner cafe overlooks the main crossing of Nişantaşı – Macka street meets Teşvikiye street meets Atiye Sokak meets Hüsrev Gerede. There is no way you won’t come across this cafe when walking around the quarter. Getting a spot to sit outside is tricky business as it’s always packed with locals or Istanbulites who come to Nişantaşı just to be seen at House Cafe. The locals make up most of the crowd though and maybe this is why it has a local vibe to it.
P.S: The food is delicious btw. The menu changes regularly and their assortment of home-made cookies, brownies or pies can definitely make your day.
4. Tatbak – the hands-down best lahmacun place in town
Tatbak is a family owned kebap institution in Nişantaşı best known for its amazing lahmacun. Located on Akkavak Sokak, it has undergone several interior renovations since its opening, the most recent one last year. This has not however changed the quality of the food served in all these years. Established by Hasan Katikci in 1960, his aim was to serve the food of his native Gaziantep to Istanbulites. He started with three tables, serving the local families and the students of nearby faculties. Not much has changed since: the majority of guests are locals living in the neighborhood. They are always greeted personally by the son of Hasan Katikci who inherited the family business. The waiters are all old hands who have been working there for years and cater excellently to the guests’ needs and wishes, always with a smile and a joke. The familiarity and warmth of Tatbak lends the feeling of eating at your extended home.
The menu consists of all the well-known kebaps from Adana to Urfa in the best quality imaginable – but the lahmacun... the lahmacun is one of a kind. An ultra-thin crusty layer of dough topped with a special mix of minced meat, tomatoes, garlic, herbs and onions. It is served with lemon, fresh arugula, tomatoes and parsley upon request and eaten rolled up together with the fresh ingredients. The topping is made according to a recipe of the owner and with the ultra thin crust, it is a feast for the senses. Come and try the lahmacun on your first visit. Then come back to try the fistikli kebap (w/pistachios). You will already be remembered by the staff on your second visit and it takes no more than two visits to fall in love with the food, the place and its waiters.
5. Teşvikiye Camii – a most unusual and utterly charming mosque
The most prestigious and impressing landmark in Nişantaşı is theTeşvikiye Cami located on Teşvikiye Street. It was built in 1794 by Sultan Selim III and then rebuilt during the reign of Sultan Abdülmecid in neo-baroque style, the predominant architectural style of the times. The square shape of the main building and the outer front of the mosque is unusual compared to the round shapes of classical mosques. The two obelisks in the courtyard mark the initial inception of the quarter by the Sultan.
Nowadays the mosque is still functioning and men from all around the neighbourhood, working or living nearby, come on Fridays to gather and perform the weekly Friday prayers. The Teşvikiye Camii is also famous as the mosque where the funerals for Turkey’s famous celebrities, singers, sports icons and political leaders are held.
The mosque is unique for its unusual style, the tree lined courtyard and the fact that it’s a monument to the past in a comparatively young district. The courtyard in the heart of Nişantaşı serves as communal meeting place for locals, a resting spot for the elderly, a playground for kids and as an actual place of worship.
It is one of the one-of-a-kind places which make up the outstanding nature of Nişantaşı, my hood.
(All photos are taken by Gülriz Egilmez)