Why You Should Be Exploring The Asian Side Of Istanbul
It's just a ferry ride away.
It’s pretty common for cities to boast an “unseen” or “unexplored” side. If I had a dollar for every time someone told me I needed to check out the parts of a city that tourists didn’t see, I could probably fund my next holiday. In Istanbul however, it’s not just metaphorical, but physical too – there are literally two sides to the one city.
Famous for being the only major city in the world situated on two continents, half of Istanbul is in Europe, while the other lies in Asia. The Bosphorus strait splits the city clean in two. Even though the Asian side (also known as the Anatolian side) was actually settled first, most of the historic tourist attractions are in Europe. The vast majority of visitors to Istanbul stick to the areas around the Hagia Sofia and Blue Mosque and never venture across the Bosphorus to Asia. It’s their loss, because there are a lot of reasons to hop on one of the city’s famous ferries. $1.50AUD and 20 minutes later you’re on another continent, and in another world.
It’s super hip
Step off the ferry in Asia and you’ll find yourself in Kadikoy, Istanbul’s coolest neighbourhood. It’s home to many of the city’s students and creative types. There are musicians competing for your hard-earned liras on almost every corner. Cute cafes serving a combination of Turkish coffee and lattes line the streets. The neighbourhood is packed with hip boutiques that would give any city in Western Europe a run for its money (at half the price). If music is more your thing you could easily spend a day sifting through vintage Turkish psychedelic records in one of Kadikoy’s many record stores.
If all that shopping makes you thirsty, make a beeline for Barlar Sokak (literally: Bar Street), the centre of the nightlife on the Asian side. Bar Street doesn’t try and compete with the five-storey nightclubs on the European side. Instead it’s packed with small drinking holes full of exposed wooden panelling and Edison light bulbs. Come evening the street is crawling with students flagrantly ignoring Istanbul’s public drinking laws. Craft beer aficionados don’t get too excited though; even the hippest places still only sell Bomonti and Efes, the two Turkish beers that make XXXX taste fancy.
The art is great
When you think of the great cities in the world for street art, Istanbul isn’t generally one that springs to mind. But the winding alleys of the Asian side are filled with art that would give Berlin or Melbourne a run for its money. Bursts of colour break up the monotony of concrete apartment blocks. While I was there I found myself in an abandoned hospital that had been transformed into an outdoor gallery. There’s even an app that can lead you to some of the city’s best street art.
Kadikoy is also home to Istanbul’s first artists’ squat. Housed in a half-finished block of apartments, local artists turned the building into a centre for activism in the aftermath of 2013’s Gezi Park protests. On the wall is a giant stencil of the six people killed in the protests. The squat is a hive of activity; there are art exhibitions, neighbourhood forums, and even a fortnightly evening for foreigners held in English.
And then there’s the food
Turkey is well known for its cuisine, and rightly so. If you visit and don’t come away a good couple of kilograms heavier, you’re doing something wrong. Some of the best food in Istanbul is on the Asian side. In the winding streets above the ferry docks is Kadikoy’s daily market, where you can point to a fish and have it cooked in front of you. Or try the city’s finest lahmacun, a type of crispy Turkish pizza topped with fresh lemon and parsley.
After a night out on Bar Street, there’s nothing better than a lazy brunch in the leafy suburb of Moda. A local institution is Van Kahvalti, a cafe that specialises in the famous Turkish breakfast from the country’s southeast. Tables are covered with olives, tomatoes, eggs, spreads and no less than fifty types of cheeses.
Life moves a little slower
Life in Istanbul can be a little hectic. It’s a city of somewhere between 15 and 20 million people squished into an area smaller than Sydney. Thankfully, if it’s all getting a bit much, escaping to Asia is the perfect remedy. Sure, the frenetic energy that makes the city so exciting is still there, but it’s much easier to find a park to laze around in or hole up in a cute cafe. A short bus ride from the ferry terminal is Camlica Hill, the highest point in the city. On a good day you can sit under the pine trees sipping Turkish çay (tea) with 360-degree views of the city as your backdrop.
A short ferry ride away from Kadikoy are the Princes’ Islands, a series of rocky outcrops in the middle of the Marmara Sea. There are no cars allowed on the islands, which means you can rent a bike and leisurely cycle past stunning Ottoman mansions without worrying about being run down by crazed Turkish drivers. Jumping from the rocks into the crystal clear water, it’s easy enough to forget that there are millions of people going about their business on the other side of the bay.
It’s pretty darn beautiful
When the sun starts to set, there’s only one thing to do: grab a couple of takeaway beers from a bakkal (convenience store) and head down to the Moda seaside. On long summer afternoons there’s a carnival-like atmosphere to it all. An old man sells fairy floss out the back of his car. Guys with BB guns attempt to burst balloons strung up in rows above the rocks. Young boys try and outdo each other on rollerblades in front of giggling girls. This is possibly the only city in the world where rollerblading is still a non-ironic method of getting around.
Do as the locals do and sit among the rocks, watching the dance of the ferries as they pirouette around the giant tankers that silently ply through the currents. Across the Bosphorus the sun sets the sky ablaze over the mosques in Sultanahmet. Even the locals can’t resist taking photos of the skyline. Another short ferry ride later and you’re back in Europe, where you can brag to your friends about how you just casually popped to Asia for the day.
(Lead image: Will Dawson)