In Praise of Cihangir – My Istanbul Neighbourhood

CihangirWithin the larger metropolis of Istanbul are many smaller neighbourhoods with their own identity – much like London. In London, my neighbourhood was Balham, which was my home and which I loved for its brunches, green space and excellent front doors (if you need more convincing on this last one, then check the #DoorsOfBalham hashtag on Instagram, which has been an unexpectedly delightful find.)

In Istanbul, my neighbourhood is Cihangir:  a unique part of the city that, despite being five minutes from the thousands of tourists of Taksim Square, feels like a pocket of residential, tree-lined, old town glory. It’s part of the European side that feels incredibly European: full of narrow streets, cafes, bars and boutique shops. I really believe it’s one of the most beautiful areas in the city. Most tourists get swept from Taksim Square down Istiklal Caddesi – a long, bustling road of shops and restaurants that, apparently, sees three million people walk down it every day. It’s a slightly more interesting version of London’s Oxford Street… if you imagine last-weekend-before-Christmas levels of shoppers walking down it on a daily basis. This is definitely worth an inclusion on a visitor’s itinerary, but walking down the road parallel to it (Sıraseviler Caddesi) and experiencing Cihangir instead gets my vote instead most days.

Going out for brunch in Cihangir certainly feels a lot more relaxed than in Balham, where you practically need an early night and a weekday alarm set to get anywhere decent for a Saturday brunch. Have breakfast before 11 here and people will think you’re an early riser; even the best of places have only a short queue after this, if at all. Van Kahvaltı Evi draws the crowds thanks to a Lonely Planet mention and a spot on Sıraseviler Caddesi, but my favourite has to be Doğacıyız Gourmet – amazing breakfast in the form of 26 small plates, never-ending tea in a thermos and a toaster brought up from the kitchen and plugged in next to your table if you prefer your bread on the warmer and crustier side. You can have a smaller breakfast, too, but why would you? If you are coming to visit me in Istanbul any time, just make sure you’re hungry, is all I’m saying.

Cihangir is also largely considered to be where many of the city’s artists live – apparently, you can often spot a Turkish soap star or two having a matcha latte (probably) in one of the cafes on the cobbles. Not knowing what any of these people look like, I like to imagine I might have sat ignorantly next to the Danny Dyer of Turkish soap operas on one of my trips for coffee. Attempts at watching the soap operas here have confirmed to me that you need more of a solid grip on the language than my current few sentences of (fluent) taxi (“right”, “left”) and restaurant (“where are the toilets?”) Turkish. I’ll get there…

Essentially, Cihangir shows me every day that Istanbul is so much more than the main areas I associated with the city – and, like Cihangir, these areas are hiding in plain sight. The Istanbul metropolis is huge, but never feels as busy as London: people take their time, brunch places are rarely full and people strike up conversations in restaurants. You sometimes forget the city has over twice London’s population (estimated at 15 million), and the smaller neighbourhoods of Istanbul contribute to this feeling.

Finally, another unexpected surprise: A few weeks ago, I lost my purse in Cihangir and only realised the next morning. Luckily for me, a passer by had found it, handed it to the police, who returned it to the consulate. I mentioned this story to the waitress in a café and she wasn’t surprised. “Turkish people are very honest”, she said. “Purses always get found in Turkey.” I just thought that was a lovely note to end on, really.

A run along the Bosphorus

In three months in Istanbul, I’ve found myself doing a lot of what, I think, a lot of people do: replicating a little of their old life into their new one. Switching mindset into a new routine, particularly with a lot more time on your hands, takes some bedding in. A semblance of home comforts has really helped me with the transition.

Along with Turkish brunch, which I feel deserves another post entirely before I wax lyrical at the joy of eating clotted cream and honey for breakfast, a huge comfort to me has been the Bosphorus that runs from top to bottom through this city. In central Istanbul, you never seem to be very far from it at all. Rather than reminding me of the Thames, it reminds me of the green, open spaces of London, where I used to walk to work, go for a run or meet friends with coffees and prosecco picnics. This was a huge part of my routine in London, and despite the lack of much green space in Istanbul, the Bosphorus is helping me feel as though, sometimes, I’ve not moved very far at all.

I wrote about this recently and, last week, it won The Telegraph’s “Just Back” Travel Writing competition! If you would like to read about how beautiful the Bosphorus is, and also about how unfit I have become since not having Tooting Common on my doorstep any more, then here is the link.

The Bosphorus splits Istanbul in twine
“Why the only way to truly know Istanbul is to jog along its river.”

And here is the picture of my article in my Mum’s very well-read paper, which I’m sure I will stop gazing at in disbelief one day, but not quite yet.

Telegraph Bosphorus article