A historic quarter of Istanbul regains its place in the sun

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Adrian Mourby finds shiny new shops and galleries in the previously rundown district of Pera

The transformation of Pera in the past 10 years has been extraordinary. When I first started coming to this side of Istanbul, just after the millennium, Pera was old, dirty and unnerving. There were streets off Istiklal Caddesi where, as a tourist, you did not walk. The bar in the Pera Palace Hotel was so dingy I'd swear it had not been painted since Agatha Christie holed up in a room with a rickety brass bedstead.

Now Pera, the rocky quarter traditionally frequented by Europeans, is bright and buzzing. The International Pera Piano Festival begins on 7 May, followed three days later by the Istanbul Theatre Festival (10 May-5 June), which uses Pera and various neighbourhoods nearby. Then, at the end of May, the Istanbul Music Festival (31 May-29 June) kicks off with two of its venues in Pera and street musicians dotted along the newly affluent Istiklal Caddesi.

How has this happened? To find out I sought out Gencay Ucok, an Istanbul Mr Fixit who knows everyone and who is also – somewhat to his surprise – the proprietor of the most gay-friendly restaurant in Turkey. "I've no idea how that happened," he laughed when we met. "I guess people came in and we weren't unpleasant at Meze. Pera is a place where it's OK to be Other."

We were sitting in SALT, a newly opened arts centre inside a lofty old bank. The bar on the top floor has panoramic windows that gaze out across the Golden Horn estuary to the Ottoman palaces of Sultanahmet. "This was always where the foreign traders lived," Gencay told me as we perched on our bar stools. "In fact Pera means 'other'. We're the other Istanbul. The New Istanbul. Only these days, it's safe to walk about. Yes, my friend, you're right. This place has changed so much in the last few years!"

I knew from history books that Genoese traders were in Pera before the Ottoman conquest. From up here they watched Constantinople fall and mosques spring up on the skyline opposite. This quarter, also known as Galata-Beyoglu, is a dark, steep rock of vertiginous buildings crowned by the Galata Tower. Until the 19th century, when foreign embassies began building their palaces outside the city wall, Pera was about as crowded an enclave as you could find.

Pera was also where Graham Greene, Pierre Loti, Mata Hari and Ernest Hemingway felt at home, all of them propping up the bar of the Pera Palace at some time or other. Trade, banking, diplomacy and espionage made Pera-Galata-Beyoglu famous.

"So what went wrong?" I asked Gencay as we ordered more Turkish lager. Gencay's answer takes in diplomats and financiers moving to Ankara after Ataturk made it the new capital in 1923, and the flight of Greek and Armenian Christians during the religious tensions of the 1960s.

"Pera emptied. And at the same time the government was encouraging everyone out of the countryside and into the big cities to turn Turkey into an economic powerhouse. Poor people from the east, drug-dealers, alcoholics. They took over Pera, making it unsafe. That was the Pera you remember from 10 years ago."

Leaving SALT, we took a tour of the tunnel-like streets that run between five- and six-storey tenements. I saw a lot of rebuilding and restoration, but no danger or squalor. Down Serdar-i Ekrem Caddesi, we called in on the clothes designer Bahar Korcan, who has an upmarket boutique in a showroom stripped back to ancient brick walls.

Bahar's jackets revisit the Ottoman-style, using Anatolian flower patterns on tweed or traditional silver embroidery over patchwork. Next we walked across the road to take tea with Janset Bilgin, who makes and sells her own jewellery and who moved here only last year.

"In 2006 everyone thought Bahar Korcan was brave moving into a street like this," Janset told me as we perched in her workshop. "But she has shown that it's possible."

Gencay pointed out that an apartment bought in this street two years ago for the equivalent of £140,000 might change hands now for £1m. What, I wondered, was driving this rapid gentrification? I got my answer when we headed for our next stop, Istanbul's number-one nightspot, Babylon. If the great rock on which Pera rises from the Bosphorus were some slumbering mythical giant, then Istiklal Caddesi would be its spine. Two million people shop on this long, pedestrianised street every day – and two things were obvious as we zigzagged through the crowds: these people are young and they have money.

"Our population explosion happened in the 1970s," Gencay yelled as we were almost separated in the crush. "Remember what I said about the government encouraging people to come into the cities? Well, they came in droves and they had a lot of children, and nowadays those children have money to spend!"

We dropped a few streets down the other side to locate Babylon. The venue is a low shed in between two tall old buildings, but it's proved so popular with the youth of Istanbul that it now has its own magazine and radio station.

Next we headed down past the Pera Palace Hotel in search of a new art gallery that Gencay wanted to show me. I'd already looked in at the Palace. It reopened in 2010 after a phenomenally expensive refurb that was so bright and shiny that they recently had to repaint the bar to make it dark again. An essential loucheness had been lost.

The gallery, known as Galerist, turned out to be a conversion of some old Ottoman offices overlooking a car park that Gencay said would soon be a new Frank Gehry building. "Well, that's the plan."

Galerist is the initiative of architect Melkan Gursel Tabanlioglu and the art collector Taha Tatlici. "Together they want to promote contemporary Turkish art worldwide," said the manager as she gave me her card. "And to connect Eastern and Western cultures. Istanbul being the junction, you know." A number of lean young things in expensive T-shirts were engaged in hanging a new exhibition. Galerist was clearly doing well.

Gencay kept us walking. Dropping back down the other side of Istiklal Caddesi we came upon a new museum of Turkish cinema. Wall after wall of famous faces I did not recognise and posters for derivative films such as Tarzan in Istanbul or Charlie Chaplin in Istanbul (with the Little Tramp played by a Greek actor) as well as whole genres that do not exist outside Turkey.

Further down the steep streets we found a new boutique hotel called The House. It is indeed a tall old house that rises up like a sentry box, with just two rooms on each floor and a bar in the rafters. The original marble staircase runs all the way to the top. (One of the great benefits of the area's long decline is that so many period features were just left to gather dust rather than being stripped out.)

Gencay was all for going on to check out progress at the new Marti Hotel as well, which is at the Taksim Square end of Istiklal. It's another conversion opening this summer, and much talked about because the designer is Zeynep Fadillioglu, the first woman in Turkey to design and build a mosque. However, I had dinner booked at Dai Pera, not far from the Istanbul Modern, the big art gallery recently converted out of an old Ottoman arsenal on the Bosphorus.

Dai proved to be a very small restaurant recently opened by Arzu Gurdamar, who worked for 12 years in a shipping office before deciding she wanted to offer travellers typical food from Istanbul. It took her many months to find her dream location, she explained as we drank a few glasses of some excellent Turkish wines.

"I wanted to give people the kind of food we eat at home. Istanbul food. That can be Armenian, Greek, Genovese or Turkish, but not just Turkish. I will never sell kebabs because the kebab is not from Istanbul."

Dai is a narrow, intimate dining area, barely two tables wide, with Arzu cooking 12 hours a day in the cellar downstairs. Like everyone I'd met on this busy day, Arzu was fiercely proud of the winding streets of Pera. "It is like SoHo in New York or Soho in London but at the same time it's not. Istanbul is 8,000 years old. We are not like anybody else. They are like us!"

Travel Essentials

Getting there

Istanbul's main airport, Ataturk, is served by Turkish Airlines (020-7471 6666; turkishairlines.com) from Birmingham, Heathrow and Manchester; and by British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) from Heathrow. The secondary airport, Sabiha Gokcen, is served by Pegasus (0845 0848 980; flypgs.com) from Stansted, and easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyJet.com) from Luton and Gatwick.


Staying there

The writer stayed at the Four Seasons in Sultanahmet (00 90 212 402 30 00; fourseasons.com/ Istanbul). Doubles from €529 (£433). The House Hotel, Galatasaray (00 90 212 244 3400; thehousehotel.com). Doubles from €118. The Pera Palace Hotel, Beyoglu (00 90 212 377 4000; perapalace.com). Doubles from €245.


Visiting there

Meze restaurant (00 90 212 252 83 02; mezze.com.tr); SALT arts centre and bar (00 90 212 377 42 00, saltonline.org); Bahar Korcan boutique (00 90 212 243 7320; baharkorcan.org); Babylon Lounge (00 90 212 292 73 68; Babylon.com.tr); Galerist (00 90 212 252 1896; galerist.com.tr); Istanbul Modern (00 90 212 334 7300; istanbulmodern.org)


More Information

Gencay Ucok of KD Tours (00 90 212 236 5161, kdtours.com) offers half-day tours for US$150 (£93). Turkish Culture & Tourism Office (020-7839 7778; gototurkey.co.uk). The Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts (iksv.org).

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Life and Style
Phillips Idowu, Stella McCartney and Jessica Ennis
fashionMcCartney to continue designing Team GB Olympics kit until 2016
Shinji Kagawa and Reece James celebrate after the latter scores in Manchester United's 7-0 victory over LA Galaxy
voicesGood for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, writes Grace Dent
Farah returns to the track with something to prove
Commonwealth games
Life and Style
fashion Designs are part of feminist art project by a British student
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    C++ Software Engineer - Hounslow, West London - C++ - to £60K +

    £40000 - £60000 per annum + Pension, Healthcare : Deerfoot IT Resources Limite...

    VB.NET and C# developer (VB.NET,C#,ASP.NET)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: VB.NET a...

    Visitor Experience volunteer

    Unpaid voluntary role: Old Royal Naval College: To assist the Visitor Experien...

    Telesales Manager. Paddington, London

    £45-£55k OTE £75k : Charter Selection: Major London International Fashion and ...

    Day In a Page

    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
    Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

    Take a good look while you can

    How climate change could wipe out this seal
    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

    Farewell, my lovely

    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
    Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

    Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

    Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

    John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
    Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

    Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

    The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
    The 10 best pedicure products

    Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

    Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

    Commonwealth Games 2014

    Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
    Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

    Jack Pitt-Brooke

    Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
    How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

    How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

    Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game