Istanbul diaries: Strolling through chaotic Beşiktaş with a local

My mother’s generation laments the Istanbul of today and frequently tells me of the beauty of the Istanbul of their childhood. But for me, the chaos of Beşiktaş is where I learned to love the city. I was raised in Teşvikiye, Beşiktaş, and it was in this neighborhood where I learned to head out by myself and discover new sights. The illogical layout of the neighborhood, the ever-changing storefronts, and the unending crowd of people flowing through the streets… I wouldn’t change it for anything!

Breakfast Street

We Turks love to have breakfast with a view of the Bosporus, but I find the view of a hustling and bustling street brings a completely different atmosphere to the experience. Çelebi Oğlu Street, known informally as “Kahvaltıcılar Sokağı” (literally “Breakfast-shops Street”) is the best place in Istanbul to experience that kind of atmosphere. The street is full to the brim with restaurants serving Turkish-style breakfast and little else, from early morning to night. I counted almost 20 different eateries, but maybe I’m a bit off. Çelebi Oğlu Street is a great place to meet if you want a relaxed, informal breakfast with friends. You can expect to pay something between TL 50 to TL 80 ($4-$7) for two people, depending on the eatery you choose.

Just be careful – it can get very busy, so if you’re worried about COVID-19 you should try to avoid certain times. In fact, I stay far, far away from Beşiktaş during the evenings and the weekends. Somehow, in the period of a year or so, Beşiktaş has become one of the busiest hang-out spots in Istanbul. I like an adventure, but safety comes first!

Nightlife in Akaretler

After a relaxed breakfast, I head to Akaretler. I’ve written a bit about Akaretler before when talking about the amazing life of President Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who lived on this street for a period. “Akaretler” are a series of terraced houses built in the 19th century as government-owned rental properties for the upper-middle class. They were a sign of modernity and Westernization with their brick facades and apartment lifestyle. When I was a child these rowhouses were in a state of ruin, and I remember being a tad spooked by them. Now, after the buildings were restored in 2008, the area has become one of Istanbul’s most hip neighborhoods. You can find art galleries, a hotel, pubs, restaurants, a diner… but what makes it special now is that some of the best nightlife in the city is now here, making the street packed with a host of fashionable youth. Personally, my favorite spot is BeerHall, a huge hall full of beer and street food stands that just calls to my inner teenager. Today, I’m going just to grab a takeaway coffee from the lovely cafe Quppa before continuing on.

Diyojen bookstore

It’s now around 10:30 a.m., the perfect time to head to the secondhand bookstore “Diyojen” and its side-store “Çocuk Sahafı” (Children’s Secondhand). Hands down my favorite bookstore in Istanbul, this is a great place to find cheap secondhand books for both children and adults, in a wide range of languages. During one visit, I found both a Korean children’s book series and a really obscure book on Sufism in French. A quintessentially Turkish establishment, the shops are the one-man show of its owner. In the manner all good Turkish stores are run, I’ve often found the store open when it should be closed, and closed when it should have been open.

Beyond shopping, Diyojen is slowly becoming a whole cultural center within itself. Book signings and philosophy workshops for kids, you can follow their events by checking their Instagram. Today, the shop is quiet as I look through the shelves with my coffee in hand, and I find a great little book on the history of Beşiktaş. Maybe I’ll use it while writing this piece today!

Diyojen bookstore in Beşiktaş, Istanbul, Turkey. (Courtesy of Diyojen Sahaf)
Diyojen bookstore in Beşiktaş, Istanbul, Turkey. (Courtesy of Diyojen Sahaf)

Heading into the depths

Enough skating around the corners, time to head into the chaos that is Beşiktaş Çarşı. This part of the neighborhood is packed with buildings left and right, and the people move in slow waves, shoulders bumping against each other. But really, what is most chaotic is the maze of buildings, little malls and closed bazaars dotted around the area. You can enter one business center and halfway through realize you’ve left it and entered a whole other building, then leave that building and find that you’ve somehow transported yourself to the other side of the neighborhood. Every time you visit, the shops, cafes and eateries change, ensuring that each trip is a whole new experience. Dozens of clothing shops sell cheap export surplus from fast fashion giants and seem to change their entire inventory every fortnight.

It’s hard to imagine that this maze of a neighborhood was once known for its gardens and orchards. Until the 18th century, Beşiktaş was a town outside of Istanbul known for its natural beauty. Evliya Çelebi in his 17th-century travel logs narrates that the landscape was dotted with huge gardens and orchards that grew vegetables and fruit. Nowadays, if you want to sit in nature, the only place in Beşiktaş Çarşı to do so is probably TEAYATRO Tea and Art Shop, a great cafe that turns into a theater in the evenings, with a huge garden out back. I stumbled upon this cafe when it first opened (I am proud to be one of its first customers), and I find that it is one of the hidden gems of the neighborhood.

After tiring myself out exploring Beşiktaş and shopping for some new clothes, I’m now hungry for lunch. Perhaps the most well-known eatery in the neighborhood is Karadeniz Döner Asım Usta, a spot that sells döner (or “shwarma” as Americans like to call it) in freshly baked bread. Every day people wait in lines to get döner here, causing the shop to often run out of meat shortly after lunch. I recommend showing up at 12 p.m. (or even 11:30 a.m.) to avoid the line.

If you’re looking for something different, Kimchi, Istanbul’s only Korean chain, has a great little informal restaurant in Beşiktaş (you might know the chain from its old name, Sopung). They’re probably best known for their ddeokbokki, a type of spicy rice cake that’s not for the faint of heart.

However, my personal favorite is Mission Street Food, a tiny hole-in-the-wall taco and burger joint that has just three tables. I head there today and order some of their amazing dirty fries with some mac-and-cheese balls. I find they’re the only place in Istanbul that gets these two staples of American food right.

The popular Beşiktaş Square. (Shutterstock Photo)
The popular Beşiktaş Square. (Shutterstock Photo)

Barbarossa Hayreddin Pasha

When you exit the çarşı, the first thing you see is the wide-open space of Barbaros Boulevard. Named after Hayreddin Barbarossa Pasha whose tomb sits at its end, the small building is ignored by most passersby. Few tourists know that Barbarossa Hayreddin Pasha was also known as the pirate Red Beard, a man so infamous he became shorthand for all pirates everywhere. But the story of Barbarossa (literally “red beard” in Italian) is far stranger than even that. After starting life as a corsair on the island of Lesbos, Barbarossa’s fantastical life was to lead him to become the king of Algiers and then to being recruited as the head of the Ottoman Navy.

Şerafettin Turan in the TDV Islam Encyclopedia narrates the whole affair. Born on the island of Lesbos, Hayreddin (then known by his birth name, Hızır) and his elder brother Oruç were a pair of pirates on the Mediterranean Sea known as the Barbarossa Brothers. Their career was forever changed when the city of Granada, Spain fell into Christian hands in 1492. The Iberian Peninsula had been inhabited by various Islamic states, what we collectively call the Al-Andalus, since the eighth century. With the fall of Granada, the last Islamic state fell, and Spain became a Christian land.

In the aftermath, thousands of Muslim and Jewish refugees fled the peninsula. Muslim Spaniards, Moriscos who had stayed in Spain, were banned from speaking their language, force-fed pork, and children younger than 6 were taken from their parents to be taught in monasteries. Instead of undergoing this, something we would nowadays call a “cultural genocide,” many Moriscos fled in the thousands. The plight of the Moriscos caused much sympathy and enraged fellow Muslims. Most of them fled to North Africa, but many also settled in Anatolia. Istanbul is forever painted with the memory of the Moriscos and Sephardic Jews who settled here and brought their culture and languages with them.

Ten years later, when Catholic Spaniards tried to further their borders by attacking North African coastal cities, many Muslims were pushed into action. Among these were Hızır and his brother Oruç, who attacked Spanish merchants as Ottoman privateers. The Barbarossa Brothers grew in power until they had their own fleet, and in 1516 their forces took the city of Algiers. The Ottomans offered to help the brothers hold the city, appointing Oruç as the governor of Algiers. But Oruç died battling the Spanish, and Algiers fell back into Spanish hands. Hızır, now alone, became known as Barbarossa.

Barbarossa eventually took back Algiers with the support of the Ottomans and took the war to the Spanish coasts. Turkish fleets began to transport refugees to the African coast, ultimately carrying an estimated 70,000 Moriscos to safety. What an amazing number.

Eventually Suleiman the Magnificent appointed Barbarossa as the head of the Ottoman Navy. Tülay Artan in her article in the Istanbul Encyclopedia explains that High Admiral Barbarossa Hayreddin Pasha lived in a mansion in Beşiktaş and spent his own money to build up the town, building a mosque, a madrassa and a primary school. Barbarossa had a tomb built for himself by the famous Ottoman architect Sinan, known as the most influential architect of the Ottoman period.

The fact that this famous sailor lived in Beşiktaş and the importance he attached to the neighborhood led to the formation of a tradition. Later, the homes of the Ottoman Empire’s high admirals were always located in this district. It became a tradition that admirals would spend their funds building up the neighborhood by building mosques, schools and hammams. The tomb of Barbarossa Hayreddin Pasha became very important to the Ottoman Navy, which would drop anchor in Beşiktaş and visit it with great pomp and circumstance every year.

Today, the tomb sits next to Barbaros Square, which has a large statue of the legendary man in its center. The area is now known for its skateboarders, who unknowingly have made their hangout spot next to the final resting place of a legend.

The Fish Market

It’s evening now, and I head back to the çarşı to meet up with some loved ones for some dinner. For me, dinner in Beşiktaş means fish – maybe because of the neighborhood’s inescapable link with the sea and the navy.

The Fish Market sits in the middle of the çarşı, smelling of the sea. Seagulls beg for scraps amid the dozens of taverns, or meyhane, that surround the market. These taverns are adored by people who love to eat, drink and have fun in a crowd. Ahtapot Restaurant is perhaps the most famous and well-loved eatery in this area, but my wallet prefers the excellent Beşiktaş Olta Balık.

Unfortunately, tonight is not match night, my favorite time to be in Beşiktaş’s taverns. Unless you have been living under a rock, you should know that Beşiktaş is home to the Beşiktaş football team, one of the top three football teams in Turkey. This is why the neighborhood is dotted with numerous eagle statues, the mascot of the team.

Beşiktaş is famous for its rivalry with the other two top teams, Galatasaray and Fenerbahçe, but infamous for its hooligans. Beşiktaş hooligans are known to be some of the most passionate and, well, rowdy. That said, I love the energy in Beşiktaş during match nights, and if you’ve never experienced it, I heartily advise you to do so. It’s chaotic and loud and very, very fun. Just don’t wear the shirt of the opposing team!

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