Istanbul was first founded on the Asian side, on what is known today as Kadıköy and Pendik. Though it was the European part of the city that rose to prominence during the Roman and Ottoman times. Together, the two sides of Istanbul are home to some 14 million people today.
It was on my third visit to Istanbul that I finally made it across the Bosphorus to the city’s sprawling other half. After wrapping up my project at The St. Regis Istanbul, we left the old-moneyed Nişantaşı district and its expensive designer boutiques for the charming waterfront village of Kuzguncuk on the Asian side of the metropolis.
When I told locals that I met that I was going to spend a few days in Kuzguncuk, everyone seemed to be surprised at first before remarking that it’s a lovely place to visit. Those who happened to live in this neighbourhood proudly declared that it is one of the best neighborhoods to live in Istanbul (“it’s safe, clean and uncrowded”). Someone said that the city’s intellectuals such as academics, artists and writers started to settle in Kuzguncuk since the 1980s while Cihangir is the preferred area for “another group of intelligentsia, those with fast money such as actors and musicians”.
What is there to do when you’re in Kuzguncuk? We didn’t do much research ahead of our stay, so had relied mostly on recommendations from locals.
Kuzguncuk is a charming village in Uskudar, nestled amidst looming hills as boats cruise by on the Bosphorus along one side. Featuring colourful wooden Ottoman houses from the 19th century, the picturesque neighbourhood is popular for outdoor wedding photo shoots and TV/movie filming. Kuzguncuk was home to a mix of Jews, Armenians, Greeks and Turks for centuries which is why there are churches, synagogues and mosques within steps of one another.
This is a small neighbourhood and you can easily explore the area in a day. But I’d recommend to spend at least two days here and enjoy the leisurely atmosphere, a vast difference from the chaotic streets over in the historic city centre and Beyoglu. With more time, you can also visit other neighbourhoods on the Asian side from Kuzguncuk by taking the local buses or dolmus (shared taxis) or hop onto the ferry at Üsküdar to go over to the European side.
Here are some of my favourite moments in Kuzguncuk:
Early morning breeze by the Bosphorus
There’s a little square by the popular Cinaralti Cafe where you can sit/stand under the shade of leafy plane trees and look out to Bosphorus as the waves splash onto the walls under your feet and seagulls drift overhead.
The Turkish love a good breakfast. If you’re up for a proper Turkish breakfast spread, try Betty Blue or Pita Kuzguncuk, both of which are located along the main street of İcadiya Caddesi.
When I stepped into Betty Blue @ 21/A İcadiye Caddesi, it felt like I was in the dining room of someone’s home. Run by two sisters, Betty Blue has, well, blue interiors with an open kitchen and eclectic furnishings all over. There’s a wall in the main area that features a quirky and humorous illustration of Istanbul, its inhabitants (cats, seagulls and snails included) and city landmarks. There’s a little garden at the back if you prefer to sit outside.
About the food – we shared a small breakfast plate between the two of us. It was excellent and made with much care by one of the sisters.
Pita Kuzguncuk @ 41/A İcadiye Caddesi serves toasted bread topped with cheese and/or meat. We shared a pita with kavurma salted beef with cheese as well as a breakfast plate of homemade marmalade, cheeses, olives, cucumber, tomato, honey in butter plus bread that was to be dipped in olive oil and spice mix. The products are sourced from all over Turkey – e.g. cheese from Kars and Edirne, chestnut honey from Datca. You can also buy some to bring home.
By the way, we had read about a certain Zahir cafe @ 89 İcadiye Caddesi which has good reviews online and is housed in an Ottoman House with terraces on the third floor looking out to the street or the garden in the back. After looking up photos of the exterior of the building, we managed to find the building and the cafe, albeit under a new name “Hayat Kahvesi”. It seems like the cafe has changed ownership. The breakfast was prepared with mediocre ingredients and disappointing. The breakfast crepe served with french fries reminded us of a fast-food kebab joint!
Walk it off
We were looking for a cafe to get some coffee. Google Maps incorrectly placed it on the opposite end of Bican Efendi Sokak, far uphill from the main street of İcadiye Caddesi. This turned out to be a fortunate error – the view from above was amazing as we could see across the Bosphorus.
AB wanted to go to Fethipasa Korusu park on the top of the hill. It looked like a popular place for locals, especially families with young children and dating couples, to hang out and have a picnic on the grass.
There is a replica of the (first) Bosphorus Bridge, complete with fairy lights but beware of the exposed wires when crossing it! If you’re tired, you can sit at the terrace of Dilruba restaurant and cafe and enjoy the expansive city and water views.
Lunch with a view
Ismet Baba @ 1A Çarşı Caddesi has been around since 1951. The food was tasty but the main reason to dine here is the view. As the restaurant is situated on the edge of the Bosphorus, go early or call ahead to reserve a window seat. The views are lovely in the day – and especially dramatic if there’s a storm outside and you can see all the seagulls battling the heavy winds!
We enjoyed the sari kanat (medium-sized blue fish), tekir (striped mullet) and shrimp cooked in butter, together with some rakı!
The Turkish drink tea all day long. There is a hole-in-the-wall tea shop along İcadiye Caddesi, somewhere in between Betty Blue and Pita Kuzguncuk. It looked like a good place to stop for a cup of tea while seated on tiny low stools on the sidewalk.
The laid-back Çınaraltı Cafe @ 90 Çarşı Caddesi is a cosy spot to enjoy some Turkish tea while watching the world pass by. I was told that this is popular amongst the literary and intellectual crowd of Kuzguncuk.
This historic coffee shop is also a good alternative for breakfast – I especially like the freshly squeezed tangy pomegranate juice. Wish I could drink it all the time!
We bought some delicious pomegranates at Kastamonu Köy Pazarı @ 34 İcadiye Caddesi, a grocery shop selling produce from the countryside across Turkey. There’s cheese, nuts, fresh fruit and vegetables, honey and jams, grains, etc.
Most of the key sights in Kuzguncuk – such as the Greek Orthodox Church of St. Panteleimon, Surp Krior Lusarovich Armenian Orthodox Church, Jewish Cemetery and Üryanizade Mescit – are clustered together near the waterfront. You can read more about them in this National Geographic article.
We’ve heard many good things about Kuzguncuk Balıkçısı @ 3 Perihan Abla Sokağı which supposedly offers excellent seafood and meze. We didn’t get to eat at this family-run restaurant during our brief stay in Kuzguncuk, but hope to do so the next time we’re back in Istanbul.
We rented an apartment via Airbnb. It had a terrace with a view of the Bosphorus. It was chilly when we were there, otherwise we would have sat outside. From the terrace, as the light of day slipped away, we could see lights on ships moving up and down the dark river while the last prayer of the day echoed through Kuzguncuk.