Many visitors come to experience Istanbul's past as well as its present. With its millennia of history and its location at the crossroads between east and west, you wouldn't be amiss to expect crumbling grandeur, antique mansions, and a strong sense of centuries past as you wander the city's streets. That expectation might be foiled by the sheer modernity of the city. Despite famous historical sites such as the Hagia Sofia and Topkapi Palace, the Istanbul of today is a thoroughly crowded and chaotic metropolis.
Shopping malls and apartment complexes have sprung up in earnest, and—though not without architectural charms of their own—some of the most noticeable structures in the city's skyline are more futuristic skyscrapers and less ancient buildings.
Old Istanbul remains in certain areas, although you might have to go a little bit off the beaten path to track it down. Historical neighborhoods can still be found in quiet residential pockets of the city, away from the tourists of Sultanahmet and the gridlocked traffic of the city's business center.
If you'd like to spend an afternoon getting a feel for what the city must have been like a century ago, these three neighborhoods are a must-see. Showcasing Istanbul's famous Ottoman mansions, old churches, and winding side roads, they also give a wonderful sense of the diversity that make up Istanbul's past and present.
Meaning "Albanian village," Arnavutkoy is located north of Sultanahmet on a clear stretch of the Bosphorus. Despite being located between trendy Bebek and bustling Ortakoy, the neighbourhood feels worlds away from its busier counterparts. With all the trappings of a sleepy fishing village, Arnavutkoy is also host to an impressive number of fish restaurants, as well as art galleries and coffee shops.
Perhaps the most distinctive feature of Arnavutkoy—and what helps it retain a sense of history—is the pastel-coloured Ottoman mansions lining the strait along the promenade. Called yali, these bright wooden houses used to serve as summer homes for the wealthy, who could afford to take advantage of the beautiful views and cooling breezes blowing in from the water during warmer weather.
Made of wood and painted in an array of pastels, these mansions neatly line the promenade and—together with the other homes built into steep hills rising up from the water—make for a postcard-worthy view. Don't forget to wander around further inland as well; the twisting roads and cobblestoned side streets hide a wealth of wonderful food, beautiful architecture, and local charm.
Located on the Asian side in the Üsküdar district of Istanbul, Kuzguncuk is so picturesque that it's a commonly used set location for television shows and movies. Perfect for evoking the nostalgia of old Istanbul, an afternoon here is a rejuvenating break from traffic, crowds, and shopping malls.
Despite the neighbourhood's popularity—its name will almost certainly come up if you ask a local for a picturesque area to wander through—there are hardly any tourists, although you might bump into a few film sets or photo shoots.
Unlike the impersonal nature of the city's hub, this quiet neighbourhood has the unmistakable feel of a tiny and intimate community. You'll see passersby greeting their local butcher, men playing backgammon over cups of hot tea, and greengrocers chatting with their patrons.
The atmosphere nowadays is a far cry from the tragic events of the 1950s, which saw Kuzguncuk suffer through a wave of violent anti-Greek riots. The neighbourhood has since recovered and—in addition to its old-fashioned houses and quaint back roads—Kuzguncuk is now known for its multicultural history and the diversity of its population, which can be felt in some of the more famous sites located there.
You'll find one of Istanbul's largest Jewish cemeteries in the neighbourhood, as well as a synagogue built in the nineteenth century and a Greek church with a striking bell tower.
A quiet and residential district on the bank of the Golden Horn, this neighbourhood is experiencing a recent revival of sorts among the young and creative. Despite the development, enough history creates a journey back in time.
Lines of laundry stretch out over the rooftops, and the streets are lined with bright houses boasting exquisitely rendered architectural details: colourful tiles, elaborately wrought iron gates, and beautiful large doors.
It is, by far, one of the most colourful neighbourhoods of Istanbul, in both appearance and spirit. The blue, pink, green, and yellow houses are painted in such vivid hues they're easily spotted among the labyrinth-like pathways of Balat, even from a distance.
Of course, it's worth a visit even if you have nothing more on your itinerary than snapping some photos. Balat, however, is known for being an area that's hosted many of Turkey's historical minorities—it has been the home of Jewish, Armenian, and Greek communities in Istanbul—and it would be a shame to miss some of the famous sites that speak to the diversity of the population.
Here, you can find the famous Ahrida Synagogue (open to the public only through prior arrangement with the Chief Rabbinate), the Saint Stephen Church, and the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate.