Ask anyone who has been to Istanbul just once. They'll have seen the Sultanahmet Mosque, Haghia Sophia, and the Bosphorus, but not Nisantasi. Not because it's far off the beaten track, but because it is known and loved primarily by the local fashionistas and gourmands. Only the best-informed travelers searching for that elusive combination of luxury and authenticity will find their way to this chic neighborhood of aristocrats.
Nisantasi is an alluring district with a lively downtown feeling, with many exclusive shops and department stores. Its history dates back to the 18th century. In fact, in the 1780s, going to Nisantasi meant staring at vast orchards where melons were grown, taking a stroll in strawberry fields and drinking tea at shabby little cafés on the plains.
This was also a shooting range where the Ottoman sultan's imperial army practiced. The obelisks erected at the crossroads where Tesvikiye meets Osmanbey, and Valikonagi meets Harbiye were, and still are, monuments to the origin of the neighborhood and of its name from (“Nisan tasi” means target stone).
The period that brought the neighborhood its reputation began when palace staff and members of royalty from the old Topkapi Palace moved to the modern Dolmabahce Palace on the Bosphorus. Sultan Abdulmecid moved the palace’s social agenda to Nisantasi in 1857 and issued a building permit for the district in 1867. Because it was close to Pera, then the center of commerce, Nisantasi soon began thriving, and became one of the most popular residential districts with its vast apartment buildings during the early years of the Republic. In his latest book ‘Museum of Innocence,’ Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel prize-winning novelist, talks about Nisantasi as the favorite district for the upper echelons of Turkish society.
All the beautiful buildings along Macka, Valikonagi and Abdi Ipekci Streets have their own individual stories, and together they go to make up the history of this elegant area. For instance, Macka Palas, the historic building which houses the Emporio Armani and Gucci stores, as well as the Park Hyatt Hotel, was built in 1922 by the famous architect Giulio Mongeri for Munire Hanim, the granddaughter of Sultan Abdulmecid. From then on, the Palas hosted many artists, intellectuals and aristocrats, as well as leading Turkish writers such as Kerime Nadir and Roni Margulies.
With its impeccable reputation as the district preferred by palace residents and later the Republic’s intellectuals and influential elite, Nisantasi is still one of the most important areas of Istanbul. Today, it is famous for its world-class brand boutiques, luxurious spas and gyms, and some of the best restaurants and bars in the city.
The Sofa Hotel on Tesvikiye Street is in a stylish building, full of contemporary art. Among the boutiques and stores present in the district are luxury brands such as Prada, Louis Vuitton, Armani, Gucci, Escada, Max Mara, Laura Ashley, Hermès, Alexander McQueen, Roberto Cavalli, Ermenegildo Zegna, Brioni, Valentino, Burberry, Tod’s, IWC and Cartier. Local shopping mecca Beymen (which carries Dior, Miu Miu, Michael Kors, and many more names) has a fantastic multi-storey building in which they present their latest collections, along with other brands ranging from Marc Jacobs to Viktor&Rolf, Balenciaga and Chloé.
During the morning, Nisantasi's avenues and side streets are popular for their many charming cafes and restaurants that play host to attractive ladies and smart gentlemen who stop to sip a coffee during a break from shopping. Around noon, the area gets even livelier as the people who work in the many fashion, public relations and advertising agencies located here come out to lunch. To the people of Istanbul, Nisantasi means streets fragrant with the perfume of fashionably alluring ladies, celebrities who frequent the hippest cafes and restaurants, along with the paparazzo’s that follow them, and beautiful sports cars.
Cartier’s PR & Media Manager, Yasemin Karani, lives on the same street as the brand’s elegant headquarters with its charming dark red awnings. “Nisantasi is one of the few places that reflect the European urban culture inherent in old Istanbul,” she says. “At the same time, it has that neighborhood-type feeling where you know the people you shop from, like the butcher, the grocer, the pharmacist, as opposed to the artificial environment created in shopping malls.” Karani enjoys being able to buy the same pastries from the famous Konak Patisserie from where her grandmother used to shop 50 years ago.
Hazal Acar of Roberto Cavalli, Valentino and Alexander McQueen concurs. Acar loves the ‘small village’ feeling that is so appreciated by the residents of Nisantasi. She says she knows all her customers by name, even the international clients who visit Nisantasi specially to shop in Acar’s stores. “I have a customer in Zurich who comes to Istanbul for a day, arriving in Nisantasi in the morning to shop at our brands, and leaving in the evening.” The stores obtain such a prestigious reputation because they treat their customers as if they were house guests, ordering snacks and drinks for them from the nearby cafes, giving them recommendations about the city, and even making daily plans for their clients, who trust them more than their hotel concierge. Who could stay away from such good service?
During the Christmas season, the district becomes a center of joyful festivity. All the main streets are lit up. Boutiques adorned with creative decorations serve mulled wine and delicious shots to customers and passersby. On New Year’s Eve there is a huge street party with concerts and light shows, encouraging all those taking part in private parties in the buildings to join in on the street.
See also: Istinye Park, a mall in Istanbul featuring the finest fashion brands