Editor’s note: In the latest installment of our recurring feature, First Stop, we asked Charles King where he stops first for food when he heads to Istanbul. King is professor of international affairs and government at Georgetown University and the author of Midnight at the Pera Palace: The Birth of Modern Istanbul and other books.
Istanbul is famously a city for strolling, but the steep hillsides of the Bosphorus and the twisting streets of the old city south of the Golden Horn can leave you either breathless or plain lost. Kuzguncuk, on the Asian side of the city, has the advantage of allowing you to explore a magnificent neighborhood via a short walk along a plane tree-shaded main street, with only minimal roaring cars and plenty of lazy street dogs to accompany you.
The ferry from the European side lets you off at Üsküdar, where a fleet of vans and buses make the three-minute journey by coast road to Kuzguncuk. (The neighborhood has its own ferry terminal, but it was out of commission the last time I was there.) Kuzguncuk is one of the few places in the city where you can get some sense of what a mahalle might have felt like in the days before rapid development, high-rises and expanding shopping malls. Most of the buildings are only a few stories tall, and the main street of the old village is lined with stately plane trees.
You could start at the bottom of the street, near the water, and have a tea at the Çınaraltı Çay Bahçesi, but that’s best left to the end of the walk, where you can steel yourself before heading back to the faster-paced life in the rest of the city. İsmet Baba fish restaurant – one of the main reasons tourists might end up in Kuzguncuk – shares the small courtyard with the tea garden, but I’ve never found the experience there particularly thrilling, at least, no more so than at similar restaurants in Arnavutköy, Kumkapı or elsewhere.
If you cross the coast road from Çınaraltı, you’ll step onto the perpendicular İcadiye Caddesi, which is the heart of the neighborhood. Small stools dot the sidewalks, and you can pick any cluster and enjoy tea or coffee beneath the trees, maybe stepping over a sleeping neighborhood dog to move from one to the other. Kuzguncuk was traditionally a religiously mixed neighborhood, with Greek Orthodox churches, a synagogue and a large Armenian church (which later had a newly constructed mosque plopped down in its courtyard). But all of these religious sites are so closely packed into a small space that you can imagine Istanbul’s historic minorities literally living shoulder-to-shoulder here on the edge of the water. It takes about 10 seconds, for example, to get from the mosque to a Greek Orthodox church; add another minute, and you can reach an Orthodox holy spring, or agiasma; add another 15 minutes and a steep climb up to the top of the hill and you’ll be in a very old and very large Judeo-Spanish cemetery, with broken headstones inscribed in Ladino. The headstones tell an important story about the neighborhood: the gradual transition from a multilingual and multiconfessional district into a Turkish-speaking, republican one.
From the coast road, if you continue up along İcadiye Caddesi, you can hop from one meal to the next. Betty Blue has an off-putting name – who would name a café and restaurant after a 1980s cult film with lots of sex and a mentally unstable protagonist? – but the food is outstanding: real home cooking served buffet-style at the counter, much on the order of Helvetia near Tünel Square in Pera. Around the corner, between İcadiye Caddesi and Üryanizade Sokak, is Kuzguncuk Balıkçısı, an unpretentious place with a few tables inside and more right on the street. I try to keep one eye on the cars backing down the alley – too close to the tables for comfort – while digging into a fish stew or other items listed for that day on the chalkboard outside (always more interesting than the meze-plus-grilled fish that you’ll get at the standard Istanbul fish restaurant).
If you’re there on the weekend, you may have to avoid the crush of newlyweds coming to Kuzguncuk to have wedding pictures made. The beautiful array of Ottoman-era houses on the side streets – as well as the nostalgia for Perihan Abla, a 1980s TV show whose exteriors were filmed there – have made Üryanizade Sokak a favorite destination. But if you turn back onto İcadiye, you can find a whole array of other food and drink options. For kebabs I enjoy the superb service and succulent döner at Metet. Right across the street, you’ll want to sample the latest produce, cheeses and breads shipped in from the countryside at Kastamonu Köy Pazarı. With a plastic bag full of cherries or a hefty block of beyaz peynir, I follow a neighborhood dog on his evening rounds, back down İcadiye, past a bakery doling out hot ramazan pidesi in season, down to Çınaraltı and a quick glass of tea before catching the careening city bus back to Üsküdar.
(top photo by Ansel Mullins, above photo by Miriam Lomaskin)