Bond got out of bed, drew back the heavy plush curtains and leant on the iron balustrade and looked out on one of the most famous views in the world - on his right the still waters of the Golden Horn, on his left the dancing waters of the unsheltered Bosphorus, and, in between, the tumbling roofs, soaring minarets and crouching mosques of Sultanhammet. After all, his choice had been good. The view made up for the minor discomfort and prickly feeling that he was being invisibly maneuvered at Hotel Kristal Palas...
From Russia With Love, Ian Fleming, 1956
Hotel Kristal Palas was based, in reality, on the most famous hotel in Istanbul - the Pera Palas. The Palas stands on the summit of a hill in the fashionable quarter of Pera/Galata with expansive views all around. For decades, the most exclusive and expensive hotel in the city, this was where those who rolled off the Orient Express stayed. The district of Pera was, for centuries, the abode of foreign merchants and embassies and still has a European and cosmopolitan feel. Its main attraction for visitors and Istanbullus alike is the great pedestrianised shopping boulevard of Istikal Caddesi. Your most memorable experience of Istanbul may be immersing yourself in the great tidal waves of people as they traverse this boulevard. To get a feel of workaday Turkey in the 21st century, Istikal Caddesi is a must.
It's also an excellent place to stay. There is a better and cheaper selection of restaurants and hotels then in the tourist scene of Sultanhammet. Granted, you will have to commute to the main sights every morning by crossing the Golden Horn, but I stayed here and enjoyed every minute of it. There is something authentic and Turkish about this hilly district. Old men sell chestnuts from braziers, people sip coffee in cafes, cats stalk in shadows, and Turkish music can be heard from windows. The surrounding streets are very atmospheric, and are redolent of 'Old Stamboul' - shadowy alleyways, steep and cobbly streets, hidden workshops, and the call of the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer.
The hill of Pera is divided in two. Pera is the hill summit, Istikal Caddesi travels the length of the backbone with the district of Pera being west of the boulevard. Galata is the district running down from Istikal Caddesi to the Golden Horn. Both are ancient. Foreigners took up resident in early Byzantine times and were dominated by the Genoese and Venetians. They built the Pera city walls across the water from the main city walls of Constantinople. It was always the haunt of foreigners, and residents had their own name - 'Levantines'. During the 19th Century it became more stylish and European then the rest of Constantinople.. The number of wealthy tourists and ostentatious foreign embassies attest to this. Istikal Caddesi was called 'Grande Rue de la Pera' and woe betide you if you didnt promenade in your best clothes.
If you are staying in Sultanhammet, an afternoon shopping on Istikal Caddesi or a trip in the evening will not cost you more then 15 lira in a taxi. A more Istanbullu way to do it is via the Tunel. The Tunel is an underground train dating back to Victorian times where 90c will get you a ride in a carriage which glides at an angle through a tunnel to the summit of Galata Hill. The Tunel station themselves, at both ends, are works of Turkish art with blue iznik tiles covering the walls. To reach the Tunel from the Galata Bridge near the Karakoy tram stop is an underpass entrance, follow the signs past all the electronic shops to the northwest exit and emerge on Yuzbasi Sabattin. The entrance to the lower Tunel is a few yards away. Alternatively you can walk up or down the sheer Galata hill. This is an interesting walk especially if you combine it with the 14th century Galata Tower. The residents of the narrow steep cobbled streets leading down to the Bosphrous seem to cover them in electronic or musical instrument shops. And there are more cats then people.
The Tunel will predictably deposit you in Tunel Square, the southernmost end of Istikal Caddesi. From here, it sweeps northwards for a mile. The Tunel end seems to be a little more stylish - embassy gates abound, as do boutiques and hotels. The 'bufe' restaurants start about here as well, where you can pick up a tasty meat stew and vegetable dinner for about 16 Lira. I was in Istanbul during Ramadan and one of the most memorable sights was the queues of people outside the restaurants as 4/5 o'clock approached.
North of here are some interesting Victorian streets that lead into Pera. The narrow alleys emerge onto a concrete escarpment which overlooks the Golden Horn and western Istanbul. The Pera Palas holds pride of place here and is an Edwardian monstrosity where Graham Greene, Ian Fleming, and Agatha Christie all stayed. Like alot of Istanbul, it has a shabby glamour. Pera has recently been rediscovered and made 'hip' going by the number of boutique hotels nearby. I took a look at the Pera Museum on Mesruyit Caddesi. To be frank, a lot of the top floors are pretty missable, but the black marble galleries on floors two and three had some fantastic portraiture of the Ottoman sultans.
Back on Istikal Caddesi and heading north, you get a feel of the crowds of Istanbul. At all hours of the day, there are people strolling up and down, and on Saturday nights it can seem as if it is an army. Most of the shops are clothes, book, confectionaries with 'turkish delight', department stores, or cinemas and there must be about a thousand stretching up to Taksim Square. Galatsaray Square is the mid-point and a word of caution - although there are plenty of cashpoints down Istikal Caddesi. There are very few bureau de change who will change up travelers cheques. Your best bet is in Sultanhammet. Balik Pazan is a street on the northern side which is worth looking out for. It's pedestrianised, and for good reason, because it and the surrounding streets are smothered in seafood restaurants. The delicious smell of grilled fish permeates this area.
Finally, after a mile, you finish at Taksim Square. A vast concrete square which really is a bus terminus. It seems to be where most Istanbullus start their march down Istikal Caddesi and on one side are a set of cheap 'kebap' shops to cater for the hordes. Also, particularly if you traverse the boulevard in the evening, the Turks will talk to you if they spot you as a foreigner. Many are up from the country on business and are eager to tell you about Konya or Antalya.
Leave your Western European sensibilities at home, you are in the open East here. Istanbul has to be one of the most friendly big cities in the world.