From hick to uber hip: Istanbul is the coolest place to be

In the last decade, a once squalid Istanbul quarter has become the place to be.

I'm sitting at an outside table at a cafe called Unter, halfway through an organic omelette with a side of smoked salmon, when a hipster - no helmet, skinny jeans - pulls into the laneway and parks his black Vespa opposite me. A girl comes over and they kiss, one side then the other.

Berlin? Paris' Left Bank? It's Karakoy, once a rough, tough waterfront district of Istanbul, just across the Golden Horn from the former capital of the Byzantine and Ottoman empires.

One of the oldest parts of the city, Karakoy was developed by Genoese merchants in the 13th century. Later it provided a refuge for Sephardic Jews fleeing from the Spanish Inquisition, but during the 20th century, it became a progressively rundown, squalid quarter of the city, home to Istanbul's red light district.

The rags-to-recherche transformation began when Istanbul Modern, the city's contemporary art gallery, opened on the edge of Karakoy in 2004.

As they trekked through the district, past electrical warehouses and open-fronted workshops with leather-aproned men bent over industrial lathes, the arts crowd could not help but notice that the spaces were big, that beneath the grime were some exquisite 19th-century bank buildings and rents were cheap.

More galleries opened, cafes arrived to service their clientele and smart restaurants and boutique hotels followed. Many of the young Turks driving the process were educated in London and New York, and they bring a punchy, street-smart sense to Karakoy's food, design and sensibility.

Karakoy's journey to hipsterville is far from complete. For the moment, the tap of renovators' hammers is its theme song.

Workmen in paint-splattered overalls walk past chic cafes where men with pony tails and facial hair straight out of GQ are pecking at iPhones. Saunter through on a Friday and you might find your passage blocked by the Muslim faithful answering the muezzin's call, kneeling in the street, heads bowed to the ground.

Close to the Galata Bridge and within walking distance of the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, the Topkapi Palace and the Beyoglu district, Karakoy is a prime base for the edge traveller looking for an updated, up-tempo take on this sepulchre of a city.

SLEEP

A plush creation from the style-conscious House Hotel Group, Vault Karakoy makes the most of the opulent character of this former bank building. Rooms are a soothing, modernist version of the classical Edwardian look, with state-of-the-art plumbing, iPod docks and brilliant lighting.

Superior king rooms 151 to 153, at the very top of the five-storey hotel, have water views. There's also a smart restaurant and bar and a spa with a Turkish hammam.

See thehousehotel.com.

SuB Karakoy brings an industrial designer's eye to the hotel room. Polished concrete walls, beds wrapped in curvy steel frames and stone-tiled bathrooms create a brittle aesthetic, but the bath towels are supremely soft and the beds are dreamy.

At its core is a soft-serve heart with friendly and efficient staff.

See subkarakoy.com.

EAT

Lokanta Maya is Karakoy's savvy, unpretentious take on the modern urban bistro. Trained in New York, chef and restaurateur Didem Senol has orchestrated a relaxed dining experience based on seasonal, local, mainly organic ingredients.

The result is intriguing, and not just on the plate. One wall is made of walnuts behind chicken-wire mesh. The daily-changing menu pays lip service to some of the classics of the Turkish kitchen. Book well ahead. It's popular.

See lokantamaya.com.

Karabatak Cafe brings a touch of Viennese whimsy to the heart of Karakoy, and the vine-draped lane at the front is the place to be seen with your iPad. The coffee is among the best in town, and there's even a sinful sachertorte on the menu. The reading room on the floor above is bookishly quiet and Wi-Fi is free.

See karabatakkarakoy.com.

ART

Originally a customs warehouse, Istanbul Modern is the city's gallery for contemporary art works, a showcase for Turkish art in all mediums. Ballast comes from the gallery's extensive collection of Turkish 20th-century art, complemented by changing international shows.

The restaurant offers some of the best views across the Golden Horn to the old city.

See istanbulmodern.org.

Launched in 2009, Istanbul '74 has become a dynamic platform for a wide range of events, from fashion shows to jewellery exhibitions to book readings, but its strength is the art events that have helped put the city on the avant-garde art map, with shows by Tracey Emin, South African Robin Rhode and Sandro Kopp, boyfriend of Tilda Swinton.

See istanbul74.com.

Elipsis, Istanbul's only dedicated gallery of photography, shows works by internationally recognised and emerging local photographers. The gallery is the work of London-born and raised Sinem Yoruk, who dates her passion for the medium from time spent in her family's professional photo laboratory.

See elipsisgallery.com.

SHOP

Elegant Fransiz Gecidi Is Merkezi, also known as the French Passage, is home to fashion@EYE, which stocks a judiciously curated collection of vintage eyewear for the fashion-conscious urbanite.

See fashionateye.blogspot.com.

Right next door to Lab Istanbul, Kagithane (House of Paper) is a funky concept store that takes its cues from the city's flowery Ottoman architecture and its ubiquitous cats, ideal if you're looking for a clever souvenir.

See kagithane.com.tr.

RELAX

At Karakoy's extreme north-east boundary, Kilic Ali Pasa Hamami is a classical Turkish bath, designed in the 1580s by Mimar Sinan, architect to Suleiman the Magnificent. Built to serve the marines of the Ottoman navy, the bathhouse reopened only recently after seven years of restoration.

In the company of a therapist, clients are led through the rituals, from the marble water basin to the hexagonal slab of heated marble, the exfoliating scrub and the bubbly soap wash.

From 8am to 4pm, it's women only. From 4.30pm to 11.30pm, men come on deck.

See kilicalipasahamami.com.

The writer was a guest of Emirates.

TRIP NOTES

GETTING THERE

Emirates operates daily flights from Sydney and Melbourne with connections on to Istanbul from its Dubai hub. See emirates.com.

TOURING THERE

Ali Yalniz is a private tour guide with an excellent reputation for the small-group tours that he organises in Istanbul. Theme tours that revolve around history, culture and food are a specialty. See tourali.com.

MORE INFORMATION

goturkey.com.

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