Cihangir, Istanbul neighbourhood, Turkey: The bohemian heart of Istanbul

Istanbul is heavy with mystery, a dash of melancholy and the abiding beauty of an exquisite painting. No matter how many times you visit, you will never have enough of it.    

It's impossible to see it all at once. This is our second visit, sailing in at dawn with the blood sky flooding the water and the city's minarets rising black. 

The Bosphorus Express brought us in the first time, all the way to Sirkeci​ Station, Istanbul's historic 19th-century Orientalist station, where the Orient Express from Paris once disgorged its passengers. 

Back then, we only made a brief foray to the Golden Horn's northern shore, gorging instead on Sultanahmet, visiting the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, Topkapi, Basilica Cistern, the Ottoman-era Cagaloglu Hamami, Hippodrome, Grand Bazaar, spice markets and Suleymaniye Mosque.

We've returned this time as part of a 17-day APT Ancient Mediterranean cruise. APT has organised an extensive array of excursions – we will do their Dolmabahce Palace and Bosphorus cruise. inspired by Turkey's first Nobel laureate, Orhan Pamuk, we cross the Galata Bridge from Sultanahmet​ and Eminonu​ where our ship, Le Soleal, is moored beneath Topkapi Palace, and head for his hood – Cihangir. 

Suleiman the Magnificent named Cihangir in the 16th century after his son, who died young. This arty, bohemian multicultural neighbourhood tumbles down the hill from Taksim Square towards the Bosphorus. It's a jumble of narrow streets, great cafes, galleries, interesting shops, and colourful, traditional wooden apartments.

The centrepiece of our day will be a visit to a little Cihangir/Cukurcuma​ gem, The Museum of Innocence. Pamuk uses his 2008 novel of lost love, The Museum of Innocence, as a departure point to explore the city of his youth. It's about a well-off Istanbul businessman who, obsessed by a girl, puts together a collection that recalls every contact with her.

It is Pamuk's own youth in tangible form, his continuing fascination with memory and place. This is also explored in his autobiographical Istanbul: Memories and the City, which summons a multi-layered city, riven by contradictions: East and West, secularism and political Islam. Reading Pamuk is a simple way to try to understand a complex city.

We stop on the Galata Bridge to admire the fishermen's catch. The north shore of Istanbul rises sharply ahead of us and we decide walking downhill beats walking up. The Tunel​ funicular (the world's second oldest urban underground railway after London's Underground) carries us the steep 573 metres to Istiklal Caddesi.

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It's worth a stroll along Istiklal, the main thoroughfare of Istanbul's Beyoglu​ area, ducking into the adjoining historic arcades. They're a bit touristy but still appealing – Cicek, Atlas, Avrupa, narrow Hazzopulo, Nevizade – a labyrinth of 19th-century architecture bustling with meyhanes​ or tavernas, and shops selling spices, sweets, souvenirs and antiques.     

The historic food markets, including Balik Pazari, the fish market, offer glistening arrays of fish, fruit and vegetables, charcuterie, caviar and mushrooms, interspersed with stands selling midye tava​ (fried skewered mussels) and kokorec​ (seasoned skewered charcoal-grilled lamb intestines). The most interesting are in Duduodalari Sokak (street).    

We amble on to Taksim Square, side-stepping the old red trams with their skirts of squealing kids hanging on dangerously, before dipping down Siraselviler​ Caddesi into Cihangir.     

It's a wonderful maze of twisty, narrow streets, spliced by steep staircases, with views down to the Bosphorus or up to the Galata Tower. Plunge in and expect cats everywhere, under packed sidewalk coffee tables, in doorways. 

Just wander. Leyla Seyhanli​ in Altıpatlar​ Sokak​ has excellent vintage clothing. At Opus 3A in Cihangir Caddesi you will find an extensive music collection. Mariposa has vintage-inspired homewares and clothing. Hande Bilten​ offers ceramic and porcelain bowls, and silver jewellery. Another Turkish writer, Orhan Kemal, has a museum in Akarsu Caddesi. And Zeckie in Hayriye Sokak​ has exquisite "neo-art deco" jewellery – also found in Istanbul Modern's museum shop at the bottom of the hill.

Food is well represented. In Cihangir, breakfast lasts all day, and walking is known to pique the hunger. Van Kahvalti Evi is a great brekkie spot in Defterdar Yokusu for fried eggs and menemen (scrambled eggs with onions, green peppers and tomato), gozleme, eggplant pancakes, olives, cheeses, yoghurt and honey. Savoy Pastanesi in Siraselviler has thigh-inflating pastries. Journey in Akarsu Sokak​ is welcoming, with Turkish-inspired food including lamb pie cooked in borek (traditional Turkish pastry) with dill and peas, and a mean haloumi sandwich with basil pesto, tomatoes, and spinach.

Susam​ Cafe in Susam Sokak (Sesame Street) offers a terrace for late breakfast/lunch and good coffee, while Kronotrop in Firuzaga Cami Sokak​ roasts single origin beans on-site for a great espresso, flat white or latte.

If you just want to sit down and enjoy the Bosphorus and mosque views, head to Batarya Sokaksteps or Ilyas​  Celebi Sokak steps next to the Cihangir Mosque – grab a coffee first from MoMo in Akarsu.

Finally, we arrive at Pamuk's burgundy-coloured museum in its Ottoman building, opened in 2012. A wall of cigarette butts greets us, each bearing the details of its consumption during the novel's fictional time. 

In 83 chapters/displays, Pamuk documents and presents the chapter artefacts - not just a catalogue of items but a beautifully curated composition of Istanbul life between 1950 and 2000. Those interested in the process of autobiography will be drawn to Pamuk's method of interpreting life through objects.

Entry is free for those with the book – you'll get a butterfly stamp, otherwise it's $12 for adults or $5  for students. Audio guide with Pamuk narration is recommended ($2). ) Closed Mondays. 

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

aptouring.com.au 

howtoistanbul.com

en.masumiyetmuzesi.org

GETTING THERE

Emirates flies daily from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane to Venice, the starting point of the APT cruise, via Dubai, with return flights from Istanbul, where the cruise concludes, via Dubai. See emirates.com.

CRUISING THERE

APT's 15-day Adriatic and Aegean Odyssey Boutique Collection all-inclusive small ship coastal cruise from Venice to Istanbul aboard the MS Island Sky (departures in April, July and August 2016) is priced from $13,295 each (includes APT's early payment discount). Phone 1300 196 420; see aptouring.com.au.

The writer was a guest of APT. 

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