Which is the busiest shopping street in Europe? Most people would probably guess the Champs-Élysées in Paris or London’s Oxford Street. However, the correct answer lies further east. Istanbul’s premier promenade, İstiklal Caddesi, three kilometres long, allows 24-hour, non-stop shopping, socialising and people watching. At the weekend, an incredible three million people walk along it in a single day. İstiklal Caddesi is home to global favourites such as Topshop, Mango, and Nike. It also hosts hundreds of stores unique to Istanbul, selling everything from perfume to flowers, books and music, alongside cafés, restaurants, art galleries, theatres, libraries and clubs.
Istanbul, as the gateway between East and West, has an enthralling history and İstiklal Caddesi’s story is equally fascinating. İstiklal Caddesi means Independence Avenue in English, and Istanbul’s most famous street was named following the founding of modern Turkey in 1923. It was previously known as Grand Rue de Pera and was the chicest street in the city, popular with incomers from Western Europe. At the end of the 18th century English, Dutch, Greek, Spanish, French, Russian and Prussian diplomats built their grand houses in the area, and many still stand today.
When Turkey regained its former position as a hub of trade, businessmen, merchants, and bankers located themselves in the area between Taksim Square at one end of İstiklal Caddesi and Galatasaray Square, halfway along, and this area is still stylish today. When the trams arrived in the early 20th century, this section of the street became still more popular as it was seen as the height of modernity. Then – as today – people used to wear their best clothes to stroll the avenue, in a ritual similar to the Italian Passeggiata.
Since then the street has gone in and out of fashion and some people today believe it is too dominated by global brands. However, İstiklal Caddesi and the countless alleys and small streets running off it remain the beating heart of modern Istanbul, reflecting and importing the latest trends as the area has always done.
Visitors to İstiklal Caddesi can take the Tünel, the world’s second-oldest subway, or seek a bite to eat in one of the tavern-style meyhane restaurants on Çiçek Pasajı (Flower Passage), formerly a flower market. The Galata Tower, one of Istanbul’s must-see destinations, is also just a short stroll from Tünel. However, the main focus for local people and visitors alike is shopping.
On the main street, look out for İpek, which offers a wonderful array of scarves, shirts, and ties; Mavi’s wide selection of denim; Erkul, for the latest beauty products and Emgen Optik for cool shades. Nibble on lokum (Turkish delight) from Hacı Bekir, the traditional confectioner said to have invented this classic sweetmeat, or pause at İnci, the patisserie famous for serving the best profiteroles in Istanbul. If you’re feeling a little more cerebral, Robinson Crusoe has a great selection of music, art and style magazines, as well as books in various languages.
There are countless other great stores along İstiklal Caddesi, but it’s worth wandering off into the side streets too. At the Tünel end of the thoroughfare, overlooking the Golden Horn, independent stores in the little passages which branch off the main street sell vintage fashion. Also look at the map to discover the small districts of Galata, home to shops which sell the wares of young Turkish fashion designers, and Çukurcuma, home to numerous antique and vintage stores.
Even if you think you’ve finished shopping, don’t forget to return later. Many of the stores on İstiklal Caddesi are open until 10pm and, as evening falls, the street takes on its after-dark role as the artery connecting much of modern Istanbul’s nightlife and, seemingly, half its population. Keep your eyes open and follow the music; you’re sure to find a bar or club that keeps buzzing long into the night.