Even for a city that straddles two continents, Istanbul is packed. Depending on who’s counting, Turkey’s cultural capital is home to 14 to 20 million, a staggering number. To accommodate the booming population, the city’s environs have been transformed and deforested — and the pastoral life that once characterized Istanbul’s outskirts has been enveloped by heavy residential and commercial development. Still, a journey up the wide, meandering Bosphorus strait preserves glimpses of a simpler, more sparsely populated time, at least for now.
The Bosphorus is a 17-mile long channel that flows from the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara. As recently as the 1960s, the suburban villages along the Bosphorus were ethnic enclaves and summer resorts, each with a distinct character. Now, most have been absorbed into the growing city and thrive as posh and panoramic residential districts with Bosphorus-side cafes, tea houses and restaurants.
Located about eight miles from Hagia Sofia and Istanbul’s archaeological center, Rumeli Hisarı is the gateway to the upper Bosphorus’s European shore. Named for the 15th-century Ottoman fortress that sits beside a string of cafes, the neighborhood is overlooked by the Second Bosphorus Bridge, beneath which oil tankers, naval cruisers and container ships glide with surprising silence.
The neighborhood’s dock is home to Rumeli Hisarı İskele, one of the most spectacularly sited restaurants in the city. Supported by wooden pilings, the dining room of this elegant fish restaurant juts out over the water and provides a front row seat to the Bosphorus theater. Eddies swirl incessantly across the surface of the fast moving waters while muffled traffic traverses the bridge connecting the city’s European and Anatolian shores.
Inside, waiters buzz around the dining room delivering plates and pouring rakı into tall, narrow glasses. The anise-flavored grape distillate is traditionally paired with mezes and fish and, in spite of the conservative government’s opposition to alcohol, rakı continues to play an important role in dining venues like this one, which tend to be frequented by well-heeled secularists.
İskele serves an assortment of fish and vegetable mezes, like mussels filled with spiced rice, cured bonito with raw red onion, fried calamari with tarator (a walnut-and-garlic sauce) and beans simmered in olive oil. Fish from the nearby seas is grilled or fried, and bluefish from the neighboring Bosphorus is served seasonally.
Continuing north, beneath the bridge and past the residential Baltalimanı neighborhood, the Bosphorus channel widens and a broad concrete path trims the water’s edge. Here in the Emirgan neighborhood, one of the grandest Bosphorus mansions has been transformed into a museum and restaurant.
The late tycoon Sakıp Sabancı’s estate hosts a permanent collection of Ottoman art and rotating temporary exhibitions. The museum’s restaurant, Muzede Changa, immersed in the property’s verdant grounds, offers incredible views across the Bosphous to the forests on the Anatolian side. The restaurant serves contemporary Turkish cuisine, often merging traditional flavors and ingredients in dishes like spicy beef sausage with pistachios and hummus and grilled octopus with olives and caper berries. The outdoor terrace, open in the summer, hosts a cocktail bar and offers al fresco dining. A lavish Turkish breakfast spread featuring artisanal cheeses, assorted honeys, clotted buffalo’s cream and bread from small villages is served on the weekends.
Nearby is the original location of Sütiş, an Istanbul institution that opened in 1953 and specializes in desserts. The large outdoor café serves full meals, too, but skip the savory stuff and go straight for their dairy-based sweets made from water buffalo’s, cow’s and goat’s milk. Their milk puddings, like tavuk göğsü (made with chicken breast), are classics and draw on centuries-old recipes.
Continuing up the Bosphorus, boats bob in the natural harbor of İstinye, while in neighboring Yeniköy, most of the waterfront property is occupied by private residences, obscuring the view. The Bosphorus reappears on the road to Tarabya, a former resort town with a small harbor. Today, Tarabya is the year-round residence of Istanbul’s patrician class. Its major draw is Kıyı, a restaurant that opened in 1964 and retains the decor and atmosphere of its inaugural decade. Sepia-toned photographs on the wall depict early 20th-century Tarabya as a quaint fishing village with dirt paths where the modern asphalt road now passes.
Kıyı’s dishes have remained largely unchanged since its opening. Mussels are fried golden and served with tarator. Depending on the season, anchovies or smelts are floured and fried and served with nothing more than a lemon wedge. Butter-fried liver departs from the fish theme but is among the best in this carnivorous town. Far from the chaos of this grand metropolis, isolated by its coastal locale, and defined by its traditional food, Kıyı encapsulates the simplicity of the upper Bosphorus’s previous life.
Where to stay: Look for apartment rentals or Airbnb properties in Rumeli Hisarı, Baltalimanı, Emirgan, İstinye, Yeniköy and Tarabya. Although there are few hotels along this portion of the Bosphorus, the Cheya Residences offer apartments in Rumeli Hisarı. The Central Palace Hotel Bosphorus has luxury accommodations on the road between Yeniköy and Tarabya.
How to visit: There are tourist- and commuter-boat departures from various Bosphorus docks. For information and timetables, visit SehirHatlari.com. Taxis are readily available and relatively inexpensive by U.S. standards, and many public bus lines travel along the Bosphorus roads. It is also possible to walk between zones. My app has offline maps.
Find more about Istanbul on Food Republic:
- 8 Places To Eat And Drink In Istanbul, Turkey
- The Spot: Angelique, Istanbul, Turkey
- Meet Turkey’s Top Chef Hande Bozdoğan