Literary City Guide | ISTANBUL, TURKEY

What gives a city its special character is not just its topography or its buildings but rather the sum total of every chance encounter, every memory, letter, color, and image jostling in its inhabitants’ crowded memories.
— Orhan Pamuk, Istanbul: Memories and the City

Tour Guide: JENNA SHAW

Jenna Shaw, a Minnesota native, spent several years working in children’s publishing in New York before decamping to a village on the western Turkish coast to study Aegean agriculture. She has been based in Turkey for the past four years, currently as a graduate student in cultural heritage and museum studies in Istanbul, with a focus on culinary and agricultural history, particularly fish and fishing.  She manages the blogs Via Fish, about the oral history and heritage of fishing, and the newly-opened Reading Cities, which aims to start conversations about reading in translation and reading as it relates to place. She is always open to book recommendations. (Photos by Jenna Shaw)


Relationship to Istanbul: I came to Turkey four years ago on a Fulbright grant, and have been here ever since; currently as a graduate student in cultural heritage and history.

Writer[s] you'd like to invite to dinner: Anne Carson & Roddy Doyle

Chef you'd like to prepare the meal: Musa Dağdeviren

Writing soundtrack: I love music, but for writing...background noise only.

Pen or Pencil: Pen!  I’m such a fan of the cheap student “Pensan Ofispen” brand ballpoints that a friend once gave me a wrapped “bouquet” of them as a New Year’s present. Practically speaking, though, I’m tap-tap-tapping away on my laptop.

Coffee or Tea: Both, milk no sugar.

Paperback or Hardback: Paper, ideally.  Since living in Turkey, where contemporary English-language books can be difficult to track down and expensive, I really rely on my Kindle for sourcing new releases, but I love a good paperback.

Good Reads


Robinson Crusoe. Robinson Crusoe, packed to the rafters with Turkish and English books, was a fixture on Istanbul’s main pedestrian street for decades, and one of my favorite places to browse and get book recommendations.  In 2014, after years of skyrocketing rent, the store was forced to shutter its classic İstiklal location, and relocated to the fourth floor of the SALT Beyoğlu cultural center and art gallery, with volunteers and staff working together to pass boxes of books across the street.  The new location is less charming, but more spacious, with seating and room to explore the shelves without bumping into fellow browsers (for better or worse). 

Minoa. Opened last year in Beşiktaş’s Akaretler/Vişnezade neighborhood, Minoa is an upscale coffeeshop and bookstore with a wide selection of Turkish and English books. It’s particularly strong in contemporary fiction, cookbooks and coffeetable books. Be sure to check out the atmospherically-lit cellar, where the graphic novels and comics are housed.

Arkeo Pera. ArkeoPera in Tophane/Cihangir specializes in archaeology and history books, and is a nice place to wander while also checking out the interesting assortment of crafts, ceramics and jewelry.  Take your books across the street to Ananas (Turkish for “pineapple”), a juice/smoothie bar and vegan cafe, opened in 2014 by the super-friendly Waseem, a Syrian transplant to Istanbul.

There are two local publishing houses which reflect the multiculturalism of Istanbul’s history and its small but vibrant ethnic minority communities: Aras Yayıncılık specializes in Armenian literature, culture and history, particularly Istanbul’s ethnic Armenian population, and publishes books in Turkish, Armenian and English.  Istos, founded by Greek transplants to Istanbul aiming to “revive the tradition of Greek publishing in Turkey,” publishes primarily Greek literature translated to Turkish. I haven’t yet visited these myself, but there are also several bookstores specializing in Kurdish books detailed here.

The sahaf, or used bookstore, is a hallmark of Istanbul’s literary culture, and these small second-hand bookshops are dotted throughout the city, including many near Taksim and Kadıköy (see here and here for more details). There is even an annual sahaf festival in Beyoğlu, during which a range of booksellers set up stands for a two-week outdoor book market.

One of my favorite sahaf districts is also one of the oldest, the Beyazıt Sahaflar Çarşısı, located near the historic Grand Bazaar (Kapalı Çarşı). Here you can find everything from cheap paperbacks to glossy art books to old comics and pulps from the 1960s and ‘70s.


Istanbul does not have an extensive system of municipal public libraries, and its university and research libraries are often extremely restricted, both in terms of access and opening hours.  One of the few exceptions is SALT Galata, the archive and research branch of the SALT arts institution, located in the Old Ottoman Bank in Karaköy (not to be confused with SALT Beyoğlu, where SALT’s primary exhibition space, cinema, Robinson Crusoe Bookstore, and Gastronomika Anatolian kitchen and garden are located).  

The Galata building in the old Ottoman banking district is beautiful, an airy renovated space with historic integrity. The basement vault is opened to house a permanent exhibition about the city’s social and economic history in the Ottoman period, and its upper levels host a café with sweeping views of the Golden Horn, a bookstore, contemporary exhibition spaces, and an open archive, as well as one of the city’s only free, public research libraries.

If you have a student ID card, you can access several private research libraries, including Koç University’s Research Center for Anatolian Civilizations on İstiklal, the Netherlands Institute Library, the Institut Français, the Goethe-Institut, and the Women’s Library (Kadın Eserleri Kütüphanesi), and the Istanbul Research Institute, among others.  See here for details about several smaller libraries.  Be sure to check access restrictions and opening hours before visiting, as most libraries are limited, and some even require official government permission to view collections.

An interesting project that has grown in the past couple of years is BookSerf, in which members can photograph and  “upload” their personal libraries to the group’s website, browse, and contact other members to borrow from one another in person or from a central BookSerf library in Beyoğlu.  Though local literature is represented, the emphasis is on non-Turkish books due to the heavy import taxes on foreign products (meaning that even paperback books can retail for outrageous prices). 

To encourage accountability and ensure that books are returned, borrowers are photographed with their books and tagged on Facebook – obviously it’s not exactly a private setup, but it’s a great resource for book lovers in city with few libraries and expensive book prices.


The Greek Cultural Center (Sismanoglio Megaro). The Greek Cultural Center (Sismanoglio Megaro) on İstiklal regularly organizes themed lecture series on a variety of topics specific to Greek-Turkish issues, particularly food, culture and history.

SALT. Galata and Beyoğlu frequently host talks and workshops related to urban heritage, arts, and culture.  I’m especially fond of its “Perşembe Sineması” (Thursday Cinema) program, in which international and Turkish films on a range of themes are screened for free every Thursday evening. Be sure to arrive early, as these screenings are always packed!

Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts. The Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts (İKSV) organizes the Istanbul Biennial (the 2015 theme is “Salt Water”), the annual Istanbul Jazz Festival and Film Festivals, and a variety of theater, music, film and arts events throughout the year.  In addition to its regular collection and exhibitions, the Pera Museum in Beyoğlu hosts frequent concerts, talks and master classes, and conferences, as well as a regular film series.  Documentarist and Başka Sinema are both programs featuring independent films, Turkish and international.

The Turkish branch of Slow Food (Fikir Sahibi Damaklar) and Doğa Derneği (Nature and Conservation Society) both frequently hold events, classes and conferences related to environmental, ecological and conservation issues, including the Slow Fish Istanbul Conference and Lüfer Bayramı (Bluefish festival) each fall. 


Street markets!

Most large neighborhoods have weekly markets (pazars), with whole city blocks tented cordoned off for vendors of all stripes, from fruits and vegetables to cheese and olives, homemade bread and eggs to spices and sweets, as well as clothing, kitchen tools, household goods, and textiles.  I visit my neighborhood pazar in Beşiktaş every Saturday. 

There are several “organic” pazars as well, the most well-known of which is in Feriköy/Bomonti; every Saturday the food pazar makes way for an antique and flea market that is definitely worth a visit. In recent years the gentrifying Karaköy neighborhood has been home to Souq Karaköy, a semi-regular pop-up street market for “hipster” goods like vintage clothing, miniature succulents in ceramic pots, screen-printed silk scarves, third-wave coffee stands, and hand-crafted jewelry.


I’m really passionate about reading in translation, and Turkish literature is unfortunately largely overlooked in the English-speaking world, with a few exceptions like Orhan Pamuk and Elif Şafak. Turkey has been a popular subject for foreign travel writers for centuries, and these travelogues and letters have made an important contribution to our understanding of historical periods (see Freya Stark, Isabella Bird, Patrick Leigh Fermor, Mary Montagu), but Turkey also has a rich native literary tradition. Here are a few 21st-20th century books that visitors might want to check out:

Adalet Ağaoğlu: Curfew; Summer’s End

Selçuk Altun: Many and Many a Year Ago; Songs My Mother Never Taught Me

Erendiz Atasü: The Other Side of the Mountain

Fethiye Çetin: My Grandmother

Sait Faik: A Dot on the Map; A Useless Man

Bilge Karasu: Night

Yaşar Kemal: Memed, My Hawk; They Burn the Thistles, The Sea-Crossed Fisherman

Perihan Mağden: Ali & Ramazan

Irfan Orga: Portrait of a Turkish Family

Emine Sevgi Özdamar: The Bridge of the Golden Horn

Orhan Pamuk: The Museum of Innocence, The Black Book, My Name is Red, Snow, Istanbul

Mehmet Murat Somer: The Prophet Murders

Elif Şafak: The Flea Palace, The Gaze (I prefer these novels written in Turkish and translated into English to her more commercially popular recent books The Bastard of Istanbul, The Forty Rules of Love, and Honor, which were written in English)

Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar: The Time-Regulation Institute; A Mind at Peace

Latife Tekin: Berci Kristin: Tales from the Garbage Hills; Swords of Ice

Good Eats


Turkish coffee is something that a lot of people think of in association with Istanbul, justifiably, since coffee houses have been a really important part of the city’s culinary, social and political history since the Ottoman era, when kahvehanes were gathering places (and often political hotbeds) for mixed social groups of intellectuals, artists, workers and the bourgeoisie.

Proper Turkish coffee, or türk kahvesi, is a thick, strong brew with a layer of grounds settled at the bottom - these days it’s usually prepared by boiling the coffee, water and sugar together in a copper pot (cezve) on a stovetop, though the traditional method is by heating it in sand and coals. Sometimes flavored with cardamom, mastic, or pistachio, and ordered to your preferred sweetness, it’s served in small cups with water and a sweet.

Kurukahveci Mehmet Efendi. For fresh roasted beans and ground coffee, the classic choice is Kurukahveci Mehmet Efendi (founded 1871) in the Mısır Çarşısı (Spice Bazaar) in Eminönü.  This place couldn’t get better advertisement than its own ridiculously diverting roasting-coffee smell, which pulls locals and tourists alike, Pied Piper-style, to wait for fresh coffee in surprisingly orderly lines that snake deep into the pazar.

Mandabatmaz. To order a brewed cup, Mandabatmaz, a literal hole-in-the-wall cafe on one of the side streets just off İstiklal Caddesi (the European side’s main commercial street), is one of my favorites.  With no indoor seating, simply wooden stools clustered near the counter, you may have to wait for a spot, but it’s a great place to take a break in between shopping. 

Okkalı Kahve. If you can find a seat in its always-packed patio or upper floors, Okkalı Kahve in Beşiktaş is another good place, serving a range of flavored Turkish coffees, including damla sakız (mastic), kakule (cardamom), “Tartar” coffee with heavy cream,  and “kervansaray” with carob, among many others.

While Turkish coffee houses and post-meal cups of türk kahvesi are common, and kahvehanes as gathering places are an important part of Turkish history, the kind of “Western”-style cafe culture where you can take a book or sit in conversation with a friend for an hour or two over a big mug of filter or espresso coffee and pastry is a relatively new addition to Istanbul’s culinary culture.  Until recently, many expats lamented the lack of “good coffee” in the city. Lately, though, things have been changing.

Starbucks and other international coffee chains are pretty ubiquitous these days in Istanbul, but in the last few years there’s been an onslaught of “third-wave” artisanal-type independent coffee shops, with events like the Istanbul Coffee Festival showcasing the city’s baristas and roasters. Here are a few of my favorites:

No. 41 : No. 41. This place opened recently just up the street from my apartment, north of Abbasağa Park in Beşiktaş, finally giving our neighborhood a solid alternative to the international chains. 

Kronotrop. One of the first “third wave” coffee places to open in Istanbul, it’s a coffee oasis in the middle of Beyoğlu.  More a place to grab some serious coffee and leave than to hang out with a book, but that’s not a bad thing.

Holy Coffee. A classic, cozy expat favorite in Çukurcuma, a good choice for either camping out with a laptop to do work or meet friends for a chat. Coffee is good, and the food reliable, if a bit pricey. 

Petra Coffee (Gayrettepe). They have a popup stand in the semi-regular Karaköy Souq market, with a brick & mortar location in Gayrettepe.

The host of hipster cafes and brunch places (not to mention galleries and upscale shops) that have popped up in Karaköy and Tophane as the neighborhoods gentrify (supposedly in anticipation of a proposed “megaport” project in the area) are overpriced even by Istanbul coffee standards, but the atmosphere along the dark, winding streets of the neighborhood can still be nice on a quieter weekday. 

Karabatak is one of the oldest and most distinctive of the many cafes in the neighborhood (opened in 2011, which gives you a sense of how rapidly the neighborhood has changed), with a long menu of coffee, tea and food choices.  One place in Karaköy that lives up to the hype is Dandin Bakery, a darn cute little “vintage” inspired café with respectable coffee and tea, but where the real showcase is behind the bakery counter – the offerings change daily, but from banana bread to vegan molten chocolate mini-cakes to lavender lemon chiffon cake, I’ve always walked out with my sweet tooth sated. 

Avam Kahvesi. Despite its name, Avam Kahvesi in Cihangir is less a coffee shop than a cafe specializing in gazoz, the flavored Turkish soda, and Avam is famous for its huge selection of regional brands.


My favorite restaurant for special occasions and visitors is Sıdıka, a small, cozy place tucked away from the main drag in the Beşiktaş neighborhood. It specializes in Aegean-influenced meze, or small plate dishes, particularly seafood and wild herbs, and I’ve never been disappointed by anything I’ve tasted.

Çiya Sofrası. Located in in Kadıköy, you’ll find a classic lokanta featuring dishes from across Anatolia. Çiya and its founder, Musa Dağdeviren, were profiled by Elif Batuman several years ago in the New Yorker, and the place still lives up to the hype.

Klemuri Lokanta. This Beyoğlu restaurantserves food influenced by Laz cuisine, an ethnic community on the Turkish Black Sea coast.  During the season you can find a variety of dishes featuring hamsi, or Black Sea anchovies.

For an inexpensive, healthy bite around Taksım, I run into Fıccın, a meze-heavy and vegetarian-friendly place just off İstiklal - the original restaurant was so popular that the Fıccın folks began buying up neighboring storefronts, and the sidestreet it’s located on is now a motley collection of four different “Fıccıns,” each in a different building next to each other. Olive oil dishes, Circassian chicken soup, and fresh juice are among my favorites.

My friends have gotten sick of me constantly suggesting Sinop Mantı in Beşiktaş as a dinner destination, but I just can’t get enough of their dumpling-like mantı, particularly the house specialty of cevizli mantı, which comes stuffed with toasted walnuts and ground beef and doused in brown butter.

Kuzguncuk Balıkçısı. A small restaurant in the center of Üsküdar’s Kuzguncuk neighborhood on the Asian side of the city. After walking through the picturesque, hilly streets, stop in for some sustainable seafood. The menu changes daily, but I’ve enjoyed the fish soup, rice-stuffed mussels with lemon, and rice with shellfish.

The meyhane (tavern) is an Istanbul institution dating back to the Byzantine period, with a variety of mezes and seafood dishes served alongside the requisite (and delicious!) Turkish anise liquor, rakı.  Recommended meyhanes include Eleos (Yeşilköy & Taksim), Set Balık (Tarabya), Despina (Feriköy), and Karaköy Lokantası (Karaköy).

If you’re in the mood for kebabs rather than seafood, try Ali Haydar in Samatya, a historically Armenian quarter of the city, which serves cuisine inspired by Hatay (Arab-influenced southeastern Turkey) and gets its claim to fame from İkinci Bahar, the soap opera which was filmed in the restaurant.

Istanbul is famous for its street food and traditional “fast food” as well. Some favorites to try: midye dolma (stuffed mussels), nohutlu pilav (rice with chickpeas), leblevi (roasted chickpeas), tantuni (spiced meat wrapped in thin unleavened bread), lahmacun (wood-fired open-faced “pita” with spicy minced meat, herbs and lemon), almonds served over ice. I’m also a big lover of pickles, which are sold in mind-boggling varieties (some classics include pickled garlic plums, cauliflower, melon, and all incarnations of peppers imaginable), as well as pickle juice by the glass (spicy or extra-spicy).

The historic Vefa Bozacısı, founded in 1876 in Fatih/Zeyrek, is the go-to place for fresh boza, a fermented millet drink/pudding best served sprinkled with cinnamon and roasted chickpeas (buy the chickpeas, or leblebi, from Tarih Vefa Leblebicisi across the street).


Istanbul is famous for its many kinds of sweet pudding (muhallebi), including a variety made using chicken breast as a thickening agent. Recommended pudding shops (muhallebicis) include Tarihi Sarıyer Muhallebicisi and Saray Muhallebicisi.

Turkish delight, or lokum, sometimes gets a bad rap because of the gummy, stale, fruity flavors commonly sold abroad, but true kaymaklı lokum, a creamy melt-in-your-mouth sweet studded with toasted walnuts and pistachios, is another category altogether.  Real lokum is what the White Queen must have given Edmund in the Chronicles of Narnia:

“The Queen let another drop fall from her bottle on to the snow, and instantly there appeared a round box, tied with green silk ribbon, which, when opened, turned out to contain several pounds of the best Turkish Delight. Each piece was sweet and light to the very centre and Edmund had never tasted anything more delicious. … At first Edmund tried to remember that it is rude to speak with one's mouth full, but soon he forgot about this and thought only of trying to shovel down as much Turkish Delight as he could, and the more he ate the more he wanted to eat … .”

For lokum I like Haci Bekir (Eminönü & Taksim) and Sahi (Karaköy).  For baklava, there are thousands of places to choose from, but the classic spot is Güllüoğlu in Karaköy.

For just a few liras you can buy cups of irmik helvası, a warm, toasted-semolina dessert topped with dondurma (ice cream made with mastic) and chocolate syrup from street vendors.


JENNA's 5 Favorites

1. Favorite view: Because of its hills and multiple waterways, Istanbul is a city of views. One of my favorites is from the tea garden at the top of Abbasağa Park, looking straight down the hill to the Bosphorus. Also walking down Boğazkesen in Tophane as the Kılıç Ali Paşa mosque comes into view, and anytime I’m on a ferry crossing the Bosphorus. And I’m naturally partial to the view from my apartment balcony, which overlooks central Beşiktaş and Dolmabahçe Palace, all the way to the Golden Horn and Topkapı Palace.

2. Favorite place to write: Generally I do my writing at home, but there’s something to be said for dipping into the dull roar of a coffee shop from time to time. A nice place to read is in the courtyard of the Crimean Memorial Church, tucked away in the sidestreets of Beyoğlu.

3. Favorite museum: For Ottoman textiles and crafts I like the Sadberk Hanım Museum in Sarıyer, and for colloquial objects with a literary twist the Museum of Innocence, based on Orhan Pamuk’s novel of the same name, is absolutely worth a visit. The Pera Museum, the Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum (especially its nearly-panoramic view of the old city), and the Arter gallery are all beautifully curated spaces. A few “hidden” museums include the Jewish Museum of Turkey in Karaköy (check the address before you go, as the museum, housed in a former synagogue on a sidestreet near the Karaköy fish market, is unmarked for security reasons), and the İşbank Museum in Eminönü. While not exactly hidden, the Rumeli Hisarı fortress in Bebek is an underrated and peaceful place to take in the Bosphorus from above.

4. Favorite coffee shop: Any of the places detailed earlier – also, though it’s a chain, the Caribou Coffee in Tünel is in a multi-story historic building, and its terrace overlooking the garden of the Galata Mevlevi Museum is the loveliest place to go on a warm afternoon.

5. Favorite thing about Istanbul: Given that it’s a dramatically expanding metropolis built on the foundations of two major world civilizations, literally connecting two continents, Istanbul lends itself well to similes (“modern vs. ancient,” “east vs. west,” “dynamic vs. traditional”). These are part of the city’s appeal, absolutely, but I suppose that what I love about Istanbul is its intimacy. For such a huge urban space, Istanbul still largely maintains its network of neighborhoods, its mahalle culture. I feel closely connected to my neighborhood, its landmarks and shops, and the network of people who live here.