The Istanbul Promenade: Istiklal Caddesi

Istiklal Caddesi: Independence Street in Istanbul

I still come here even though I know I will probably not buy anything. I know that there are better seafood restaurants and cheaper markets in other parts far from this pedestrian institution. But there is always something refreshing about this promenade on the European side of Istanbul, something that makes me feel like I have arrived somewhere special.

It doesn’t matter the time of day; there are great numbers of Turks walking up and down the wide brick and stone avenue, ducking in and out of shops, cafes, restaurants. The weather never seems to matter. If it is raining, they continue to come, some with umbrellas. An umbrella vendor magically appears having waited for that big opportunity to peddle his wares that have been stowed away on the sunny days. If it snows or the wind blows, a different vendor shows up with scarves, ear muffs or knit caps and plants his feet in the middle of the traffic, pivoting to face the next approaching potential sale.

The pedestrians stay on into the dark. At night, until the wee hours, shops spill light into their paths; women walk arm in arm, as do the men. Young couples stroll slowly; youthful singles flirt or move in the safety of packs with their friends. It’s not just pedestrian traffic; a tram follows a pair of rails from the top of the street at Taksim Square down to the entrance to the funicular that takes passengers underground from the height of Beyoglu down to the level of the sea at the Golden Horn. The tram bell nips at everyone’s heels and they clear to the sides as the red car rattles past. Periodically a police vehicle does the same, and rather than shouting into the bullhorn or sounding a horn or siren, an officer blows into the microphone to alert those with their backs turned, so that it sounds like an angry beast is snorting at them.

In between all these sounds, and weaving together an oriental fabric of ambience, are the melodies drifting out from stores and bars. Live music is everywhere, from an acoustic band in a nearby coffee shop to the old man propped up on a wobbly crate playing a saz and singing through a portable amplifier. A small child works wonders from a battered concertina nearly too big for him to manage. The girl across the street doing the same may be his sister; both of them working for tips much as the other children selling SelPak, little packets of tissues, for pocket change. The latest pop song is on repeat at the CD store, blaring into the outside world. A popular waltz does the same the next shop over. For three years running I’ve been able to hear that song here which is either a dear-held favorite or a constant torture. All of this becomes a soundtrack for a foreign film and I walk among the extras playing the protagonist in a solipsistic narrative in my head.

Chestnuts being roasted in push carts. The silver glitter of seafood under the harsh light of bare bulbs, the sizzle and smell of deep-frying mussels, the vendors shouting their wares as you pass threading your way through the narrow path among the displays at the fish market and Cicek Pasaji, the flower market. It’s all a delightful chaos and reminds me where I am and fixes me there in the moment.

Check out The Mad Traveler for an Istiklal Photo Gallery.

Look for cheap flights to Turkey.

Kevin Revolinski

Author, travel writer/photographer, world traveler. Writes about travel, hiking, camping, paddling, and craft beer.

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