Though the Istanbul Design Biennial has come and gone, left in the wake is a metropolis refreshed by its burgeoning design community. The city of contrast may be known for traditionalism, but a growing international community is changing all of that, building a progressive urban culture alongside Byzantine ruins. Below you'll find a handful of suggestions to begin your exploration of the continent-spanning megacity.
If forced to pick the most significant influence behind Istanbul's recent renaissance, it would be Autoban, a design studio that has changed the feel of contemporary Istanbul. One of their projects, Münferit, is equal parts restaurant, bar and lounge, located around the corner from The House Hotel—also by Autoban—on Yeniçarşı Caddesi in Galatasaray. The locale is dramatically laid out with a downstairs restaurant that serves up pristine Turkish staples. Up top, cocktails are shaken and stirred with an atmosphere of art deco finishings and tiled walls. Perfect for drinks or a leisurely sit-down, one could do worse than take in the city through Autoban's expert eye.
A stone's throw the imposing Galata Tower in Karaköy, Nublu is a nightclub that retains much of the same personality as its NYC counterpart, the eponymous club on Avenue C in the East Village. Nublu Istanbul is one of the best spots to while away the wee hours of the morning while sipping on rakı and enjoying live bands and international DJs.
White Mill Cafe
A rare escape escape from the hubub of the city, the White Mill Cafe is located in the middle of Cihangir's serpentine streets. Take brunch in the backyard patio to sample classic staples like menemen, kaymak with honey and turkish coffee, or opt for more international specialties. Another worthy breakfast spot is the nearby Van Kahvaltı Evi, where you can find a spread typical of Van, an outlying Kurdish city.
A one-stop shop for bath house supplies, Jennifer's Hamam differentiates itself with organic, hand-made towels that represent the best of local textile work. Her towels—made on a loom and famed for their plush character and looped structure—represent a dying art, and one that Jennifer Gaudet preserves by relying on native artisans. Located in the open-air Arasta Bazaar near the Blue Mosque, drinking tea and purveying textiles near Jennifer's presents a much cozier experience than the nearby Grand Bazaar.
Istanbul's greatest destination remains one without a zip code. The streets are and always have been the best place for informal commerce, dining and entertainment. Pomegranate juice (nar suyu) is best in winter and one of the staples of the city, not to mention a cheap hangover remedy. For a warm alternative, winter is also the time to invest in a cup of salep, a viscous beverage that is made from orchid root flour and sprinkled with cinnamon. Affordable Ottoman bric-a-brac can be found throughout the city, so keep an eye out for wandering antique carts, and don't forget to bargain. Eating on the street can be risky—we recommend taking it easy on the stuffed mussels—although a mackerel sandwich near one of the city's bridges is something of a right of passage.