When you think of Istanbul, centuries of Ottoman opulence and Byzantine splendour come to mind. And of course the little matter of its location: the marrying together of Asia and Europe. But if you try to sample some of the city's funky, contemporary side you'll experience one of the most happening cities in Europe. From art exhibits to cocktails to cutting-edge designers and live music, hip Istanbul is a fashion-savvy cultural hot-spot. Here are ten things to do in the city -- after you've done the historical sightseeing, of course.
1. The art scene is thriving. Best starting-point is Istanbul Modern (tel. 0212/334-7300; www.istanbulmodern.org; Warning: Flash-heavy site), built from an old customs warehouse on the Bosphorus. It has superb waterfront views on the outside, and a well-organised interior with permanent exhibitions on Turkish art from the late Ottoman period until the present day. It certainly tells a fascinating story of how the painters of the Empire were financed to study in France, so you have artists like Ihsan Cemal Karaburcak (1897-1970) influence by the likes of Cezanne and Matisse.
2. After perusing the paintings, check out the gallery's gift shop, where you can actually buy a "paint-on" version of works of art onto t-shirts, plus its cinema, screening special seasons of contemporary interest. Enjoy a sundowner on the terrace of the Istanbul Modern's bar and restaurant. This place really comes to life in the evenings, especially at weekends, when the lights turn low, the music up and cocktails flow.
3. If art is really your scene, then you'll love the array crammed into unexpected corners in Misir Apartmani (Istiklal Caddesi 303). This six-storey noble apartment block, once the residence of Egyptian royalty (Misir means Egypt) has recently been smartened up and now houses plenty of bijoux art galleries. These range from photographic exhibitions at Fototrek Fotograf Merkezi (1st floor) to huge sculptures and installations at Galari Nev, which represents a dozen contemporary Turkish artists.
4. Forget the attempts to haggle for a carpet: If you're looking for a wardrobe update, hunt down cut-price designer goodies in Is Merkezi (Istiklal Caddesi; Mon-Sat 10am-7pm; Sun 10am-5pm). It might be a bit of a bun-fight, but locals love this three-storey arcade with tiny stalls, much of which sells slight seconds of designer gear, with labels like Miss Sixty and Pink. Try to avoid the weekend crush.
5. Beyoglu is an area for nightbirds. Once a thriving cultural area in the early 20th century, then later one of ill-repute, the last decade has turned it into Istanbul's nightlife hub. Boho Tünel is the southeastern end of the pedestrianised boulevard Istiklal Caddesi, boasting a growing number of cool venues. Check out hip café Leyla, for cocktails or cappuccinos, and around the cobbled corner try to catch live Balkan music at Badehane bar.
6. For the coolest of cool fashionistas, you can't beat the bar-club-restaurant 360° (tel. 0212/251-1042; www.360istanbul.com). Perched on the top floor of Misir Apartmeni (see # 3) this is best experienced after midnight, when house DJs ensure the dance-floor is throbbing, and the balcony is filled with cocktail-supping local lovelies savouring that jaw-dropping Bosphorus view. It's popular with local celebs and models -- that's if you can pick them out.
7. You might not come to mall-crazy Istanbul for shopping, but have a peek at Kanyon (Kanyon Shopping Center, 185 Büyükdere Caddesi, Levent, tel. 0212/319-8888; www.kanyon.com.tr). It's loved not just for its collection of designer stores from home and abroad, like Harvey Nichols and Roberto Cavalli, but also its architectural splendour. Designed by the Jerde Partnership, it integrates shopping, dining, entertainment and residential, all linked by a series of neat walkways that are sheltered from sun and rain. If you come here in the evenings, the views of spot-lit skyscrapers of the financial hub Levent are more akin to London and New York.
8. Istanbul has a fabulous year-round calendar of arts and music festivals, mostly organised by IKSV (Istanbul Kultur ve Sanat Vakfi), with jazz, international films, dance and music. Events range from orchestral recitals in the Byzantine Haghia Eirene, to contemporary performing arts at Garajistanbul. Spicing it up are even more events and performances celebrating Istanbul as European City of Culture 2010, so expect street theatre and outdoor performances.
9. Probably Istanbul's best-known club -- if you discount bling-friendly places like Reina and Angelique -- Babylon (tel. 0212/292-7368) has live music and DJs every night, from Balkan gypsy jazz to UK techno wizardry. If you need some respite from the bopping, or for a good hangover cure, head round the corner to the new Babylon Lounge, a comfy sofa-filled café with everything from hot coffee and pizza to vodka cocktails.
10. Get your head down for the night at Sofa Hotel (tel. 0212/368-1818; www.thesofahotel.com) in the extravagant shopping area of Nisantasi. This is luxury at its most contemporary chic, with spacious rooms, some looking onto the Japanese garden, no extraneous décor, and a rainforest shower in its mammoth bathroom. Its spa offers yoga and stressÂ?management -- or just a steam bath and massage if Istanbul's traditional hamams (Turkish bath) are a little too rough on your delicate skin.
Emma Levine is the author and photographer of Frommer's Istanbul Day By Day, and the Dublin Day By Day.
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