At that time İstiklal Caddesi was lined with fashionable shops, restaurants and cafes where Europeans gathered. Lurking in between them were a number of “pasajs,” arcades just like those to be found in London and Paris where customers could shop without having to brave the elements. Most of these pasajs have survived the ravages of time, and today one of the best ways to rediscover the old İstiklal of one-off shops and small owner-operated cafes is to dip in and out of them instead of sticking to the main thoroughfare.
Despite the grandeur of the buildings, the entrances to the arcades tend to be cluttered with stalls selling scarves, gloves, sunglasses and umbrellas that give them a very down-market appearance. Don’t be put off -- in some cases the interiors live up to that tatty first impression, but in other cases they certainly don’t.
Cite de Roumelie/Agora Romelias
If you start at the Taksim Square end of İstiklal Caddesi, the first pasaj you will come to is housed inside a magnificent building paid for in 1897 by Ragıp Paşa, a bureaucrat at the court of Sultan Abdülhamid II and the man responsible for the finest of the mansions facing the water over in Caddebostan. Past the umbrella stands you’ll find the original vaulting surviving intact complete with corbels in the shape of laurel-leaf crowned heads. Until recently the Indian Cultural Center and Govinda’s vegetarian restaurant were highlights of the first floor. Now they’ve disappeared, although the Roumelie Cafe still offers live fasıl music every night.
On the other side of the huge new Demirören shopping center stands the soot-stained Emek Han, paid for in 1884 by the fabulously wealthy Abraham Paşa. Unfortunately, its fate seems to be hanging in the balance, and it’s hard now to believe that it was once home to the influential Cercle d’Orient where prominent Turks and foreigners could get together to cook up money-making schemes. Until recently fading movie posters on the walls of the Yeşilçam Cafe reminded tea drinkers that the adjoining area was once home to Turkey’s equivalent of Hollywood. Now, only the cute, profiterole-dispensing İnci Pastanesi on the ground floor is still keeping the Emek flame alive.
A little further along the road, the Halep (Aleppo) Pasajı is faring much better and is still home to the Beyoğlu Cinema, a small theater, Cafe Krepen and a string of small shops with a vaguely Goth/hippy feel to them. Unsurprisingly given the name, the arcade originally belonged to a Syrian Christian. More surprisingly, it was once home to a circus. Like the Cite de Roumelie, it displays its name proudly on the facade in Latin and Arabic lettering.
Across the road, the Atlas has one of the finest interiors of all the arcades, with a barrel vault supported on twin rows of Ionic columns. Here, too, you’ll find a cinema and theater, and here, too, you’ll find a similar mix of shops although the Atlas does cheap and fun clothing better than the Halep. The pasaj was originally built for an Armenian banker, and it’s believed that Sultan Abdülaziz kept a bachelor pad here where he could meet with women on the quiet.
Çiçek Pasajı/Cite de Pera
Of all the arcades along İstiklal Caddesi, the only one to have broken free of its local moorings to encompass tourists too is the Flower Passage, a much rebuilt structure that started life as the Naum Theater before burning down in 1870. Shortly afterwards it was reincarnated as a complex of shops and apartments, with restaurants spilling out into a central courtyard. Here Russian women who had fled the Bolshevik Revolution gathered to sell flowers, hence the name. In 1978 that Çiçek Pasajı fell down and had to be completely rebuilt. Today, it contains an array of meyhanes where you can wash down fish and mezes with rakı and beer. Most of the locals wisely divert through the adjoining Balık Pazarı (Fish Market) to Nevizade Sokak for more of the same in less picturesque but more economical surroundings.
If you too duck into the Fish Market you will find, on the left, İstanbul’s take on London’s posh Burlington Arcade -- a long, narrow passage with proper shops built into it on either side and neat Classical statues gazing down on shoppers from above. Until recently there were many small antique shops in here, but increasingly the shops sell the same sort of tourist souvenirs as the Kapalı Çarşı (Grand Bazaar) and Spice Market.
Aslıhan Pasajı (Sahaflar Çarşısı)
A little further into the Fish Market a second, much more architecturally prosaic arcade accommodates a collection of secondhand bookshops where you can pick up tomes in many European languages. The books are displayed much as they would be at a rummage sale. In the age of the stylish iPad, the arcade looks increasingly like a throwback to a generally more laidback age.
Back on İstiklal Caddesi on the far side of Galatasaray Square stands the Aznavur Pasajı, a unique cast-iron arcade constructed in 1893 with an elaborate Art Nouveau window over the entrance. Inside it’s nothing to write home about, with a by now familiar mix of shops selling scarves, handbags and jewelry, but with lots of pool tables upstairs in the Omayra Cafe.
Hazzupolo Pasajı/Danışman Geçidi
Dating back to 1871, this arcade has a narrow entrance passage with pictures of Kız Kulesi (Maiden’s Tower) and the Galata Tower above it. At first you’ll struggle to elbow your way between the stalls. Then suddenly the pasaj opens out into a cobbled square filled with one of İstiklal’s last traditional tea gardens. Actually, it’s several tea gardens running into each other, and the students all head straight for Kahveci Mustafa Amca to the left, where seats are in such demand that many end up sitting on the steps leading to the Panagia Eisodion church next door.
Immediately facing St. Antony’s cathedral, the magnificent Elhambra houses another arcade whose checkered history has featured several long-gone theaters and cinemas but now mainly centers on a beer hall. Today its most unlikely occupant is Kristin, a shop best known for its old-fashioned hats and wedding favors. The building itself is interesting as one of the few on İstiklal Caddesi that turns its back on the routine Neoclassical repertoire in favor of something verging on the more indigenously Turkish First National style of architecture.
Beyoğlu İş Merkezi
Forget history and architecture for a minute. The unimaginative name says it all for this rather workaday and stuffy pasaj which boasts four floors of cheap and cheerful clothing. Students and fashionistas swear by it. Enough said.
The fine Neoclassical facade of the Suriye Pasajı conceals a real find in the basement at the far end which is the By Retro vintage clothes shop. In this wild and wacky place mannequins wearing shonky 18th-century-style wigs are propped up beside piles of old sombreros and rickety old typewriters amid racks and racks of old clothing. Sales assistants reach for distant items with imitation scythes, while cats poke about beneath the carpets. It’s an unmissable one-off.
Passage Oriental/Şark Aynalı Çarşısı
One more arcade towards the Tünel end of İstiklal Caddesi today forms the untrumpeted entrance to the capacious Darty computer shop. It comes attached to what was once the gracious pastry shop, the Markiz, whose walls were decorated with tiles a la Mucha. Today it houses the much less gracious Yemek Kulübü. One can only hope that the modern equivalents of 19th-century customers such as writers Namık Kemal and Ziya Paşa are coming up with great new ideas about how to run the world over their bargain-basement bowls of soup.
Finally, round the corner and overlooking the entrance to the Tünel funicular is perhaps the prettiest pasaj of them all, the Tünel Gecidi, which is almost entirely taken up with cafes and antique shops. At night with fairy lights strung through the trees it’s a truly magical place to pause and reminisce about İstanbul in the 19th century.