Istanbul has played its part in countless artistic creations – it appears in dozens of films, songs, and of course, also in numerous beautiful and important books. Many writers fictionalised their stories inspired by the city’s magical ambience and rich history. Others, lucky enough to call this place their home, recreated their real-life memories and experiences in their books so authentically, that we can almost see ourselves in the streets of Istanbul while reading them.
Whether you’re travelling to Istanbul just to see where your favourite book’s story unfolded, or you’re looking for some ideas how to spice up an extended stay in the city, our Tripsters tips condensed into a practical itinerary will surely inspire you. It will guide you off the beaten path and through some of the best hidden gems in the city. And the best thing is that it can be easily done in a single day!
Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar is probably the most renowned and influential Turkish writer of all times. If you deliberately focus on Turkish literature, you’ll surely know his work. A Mind at Peace, originally published in 1949, is his most iconic novel – and it is widely considered one of the most important Turkish modern novels. Like many other important literary works in the country, it touches the topic of Turkey’s search for its modern face.
The novel takes place after the downfall of Ottoman Empire, when Turkey undertook various attempts to distance itself from its past and embrace the modern, sometimes almost grotesquely westernized future. The story is divided into four parts, each of them being named after its main character.
The very first one is called İhsan. He is an intellectual and a history teacher at the famous lyceum Galatasaray. This prominent school with roots dating back to 15th century is still one of the most important educational institutions in Istanbul. It also stands out due to its majestic architecture and unmistakable gates. This is a great place to start off your tour and contemplate about the contrasting traditional and contemporary faces of this wonderful city.
Orhan Pamuk is one of the most prolific contemporary Turkish writers. Not only because of the Nobel Prize he was awarded in 2006, but also because of how powerfully, comprehensively and wholeheartedly he recreates his birthplace, Istanbul, in his works.
His novels, often reflecting the inevitable collision of Western and Eastern cultures in the country, are beloved by both Turks and foreigners. If you came to Istanbul in hopes to see the city through his eyes, you definitely cannot miss his very own Museum of Innocence (Masumiyet Müzesi) – an art gallery he opened together with publishing his 2008 novel of the same name. The book is a love story set in 1970’s – 80’s Istanbul. And the museum is an open love letter addressed to the era and the characters described in the book.
Thousands of objects meticulously arranged and displayed in order of the book´s chapters will draw you into the story and stay with you long after you close the museum´s door behind you. The museum is located in the beautiful Çukurcuma neighbourhood of the Beyoğlu district. In 2014 it has won the title European Museum of the Year.
While you´re still in the Beyoğlu district, head to the beautiful Flower Passage (Çiçek Pasaji). This former 19th century theatre (later turned into a posh shopping spot and now serving as a restaurant) is undeniably a touristic attraction in its own right. But thanks to Turkish-British novelist Elif Shafak, it also happens to be a place of some literary significance.
Elif Shafak was born in Strasbourg, France to Turkish parents. She has spent most of her life away from Turkey and feels herself at home in England now. Nevertheless, she always “carries Istanbul in the heart”, by her own words, and it’s easy to believe her when you read her novels.
The Bastard of Istanbul is probably Shafak´s most famous piece. It centres around two families connected through the 1915 Armenian genocide. One of its main characters, nineteen years old Armanoush, secretly travels to Istanbul in search of her roots. One of the scenes unfolds right here, at the Flower Passage, where Armanoush treats herself to a set of distinct local meals. If you happen to be here around lunch or dinnertime, you should probably do the same.
Istanbul´s Taksim Square (Taksim Meydanı) has become famous for many different reasons. Its name means “division”, referring to the fact that it originally was the point where the main lines of water were distributed to different parts of the city. But the square also became infamously symbolic to the “division” among Turkish people, since it traditionally serves as a place of massive demonstrations. Many of them turned violent or even deadly in past.
Taksim square also appears in one of the most beloved Turkish novels of all times – Yaşhar Kemal’s The Birds Have Also Gone. This prolific writer of Kurdish origin often centred his works around folklore and traditions – in this particular one, he revives an old custom to buy a bird just to watch him fly away after setting him free.
The plot focuses on the young boys that are trying to catch and sell small birds to random pedestrians. But fewer and fewer people show interest in buying them as the city leaves its romantic, traditional face behind, rushing towards the hectic and anonymous future. Maybe you still can spot a bird or two on the Taksim square.
Due to his turbulent life and tragic death by suicide, Metin Kaçan can be viewed by some as a rather dark persona on Turkish literary scene. Nevertheless, his works represent a distinct and unmistakable world of Istanbul´s vividly colourful characters and rundown neighbourhoods that wouldn´t caught attention of most of the others.
This uniqueness gives Kaçan´s novels a great sense of authenticity and a priceless documentary value – especially given the fact that many of these typically poor and dangerous districts have already changed and developed drastically in the past decades. No doubt that it also attracts quite a few curious visitors to the particular places he wrote about.
Most of Kaçan´s works revolve around the Dolapdere neighbourhood – located not far away from the Taksim Square, yet definitely very much off the beaten path. In the past, Dolapdere was inhabited by Istanbul´s poor Romani community, and it was full of crime, shabby auto repair shops and prostitutes. Just like his most famous novel Cholera Street that was even made into a movie in 1997. You´ll be probably surprised to see that this neighbourhood is nowadays slowly turning into a small Chinatown – and you can even find a gallery or two in here. Check it out while it still has some of its character.
If any of your favourite reads have been left out, let us know! We’d love to plan you a bespoke tour around Istanbul based on a beloved novel.
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