There’s a district on the European side of Istanbul that has been the center of excitement almost from the time it was built until today, although no one really knows when it was first inhabited.
That is Beyoğlu (son of the lord), a district that is also called Pera (the other side) and Galata (the milk district as its etymology is sometimes said to be). Basically Beyoğlu extends from Taksim Square to Tünel along what is now İstiklal Caddesi and for a few streets on either side, but attempts to consolidate and govern various districts around Istanbul meant that Beyoğlu was extended as a municipality down to the Bosphorus on the southeast, along the Golden Horn and north as far as the boundary with Şişli. But only municipal governments know where one district starts and another ends.
In the beginning, foreigners formed one of the foundations of Beyoğlu by being allocated space in today’s Karaköy to anchor their ships and indulge in whatever activities they wanted to. This led to the building of Galata Tower and fortifications by the Genoese in the mid-14th century.
Byzantine emperors undoubtedly thought it best to keep these formidable foreigners out of Constantinople’s old city, though the area had been recognized as part of the city as early as the fifth century A.D., and in an enclave that could be policed if not controlled.
As the area was sparsely inhabited between today’s Galatasaray and Tünel, the Ottoman sultans gave permission for foreign embassies to be erected. Countries began to apply for permission to set up permanent places. Thanks to this policy, Beyoğlu today has a number of very old embassies Ğ Dutch, Swedish, French, Italian, Russian and British, although they now serve as consulates general.
Life was lively in Beyoğlu, and this continued until the devastating fire of 1870 that wiped out whole streets and buildings. It was a field day for architects and urban planners because after the fire, they had a new playing ground. İstiklal Caddesi was to some extent straightened out. The new buildings were erected in architectural styles reminiscent of European structures, not surprising given that several hundred European architects such as Raymondo D’Aronco were practicing in Istanbul.
Today buildings stand tall where forests used to be and the majority of the animals are two-legged (plus cats, dogs and other creatures), replacing deer, boar, ferrets and probably bear. Even the bird population has changed, and the nightingale no longer sings in spring.
As often happens when populations change, Beyoğlu began to go downhill. The huge influx of migrants from the eastern and southeastern parts of Turkey after the 1960s put a huge strain on Istanbul’s ability to cope. The fringes and even İstiklal Caddesi became dangerous. A cleanup finally came in the 1980s and ’90s basically. Criminal elements were moved into the back streets.
The Beyoğlu Beautification Association worked on improving the outer aspects of buildings with the municipal authorities. For example, there had been a tramway along İstiklal Caddesi, but it was removed as if it were some worthless mode of transportation. Now it is back in operation again. The boulevard became a no-traffic pedestrian walkway, although this is never enforced as it should be.
Finally efforts moved onto the side streets with bookstores, restaurants and coffeehouses. When the weather is good, as it usually is from May to October, you can find innumerable sidewalk eateries where you can lounge with your friends plus McDonald’s, Starbucks and others.
The Flower Passage and Fish Market still maintain their character against the onslaught of modernization. There are several other "passages" along the street with tiny colorful stores that sell thread, ribbon, wigs, hats and other items.