After one of our many breakfasts at Van Kahvalti Evi, co-owner Cetin Simsek brought over a pocket-size Turkish-English dictionary and pieced together a conversation made mostly of unconjugated verbs. "Marry?" he wondered. No, we weren't married. "Devour!" we cried. He was glad to hear we liked the food. "Sleep?" he asked, gesturing toward Sultanahmet, the district boasting an extraordinary concentration of historic sights and tourist hotels. No, we assured him, we were staying right here in Cihangir. "Ah, Cihangir," Simsek said, nodding. "Coffee, people, cats."
As neighbourhood distillations go, it's a fine one: Cihangir (pronounced Jee-HANH-gear) blends Paris's café culture with Brooklyn's casual vibe and Rome's free-range kitty population. That might be why the district is home to most of Istanbul's Western expat community. And like Brooklyn, it claims a number of the city's actors and writers - Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk is a long-time resident - which perhaps also explains the packed sidewalk patios at 3 o'clock on a Tuesday afternoon.
Yet Cihangir offers plenty of experiences that seem to belong only to Istanbul, whether it's stumbling upon one of the last of the traditional wooden houses, tucked down a tiny alley, or watching a basket slowly descend from a fifth-floor apartment, to be filled with bread and eggs from the grocer below. There are enough antique shops and galleries and boutiques and restaurants to keep you occupied for weeks, but be sure to spend an afternoon doing your best impression of a Cihangir local: Find an outdoor spot, grab a glass of tea and as the ferry horns and calls to prayer ring in the distance, watch the vibrant neighbourhood parade by.
THE BREAKFAST CLUB
In my dreams, the superb Van Kahvalti Evi moves into my neighbourhood - or, if I'm being honest, into my apartment - and I wake up every morning to the exquisite combination of kaymak (Turkish clotted cream) and bal (a blanket of honey) served atop warm slices of bread. The eggs here are fluffy and flavourful; the olives are briny and the cheeses sharp; it's always busy and the owners are unfailingly kind. In a nine-day trip, I ate here nine times. Van Kahvalti Evi, Defterdar Yokuşu 52/A, 212-293-64-37
Housed in a converted shipping terminal on the banks of the Bosphorus river, the Istanbul Modern's first floor is given over to a terrific collection of contemporary Turkish and international art. But the real treasures are to be found downstairs, in the provocative temporary exhibitions. Recent selections have included the designs of Hussein Chalayan and When Angels Fall, Roman Polanski's student film. Richard Wentworth's False Ceiling installation is another highlight, suspending thousands of books from overhead. Istanbul Museum of Modern Art, Meclis-i Mebusan Caddesi, 212-334-73-00, istanbulmodern.org
Turks have been pressing grapes for more than 4,000 years, but in Istanbul's bars and bistros, the anise-based spirit raki reigns supreme. Oenophiles looking for a local fix shouldn't be deterred, though: La Cave is one of the city's best wine shops, with a good selection from across the country. The experienced, English-speaking staff will steer you toward the right vintage - and if you're craving an obscure German riesling instead, chances are they can pluck it from their 100,000-bottle stock. La Cave, Siraselviler Caddesi 109, 212-243-24-05, www.lacavesarap.com
On Savoy Balik's walls: oil paintings of storm-tossed boats and children's crayon sea creatures. On the ceiling: haphazardly strung fishing nets, an array of conches inside. On the radio: what sounds suspiciously like a Turkish Unchained Melody. And on your plate: some of the most remarkable seafood around. Start with pickled hamsi, an anchovy pulled from the Black Sea, and just one of the outstanding meze (small dishes) offered. End with the bonito, a lightly fried and beautifully moist mackerel. In between, just keep pointing to other people's dinners - whatever they have, you'll want it too. Savoy Balik, Bakraç Sokak 32, 212-249-33-82, savoybalik.com
At the top of what's commonly known as French Street - so called because of the many cafés and patisseries that line its narrow, twisting lane - sits Zeckie, a cozy boutique filled with handmade jewellery from native-born, Milan-trained designer Zekiye Koçarslan. Her square, slender rings are especially pretty (and highly stackable), and come in battered silver or bronze. Zeckié, Hayriye Sokak 18/B, 212-245-91-56, zeckie.com
White Mill's menu takes an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach - traditional Turkish meze compete with fajitas, curries, spring rolls and schnitzel - but the spacious back patio, which is the real draw, shows far more restraint. Dark wooden tables, sheltered by crisp white umbrellas and an abundance of leafy trees, fill up most warm evenings with television and film actors. Grab a coffee in the corner and watch them preen. White Mill Café, Susam Sokak 13, 212-292-28-95, whitemillcafe.com
THE SWEETEST THING
Leave the box of Turkish delight for a last-minute airport purchase: Locals looking to satisfy their sweet tooth have been going to this tiny pudding shop for nearly 50 years. Sutlaç (a creamy rice pudding) and Kazandibi (its caramelized, rice-less cousin - the name translates to "bottom of the cauldron") are Ozkonak's standout desserts. Get the pair to go and enjoy a makeshift picnic at the nearby Cihangir Steps on Batarya Sokak, with its incredible views of the Bosphorus and the mosque-scattered skyline beyond. Ozkonak, Akarsu Caddesi 60, 212-249-13-07
Special to The Globe and Mail