Nişantaşı is the smart end of the larger quarter of the Şişli, a district of half a million inhabitants that extends all the way from the avenue north of Taksim Square to the business districts of Levent. This was still heathland in the early 19th century, and its many neighbourhoods emerged in the explosion of development that began in the 1850s and has rarely drawn breath since.
Nişantaşı is both a very specific area around the a busy crossroads and now synonymous with a cluster of neighbourhoods, including Maçka, Teşvikiye, Harbiye, Pangaltı, Osmanbey and even Bomonti, all within walking distance of each other (the traffic is so jammed pack you have little choice). The name Nişantaşı (commemorative stone) comes from the obelisk at the gridlocked crossroads of Valikonagı Caddesi and Teşvikiye and Rumeli Caddesi.
Nişantaşı has its cultural attrractions: numerous galleries, the War Museum, the Cemal Reşit Rey concert hall, the attractive Neoclassical Teşvikiye Mosque, not to mention to a magnificent miniature palace, down in the Ihlamur valley, but it is not a place associated with sightseeing. For the visitor what it lacks for in sights, however, it definitely makes up for in food and shopping. This is where the well-heeled shopper meets the expense-account lunch.
Nişantaşı a short hop by metro or taxi from Taksim Square. Although these days many of the smart apartments on the four main drags – Valikonağı Caddesi, Rumeli Caddesi, Teşvikiye Caddesi and Abdi İpekçi Caddesi – house professionals and doctors’ practices , the grid of back streets and arcades – with their pastry shops, small restaurants and delicatessens – still caters to a discerning gentility, much of which moves out to summer houses traditionally on the Princes Islands and the Bosphorus, but now more commonly in Bodrum and Alaçatı on the Aegean.
Harbiye is where the street from Taksim Square, Cumhuriyet Caddesi, divides, left for Halaskargazi Caddesi, right for Valikonağı Caddesi. For many Nişantaşılı, life revolves around the gigantic American Hospital, further down Valikonağı Caddesi, hidden behind the old English High School, and the 19th-century Teşvikiye Camii. The epicentre of smart shopping is Maçka's Abdi İpekçi Caddesi – Istanbul’s Bond Street – which leads down to the new ultrasmart St Regis Hotel, overlooking a wooded park mercifully recognisable from sketches made in 1900.
Nişantaşı, now a byword in urban chic, takes its name from a surprisingly rustic incident late in the 18th century, when the Sultan erected a little obelisk to mark the descent of a particularly well-shot arrow. Today’s high-fliers aim for Kenzo or Armani. And alongside the other international labels that have set up shop – Gucci, Prada, Vuitton, DKNY, Burberry – are the more innovative names in Turkish fashion and food.
Two of the smartest addresses are Mim Kemal Öke Caddesi and Abdi Ipekçi Caddesi, parallel streets running downhill from Valikonağı Caddesi. The terrace of Delicatessen on the former is a suitably prominent place to be seen having an aloof coffee or plate of charcuterie. Beymen and Park Şamdan are closer to the shopping action. The nearby Cemal Reşit Rey Concert Hall has the best classical concerts, routinely fusing Western and Turkish styles to laudable effect.
Bostan Sokak leads to the crossroad on Teşvikiye Caddesi, scene the finalé of Orhan Pamuk’s The Black Book. The elegant neighbourhood mosque was built by the same architects as the Dolmabahçe Palace. The House Café in a building on one corner of the mosque complex is dry for obvious reasons. The beautiful people meet there for coffee or a recovery brunch behind dark glasses. Almost opposite it is a pedestrianised street with a number of internationally inclined restaurants and shops, including Casita and Nord & Sud. The gallery in Milli Reasürans Pasajı around the corner has consistently interesting exhibitions and produces wonderful catalogues.
If you walk uphill from the mosque, keeping it behind you or on your right, you enter Nişantaşı proper. The familiar names in fashion give way to independent boutiques and antique dealers, and the glitz gives way to a more neighbourly refinement. Two essential stops to make: Yastik by Rifat Özbek for exquisite cushion covers, and Kantin for lunch.
Smart meeting places include the soothing terrace of Borsa, one of the city’s most serious Turkish restaurants; Loft, the new Mediterranean-style restaurant (both in the Lutfi Kırdar Conference Centre); Park Şamdan, an old favourite at the bottom of Mim Kemal Öke Caddesi; Brasserie, where a senatorial crowd spills onto Abdi Ipekçi Caddesi. Excellent local restaurants include Kantin in Akkavak Sokak (round the corner from the Nişantaşı crossroads), which does a delicious, wafer-thin pizza called çıtır. Like many cafés in the district it looks into a leafy, breezy courtyard you would never dream existed. Mutfak serves delicious home-cooked food by Songül Tali, previously cook to the granddaughter of the last caliph.
Dolmuşes: Nişantaşı has three handy ranks with dolmuşes: the one at Atiye Sokak (next to the Teşvikiye Mosque) goes to and from Taksim (next to The Marmara Hotel); the one in Akkavak Sokak goes to Eminönü and the Old City; and the one in Şakayık Sokak crosses the Bosphorus to Kadıköy. Osmanbey metro station is close by. Walk along Rumeli Caddesi, or come through the rag trade district in the backstreets, where even windows on the 5th floor are dressed!