ISTANBUL It's just past 11 p.m. on a stifling Friday night when a group of young revellers bursts into song after a mariachi band in a packed bar serenades their guest of honour with a Spanish-flavoured rendition of Happy Birthday.
Down the street, a velvet rope and well-dressed doormen mark the entrance to a massive nightclub, ready to turn away anyone who doesn't meet the fashionable dress code.
Steps away, young people rifle through racks of impressive fashions at high-end boutiques that welcome shoppers until midnight.
Yes, this is Istanbul. According to David Judson, the editor of the Turkish Daily News, "it's the most interesting city in Europe on a Friday or Saturday night."
True, only part of Istanbul actually resides in Europe, the rest in Asia. And though it has been anointed the European Cultural Capital for 2010, Turkey is not a member of the European Union. In fact, its bid for official status has added to political unrest in old Byzantium: Last July, two explosions killed 17 people and injured more than 150 in a residential area; a few weeks earlier, three officers were killed after gunmen opened fire at the U.S. consulate. The country's security reputation suffered another blow this month when dozens of people were killed at a wedding in the often-dangerous southeast, in what was described as a family feud. Foreign Affairs Canada warns travellers to exercise a "high degree of caution" in the country and that international and domestic terrorist groups post a "significant" threat.
But those are the headlines. On Istanbul's Istiklal Avenue the name means "independence" in Turkish the beat goes on. It's a distinctly global rhythm.
About two million locals come to this three-kilometre pedestrian strip every weekend. And while there's still a historic tram and the odd Turkish ice cream or kebab vendor here, a new generation eager to embrace Western culture is turning a once run-down district into a buzzing cosmopolitan hub.
"It's a place where you see a girl wearing an Islamic head scarf walking arm-in-arm with a girl with a nose ring and the latest Levi's jeans," Judson says.
Not to mention a place to flash some cash. According to the latest Forbes rich list, Istanbul has the seventh highest number of billionaires in the world. Even though the global financial meltdown has whittled that number from 34 last year to 13, Istanbul still edged out the likes of Tokyo, Mumbai and Chicago. And rich Turks like to spend on Istiklal.
It's home to 360 Istanbul, for example, a restaurant in the penthouse of a 19th-century apartment building that has breathtaking panoramic views of the city and across the Bosporus strait. The menu features a creative blend of Turkish and international cuisine, such as the shish kebab "remix" of beef filet and eggplant relish or the glazed roast quail made with foie gras sauce, dried raspberry-pistachio stuffing and pomegranate apples, in addition to a selection of sushi.
Or there's the nearby Reina, arguably Istanbul's most famous club and restaurant, which can easily host more than 2,000 people. Paris Hilton, Sting and Uma Thurman have been known to drop in to one of its seven restaurants.
But they're not the only notable visitors to Turkey. Hollywood actress Eva Mendes spent a few days in the city in March. John Malkovich paid a visit last month for the International Istanbul Film Festival. And controversy erupted after Eric Watson, part-owner of New Zealand's troubled Hanover Finance, threw a lavish two-day birthday party in Istanbul last month, with guests including Kerry and Caroline Kennedy.
Of course, the most famous visitor to Istanbul was U.S. President Barack Obama, who was there last month, fulfilling his promise to visit a predominantly Muslim country in his first 100 days in office.
Betting on guests with equally lavish budgets, W Hotels opened a location in the city last May, and a month later, the Four Seasons opened its second hotel here, as well as a 2,100-square-metre spa.
Once considered the "Paris of the East" by 19th-century travellers, Istanbul shows its long history through its cobblestone streets and ancient architecture. Yet, while Istiklal Avenue is in one of the oldest areas of Istanbul, it's impossible to miss the atmosphere of urban chic that is redefining what it means to visit this city. Time Out Magazine has declared Istanbul "the most criminally underrated city in Europe" and after experiencing the city's unique embrace of old and new, it's hard not to see why.
In a city with roots that date further back than the reign of Constantine, it can be tricky to take a few steps without running into a 1,000-year-old mosque or formerly grand Ottoman palace. So most travellers can be forgiven for coming here only to wonder at centuries-old monuments, ruins and places of worship.
What they'll also find at these landmarks, though, is a lot of other tourists. Last summer, more than 3.3 million people visited Turkey in the month of June alone. The country is outpacing Spain for British tourists for the first time in decades. The number of Canadian visitors has also skyrocketed from 39,000 in 1995 to over 147,000 last year. According to Christopher Day of Expedia.ca, the country continues to be one of the fastest-rising destinations for Canadians heading overseas.
"We've seen significant double-digit growth [compared to last year]," he says. "It really is a traveller's dream. It's almost pristine in its history."
Visitors who stick close to the main tourist attractions will see the majestic beauty of the Topkapi Palace, the overwhelming Grand Bazaar and whirling dervishes at open-air restaurants. But they'll miss the complex nature of this rapidly evolving city whose storied past is met by a rising middle class and an embrace of what the future has to offer.
Which brings us back to Istiklal. Although it warrants only a few pages in many guidebooks, this avenue and the vibrant side streets that run off it are where locals go to let down their hair.
Take the Nevizade Sokak a narrow street that is undoubtedly the most energetic and congested off Istiklal.
Here, crowds of young Turks puff cigarettes and sip beer at meyhanes, or Turkish taverns, that have patios spilling onto one another, making it difficult for passersby to walk single file down the street, while more patrons fill balconies that are often two or three storeys high.
It's not surprising to see a group of young Turkish students sitting beside a table of businessmen unwinding after a long day at work on the Nevizade. Taverns such as Asirli, Boncuk and Mavi welcome customers with beer or raki, a Turkish aperitif that's not for the faint of heart. Tables share plates of mezes, snack plates similar to tapas that feature any variety of cheese, salad greens, melon slices and pastry as well as mussels, calamari or mackerel. The atmosphere is light-headed and jovial as Turkish pop mingles with vintage Rolling Stones in the open-air bars which are packed by early evening and stay that way until the wee hours.
"You can go there at 4 o'clock in the morning and find people," says Luca Carsana, a Swiss native who recently spent several months living in Istanbul. "I was not thinking Istanbul would be like that when I left Europe."
The sea of pedestrians also flows during retail hours. The wide avenue vehicles were barred here years ago is lined with stores nestled in ornate 19th-century buildings. Dominated as they are by Western names such as Lacoste, Diesel, MAC Cosmetics and Topshop, it's almost difficult to remember you're in a city celebrated for its Byzantine and Ottoman history. Strolling along Istiklal also provides welcome relief for female visitors who are usually overwhelmed with the infamous hisses and cat calls from shopkeepers and other men around Istanbul's prime tourist spots.
The ongoing gentrification of the area, Beyoglu, has sparked some anger among residents who resent Turkey's increasingly close ties to the West. But some strong domestic offerings still abound here, showing that there is much more to Turkish shopping than the handmade bowls and carpets on sale in the Grand Bazaar.
For instance, Turkish chains such as Jimmy Key and Miss Poem are filled with youthful, cutting-edge designs that could easily rival anything in trendy shops on Queen Street West in Toronto or Main Street in Vancouver. The side streets that jut away from the main drag of Istiklal are becoming increasingly well-known for locally designed silver and turquoise jewellery, as well as high-quality antique stores.
While the selection of food available on menus throughout Istanbul has typically stayed close to the traditional Turkish, a growing number of stylish restaurants are blending old customs with international cuisine, ranging from Italian to Thai and Chinese fare.
Spots like Haci Baba that continue to offer Turkish staples such as lamb or chicken shish kebab now co-exist with the likes of 8 Istanbul, an upscale Asian restaurant focusing on food with a Thai twist, which opened earlier this year in a boutique hotel. Or the House Café, a successful Turkish operation with several locations across the city that offers a chilled-out, comfortable atmosphere and classic dishes, like Turkish salads or a variety of pizzas. And last spring, Jean-Georges Vongerichten opened his Spice Market restaurant in the W Hotel.
Istanbul's vibrant new soul is on display throughout Istiklal Avenue any night of the week, as young Turkish couples snuggle on the balconies of cozy taverns and families or groups of friends talk and laugh as they navigate through the crowds eager to soak in the area's pulsing atmosphere.
All of which is a far cry from, say, Istanbul's Sultanahmet district home to most of the major tourist attractions. While it's packed with breathtaking sights such as the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia, it's hard to feel lost in the city's rich depths and fascinating culture here. Many shopkeepers automatically address passersby in English. And neighbourhood restaurants offer North American staples burgers and American-style pizza in addition to Turkish fare.
Although the Sultanahmet district is rich in history, it's necessary to venture beyond its ancient buildings to see the soul of the new Istanbul.
"People often don't come to Istanbul seeking a contemporary experience. They come seeking this clichéd Sinbad and the 40 Thieves kind of theme park," says Judson. "I think that it's really important to see the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia and see the past. But you go to [Istiklal], you're seeing the future. Not just the future of Turkey, but the future of Europe."
PACK YOUR BAGS
Turkish Airlines is planning to offer direct flights to Istanbul from Toronto this summer. Air Canada doesn't have direct flights to Istanbul's Ataturk International Airport, but books flights through partner airlines.
Where to stay
W Hotel Suleyman Seba Caddesi 22, Akaretler, Besiktas; 90 (212) 381-2121; www.wistanbul.com.tr. From $230. When it opened last year, Istanbul's W Hotel became the company's first venture into Europe.
Four Seasons Hotel Istanbul at the Bosphorus Çiragan Caddesi 28, Besiktas 34349; 90 (212) 381-4000; www.fourseasons.com/bosphorus. From $465 to as high as $11,060 (for a luxury three-bedroom suite). The hotel was converted from a 19th-century Ottoman Empire-era palace.
Lush Hip Hotel Siraselviler 12, Taksim; 90 (212) 243-9595; www.lushhiphotel.com. A stone's throw from Istiklal Avenue, this renovated hotel in a century-old building features 35 individually decorated rooms. From $190.
Pera Palace Hotel Mesrutiyet Caddesi 52, Beyoglu; 90 (212) 243-0737; www.perapalas.com. Although it isn't scheduled to officially re-open until later this year, it's worth mentioning this former luxury hotel that played host to kings, queens and celebrities such as Agatha Christie and Alfred Hitchcock in its heyday. It is being restored to its former glory.
Where to eat
360 Istanbul Istiklal Caddesi, Misir Apt. K:8 N: 311, Beyoglu; 90 (212) 251-10-4243; www.360istanbul.com. One of the hottest places to eat, drink and be seen in Istanbul. The restaurant features a blend of local and international fare.
8 Istanbul Gazeteci Erol Dernek Sokak No. 1, Beyoglu; 90 (532) 556-4356; www.8istanbul.com. The recently opened restaurant features a menu heavy with Asian influences.
The House Café Istiklal Caddesi Misir Apt. No. 163, Beyoglu; 90 (212) 251-7991; www.thehousecafe.com.tr/web. The café/restaurant has a relaxing yet trendy atmosphere.
What to do
Enjoy meze and raki at one of the many meyhanes of the Cicek Arcade, also known as the Flower Passage because it once served as a flower market; take in a film at one of the many theatres along Istiklal Avenue; visit Pera Museum, which features Oriental paintings and Anatolian weights and measures; watch hundreds of thousands of people crowd the avenue as night falls at one of the open-air cafés overlooking Istiklal Avenue; buy ice cream from a street vendor and watch traditional Turkish candy being made through the large windows of a shop along Istiklal.
Istanbul is a featured destination on The Globe's Mediterranean Odyssey cruise this August. See www.globeandmail.com/cruise.