Want to get off the beaten path in Istanbul? A good option is Kumkapı. This neighborhood on the shores of the Marmara Sea isn’t usually on the radar of tourists because there are no big name attractions, but it’s nice to explore for a couple hours. It will give you a glimpse into everyday life in Istanbul.
Kumkapı is a neighborhood in the Fatih district. It’s just steps away from the historic old city of Sultanahmet and Kapalıçarşı (Grand Bazaar), but it’s a world apart. The run-down Ottoman buildings and clotheslines strewn from window to window high above the street will give you a much different feeling than the touristy Sultanahmet.
Kumkapı was traditionally home to a large Armenian community and a sizable population of Greeks. There are Armenian churches scattered throughout the neighborhood. During Byzantine times, Kumkapı was known as Kontoskálion (Κοντοσκάλιον). During Ottoman times, it was called Kadırga Limanı. It served as a harbor to the city of Constantinople all the way up until the mid 18th century.
Surp Asdvadzadzin Armenian Patriarchal Cathedral sits across the street behind high stone walls. The bell tower of the church is visible from the street. Unfortunately, it was closed during my visit. The large building next door to the Patriarchal Church is the Bezciyan Armenian School.
Two important Greek Orthodox churches are located in Kumkapı. Panagia Elpida (Παναγία Ἐλπίδα) sits behind a high concrete wall topped with barbed wire. It was originally built in the 16th century but restored to its current look in the 19th century.
The second church is Agia Kyriaki (Αγία Κυριακή). It’s arguably the most beautiful of all the Greek churches in Istanbul.
Along the streets, you’ll also encounter lots of old Ottoman Greek buildings. The magnificent stone structures are not well-maintained and are crumbling away with time.
When tourists visit Kumkapı, they usually only see Kumkapı Meydanı. This square is home to several fish restaurants that come alive at night with a fantastic atmosphere.
Almost every street surrounding the square is lined with these fish restaurants. Many outdoor tables are tightly packed together along the street. The tables are neatly dressed during the day for the majority of customers visiting in the evenings.
One word of warning – Kumkapı fish restaurants have been notorious in the past for ripping people off, both foreigners and Turks alike. Things have changed with people fighting back via online reviews, but the reputation still stands. I have been advised by Turkish friends to this day not to eat in Kumkapı.
Across the busy Kennedy Caddesi sits the famous Kumkapı fish market. The market is full of stores selling fresh daily catches from the rich seas surrounding Istanbul. Buying fish to cook at home tends to be much more expensive in Kumkapı than in other fish markets.