The curators for Istanbul’s Biennial, the city’s showcase contemporary art event, had little doubt as to where the heart of the exhibition should lie: in the back streets and hidden corners in and around Beyoglu. Once the cosmopolitan hub of the former Ottoman imperial capital, but then abandoned for more modern districts, Beyoglu recently has undergone a renaissance to become the most happening place in the Turkish city. This might not immediately be obvious when you see the dense, mismatched throng of human life parading up and down Istiklal Street, the district’s main thoroughfare, but then the charms of Beyoglu, like the city itself, lie behind corners, up stairs and down side streets.

Beyoglu and its environs have not always represented the natural shopping destination for the city, but Istiklal Street is stocking up fast with Turkish and international youth stores such as Mavi Jeans and Koton, a Turkish Zara-style chain, as well as trendy shoe store Hotic, Diesel (two outlets), Nike and Puma. Explore the back streets for quirkier finds, such as the tiny Evihan, at 8 Altipatlar Sokak, a bead atelier and shop down the hill from central Beyoglu in the antiques district of Cukurcuma. Owned by Kristin Evihan, who designs colorful glass beads and accessories, Evihan also sells a selection of jewelry made of silver or with tile designs, ethnic-inspired clothing and shoes to order and wool or print handbags. Also in Cukurcuma, down the road from the imposing Galatasaray Lycee, which spreads out from Istiklal Street, Reyhan and Risalet Erturk’s Bis looks like a vintage shop, but in fact is a boutique beloved by the artists and actresses who frequent the area. The sisters, who are fans of all things Victorian, design what they call “free and authentic” clothes in the on-site atelier and import accessories from small, trendy German and Spanish suppliers. But if you are looking for one of the Turkish designers seeking to make a name on the international scene, you must take a short taxi ride to the upmarket shopping area of Nisantasi to peruse the classic-with-a-twist designs of pleats fan Arzu Kaprol, whose boutique, at 34 Abdi Ipekci Caddesi, is tucked away below sidewalk level off Abdi Ipekci Street.

Opened less than two years ago in a hidden, long-unused corner property in the Tunel end of Beyoglu, Helvetia cafe and restaurant, at 12 General Yazgan Sokak, is run by two girlfriends who just wanted to do a bit of cooking. They are still shocked at how it has taken off to become a favorite haunt of fashion designers, film directors, singers, artists and media people, buzzing with conversation and overflowing with praise for their tasty, simple, well-priced dishes. To get away from the evening rush, Helvetia’s owners sometimes sneak off for a coffee or pasta dish to the nearby Simdi cafe, at 69 Asmalimescit Sokak, which is tucked in amid art galleries and oddball restaurants on a side street off Istiklal. For insight into the ways of Turkish beautiful people, you’ll need to cross Istiklal and take the lift to the sixth floor of the newly restored Misir apartment, at 303 Istiklal Caddesi, where only the presence of heavies at the entrance alert you to the fact that you are on your way to this year’s most eagerly anticipated venue: 360. Thanks to its glass walls and large terrace, wherever you sit to enjoy your stuffed courgette and vodka, mint, watermelon and cardamom cocktail, you will have before you a stunning view of historic Old Istanbul. Serious fans of live music are on the mailing list of Babylon, the coolest music venue in the city. In the shell of a two-story brick building with Centre Pompidou-like interior piping, Babylon, at 3 Sehbender Sokak, hosts top jazz, fusion and quirky Turkish and international acts and also is famous for its regular themed parties.

When it opened a couple of years ago, the Italian-designed Bentley, at 75 Halaskargazi Caddesi in Harbiye, between Beyoglu and Nisantasi, was refreshing to visitors fed up with identical five-star chains and homely bed and breakfasts. Since then, other enticing hotels have sprung up, including the three-month-old Eklektik, at Serdaki Ekrem Caddesi in Beyoglu, and true to the district’s character, located down a steep hill and round an unlikely corner.

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