This is my Istanbul

The things that shape how I experience the city

This is my Istanbul: Koc Museum March 30, 2010

Filed under: Places — Rebecca @ 10:56 pm
Tags: , ,


It is a truth universally acknowledged that an industrial scion in Turkey in possession of a good fortune must open a museum. That’s probably what Austen would have written had she lived in early 21st century Istanbul, rather than early 19th century Britain. It seems like almost every billionaire in town (there are 34, according to Forbes) establishes a university and a museum. Most of these are not (yet) part of my Istanbul, mostly because I’ve not been to them. But there’s one billionaire-founded museum I could go back to time and again: the Rahmi M. Koc Museum.
While many of those museums tend to be art museums, which can be pretty cool, the Koc Museum is unabashedly not: it’s dedicated to “the history of Transport, Industry, and Communications.” Basically, Rahmi M. Koc was born into the family behind Koc Holding. He absolutely loved cars and anything mechanical as a child, and was able to pick up quite a few mechanical wonders. Later in life, realizing that he had all this cool stuff and was sitting fairly pretty given that Koc Holding was the largest conglomerate in the country, he decided to establish a museum to display the odds and ends he’d collected over the years. It opened in 1994.
When you walk in the front gates of the museum, the first thing you notice is everything in the parking lot. I’m not talking tour busses – I’m talking airplanes and military vehicles, with an old London double-decker bus in the middle. They’re all kind of scattered about, and you can walk up to/in several of them, including a very old passenger airplane and the London bus. Off to the side is some giant ship equipment and a hangar filled with various experimental cars and the remains of a US B-24 bomber that was lost at sea off Antalya after a bombing run in World War II. It was found in the 1990s, and partially salvaged.
The museum itself is full of So. Much. Stuff. It starts with a sort of ode to technology, including a chronological exhibit of personal computers and a display of how ordinary household electronics work before moving on past another plane, a scale model of an oil drilling platform, and a row of cars to a replica olive oil factory, which lights up to show the olive oil pressing process. There’s some vintage Turkish safety signs nearby that are pretty cool, as well as row after row of bicycles, motorcycles, horse carriages, and prams. That’s less than half of one of the museum’s two buildings. Outside between the two buildings are a collection of giant anchors and ships’ bells, several ships, and a military submarine, which is open for tours. Yeah, a submarine. Side note, for those of you following the Ergenekon intrigue, apparently a large cache of TNT was found in the Koc museum submarine last May. This was either forgotten when it was decommissioned from the Turkish military or meant to be blown up in some horrifying scheme. As far as I know, the TNT’s been removed now.
The second building houses smaller boats, including a pretty sweet old car that could be driven into the water and turn into a boat. There’s also a bunch of motors, other mechanical things, and probably the most random exhibit of all: the yacht trip.
In addition to loving all things mechanical and being a scion of industry, Rahmi Koc is a bit of a yachting enthusiast. So, as one does when one has a lot of free time, a yacht, and a museum, he and his wife took a two-year, round-the-world trip in their yacht. Along the way they stopped by Africa, the South Pacific, the Caribbean, and pretty much anywhere that looked nifty. They took photos, bought a lot of souvenirs and knickknacks, and added to Koc’s t-shirt collection. When they got back, they put all those souvenirs and t-shirts in the museum. Imagine creating a museum exhibit out of your most epic trip. That’s basically what Koc did. It’s a little bizarre, but very fun.
I have no space to go through everything at the Koc Museum, and you’d get terribly bored if I did, so I’ll link the museum’s website below, but the one last thing: it has a small private train, which does short trips down and back the Golden Horn. Also, it has a Golden Horn-side bar.
The Koc Museum is an off-kilter, hands-on, and incredibly fun place to explore. With the sheer amount and variety of things on display, there’s guaranteedly something for everyone. And fun photo ops abound, because there’s so much you can clamber on/in/around. Once you’ve seen the sights of Sultanahmet, I highly recommend the Koc Museum.

I couldn’t decide which pic to use, so you get two, no extra charge.

The Rahmi M. Koc Museum
Haskoy Cad. 5
TL 10, students TL 5, submarine admission TL 5, planetarium admission TL 5

To get there: The Golden Horn IDO ferry from Eminonu zig-zags to Haskoy, the museum’s directly next to the Haskoy ferry dock. If you’ve missed the ferry, take bus 47 from Eminonu or 54HT from Taksim.


This is my Istanbul: The Asia-side waterfront March 27, 2010

Filed under: Places — Rebecca @ 6:26 pm
Tags: , ,

My first time in Turkey, I did not set foot in Asian Istanbul. When I moved to Bogazici, I took the ferry across to Kadikoy a few times and hopped a train out of Haydarpasa, but never really got beyond the late, great Kadikoy Tuesday bazaar. I knew that Asia “wasn’t that bad,” but between living at Bogazici and hanging out in Bebek, Arnavutkoy, Ortakoy, Besiktas and Taksim, there really wasn’t a need to go explore the other side of the city. Plus, all the historic/tour-y bits were Euro-side: Sultanahmet, the Byzantine churches of Fatih, the museums around the European side, historic Beyoglu. Why go to Asia?

I was totally missing out.

Asia is awesome. This time ‘round, I’ve explored more of the Asian side of Istanbul than I think I knew existed, and have tons more to see. I’m not going to relegate the entire half of the city to one blog post though, so this is going to focus on the waterfront. Between Kadikoy and lord-only-knows-where south on the Marmara, a really well-done waterfront promenade stretches on reclaimed land for over 40 kilometers, most of it adjoining parkland, tea gardens, and marinas.

While I decried workout options in my part of Istanbul in my earlier post on exercise parks, the south side of Asian Istanbul has a gorgeous paved running, biking and walking trail that wanders from exercise park to grassy areas. Recently, I started out from Caddebostan with a friend and walked up through Fenerbahce, past the Fenerbahce lighthouse, through Moda and on to Kadikoy, a decent hour-and-a-half jaunt of 8 km. It was great.

While the European side has shore roads, and has a longish stretch of grass and sidewalk south past Yenikapi, the Asian side’s waterfront is absurdly better developed, with well-maintained grassy areas, multitudinous municipal flower beds, and much more assiduous attention to trash pick-up. Plus, the tea gardens. There’s just so many places to sit and enjoy the gorgeous weather and watch the ships go by, over a glass of tea or a coffee or a kebap or a beer. And the path is long enough and well-maintained enough to get a really decent run in, should one be so inclined.

For all that my neighborhood has to offer, it does not have a waterfront promenade that can hold a candle to the one in Asia. It’s refreshing to be able to hop on the ferry, get to Kadikoy, and set off down the trail, parks and gardens to your left and the Marmara to your right. I don’t get over to Asia as often as I should, but the Asian-side waterfront is definitely part of my Istanbul.


This is my Istanbul: Falafel House March 26, 2010

Filed under: Places — Rebecca @ 9:30 pm
Tags: , , ,

One mistake that a lot of folks back home make when considering Turkish food is the assumption that Turks eat hummus and falafel. While these are pretty standard fare southward in Syria, northwestward in Greece, and even eastward in Armenia, by and large hummus is not considered “Turkish cuisine.” Nor is falafel.
The exception to this rule is down in Antakya/Hatay, a little province in the very south, right next to Syria. Actually, it was part of Syria until 1939, when it joined Turkey after a fun and intrigue-filled international political wrangle. This is partially why its traditional food includes hummus. While it was fairly easy to find my go-to hummus place in Antakya (great little hole in the wall called Hummus ve Bakla, they serve 2 things: hummus and bakla), it took a little time to find my place in Istanbul.
Luckily, I have found my Istanbul hummus and falafel place, and it’s even cheap and centrally located. What more can one ask for? Falafel House is an embarrassingly huge part of my Istanbul. It’s located just off Taksim Square, which makes it perfect for after-work falafel dinners, picking up take-out hummus on the way home from an evening out, or meeting folks from other far-flung parts of the city. I am so glad it doesn’t deliver to Fatih, or I’d probably only eat falafel.
Although Falafel House’s location is absurdly convenient, it’s only a small part of what keeps me going back. The food, quite simply, is amazing. Falafel House is run by Palestinians who’ve set up shop in Istanbul, and they know how to do hummus, falafel, tabbouleh, fuul, and a few other Middle Eastern staples. The hummus comes generously slathered on a plate, topped with olive oil, with pickles and spicy red sauce on the side. The falafel is fried fresh and served still-steaming plain, in a wrap, or, my usual choice, in a pita pocket with lettuce, tomato, pepper and yogurt sauce. Phenomenal. The prices are quite reasonable as well: Two falafel pitas, two Diet Cokes and a plate of hummus to split will set you back a princely TL 16, total. Hummus to go is something like TL 4. And, if you’re a student, there’s a 20 percent discount. Score.
I end up at Falafel House absurdly frequently – they recognize me when I come in and know both my eat-in and to-go orders. I’ve chosen to embrace it, and my new goal is to get a special named after me. I think I can swing it with the falafel pita, hummus side and Diet Coke. We’ll see.
Falafel House certainly isn’t a tourist must-visit, and isn’t the kind of snazzy place written about in restaurant guides of the city, but is definitely an essential part of my Istanbul. If you’re passing through and missing falafel, or live here, I highly recommend it.

Falafel House
Sehit Muhtar Cad. 19
(From Taksim, find the Simit Sarayi on Tarlabasi, turn in down the pedestrianized street about a block. It’s on the left)


This is my Istanbul: Exercise Parks March 24, 2010

Filed under: Things — Rebecca @ 12:30 am
Tags: ,

Turks, on the whole, are not exactly the most gung-ho about physical fitness. While Switzerland is dotted with wanderwegs and the Brits seem to love a good country walk, the exercise thing is still somewhat novel, football match-ups aside. I started the Istanbul Marathon this year (as I am also not as gung-ho as I should be about fitness, I just ran across the Bosporus Bridge, not 42km), and by and large folks didn’t really stretch or anything beforehand. A friend who ran the Nike Human Race last year reported people actually smoking as they jogged.
To remedy this, in the past few years the country has installed hundreds, probably thousands of exercise parks, in most cities. These exercise parks are pretty neat – they have a variety of equipment, and involve cardio and strength training. Since they were all installed in the past few years they’re generally in good repair. They range in size from two or four machines to over a dozen, and usually are attached to a park. The ones in my area are on the Marmara, for a particularly scenic workout.
It’s hard to use the exercise parks near me at times, because they’ve become a sort of teenage guy hangout, but when they’re not it’s usually me and a headscarved/full skirted woman or two. I think it’s different in other neighborhoods but around my neck of the woods I’m usually the only one in exercise togs. I enjoy that, it keeps working out pretty low key.
The exercise parks definitely help make up for a dearth of gyms and fitness centers in the city. While Istanbul does have an increasing number of gyms, their price range is better suited for those on expat salaries. Also, there are none in wider Fatih. None. That probably speaks better than anything as to the class divisions in who uses gyms and fitness centers (there are a few amateur sports clubs in Fatih, mainly for children’s football initiatives). Exercise parks, though, are in every neighborhood. They’re in the middle of Fatih. They’re along the Bosporus in Kurucesme. They’re up north in Emirgan, where football teams go to work out on weekends. I really like the universality of them, as they’re literally everywhere and open to literally everyone. I’ve seen people from all walks of life working away on the exercise equipment.
In the end, the exercise parks aren’t really a must-see, or a tourist attraction. But they are definitely a facet of my Istanbul.


This is my Istanbul: Bodrum Manti March 22, 2010

Filed under: Places — Rebecca @ 9:31 pm
Tags: , , ,

Fried manti!

For some reason, I never got around to trying manti the first time I lived in Turkey. Maybe it was the description – “Turkish ravioli” seemed like it could be sketchy, so I stuck to my imam bayildi and various kebaps. This was a grave mistake, and one that I’ve spent many meals rectifying this time around. Manti is delicious. Of the many manti places I’ve eaten at, the one I keep going back to, even though it’s currently ridiculously inconvenient to get to, is Bodrum Manti.
First, some background: Manti is made of noodles enveloping minced meat, usually lamb or beef, in little packets. They’re about 3/4” or 1”, depending on who’s making them. Once they’re formed, they’re boiled, and served smothered in a garlicky yogurt/tomato sauce, usually with dried mint and sumac to sprinkle on top. Sumac is a very Turkish spice not generally used in the West; Wikipedia says it’s got a lemony taste, which I guess is a fair description. Basically, manti is hot and filling and delicious.
Still, manti places are scattered across the city. What makes Bodrum Manti so awesome? Several things. First, their manti itself is really good. They have traditional manti, and then they take it to the next level: they also offer manti made with wheat dough and manti stuffed with chicken, potato, spinach or cheese. Even better tastewise, although surely pretty deadly healthwise: they have fried manti. Oh my goodness the taste explosion. If you can’t decide which kind you want, or are new to the world of manti, they’ll serve you a combination of several varieties.
After you finish your manti at Bodrum (incidentally, “bodrum” is the name of a city to the south and also means “basement”), you’ll probably be pretty stuffed. Portions are pretty generous. But the meal’s not done: they include dessert free with every entrée, and it is good. The waiters serve up a scoop of ice cream sandwiched between crunchy waffles, topped with a tart berry sauce. Once you’re done with the ice cream, it’s coffee/tea time – they make very good Turkish coffee.
Rounding out the list of things that make Bodrum Manti one of my three favorite restaurants in the country are its location, right on the waterfront in Arnavutkoy, the fact that it has free wireless, its hours (the restaurant is one of woefully few places in the city that’s open 24 hours – that’s right, I can get manti at 5am should the mood strike me) and its delivery, which sadly doesn’t extend to my current neck of the woods but which I made very good use of when I lived up at Bogazici and when I used to crash at friends’ places over in Arnavutkoy.
If you’ve visited me in Istanbul, I have taken you to Bodrum Manti. If you visit me in the future, we will go to Bodrum Manti. My mom liked it so much when she was in town, we went twice. Arnavutkoy’s not on the tourist trail, and guidebooks will likely never mention Bodrum, but Bodrum Manti is most definitely part of my Istanbul.

Bodrum Manti
Arnavutkoy Iskele Cad. 111
Also 2 locations on the Asian side
Manti TL 12-14ish (also try the piyaz [white bean salad], it’s quite good)

You can also try making manti at home (I know of one successful homemade fried manti attempt as well); this is a recipe from a decent Turkish cooking site to get you started.


This is my Istanbul: Municipality flowers

Filed under: Things — Rebecca @ 12:00 pm
Tags: , ,


Many cities have civic beautification projects. Some go all out. Istanbul takes it to a whole ‘nother level. Every week during the spring, summer, and fall, I pass municipality workers in florescent vests patiently digging up last week’s flower arrangement and planting the new week’s en route to my bus stop. They’re always gorgeous, always colorful, and always add a bit of cheer to the mundane commute.

Istanbul, and the Ottoman Empire for that matter, is known for tulips. The Dutch were introduced to tulips via the Ottoman Empire, promptly saw that saw a flower as cool as the tulip was first of all a must-have and second of all a wise investment choice, and thus sparked history’s first recorded speculative bubble. Think Beanie Babies or California real estate, but 17th-century-style. Tulips had staying power, though, so the Netherlands are still associated with the flower to this day, as is Turkey to a slightly lesser extent.

Istanbul today has an annual International Tulip Festival, held later in the spring. The tulip beds at the Blue Mosque and up at Emirgan Park in particular will be overflowing with color. The festival was started by the current mayor, Kadir Topbas, five years ago. Topbas is behind some of the large-scale landscaping efforts in the city – this year, the city’s parks and gardens division plans to plant 9.3 million tulips around the city.

Of course, Istanbul’s landscaping isn’t just tulips. The variety of flowers lining roads, planted in meridians, or decorating some central square is fairly astounding. I particularly enjoy the shrubbery that spells out the name of my district next to the shore road near me.

Flowers aren’t really unique to Istanbul at all, but the municipality’s flowers are a distinct facet of my experience in the city. The municipality has just started its spring planting, and soon the air will be filled with the scent of fresh flowers and my commute will be brighter by the rotating landscaping displays.


This is my Istanbul: Cats

Filed under: Things — Rebecca @ 12:47 am
Tags: , ,


I am not a cat person. In the Great Dogs vs. Cats debate, I throw my support firmly behind man’s best friend. A decade of dog shows will do that for you, I guess. But in Istanbul, I’ve become a cat sympathizer.
Cats are everywhere in this city, inside and out. There’s a cultural aversion to dogs as pets that’s just beginning to abate, so the go-to small animal for Turkish families in need of a house pet is overwhelmingly cats. For expats, cats are pretty portable, and easy to find sitters for/leave to their own devices for a weekend jaunt. Outside, cats rule the streets (there’s a respectable street dog contingent as well, which will surely be the subject of a later post). Compared to Boston, which had closer to zero street cats and closer to way-too-many rats, I’ll take the Istanbul model – I’ve seen nary a rat or other vermin-like creature on the streets.
The cats of the street actually have a fairly sweet deal, for urban street urchins. A lot of people will leave out food or small bowls of water for the neighborhood cats. Many vets will give free or majorly discounted checkups and shots to a cat if you adopt it from the street. The one exception to this is spaying/neutering, as it’s considered “against nature.” It might be unnatural, but it’d also help reduce the tribble-like kitten explosion each spring and summer.
A lot of cats will congregate at university campuses or mosques, where there tends to be some sort of organized feeding and cat care system (also, less traffic, so a bit safer). The cat in the photo above, for example, is at the Blue Mosque. At the Hagia Sophia, cats wander around freely and are the subject of a lot of tourist photos, including a notable photo op with Obama when he visited the site last April. At Bogazici University, cats would wander in and out of the classrooms during lectures, and seemed to have a loose departmental affiliation.
I’ve somehow ended up long-term catsitting pretty much my entire time in the city, for a few different cats. As a result, my cat care knowledge has blossomed, and I’ve definitely grown to appreciate their blasé companionship. Cats and Istanbul are nigh inseparable, and as such they are firmly a part of my Istanbul.