Sometimes, as you move through a city of 17 million people, all you want is a wide open green space, where you can go and not hear cars/musicians/people and not see concrete block buildings. This can be hard to find in a city so large, but luckily Istanbul still has an entire forest within its borders, somewhat easily accessible: Belgrade Forest.
Belgrade Forest was named, so I’ve been told, after a Serbian village that was forcibly relocated to the forest to manage the city’s water supply system during Ottoman times. Apparently people from that village were known for being good at that sort of thing, and the sultan decided he’d prefer to have no one but the best looking after his aqueducts and dams. The dams in the forest are generally Ottoman, rather than the Byzantine remnants visible in Fatih and stretching all the way to Greece, and were built over a period of 150 years. The water from the Belgrade Forest dams ended up along the European Bosporus shore all the way down to Besiktas before terminating in Taksim Square, where it was then distributed further. This is actually how Taksim got its name – “taksim” is Turkish for “water distribution center.”
Back to the forest: it currently covers over 5000 hectares, and is definitely big enough to lose oneself in, and find a place with nobody else around and no sounds of the city intruding. That’s incredibly rare for Istanbul. But the forest isn’t just for moments of hermitdom; it’s a very popular picnic ground as well, and there’s a 6 kilometer running track around a lake that’s packed with exercisers on the weekends. The Istanbul Hash House Harriers often run there, as does another informal running group, and both arrange carpools from nearby Metro stations.
Further from the central running-and-picnicking area, you can find the ruins of the village of Belgrad, which had a heyday in the late 18th century as a cool forest getaway for Istanbul’s hoi polloi. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, the wife of the British ambassador, spent time there and sent back beautiful descriptions of the village (and of Istanbul) in a series of letters. Today, only scattered foundations and the remains of the Anglican church, St. George’s, remain.
I really enjoy Belgrade Forest because it’s relaxing and quiet, relatively easy to get to, full of lakes (as a Minnesotan, I appreciate a good lake), and, along with the Asia-side Marmara coast, is probably one of the best places to jog in Istanbul. It’s hard to imagine that with a Metro ride and a bus ride one can go from Taksim, the heart of a 17-million-strong city, to a forest where it’s easy to lose yourself among the trees. Belgrade Forest is a key part of what makes Istanbul wonderful.
In the Sariyer district; accessible by busses to Bahcekoy (153 from Sariyer, 42, 42M, 42T from 4. Levent/Taksim)
Weekend carpools from 4. Levent with several running groups
Contains Ataturk Aboretum, open weekdays
Also contains ruins of Belgrad village, 18th century summer getaway for the Istanbul expat crowd
Starting point of the late Ottoman water distribution system