This is my Istanbul

The things that shape how I experience the city

This is my Istanbul: Houseguests September 5, 2010


Live in a city like Istanbul, and your guestroom will get a lot of use. After very sporadic houseguestage in Ankara, I figured my guestroom in Istanbul would play host to the occasional researcher or travelling friend. Au contraire. My guestroom count is at four this summer and more than I can remember since moving in.
My guests have run the gamut from seasoned Istanbul hands to folks who’ve never been this far east before and from old friends to brand-new acquaintances. I think the visit length record is held by a university friend at somewhere approaching four weeks, although the cats I’ve been catsitting spent a solid six months or so chez moi.
I’ve been quite lucky in that I currently have a dedicated guestroom, although perhaps less lucky in that by working somewhere approaching 50 hours a week for the past year I often don’t have the most time to shepherd my tourist-trail-hopping guests around town.
I’ve worked out a fairly good system, though: I set my houseguests loose upon Sultanahmet and the other sightseeing things that visitors to the city inevitably want to see and I inevitably have already toured five times (Blue Mosque, I’m looking at you; Basilica Cistern gets a pass though because it’s just so cool), and after I get back near the city center from Distant Regions of the City, we meet up for dinner, drinks, nighttime strolling and other things that are right up my alley.
Quite accidentally, I’ve developed an informal list of places that my houseguests usually end up at when we meet up in the evenings. Some will remain Trade Secrets (Want to know my best houseguest haunts? Crash at my place for a few days), but others have definitely been mentioned on this blog before or should be in the future, including Bodrum Manti, Falafel House, Akdeniz Hatay, Dubb (protip – top floor at Dubb has stunning views of the Hagia Sofia, and it’s one of the better Indian food options in the city. Might want to make a reservation so you don’t get relegated to a lower, still-charming-but-sceneryless floor), Çiya (I think every single expat in this city has been to and is expected to highly approve of Çiya. It’s quite good, but not exactly hidden.), a fish place, and usually the Sublime Portal’s Thursday expat meetup. I am apparently a bit of a creature of habit.
Not to sound my own horn, but my houseguests and I often end up having ridiculously awesome experiences. C. came to visit in May this year; on our way back to my flat one evening we stumbled across a soap opera being filmed quite literally directly across the street from my flat. We stopped to ask the owner of the restaurant that was serving as the set which dizi it was (Ömre Bedel, apparently; it’s about a “bitter love”. Aren’t they all.) and half a minute later were ensconced smack dab in the middle of the production, looking over the shoulders of the director and sipping tea. Later, in between filming a scene of a dinner party and a scene where a man storms in to the dinner, we got pumpkin/cream dessert and chatted with the production crew. This is why my restaurateur neighbors are awesome.
When E. came to town in March of this year, we set off to Gebze, in a trip that served as the basis of my Gebze post. E. was back in town last week, and this time around we went to Istanbul Fashion Week, where we loaded up on some good swag and soaked up all the high fashion Istanbul had on offer (also the free iced coffees. It was hot out.). My houseguest S. and I ended up noshing on grilled ostrich on a balcony overlooking the Mediterranean. And when K. came to town, we ended up in Antakya, site of the first church in the world, for Easter services. The moral of this story is clearly that if you are my houseguest in Istanbul, unexpected but amazing things will happen. Because my Istanbul is unexpected and amazing and full of visitors.


This is my Istanbul: Sublime Portal July 5, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Rebecca @ 1:34 am

The television show Cheers was perhaps a bit before my time, but its iconic theme song has been an earworm of mine many a time. I’m not the most gregarious of folks, so it’s rare that “everybody knows [my] name,” but one place where that lyric holds true in Istanbul is The Sublime Portal.
The Sublime Portal is a web-based forum and wiki for expats and repats across Turkey. I initially joined while living in Ankara, and met some very nice folks there before moving to Istanbul and showing up to one of the Portal’s weekly meetups, not knowing a soul. Now, one year later, when I walk into a weekly meetup I usually know everyone. I’ve met some of my closest friends through the Portal. Last month alone, I went to a pirate-themed boat party, organized a hamam trip (to Cinili of course), and met up for several dinners and several World Cup viewings with folks from the Sublime Portal.
There are other expat forums out there, but I’ve found the closest and most welcoming community on TSP. Because it requires that members be expats or repats, it does a good job of weeding out the magandas that run roughshod over certain other Turkey fora.
Folks on the forum are just plain interesting. There are teachers, journalists, lawyers, executives, and people whose primary pastimes are perhaps less easily defined. Some have just arrived in Istanbul for their first time living abroad, while others have stumbled in to the city after a long string of stints in exotic and occasionally difficult locales. The language of the Portal is English, but there’s a veritable grab bag of native languages (I’ve met a lot of German speakers recently, for example) and, naturally, native countries. As a sometime Turkophile, I’ve found great discussions and debates about modern Turkish society and politics with folks I’ve met via the Portal, as well as gossip about Turkish soaps and local shopping hints.

In addition to being a social hub of sorts, the Sublime Portal is a clearinghouse of information. If something changes procedurally at the Istanbul Emniyet Mudurlugu, someone’ll post the new requirements. If you’re sick of missing out on YouTube videos, the TSP wiki has a nice list of workarounds. If you have any sort of question or problem concerning life in Turkey as an expat, chances are good that several people have experience with the issue and can offer advice (or, barring advice, a place to vent your frustration – also very helpful).

The Sublime Portal is not a resource for tourists, but if you’ve ended up in Turkey for the long haul (or for a middling term), it is invaluable. The site itself, and the fantastic people I’ve met through it, are a central part of my Istanbul

The Sublime Portal


This is my Istanbul: Belgrade Forest June 19, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Rebecca @ 12:38 pm


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.

Belgrade Forest
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


This is my Istanbul: Gebze April 11, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Rebecca @ 12:00 pm

Osman Hamdi Bey's waterfront Eskihisar house

There are a few traditional day trips from Istanbul for those who find, when they have free time, that they’d rather get away for a day. Depending on the weather, one can go up to the Black Sea beaches, head out to the Islands, take the ferry to Bursa, drive to Edirne, or ski at Kartepe, Kartalkaya or Uludag. All are pretty darn nice, but there’s another place whose Istanbul daytrip potential has been sadly overlooked: Gebze. Anyone here long enough to call Istanbul home should definitely check out this hidden gem of a town, south of Istanbul on the Asian-side Marmara shores.

I visited Gebze on somewhat of a whim – my friend the Art History Grad Student (AHGS) was in town and wanted to visit the Osman Hamdi Bey house, located in Gebze (more specifically in Eskihisar, better known as the place to catch the slow car ferry towards Bursa if the fast ferry at Pendik isn’t running). Even though it poured the entire time we were there, and we made it back to Istanbul thoroughly drenched with teeth chattering, it was awesome and I’d definitely go back, especially now that it’s warmer.

Gebze has a hodgepodge of sights that should keep pretty much everyone entertained: First, there’s the Osman Hamdi Bey house and museum. Osman Hamdi Bey was a true Renaissance man and perhaps Turkey’s best-known painter, and the house was his family home and studio. It’s set up with the original furnishings and copies of many of his better-known works (the originals are at the Pera and the Sabanci museum). One of the cool parts of the house, particularly for those art history students out there, is the doors in the downstairs study, which were hand painted by Osman Hamdi Bey. The museum is also home to an art gallery and a painting cooperative, where you can stop by for tea and chat with the very nice and very talented women who spend their weekends painting together there.

In addition to the house and museum, Gebze is also home to the Coban Mustafapasa Mosque, which is very big, very old, and interesting to explore as it’s architecturally closer to the mosques of Bursa than to Istanbul’s Mimar Sinan archetype. The mosque grounds are gorgeous, and there’s a turbe in the back to check out as well as a few outbuildings. The city is also home to an ancient kale or fortress, which is not safe to climb when it’s raining but which otherwise would be a great thing to scarper over.

The area of town around the house and museum, Eskihisar, is home to many small fishing boats and a few decent fish restaurants along the shore, affording beautiful views across the Marmara. A daytrip to the area could easily start off at the museum, do lunch next door at one of the restaurants, then head up into town for the mosque before finishing the day at the kale and heading back to Istanbul after a very full day. There are almost no tourists; when I visited we were the day’s only guests at the museum and the kids on the bus we took to the mosque very clearly did not see tourists all that often. Gebze is a sadly overlooked daytrip with a lot of potential and is definitely part of my Istanbul.

Easy to get to via the Asia-side banliyo train from Haydarpasa; trains every half hour or so, TL 1.5
Gebze is the last stop, you can walk to Eskihisar from the station through some picturesque back streets. From Eskihisar, catch a dolmus up the hill to the mosque and a dolmus or bus from the mosque to the train station. The kale is visible from Eskihisar and is most likely walking distance.

Gebze fun fact: Hannibal, he of the Alps-and-elephants fame, died in Gebze.


This is my Istanbul: April 10, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Rebecca @ 10:06 pm

Living in a city such as Istanbul, with its reputation as a cosmopolitan, exotic, and bustling metropolis, there’s a bit of an expectation that when you’re not cooking for yourself, you’re seeking out dinner in a Bosporus-side bistro, hidden treasure of a back-neighborhood local hangout, or trendy hotspot. While I have a post coming up with my source for all restaurants that’d qualify for those, this post is about what I use when all I want to do is stay in and order in: This website has facilitated pretty much every single delivery dinner order I’ve made in this country.

In Boston, there were actually a few online delivery aggregate websites, and I certainly used Foodler and Campusfood a few times while in the middle of thesis-writing. But when I arrived at Bogazici the summer before last, I didn’t expect the latest in restaurant delivery technology to have made it to this time zone quite yet. Thus I was pleasantly surprised when one of my Bogazici roommates mentioned ordering in one night, and pulled up a website with a 30 or 40-strong list of restaurants open and delivering to our address. Thirty minutes later we had manti at our door and a free DVD because we’d ordered over TL 30. Not too shabby.

Yemeksepeti has restaurants signed up in 11 cities across Turkey, including 2,200 restaurants in Istanbul and 300 in Ankara. It’s ideal for expats, especially, because it has an English interface so you can order without knowing Turkish or without having to convince the guy taking phone orders that yes, you are speaking Turkish and no, you would not like to go to a bar with him when his shift is done. It also has a larger variety of restaurants than most people would keep delivery menus for. Helpfully, many restaurants have photos of their menu items, plus the site has an integrated Turkish-English dictionary for those unfamiliar food terms.

Thanks to perusing yemeksepeti options I’ve found Mexican and Chinese food in the city, both of which I knew were out there somewhere but wasn’t quite sure where. It’s comforting to know that you can just go online and get guacamole delivered to your door in a city with maybe five restaurants total that actually serve guac. My current neighborhood has pretty limited delivery options, but earlier this year a Chinese restaurant expanded its delivery zone to include my area, which I was pretty psyched to see. Before that, my choices were pizza or Turkish cuisine, which served me fairly well. The website also often has specials and deals at its restaurants, for example most pizza places listed offer a free medium pizza when you buy another medium pizza. Yemeksepeti clearly isn’t a tourist experience or really any sort of cultural thing, but it definitely is a part of my life here in Istanbul, and one that anyone moving to the city (or the 10 other Turkish cities it serves) should check out.


This project of mine March 20, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Rebecca @ 3:55 pm

Hanging out Bosporus-side? This is my Istanbul

Istanbul is a wild, crazy, beautiful city, and many writers have spend long hours trying to describe the city, its residents, and their connection to the place. This is not my attempt to do that.

This is my ongoing exploration of the parts of this city that form the better part of my experiences living here, piecemeal, bit by random bit. There will be parts of Istanbul that are left out, but they’re not part of my Istanbul. Likewise, there will be parts that most folks’d never get to, or never consider a unique facet of this city. That’s ok. It’s a quirky city, and I’ve found quirky bits of it in my time living here.

Also, I’m not a purist, so posts may blur into “this is my Turkey” or or whatever floats my boat. We’ll just have to see. Exciting, no?