This is my Istanbul

The things that shape how I experience the city

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 is my Istanbul: Kurukahveci Mehmet April 7, 2010

Filed under: Places — Rebecca @ 10:04 pm
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I’ll cheerfully admit it: I have an inordinate love of coffee. Get me a freshly roasted strong black filtered coffee and I’m pretty much in Nirvana. Get me a well-made cappuccino or latte and I’m fairly content with life. One of the hardest parts of living in Istanbul has been the relative dearth of coffee shops, especially independent ones, as well as the scarcity of coffee on menus or in grocery stores. Nescafe doesn’t count. It smells like soy sauce.
I know Turkey has a bit of a reputation in the West for Turkish coffee, but honestly it’s not drunk all that much here. Turks have pretty firmly turned to tea for their hot caffeine fix. Still, certain restaurants do have Turkish coffee, and they seem to get their grounds from the same place everybody in Istanbul gets their grounds from: Kurukahveci Mehmet. After trying their coffee grounds in my French press, my taste buds cry when I switch back to Starbucks grounds.
Kurukahveci Mehmet’s shop is located directly next to the Spice Bazaar, on the corner of what I know as “the street with the great baking stuff and dried hibiscus.” I have never not seen a line stretching at least a dozen people back up the street, waiting for freshly ground coffee. They roast and grind the coffee on-site, all day. It smells wonderful.
Customers don’t actually enter the shop. There’s a to-go window opening to the street, where you buy your coffee, cocoa (they also do fantastic cocoa powder), or coffee gift sets. Prices are quite reasonable for such delicious coffee – half a kilo is TL 10. It’s a very fine grind, if you’re used to Western coffeemakers and coarser ground coffee, this is almost the consistency of flour. I wouldn’t personally use it in a filter coffeemaker, but it’s very good as espresso, because it’s just a bit finer ground than an espresso grind. I personally brew it in my assortment of French presses and enjoy American levels of caffeination with my oh-so-very-Istanbul coffee from Kurukahveci Mehmet.
The name “Kurukahveci Mehmet” literally means “Mehmet the Coffee-grounds-guy.” They have a surprisingly excellent website that I highly recommend spending an hour or so perusing. It wanders from the history of coffee, to coffee culture, to an illustrated description of how coffee is made, and even has a section on how to read coffee grounds. It is really interesting, and fairly in-depth.

Kurukahveci Mehmet
Tahmis Sokak 66
(1 block in on the street directly to the right of the Spice Bazaar’s entrance by the Yeni Cami)
TL 10 per half kilo


This is my Istanbul: Koc Museum March 30, 2010

Filed under: Places — Rebecca @ 10:56 pm
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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
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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
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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
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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.