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Rumeli Kavağı and Sariyer

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The two northernmost towns on the European Bosphorus are Sariyer and Rumeli Kavağı. Sariyer is more developed and wealthy, trapped between a dense forest and the water, while Rumeli Kavağı is a quiet seaside village with a convivial atmosphere.

Rumeli Kavagi and Sariyer
A Pier in Rumeli Kavağı

Rumeli Kavağı is easy to visit as part of the city-run Bosphorus Tour. The long ferry ride up the strait pauses for three full hours at Anadolu Kavağı, allowing you plenty of time to catch a local boat across the strait to Rumeli Kavağı. This picturesque little town is intimately connected to the sea, with boats, fishermen and fish restaurants dominating life and commerce, and is almost completely skipped by tourists.

The boat also stops here on its way back to Eminönü, so if you want, you can re-board. We, though, decided to instead walk two kilometers down the Bosphorus to Sariyer. This is a bustling neighborhood which, despite being so far from the city center, is well served by public transportation and has become a popular place for retired Istanbullus to settle down.

Locations on our Istanbul Map: Rumeli Kavağı | Sariyer

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Rumeli Kavagi and Sariyer Pier
Rumeli Kavagi and Sariyer Pier
Rumeli Kavagi and Sariyer Pier
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July 5, 2013 at 9:04 am Comments (0)

A Bosphorus Cruise to Anadolu Kavağı

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One of the most popular excursions in Istanbul is a ferry ride to Anadolu Kavağı, near the entrance to the Black Sea. The Bosphorus Cruise offered by the city-run &#350ehir Hatları company costs just 15 Turkish Lira, making for a cheap and easy day out on the water.

Anadolu Kavağı

Really, a tour of the Bosphorus Strait should have been among our first adventures in Istanbul, instead of one of the last. The ferry trip lasts for 90 minutes each way and provides a wonderful overview of the city, introducing many of the its best sights. I have no idea why we kept putting it off.

But cruising up the Bosphorus felt appropriate as a “farewell” tour. We passed by neighborhoods which we’d become familiar with — Ortaköy, Arnavutköy, Kanlıca — as well as some of our favorite sights: the Beylerbeyi Palace, Dolmabahçe, Küçüksu, Rumeli Hısarı and the Sakıp Sabancı Museum. It was a great way to reminisce on what have been three of the most entertaining months of our lives.

At Anadolu Kavağı, the boat anchors for a few hours, which is plenty of time to get lunch at one of the many seaside restaurants, or to climb up to the old fort at the top of the hill. The fort itself is not all that impressive, but the hill is worth ascending for the view of the Black Sea and the Bosphorus.

Location of Anadolu Kavağı on our Map

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July 1, 2013 at 6:39 pm Comments (5)

Modern Istanbul

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Istanbul is most famous for ancient mosques and a starring role in world history, but there’s another side to it. One that most tourists never bother to see. It wasn’t until our last couple weeks in the city that we ventured into modern Istanbul. On the outskirts of the city center, new skyscrapers are springing up like weeds, and the focus is squarely on business.

Bomonti was an interesting neighborhood in which to begin our excursion into Istanbul’s modern side. Here, the human cost of rapid growth is readily apparent. Across the street from a brand new, luxurious development called the Anthill Apartments, there’s a collection of ramshackle dwellings. They might have been here first, but these are not exactly the kind of neighbors which the new, luxurious Bomonti desires, and the poor old homes are being swiftly removed.

It’s all rather depressing, so we were eager to leave Bomonti for the adjacent neighborhood of Sisli, where we sat down at a corner cafe and watched life in modern Istanbul whiz by. With gray concrete, busy shops and sharply-dressed people in a big, important hurry, we could have been on a street corner in any country… except, perhaps, for the giant posters of Atatürk draped across most of the neighborhood’s buildings.

After tea, we made our way to Kanyon, in the business district of Levent. This large mall, opened in 2006, was designed to resemble a canyon and the effect is pretty cool. The mall itself is upscale and pleasant… and though I find it hard to lavish praise on malls, I’ll say that, as far as malls go: not bad. We got a drink on the “canyon’s” floor, and took stock of those around us. Clean-cut businessmen and women typing into MacBooks or tapping on their phones. Not many beards, nor headscarves.

It was educative to see this very different side of Istanbul, but not an experience I would be likely to repeat or recommend. Jürgen enjoyed it for the photo opportunities which contrast so sharply with the city’s more well-known sights, but both of us were equally ready to get back to the ancient Istanbul we’ve come to know and love.

Locations on our Map: Anthill Apartments (Bomonti) | Kanyon

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June 26, 2013 at 4:14 pm Comments (0)

The Sapphire Skyscraper in Levent

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Rocketing 780 feet into the air, the Sapphire building in the modern neighborhood of Levent is Turkey’s tallest building. A cafe on the top floor and an open air viewing platform on the roof offer one of Istanbul’s most breathtaking views.

Sapphire

Other than from an airplane window, I’d figured that it was impossible to see the entire length of the Bosphorus Strait — from the Black Sea in the north to the Sea of Marmara in the south. But from the top of the Sapphire, you can see the whole twenty miles. Going up to the roof costs about $10, but it’s money well-spent.

Location on our Istanbul Map

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June 25, 2013 at 8:00 pm Comment (1)

Emirgan Park

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With its trees, chalets, ponds, waterfall and jungle gyms, Emirgan’s park is one of the best in the city. Of course, since it’s also one of the only parks in the city, it doesn’t have much competition. Istanbul may have a lot of things to recommend it, but an abundance of green spaces is not one of them.

Big Istanbul Sigh

But Emirgan Park is excellent by any standard. Perhaps a bit too hilly to get a game of soccer going, but that doesn’t concern the hordes who turn out for a day in the sun. We visited on a Sunday afternoon, along with seemingly every family and every piece of picnicking equipment in Istanbul. Grills, coolers, cutlery, card games, blankets, radios, pillows… when Turkish families go for a picnic, they bring more stuff than we even own.

Emirgan Park is not for the weak of leg. To even arrive at the gate, you have to complete a wearying ascent, and once you’re inside, the hills just continue. But you’re rewarded for the workout with beautiful views of the Bosphorus. And if you become overly exhausted, you can sit under a tree on the grass, or grab a seat in a cafe at one of the park’s three Swiss-style chalets, painted pink, white and yellow.

In picturesque Emirgan Park, the only group found in greater abundance than picnicking families is bridal parties. This is apparently the top spot in Istanbul for wedding portraits, and the sheer number of couples being chased around the park by photographers was absurd. At one point, we found ourselves trapped on a narrow bridge, between two bridal parties posing for pictures at either end. Not willing to risk trampling a dress, we escaped by hopping over a fence, and received a shrill reprimand from a nearby guard. (Whistle-armed guards patrol the grounds ceaselessly, and are comically aggressive in enforcing even the most minor regulations.)

Despite the hills, brides and guards, we loved our visit to Emirgan Park. It’s hard to to think of a better spot in Istanbul to while away a lazy, sunny Sunday.

Location on our Istanbul Map

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June 25, 2013 at 10:54 am Comments (4)

Hidden Corners Behind the Grand Bazaar

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Istanbul is the kind of place which favors bold exploration, as we learned after a day spent in the maze of streets around the Grand Bazaar. The city is filled with quiet, secret spots… if you can muster up the courage to go down that darkened hall, into that empty courtyard, or up those crumbling stairs.

Secret Hans Istanbul

Of course, I’m not recommending that anyone skip off willy-nilly into Istanbul’s abandoned buildings. We ventured into a couple places that I would never go into were I by myself, or were it after dark. But a cautious exploration of the old hans around the Grand Bazaar can be very rewarding.

Our day began in the Subuncu Han, near Eminönü Plaza. This han itself doesn’t have much to recommend it, just a bunch of jewelry stores surrounding a tiny courtyard, but there was a great locals-only spot for lunch on the second floor. Instead of sitting down in one of Eminönü’s döner shops for an overpriced lunch geared toward tourists, we munched on excellent and very cheap lahmaçun (Turkish pizza) with a few guys who work in the han.

We progressed steadily from Eminönü towards the Grand Bazaar, every once in awhile escaping the crowds to duck into another han. We found gold and silver-smiths at work in the Leblebici Han, and watched a couple men train flocks of trick pigeons in the Büyuk Yeni Han. And in the gray, French-influenced Stamboul Yeni Tcharchi Han, we were the only people at all. A young guy witnessed our hesitation about venturing down an long, dark tunnel-like hallway in the Sair Han, and encouraged us to proceed without fear. At the end, we found a nargile workshop. The most well-hidden nargile workshop in the world!

Inside a couple hans, we were able to get onto the roofs for amazing views of the city. The first was at the northwest corner of the Sair Han; before going inside, you can scale a flight of stairs directly to the roof. But the better view was at the massive Büyük Valide Han. Here, we were approached by a key-wielding man who knew exactly what we wanted. “Go on roof, yes?” A small five lira tip later, we were up on top, looking over the city and the Golden Horn.

It was an incredible day out. If you’re interested in doing something similar, check out a great book called Istanbul’s Bazaar Quarter, by Edda Renker Weissenbacher and Ann Marie Mershon: a comprehensive guide to the Grand Bazaar and the streets which surround it, with four self-guided walking tours.

Locations on our Map: Subuncu Han | Sair Han | Büyük Valide Han

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June 21, 2013 at 2:22 pm Comments (6)

Çengelköy and the Beylerbeyi Palace

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There’s no shortage of charming neighborhoods lining the shores of the Bosphorus, but lovely little Çengelköy is among the very best of them. We had breakfast here on a Sunday morning, before walking along the coast to the incredible Beylerbeyi Palace.

Beylerbeyi Palace

Çengelköy literally means “Hook Village”, and was so named because it occupies a section of shoreline that hooks around a bend in the Bosphorus. The layout provides a perfect view of the strait, south to the Bophorus Bridge and into the Sea of Marmara beyond it. On the Sunday we visited, there was a market selling custom-made clothing and jewelry, and a pleasant, unhurried atmosphere in the cafes and restaurants.

After eating, we made a leisurely stroll to Beylerbeyi: another neighborhood about fifteen minutes down the Bosphorus. (You might be noticing an overuse of terms like “leisurely”, “unhurried”, and “relaxed”. But this it’s simply the frame of mind which the area inspires! Everything about it is peaceful and calming. The sound of lapping water, the fishermen focused quietly on their lines, the shade-giving plane trees, the old men drinking tea and playing okey (a Rummikub-like game). It’s a welcome change of pace from the normal mayhem of the city.)

Beylerbeyi is almost as cute as Çengelköy, and known for its amazing palace. Built in 1832 as a summer residence for Sultan Abdulaziz II, the Beylerbeyi Palace sits almost directly underneath the Bosphorus Bridge. Having arrived a little late (our stroll was leisurely, after all), we were compelled to join a Turkish-language tour of the palace. The English tours were done for the day. So, I spent the tour inventing imaginary translations of what our guide might be saying. Such as:

“This vase alone is worth more than your puny lives put together! Bow before it, you filthy swine!”

“Look at this golden mirror. It once reflected the image of a Sultan, but now it shows only an unwashed peasant! That’s you I’m referring to, by the way.”

The palace, of course, was astounding. It was similar to the Dolmabahçe Palace, which we had visited just a few days before. But the fact that this was just meant to be a “summer residence” really hammered home how wealthy the sultans of the late Ottoman Empire truly were. In the reception hall, for example, there’s a fountain and pool — inside the palace! Visiting a place like this can really make a guy feel inferior.

Locations on our Istanbul Map: Çengelköy | Beylerbeyi Palace

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June 15, 2013 at 10:11 am Comments (0)

Eyüp: At the End of the Golden Horn

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Found outside the old city walls at the end of the Golden Horn, the neighborhood of Eyüp is one of the most sacred spots in the Islamic world.

Eyüp Mosque

The best way to get to Eyüp is aboard the Haliç (Golden Horn) ferry which leaves from Eminönu. But as luck would have it, water traffic was closed on the Saturday morning that we had chosen on our visit, after heavy fog had caused a ferry collision. So we were forced to reach Eyüp by bus… providing a lesson that we’ll now impart to you: if you have to take a bus to Eyüp, you might as well walk! The traffic along the southern Golden Horn is ridiculous, especially on weekends, and it took 90 minutes to complete the five kilometer journey.

By the time we finally arrived, we were in miserable spirits. But Eyüp made a valiant effort to cheer us up, with its cute, pedestrianized streets and festival-like atmosphere. This has been an important pilgrimage site for Muslims for centuries. Ayyub al-Ansari, the friend and standard bearer of the Prophet Mohammed, died here during the first attempted Muslim conquest of Constantinople, and was buried in the location that would later bear his name (Ayyub → Eyüp).

Apart from its lovely location on the Golden Horn, Eyüp’s prominent feature is its enormous mosque. We ducked inside during prayer time, but left quickly; the place was so packed we could hardly find an open patch of carpet on which to stand. Right across from the mosque is Ayyub al-Ansari’s türbe, or tomb. Although closed during our visit, it’s supposed to be amazing; completely covered in Iznik tiles.

For centuries, Eyüp has been the most fashionable place in Istanbul to be laid to rest, and it’s surrounded by cemeteries. The largest of these stretches up a steep hill that eventually ends at the Pierre Loti Café, named for the French novelist. This lovely garden cafe boasts a view that takes in the entirety of the Golden Horn, all the way to the Bosphorus Strait. Breathtaking, and it was the perfect way to end a long day.

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June 11, 2013 at 6:11 pm Comments (3)

The Hans of the Grand Bazaar

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The Grand Bazaar is really a city unto itself. The main thoroughfares are where you’ll find the most popular shops and restaurants, but just like any city, the coolest spots are tucked away in its less-visited corners.

Silver Han

In days past, the hans of Istanbul functioned as inns; places for traveling merchants to rest and do business. Most frequently, the hans consisted of courtyards with a fountain for washing, and a kitchen or tea house. The Grand Bazaar, naturally, was a major hub for merchants, so it’s unsurprising to find so many hans within its walls.

Most hans were dedicated to a particular craft, and many still are. You can find gold-spinning in Astarcı Han, chains in Zincirli Han and silver merchants in Kalcilar Han. Wandering through the courtyards, you can find smiths practicing their craft… melting gold, for example, or hammering out a piece of copper. Happily, they seem to be accustomed to tourists, and don’t mind if you politely enter their shops for a quick photo. It’s great fun watching them at work, performing tasks that have been unchanged over the last few centuries.

Most of the hans are small and run-down, but many are lovely. The Zincirli Han, for example, is particularly photogenic, with all-pink shopfronts, a marble fountain and trees. And our favorite is the airy and comfortable Iç Cebeci Han, where you can dependably find guys sitting around in the sun drinking tea and playing backgammon.

If you stick to the main drags, a trip to the Grand Bazaar can be hectic and stressful. So make sure to duck off into the little pockets of relative tranquility offered by the hans, and check out some of the activities which have kept the Bazaar running for 500 years.

Great Resource: Self Guided Walking Tours Through Istanbul’s Hans

Pink Han Grand Bazaar
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June 10, 2013 at 10:57 am Comments (5)

Haydarpaşa and the Crimean War Cemetery

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Even more “orient” than the Orient Express, the Baghdad Railway connected the future capital of Iraq to Istanbul. The western terminus was the massive Haydarpaşa Station, which is still one of the busiest train stations in Turkey. We spent a day exploring the magnificent old station and the neighborhood surrounding it.

Haydarpaşa Station

Completed in 1910, Haydarpaşa Station was designed in a neo-classical style by Prussian engineers, at the behest of Kaiser Wilhelm II. The Germans were big sponsors of the struggling Ottoman state, and were pursuing every tactical advantage before the onset of World War I. But the project, which would have given them access to the Persian Gulf, wasn’t done nearly in time… the first train between Baghdad and Istanbul wouldn’t roll out until 1940.

Though damaged during the war, the impressive station was restored and has become one of Asian Istanbul’s most striking landmarks. Aside from the station, though, the neighborhood of Haydarpaşa is a traffic-heavy zone with none of the charm of nearby Kadiköy. Even here, though, we found a couple worthwhile highlights, including the giant central building of the Marmara University and, behind it, the British Crimean War Memorial.

One of history’s first “modern wars”, the Crimean War pitted the Russian Empire against a coalition of French, British and Ottoman over control of the Crimean Peninsula and basically resulted in a stalemate. Over 20,000 British soldiers died in this war, and many of them have been laid to rest here. The cemetery is peaceful in its way, but we felt chills while reading the names and ages of the soldiers, on gravestone after gravestone … 21, 23, 19. A memorial statue in the park, dedicated by Queen Elizabeth, honors the “brave men who gave their lives for their country”. But you’re left to wonder whether this obscure cause in a faraway land was truly worth so many young British lives.

Locations on our Map: Haydarpaşa Station | British Crimean War Memorial Cemetery

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June 9, 2013 at 4:08 pm Comments (0)

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