Istanbul is a city with a lot to offer. The history, art, nightlife and kebabs seem endless…and in certain places, so do the crowds. Even someone who has grown up in a city can come away with a nearly profound sense of claustrophobia after visiting. So take some time off from bumping shoulders in the Grand Bazaar and waiting in line at the Hagia Sofia, and check out these lesser-known-but-still-awesome spots.
Take a day (or two, or three) and head to Heybeliada, one of the Princes Islands, about an hour’s worth of ferry from the old town, and wander your way over to a beautifully secluded little stone beach on the back side of the island.
The best way to find the beach is to head for the Terki DünyaMonastery, which translates literally to “Leaving the World Behind” Monastery, a fitting name for the purpose of your visit. This modest Greek Orthodox monastery was built in the mid 1800s, and sits on a cliff overlooking the Marmara Sea. Take some time to grab a tea at the tiny tea house, or pay 5 lira for a candle and show your love for a gesticulating Jesus inside. Afterwards, head down a dirt path to the left and make your way towards the cliff. Getting down can be a bit tricky towards the end, where there is a 10-15 foot free climb, but you don’t need to be a star athlete to pull it off. My favorite thing about this beach, besides the seclusion, is what it’s made of: thousands and thousands of man-made stones, smoothed by seawater and time. Multi-colored, multi-patterned bricks and tiles and sea-glass scattered everywhere makes for pretty cool little treasure hunts in between dips into the calm water or forays around the surrounding coves.
This up-and-coming neighborhood littered with colorful little cafes, boutiques, restaurants, markets and antique shops is definitely a quieter option to the bustle of the old town or Taksim. Located along the Golden Horn river just north of the old town, Balat is an old Greek and Jewish neighborhood, and it’s a wonderful place to experience a more visceral and un-touristifiedlink to Ottomon and Byzantine times. Old townhouses and crumbling walls still nestle into the windy streets. Burnt-out and abandoned buildings, remnants of the Istanbul pogrom, riots in 1955 against the Greek and Jewish people in the area, serve as sobering testament to the violence and economic hardship the neighborhood has endured. Yet on the same street as one of these sad, captivating monuments, you’ll see multicolored, vibrantly restored townhouses, life springing from ruin.
On the weekends, along the main street running through the neighborhood, check out the street market and get some good, cheap, fresh produce, bread, cheese, or pastries and head over to the little waterfront park along the Golden Horn and have yourself a picnic. Or on Saturdays, go visit one of the many little auction houses, where the auctioneer enthusiastically maestros the selling off of all kinds of antiques, records, dated but hip electronic equipment, etc. Even if you don’t know Turkish and can’t bid on anything, it’s still an experience that will leave you with a smile. And hey, maybe you’ll leave with a set of postcards from the 50s,or a tiny radio that may or may not work, or a set of ornately inscribed dishware…fast talking sometimes supersedes understanding of language. And hey, maybe you can have fun with that.
Dolapdere Second-Hand Market
On Sundays, head over to the Dolapdere neighborhood and wander through this alleyway filled to the brim with all kinds of interesting trinkets, old Turkish antiques, electronics, watches, paintings, and any other number of cool, unique stuff to bring back as an authentic souvenir from your trip to Istanbul. Located on the wrong side of the tracks, as they say, you’ll walk down from Istiklal street across Tarliba?a Boulevard into a fairly blighted part of town. But this area is totally safe, full of families, kids playing on front stoops, old ladies hanging laundry on lines sagging across the streets, etc. Also along the way, be sure to check out two old Greek Orthodox churches, Constantine’s Church and Evanlgelistria Greek Orthodox church. (Pro Tip: the best way to find the second-hand market is to head for Evangelistria Greek Church, the market is right behind it.)
Despite its name, this forest is most definitely located in Istanbul. Coined due to the influx of Serbians who came to Istanbul after the country fell to the Ottomans in the 1500s, it’s a wonderful option for those looking to escape the crowds for a day and enjoy some nature.
The best way to get there without a car from the city center is to take the M2 metro line (green line) to the last stop, Haciosmanstation. From there, hop on the HM42 bus, which runs every 15-20 minutes to Bahçeköy, a quiet neighborhood nestled into the surrounding forest. You won’t feel like you’re in Istanbul anymore. The entrance to the forest is at the end of the main road, and you’ll see a big, arching sign announcing your arrival. Once past the arch, you’ll have two options—a fork in the road. Stay right and you’ll hit a picnic area that runs along a small stream. Stop here and have lunch, maybe light up one of the barbeque pits available near many of the picnic tables. Venture farther past this area, and you’ll see an old Ottoman-era aquifer, complete with old, leaking wall. From here you can head up one of the trails to the left or right and weave your way along the aquifer; a beautiful little hike.
Keeping left at above-mentioned fork will require a bit more walking along the road to get to another picnic ground, TarihiNeset Suyu. From here you can hike left around another aquifer, or head right and go explore the inner forest trails. Also, be sure to take a peek at the ruins of St. George’s Anglican Church, a remnant of the old Belgrade Village, occupied by the Serbs brought to the area by the Ottomans in the mid-1500s.
Based out of Istanbul (for now), Andrew Bell has traveled enough to know the value of a good pair of shoes and a lightweight towel. Always bring a towel.