Horns meet world. World meet Alex Wendland. Alex is a Middle Eastern Studies at UT, but this past summer he went on an exchange to Boğaziçi University in Istanbul, Turkey. He explains below some of his favorite spots in and around Istanbul (coffee lovers and hipsters take note).
There are a lot of things to do in Istanbul, which is not surprising considering its place as the 5th largest city in the world, and the largest in Europe, with a population of 14 million. Its sprawl is so great that, politically speaking, the city is a province unto itself which elects 85 of 550 members of parliament. As the city expanded, it gobbled up its neighbors, which explains why so many neighborhood names have the suffix köy— revealing their past as independent towns. I was lucky enough to spend a bit longer than a summer semester there, but I still didn’t begin to scratch the surface of the forms of life in Istanbul. Studying at Boğaziçi Üniversitesi with its recently-opened subway extension, the iconic Beyoğlu, Galata, and Taksim are almost unfairly accessible, but sometimes it’s necessary to take a break from the bustle and traffic (Oh God, the traffic) and go somewhere you can catch your breath. Here I’ve highlighted two of my favorite locations on the Asian side of Istanbul, both reached by short ferry rides.
The Princes’ Islands, simply “islands” in Turkish, were the idyllic forested place of exile for Byzantine and early Ottoman royalty who got on the wrong side of a monarch. Today they are just as idyllic, and offer a glimpse into Ottoman society in its golden age— though in recent years their demographics have shifted toward homogeneity and alignment with the rest of Turkey’s, the islands’ past life as ethnic enclaves is still visible in ubiquitous Greek and Armenian architecture. Contemporary residents and tourists are drawn by a desire to access that older and slower-paced way of life. No motor vehicles other than fire trucks are allowed on the islands, so you must get around on bikes or by renting horse-drawn phaetons.
The largest of the islands is aptly named Büyükada (big island). The coast offers a multitude of shops and restaurants. Those who really want to earn their trip to Büyükada can hike up the central İsa Tepesi (Jesus hill), whose name I assume derives from the muttered execrations of monks who had to climb it every day to reach the hilltop Agia Yorgi church. Once you have reached it though, the view is second to none, and the city’s ever-present smog is noticeably absent. Standing here I able to get a real sense of the size of Istanbul, which stretches off over the horizon in every direction. Even though I travelled far from the geographic center at the Bosphorous, I hadn’t made any progress in approaching its edge. Büyükada’s other architectural features include an orthodox monastery and orphanage, the second Hamidiye Mosque (which only the realest Abdulhamit hipsters know is cool) and some beautifully-preserved 19th-century mansions, including the site of Leon Trotsky’s exile from 1929-33.
The second largest of the islands, Heybeliada (Saddlebag Island), is nearly as large but much less dense or crowded. It is mostly known for its beaches, which are easily reached by bike. And while many of them are private, the entrance fees are low, and make a great way to spend an summer day, especially since Turkish cuisine lends itself to transportability. Istanbullus are master picnickers— on our trip to Heybeliada, we made instant friends with another party students, perhaps mostly due to their elaborate grill setup and generosity in sharing it.
If you’re interested in living the literary life, you must stop by Burgazada (Fortress Island), the home and muse of writer Sait Faik Abasıyanık (who sometimes published under the nom de plume Adalı or islander), inventor of the modern Turkish short story. Fait is memorialized in statue form, holding his characteristic glass of rakı, which is ritually filled each day by a local shopkeeper. If you’re there to study, you can visit one of the best modern-style coffee shops in the city with its great English-language lending bookshelf and curmudgeonly cat, Bukowski.
Kınalıada (Henna Island), the smallest of the four, isn’t much of a tourist destination. Geosciences students might dig its eponymous highly-oxidized soil.
Most summer term classes at Boğaziçi aren’t taught on Fridays, so once I discovered this accessible beauty, an early ferry ride and day of relaxation soon became a traditional start to the weekend among my friends.
Nowhere exemplifies the unique relationship between traditional and modern in Istanbul better than Kadıköy: it the only market where I could buy spices without being made to confirm I knew what I was getting my western palette into, but it’s also the only place in the world I’ve ordered Breaking Bad-themed coffee from a barista wearing yellow coveralls and a gas mask. It’s also a major confluence between Asian and European Istanbul as the site of a major ferry hub and the terminus of the recently-opened underwater rail line that crosses the Bosphorous. Excepting only the two Bosphorous bridges, more people pass through Kadıköy on their way to and from work every day than nearly anywhere else in the city. It never happened to me, but I’ve heard it’s not uncommon to run into your professors on the ferry.
Just-inland Kadıköy is filled with the same types of luxury shops as in Taksim, especially on Bağdat Caddesi. But you can also find restaurants and one of the most popular fish and olive markets (high praise, considering the stiff competition in Eminönü). But the best part of Kadıköy might be its sister neighborhood Moda, which has been named “fashion” since at least the 1890s, and for good reason. If design-shop-filled Karaköy is Istanbul’s Brooklyn, Moda is the Turkish Portland: home to the young and full of cultural capital. In addition to nostalgic tea gardens overlooking the Marmara sea, Moda’s main street is lined with trendy bars and live music venues, and might even be the closest I felt to home in Austin while I was there. On the way to Moda is my absolute favorite accidental discovery— Akmar Pasaj. Smaller stores in Turkey commonly group themselves in a Pasaj– a multistory bazaar packed with dozens of small storefronts, all specializing in the same good. There are quite a few modern pasajlar such as Eminönü’s photography wonderland Hayyam Pasaj, but if it’s that Diagon Alley feel you’re really after, it’s necessary to visit Akmar— the densest concentration of used books, records, and 1970s Turkish culture around. If you’re looking for Mustafa Özkent on cassette, first editions by Tanpınar or Yahya Kemal, or old Soviet bootlegs pressed on whatever passed for vinyl in East Germany, this is the place for you.
Kadıköy is also home to a few pieces of culinary history. The second location of Ali Muhiddin Hacı Bekir lokumcu, the confectionary shop run by the descendants of the man who invented Turkish Delight in 1777. If you really want to impress your family and friends, bring home gifts from here— the boxes of confectionaries can be vacuum sealed for the plane. Directly across from the ferry station is Fazıl Bey kahveçi, named #1 most nostalgic Istanbul coffee shop, in business since 1923 (conveniently, the year of the founding of the Turkish Republic). They even have a picture of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk drinking coffee on the wall! True, it is the same famous photo I saw reproduced on many other walls, but their claim to nostalgia is undiminished: the dark coffee they roast in a back room fits the tastes of the staunchest traditionalists.
Thanks to its convenience and never-ending suprises, Kadıköy was where I always tried to come on weekdays when I couldn’t think of anything to do, or when a friend complained of falling into a routine.
If you enjoyed reading about Alex’s experiences and ferry adventures in Istanbul (not Constantinople), then check out our programs in Turkey! Then you’ll be able to try out all of those coffee shops for yourself. As always, be sure to check in next week to see where in the world our Horns pop up next.
Just discovered your blog. Considering to apply for exchange program in Istanbul, do you have any additional tips?