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Ode to Sariyer: Living Like a Local in Istanbul

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Every morning, I wake up to a sunrise over the Bosphorus, which I can see in the distance from my window. I head downhill to the corner börek shop to eat my fill of this light cheesy pastry and drink one or two cups of coffee so thick I can almost stand my spoon in it.

I was only in Istanbul for a week, but I established a routine.

living like a local in Istanbul - simit for breakfast

Breakfast in Sariyer

I pat my pockets and check my purse – I can’t forget something at home, not with an average travel time of 1h30 each way. Because I’m not in Istanbul proper but in Sariyer, a former fishing village heading North along the Bosphorus.

After breakfast I head off sightseeing and the transportation puzzle begins – the minibus to the subway to the funicular to the tram, and finally, Sultanhamet, the needle-thin spires of Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque working hard to pierce the mist that has settled in.

Istanbul in the mist

Sultanahmet, or the Blue Mosque, beautiful even in the mist

I can choose a day of fun and shopping at the Grand Bazaar or – an activity I just can’t resist – a walking food tour. Istanbul is to me a city of senses, all senses. From the smell and taste of its spices to the sound of the muezzin and the sight of hundreds of years of history everywhere I look, it is a city that satisfies me, in the most profound sense.

Istanbul can seem so far away…

And then I go home to Sariyer, a different world, a neighborhood so remote few Istanbullus have been here. Most only know it as the ferry’s last stop on the European side, just around the corner from the Black Sea.

The location is majestic, right by the sea, each street unfurling from the mountain all the way down to the water’s edge (it looks far less majestic as I’m panting uphill). Wealthy families escaping the heat of Istanbul a century or two ago built luxurious homes along the shore, just begging the cool winds of the Bosphorus to enter.


The view from Sariyer

There are no foreign visitors here, at least none that I can see. Dogs roam freely, lovingly fed and tended to by locals, and traffic is congested enough to be slow. Sariyer is filled with small shops whose owners almost smile as I walk by, quickly lowering their eyes lest they offend with curiosity.

Probably not for long. The Ottoman-era houses are being carefully restored, and a film crew was spotted in a local cafe one morning. Surely fame and fortune will follow.

Ottoman buildings in Sariyer

Ottoman buildings of Sariyer; bottom left, some buildings have yet to be restored; bottom right, my street, whose cobblestones must be impossible to negotiate in the winter snow


Everyone is curious – filming doesn’t happen every day in Sariyer

As my departure nears, people begin to look familiar: the waitress at the fish restaurant who runs out for her English-speaking cousin each time I walk in; the fish merchant at the street market; the handsome young man who walks his dog each morning before heading to the city for work.

The more I travel, the more I love to take my time and travel small and slow, getting to know side streets and discovering new neighborhoods.

As my Turkish friends said, “You’re staying where??”

I like the question. And I did feel like a local in Istanbul. Fishermen and all.

Bosphorus boat

Fish in Istanbul

Things every Woman on the Road should know

  • I experienced living like a local by renting an apartment through airbnb.com (join using this link and get $35 off your first Airbnb stay!). I have no idea how I ended up in Sariyer – it just felt right. (Here’s the apartment I rented).
  • If you’d rather stay closer to town, book a hotel in Istanbul proper.
  • The Istanbul transit system is both brilliant and diabolical – brilliant because it is ultra-modern and a single card gets you everywhere, yet diabolical because not all systems connect with one another.
  • Walk North along the seafront from Sariyer if you want to try the ferry. I kept meaning to but never got up early enough to catch it.
  • At lunchtime, you’ll find plenty of great seafood and fish restaurants right along the water.
  • If you love calligraphy, stop by the fabulous Sakıp Sabancı Museum for a few hours.
  • And if anyone tells you the subway is only a 15-minute walk away, don’t believe them. Take the bus.

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  1. Ayngelina on November 10, 2013 at 7:44 am

    Yum I love Turkish food, looks delicious!

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on November 10, 2013 at 8:30 am

      Me too – and that was only breakfast!

  2. Kimberley on November 20, 2013 at 12:57 am

    Hi Leyla, I travelled to Istanbul last year by myself and all my friends thought I was crazy. It was one of the most magical places I’ve been too and at no point did I feel unsafe. My favourite food while I was there, which I couldn’t get enough of, was Rose Jam with Turkish Sesame Pretzels for breakfast, which your breakfast picture reminded me of. I still miss it now and the other Turkish breakfast pastries are fantastic. I encourage everyone I speak to who wants a different holiday to visit Istanbul as the culture and history are amazing and quite spectacular. Absolutely love reading your newsletters.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on November 20, 2013 at 6:39 am

      I love hearing that, Kimberley! I’ve traveled to Istanbul half a dozen times on my own and have been fortunate enough to meet only hospitality and friendship. And the food, you are so right, oh, the food…

  3. Sarah on November 21, 2013 at 8:25 am

    Same goes for me; the more I travel, the more I like to take my time and travel slow. Thanks for this story, it reminds me of the beautiful days I spent ini Istanbul last year!

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on November 21, 2013 at 3:17 pm

      There’s something about this city, too – many places are memorable but Istanbul is one of a handful of cities that seems to affect everyone who visits.

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