We’re heading towards Istanbul’s largest mosque, Süleymaniye, perched on top of the city’s tallest hill. In the distance, its minarets and bulbous curves poke out proudly behind rundown houses and neglected ruins. Just two miles west of central Istanbul, this is the scenic route up, through the historic neighbourhoods of Kumkapı and Fatih. Street vendors are pushing carts of plump grapes along cobbled streets as grizzled men banter outside shop fronts that are piled high with cheap luggage and fast fashion.
Kumkapı, historically the area where Armenian immigrants settled, may be a poor neighbourhood but the sense of communal life here feels a world away from the typical postcard scenes of Sultanahmet, or glossy Beyoglu, with its rooftop bars and modern art galleries. Few visitors get this far. And the only reason I’m seeing it is because I’m on a bike.”On a bike, you get to see a side of Istanbul that you’re not normally supposed to see if you’re a tourist,” says Dario, one of the guides leading our tour of Istanbul’s classic sights.
In 2012, in order to satisfy customers’ wishes to see more of behind-the-scenes Istanbul, and to spend less time in traffic, local guide and sporting enthusiast Cem Balsun, came up with a simple answer: get off four wheels and on to two.
Despite the obvious challenges – Istanbul’s combination of notoriously hilly terrain and traffic-choked streets remain the stuff of most cyclist’s nightmares – Istanbul On Bike started its first tours in November of 2012. Itineraries around the Golden Horn and classic sights tend to attract seasoned cyclists curious to see how cycling in Istanbul compares with riding at home.
Cem admits he’s partly inspired by the bicycle culture of cities such as Amsterdam and Berlin. Istanbul has around 30km of bike lanes on each side of the city, and there are plans for more along the Golden Horn, so he’s hopeful that the city can emulate the bike-friendly infrastructure spreading across Europe. It’s not only about practicality though. “When you ride a bike, you feel free,” he says.
Free is the last thing I feel as we start. Helmeted and suitably garbed, we plunge into commuter traffic at Sirkeci train station, cleaving to the kerb in single file and following Cem as he leads us along the main coastal road. Car horns toot, but my initial fears about erratic Turkish driving are unfounded: Istanbul’s drivers give our convoy a wide berth. With the reassuring presence of three guides, my first taste of the open road feels surprisingly safe.
Freedom comes 10 minutes later, as we’re let loose in Gülhane Park, a welcome expanse of urban greenery. Stopping next to a small fountain, Cem points up at a high wall. “This used to be part of the palace,” he says, before whipping out a map to show that Topkapi Palace and Sultanahmet are directly behind. Istanbul’s cultural heart is our next stop. As we weave through the throngs around the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia, I half-wonder whether we’ll be chastised for riding on the pavement. But there are no reproachful glances, and the few who do look seem more curious than annoyed. The morning passes in a blur of stops and starts. Cem cheerfully serves up historical tidbits at each stop: the Hippodrome, Little Hagia Sophia, the Valens aqueduct. Along the way, our guides point out old Ottoman houses, given away by their wooden cumbas (protruding bay windows).
On a stop for sweet tea and simit (rings of sweet bread with sesame) at a cafe beside Little Hagia Sophia we get into a discussion about Turkish politics and the recent election results. Then we make our way towards the Marmara coast, to be greeted by the smell of the sea and the sight of Kumkapı’s fish markets, where fishermen arrange their catch in a surprisingly soignée feat of window dressing.At Süleymaniye mosque, I take a well-earned breather after a strenuous spell in first gear. Still, it was worth it for these views. The city’s rooftops are spread beneath us like a carpet.
Istanbul On Bike has been featured in the August issue of the popular monthly city magazine Time Out Istanbul.
On a July’s afternoon we guided Holly and her staff on the Golden Horn Bike & Boat Tour and that’s what she wrote about us…
Pedal Power: Cycling in Istanbul Part I
When looking out across the bustling metropolis that is Istanbul, cycling may not be the first thought that comes to mind. However, give it a second thought and that may change. It’s definitely not easy, but there are a lot of good reasons: racing tankers up the Bosphorus; the feeling of success when you reach the top of Büyük Çamlıca; flying between the trees of Belgrade Forest; or enjoying the car-free air of the Prince’s Islands. At the moment, provisions for cyclists are less than perfect, but they are improving. More and more people are returning to two wheels – for fitness, for the environment, or for the pure joy or feeling the wind in your hair and knowing that you’re travelling on your own steam….