Istanbul Insiders introduces visitors to Istanbul, Turkey’s hidden treasures // © 2011 Simone Pekelsma
At 11 p.m. on a Wednesday, the main pedestrian walk of Istanbul’s Beyoglu neighborhood is bustling with action. Shops and restaurants are open, people brush past each other in all directions, vendors with fragrant popcorn and ice cream carts shout to passersby and the sky is illuminated by lights strung overhead. Occasionally, a lone car parts the crowds, driving at a slow, constant speed, allowing people in its path to just barely jump out of the way.
Just as I found myself in a sensory overload, James Halliday ducked into an alley and gestures for us all to follow. Halliday is our Istanbul “insider” and, with his help, my friends and I saw a side of the city not found in tour books.
Istanbul Insiders takes an unusual approach to tourism. The tour operator designs custom and themed trips for travelers with a specific (and often eccentric) idea of how they would like to experience Istanbul. Tours target the “sophisticated” visitor who appreciates the city’s backstreets and hidden treasures as well as person-to-person experiences, rather than anonymous tours. With Istanbul Insiders, visitors not only see a slice of the city that satisfies their own particular curiosities, but they also meet locals who share those interests.
For a French family interested in photography, Istanbul Insiders set up a photography tour, including visits to several exhibitions and a meet-and-greet with a local photographer. For a group of urban planning students from Amsterdam University, the tour operator created a series of neighborhood walks and sit-down sessions with community leaders and organizations working on urban transformation in those neighborhoods. For visiting journalists, television and film crews, artists, researchers and other professionals, the tour operator offers a full suite of logistics and communication services.
Istanbul Insiders was founded in 2009 by four friends who wanted to share their intimate knowledge of the city, culture and latest happenings with like-minded visitors. Halliday (U.S.), Yusuf Sevinçli (Turkey), Gökşin Varan (Turkey/Switzerland) and Simone Pekelsma (the Netherlands) met in Istanbul while working as journalists and photographers. When customizing tours, they leverage their diverse professional backgrounds, which range from urban sociology to social entrepreneurship and photography. All guides are fluent in English and Turkish, which helps open up the city for U.S. visitors, given that the average person on the street in Istanbul doesn’t speak much English.
For my friends and me, Istanbul Insiders gave us a taste of what expat life is like in Istanbul. Our guide took us to the favorite restaurants and clubs of locals, helped us navigate public transportation and introduced us to new friends, both Turkish and expats, several of whom I continue to stay in touch with. We got invaluable advice on common cultural faux pas, how to enjoy a traditional Turkish hammam, and where to find the city’s best baklava. On our last day, we listened to the enchanting midday call-to-prayer from the deck of a private boat before diving off into the cool, blue Bosphorus.
We stepped out of the alleyway into a restaurant. It was plain and stark, just like a dozen other places that we passed, but our guide assured us that this is one of his favorites. We walked all the way to the back and climbed a narrow set of stairs. Suddenly, we were on a beautiful rooftop with a view of the night sky and a warm summer breeze. Halliday spoke to our waiter in rapid Turkish and soon we were enjoying a smorgasbord of unfamiliar, delicious small plates and sipping anise-flavored liquor.
Whether it’s gastronomy, eco-tourism, architecture, contemporary art and design, inter-cultural business exchanges or any other outlandish penchant, Istanbul Insiders has a niche for it — and helps visitors discover it.