In every place we’ve stayed so far this year, we’ve interviewed someone for our Local Knowledge series who we thought would offer great local insight and a special perspective on the place. In Istanbul, we sought insider tips from designer Ayşe Bali.
Often our Local Knowledge candidates have been people we’ve met in the place who have helped us in some way by sharing some helpful tips and local advice. Sometimes they’ve been strangers we’ve made friends with, and occasionally they’ve been friends of friends we’ve made in other places. We’ve interviewed people we ‘met’ on Twitter who we then befriended in ‘real life’. And in a couple of cases we’ve followed up with people we’ve met through work, such as Ayşe Bali.
When we arrived in Istanbul I decided to get in touch with Ayşe, who’d we’d met a couple of years earlier when we’d been in the city to work on some magazine stories. I first discovered her hip t-shirt shop Ottoman Empire back in 2006 when I was scouting for new things to write about for a story we were doing on ‘Cool Istanbul’.
I loved Ottoman Empire’s funky yet funny t-shirts so much that when we returned a couple of years later to cover the opening of the W Hotel and Jean-George’s Spice Market restaurant, I pitched a couple of editors stories on Ottoman Empire just so I could write about the shop and label again and meet one of its owners, the lovely designer of the tongue-in-cheek t-shirts, Ayse Bali.
Ayse was very sweet, warm and friendly, and so forthcoming with tips on Istanbul when we met her in person and in subsequent emails — and she was very pregnant at the time! It therefore made sense that she was the first person I thought of looking up for advice when we returned to Istanbul this trip.
I was devestated to learn that Ayse and her partners had closed Ottoman Empire. When I asked why she said “We just got bored with telling the same joke over and over again…”. Understandable. We were delighted though, that Ayse managed to find us a couple of the old t-shirts for us… and some time to meet to share more local knowledge.
Q. So what do you most love about your work as a designer?
A. The possibility of creating a smile in people’s minds.
Q. Why should people come to Istanbul?
A. It’s still a city that is full of best kept secrets.
Q. 3 words to describe Istanbul?
A. Chaotic, young and inspiring.
Q. 3 ways to describe the people?
A. The thing about Istanbul’s people is that they are too diversified for any classification.
Q. Your tips for local things to do in Istanbul?
A. Walk around Tophane, Galata and Cukurcuma; all three are up and coming neighborhoods. There’s a pastiche of designer shops, antique shops, authentic neighborhood stores, and locals playing backgammon next to hip art galleries.
The best place to smoke the water pipe (narghile) is the Corlulu Ali Pasha Medresesi in Beyazit. Once you enter the garden, you leave behind the chaos of the city and the medrese welcomes you with its calm and mystic atmosphere and dazzling aromas of tea and nargile.
The Grand Bazaar and Spice Market are a lot of fun if you’re not intimidated by more than 4000 shops, thousands of people walking around, and endless bargaining, but be sure to take a lot of pocket money and your sense of humor with you.
Q. Best souvenir from Istanbul?
A. I personally love the traditional tea glass redesigned by Erdem Akan. “Abdulla” in Kapali Carsi and “Lunapark” in Galata are both great to shop for souvenirs.
Q. Must-do eating experiences?
A. For the best food in the city I’d recommend Maya Lokanta, in the heart of Karakoy. The young owner and chef Didem Senol serves exquisite Turkish food with a modern twist.
For the best atmosphere, head to the Asmalimescit area in spring or summer or whenever the weather’s good. The whole area turns into one big meyhane with many raki and meze restaurants. The best ones are Yakup, Sofyali and Refik.
And for the more sophisticated gourmets, Changa restaurant is a must. It is cutting edge Turkish fusion food served in a great environment.
Q. An essential thing to know before coming to Istanbul?
A. Everything changes constantly in Istanbul so don’t rely too much on guide books.
Q. Most important phrase to learn in Turkish?
A. Well, some phrases won’t make it easier for you to communicate with the non-english speakers, since you will not understand them when they respond to you in Turkish, so learn something that sounds very local like “naaber?” (what’s up?) to make people smile.
Q. Any other advice?
A. Turkish men are usually too proud to admit that they don’t know the answer to a question especially asked by a tourist. When you ask them for directions on the road, they sometimes make it all up. So try to double check it with Turkish women, they definitely have less ego problems!