While Istanbul’s bustling streets, brimming with 15 million people and almost 4 million cars, may seem like not an ideal place to bicycle, Aydan Çelik has cycled through almost every inch of the city. He suggests two distinguished cycling routes on the European side for Istanbulites to rediscover their city on two wheels.
Getting around the city in a car or bus is most Istanbulites’ preferred mode of transportation, but Aydan Çelik has found a better way to get around—on bicycle. His recently published İstanbul Bisiklet Rehberi (Istanbul Cycling Guide) is a book that draws on 30 years of experience cycling through Istanbul to map out routes for cyclists of all levels both inside the city’s urban center and in its outer villages.
“People in Turkey do not play many sports,” Çelik told The Guide Istanbul. “When they hear I cycled 100 kilometers in a day, they are astonished because they are not aware of their own potential. A healthy person can cycle 100 kilometers in a day—and even more than that. It’s just a mindset,” he said, emphasizing the bicycle is a tool that can help one discover his or her potential.
According to Çelik, cycling is the best way to discover a city as it gives you the chance to relax, go a bit slower, and more closely observe the world around you. “When you are cycling, you can perceive the colors, sounds, smells, and changes around you much better than when driving a car.” Over years of cycling through Istanbul’s streets, he saw how areas such as Şile and Ağva turned from villages to larger neighborhoods.
The historical peninsula route
Çelik told The Guide Istanbul that there are two distinguished cycling routes on the European side of the city. As the first one leads through the historical peninsula, it might be particularly interesting for those who would like to cycle around the most important landmarks. “The historical peninsula is full of cultural heritage,” Çelik said. “There is something worth seeing on every corner, and discovering the area on bicycle is a great experience.”
Çelik’s historical peninsula route starts at the Milion, a mile-marker monument erected in the early fourth century and the starting place for the measurement of all roads leading to the cities of the empire. Passing next to Column of Constantine, Nuruosmaniye and Süleymaniye Mosques, Vefa Bozacısı and Valens Aqueduct in Fatih, and historic Zeyrek neighborhood, it ends in Eminönü, and spans 12 to 15 kilometers.
“After you finished this route, you will have covered six out of the seven hills of Istanbul and seen many UNESCO World Heritage sites,” Çelik said. There are several less-known sites along the way, such as the Monastery of Pantocrato, which is a combination of two Eastern Orthodox churches and a chapel built over the twelfth century. Similar to many Byzantine churches in the city, it was converted to a mosque and is now called the Molla Zeyrek Mosque, from which you can see a stunning view of Süleymaniye.
As there are many hills, dead ends, and stairs in the area, a precise route description is difficult but Çelik advises cyclists to explore the area. In his opinion, the view from Yavuz Selim Mosque, a sixteenth century Ottoman imperial mosque on the top of the fifth hill of Istanbul overlooking the Golden Horn, is so stunning you may wish to spend hours. Once you reach the Byzantine church of Chora, you might want to finally get off the bike. Find a safe place to park your bicycle and go inside, the mosaics will enchant you.
The rural Büyükçekmece-Çatalca route
“When was the last time you saw a heron or heard the voice of a duck taking wing from a reed bed?” Çelik asked. “When was the last time you passed a herd of water buffalos or listened to the orchestra of frogs?” For those up for a more challenging ride, Çelik outlined a 100 kilometer ride from Büyükçekmece to Çatalca that would allow a rider to do just that.
Çelik’s rural route starts on the west coast of Büyükçekmece Lake and takes you through several villages.
“There are many villages in the area where agriculture and stockbreeding continue,” he explained. “Herds of cows and sheep can be seen along the roads. This route is a good opportunity to experience village life before the city of Istanbul engulfs these neighborhoods too.”
Also along the route are several historical sites. Pass by the Çatalca Railway Station where after the War of Independence Sultan Abdulmecid, the last Ottoman caliph, was taken and sent into exile. You can also pay your respects at the Alaiye Martyrdom, a monument created for soldiers who died during the Balkan Wars.
Many of the people who live in the villages along this route were part of the population exchanges between Turkey and Greece in 1923. With this in mind, the last stop on your route should be the Mübadele (Population Exchange) Museum in Çatalca, where you can learn more about this period.
Join a group for strength in numbers
If the city’s chaotic streets intimidate you, Çelik suggests joining one of the many online cycling groups. “Cycling with a group is always more safe, as it will be easier for cars to see you,” he explained. “These groups can help you until you gain confidence.” You can find several groups on Facebook, such as the Istanbul Yol Bisikleti Grubu (Istanbul Route Bicycle Group).
Falling in love with cycling Istanbul
Çelik’s cycling guide helps both novices and experienced riders find the perfect routes around the city. The intensity of the routes is illustrated by graphics showing slopes, altitude, and distance. Less experienced riders can start with easier and shorter routes, and those with more experience can explore the more difficult and longer routes.
It took Çelik three years to complete the cycling guide, revisiting each route one by one and conducting research about the surrounding areas. He was sure to include cycling tours of areas such as the historical peninsula, the Golden Horn, and the Bosporus, as well as villages along the Black and Marmara Seas to ensure Istanbulites get the chance to breathe fresh air and see the horizon beyond skyscrapers.
The guide also includes QR (Quick Response) codes which allows you to use the Strava app through any QR app on your smartphone to map out his routes and continue without fear of getting lost. While the book is only available in Turkish, foreigners can easily use it as well as it includes maps and other illustrations.
Available for purchase on D&R’s website or in bookshops around Istanbul.