Mahalle Diaries: Yesilköy

Istanbul is a huge city with hundreds of different neighbourhoods, or Mahalle. This is the first of what hopefully is a semi-regular account of the less-explored areas of the city.

Yeşilköy may seem like an odd choice for the first post about the different Mahalle in Istanbul. After all, it’s hardly one of Istanbul’s famous neighbourhoods. Miles away from the well-worn tourist trail, it lacks the Ottoman grandeur of Sultanahmet, the nightlife of Taksim or the colour of Balat. And yet, almost everyone who has ever visited or lived in Istanbul has been to Yeşilköy at one point in their lives. That’s because it’s better known as the location of Atatürk airport, the main gateway to Istanbul and Turkey. But the majority of tourists and locals alike who pass through one of the busiest airports in Europe are unaware that just on the other side of the barbed-wire fences that surround the runway lies one of the city’s prettiest suburbs. It also features pretty significantly in Istanbul’s turbulent history. So naturally I had to go explore this mysterious “Green Village”.

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Long before Turkish Airlines began serving everyone delicious lokum on the descent into Istanbul, Yeşilköy has always been an entry and exit point for the city. Legend has it that a ship carrying the bones of St. Stephen from Constantinople to Rome were forced to shelter there during a fierce storm, which gave the town its first name of Ayastefanos. Fast forward just a couple of decades and the Latins of the Fourth Crusade figured it’d be a great place to set up shop while they planned the Fall of Constantinople in 1203. Since then everyone from the French to the Russians to the Armenians have wanted a slice of this delicious green pie. After the fall of the Ottoman empire it became a popular resort village for sweaty Istanbullu keen for a beach getaway; even Ataturk himself built a summer house not too far away.

These days the megalopolis that is Istanbul has well and truly swallowed Yeşilköy, but surprisingly it’s one of the few areas that has still retained its small village feel. Keeping to the nautical theme, my first port of call was the Yeşilköy Fener, one of the three remaining functioning Ottoman lighthouses in Istanbul. Like so many gorgeous old buildings in this city it’s been turned into a rather tacky fish restaurant and dwarfed by towers of glass, but from some angles it’s easy enough to imagine it being a beacon of hope for the all the distant ships heading for the Bosphorus (see what I did there?).

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Surprise! Now with bonus office block.

With the theme song to Round the Twist firmly stuck in my head, I headed along the seaside into Yeşilköy proper. The coastline of Istanbul ranges from the litter-strewn industrialism of Zeytinburnu and Uskudar to the rollerblading havens of Moda and Caddebostan, but Yeşilköy takes the cake as the prettiest seaside in town. There is even a beach with sand. Glorious sand! I may have stood on the spot wiggling my toes for a good five minutes.

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Passing parks filled with locals in beanbags enjoying the remnants Saturday afternoon sun, I grabbed myself one of the ubiquitous 6TL fish sandwiches and sat watching a parade of hawkers selling everything from stems of garlic to balloons to rides on a portable merry-go-round that looked like it would collapse into piles of rainbow-coloured metal at any moment. It seems the further out of the main city you go, the stranger the items the hawkers force you to buy (unfortunately I did not get a go on the merry-go-round)

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Heading back through the main drag past the remaining few Ottoman-era wooden houses, I stumbled upon Istanbul’s aviation museum straddling the southern edges of the airport. It’s the biggest collection of old military and civilian aircraft in Turkey, with no shortage of ominous looking missile launchers filled with curious tourists tempting fate and poking their heads in. As much as I would have liked to fork out the 6TL entry fee (plus another 3 for the privilege of taking photos), it was the weekend before payday so I settled for some long-distance snaps away from the watchful gaze of the entry guards.

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Just down the coast from Yeşilköy is the Florya Atatürk Marine Mansion, which was basically ol’ Atatürk’s summer digs for when the hustle and bustle of Dolmabahçe Palace got a bit too much to handle. And boy, he sure did know how to live. Perched 70 metres into the sea, the 7,000 sq ft building is Bauhaus architecture at its finest. It’s totally worth a look if you’re in the area.

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A mere 20-minute bus ride later and I was back in the insanity of Istanbul proper. Yeşilköy is both so close and yet miles away from the rat race of this city, and makes for a perfect summer (or autumn) escape for the weekend. I would highly recommend doing as Atatürk did and discover the real gateway to Istanbul for yourself.

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