The other tour of Istanbul

“Happy birthday, Dave!!!”

It was our first night in Istanbul, and I had already fallen for the city.  My birthday wasn’t for another couple of weeks, but Lauren had decided that things could wait no longer.  Apparently I needed to do some pre-reading.

Pre-reading?  For a birthday present?  What the hell?

In two days, I was booked on The Other Tour.

Booking me on a tour was a brave move.  I’m not overly fond of organised group trips – most of the ones I’ve been on have just been bland, expensive ways of being herded too fast around things I could easily have arranged for myself.

My first inkling that this might not be the case came with the disclaimer on the website advising that the tour was challenging, and not for everyone.  In big bold letters it said:

PLEASE DO NOT JOIN THE TOUR JUST BECAUSE IT IS HIGHLY RATED ON TRIPADVISOR”

Ok, that boded well.

Being told to brush up on Istanbul’s history, religions, culture and minorities to make the tour more interesting also sat well with me – most tour guides steer away from controversial subjects to avoid offending anybody, at the expense of the real story.

As it turned out, there was little chance of that..

Fethi

I warmed to Fethi instantly.  Young, smart and completely irreverent, he was a man of strong opinions.  Swear words fell from his lips like rain, especially when discussing religion.  Articulate and informed, I learned more about his home city in a few hours than I ever would from a guidebook.

The Other Tour is his brainchild, an attempt by Fethi and his family to show visitors a side of Istanbul away from the vendors and mosques.  We didn’t spend any time in Sultanahmet whatsoever, and he faithfully pledged that we would not enter a carpet shop under any circumstances.  A typical tour this was not.

The experience ran from 9am until somewhere close to midnight.  In the heat of early September that’s not a short day, yet Fethi’s energy levels never seemed to drop.  How he does this three times a week, I have no idea – although he won’t be for much longer.  Not because he’s sick of it, but because he’s moving to New York to set up a similar tour… and from there, the world.  Entrepreneurial spirit, much?

Bosphorus view

The usual itinerary went out the window on our tour, a public holiday meaning that some of the regular highlights were closed.  It didn’t matter.  We quickly left the tourist areas behind, heading for the expensive parts of town along the Bosphorus for a coffee – and to board our private motor launch.  As you do.

Ninety minutes later, with his trademark mixture of information and abuse, Fethi had taken us from Ottoman artists to world-class yoghurt, invading armies to his interpretation of Islam in a secular nation, all while working on our tans on the front of the boat.

Before we got too comfortable, we were whisked away to Küçük Armutlu.  A Kurdish immigrant neighbourhood occupied two decades ago in protest at perceived government inaction, it was the scene of lethal battles between residents and police for many years.  Even now, electricity and water supplies to the area are kept deliberately unreliable, and tanks have been left in the streets as a less-than-subtle reminder of the power of the state.

Küçük Armutlu

Unsurprisingly I didn’t see any other tourists as we walked down the quiet streets. Conversations died as we approached, children stopping their games to retreat inside until we had passed.  Compared to other neighbourhoods the unease was palpable.

To lift the mood a remarkable lunch was laid on at Fethi’s parents’ house, on the top floor of a crowded suburban neighbourhood. There’s nothing like vast quantities of delicious homemade food to make me happy (and lethargic).  Hummus and vine leaves, spicy lentil soup and strong coffee, baklava, orgasm-inducing deep fried eggplant and much more.  Burp.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Onwards we went, Fethi rightly judging that much walking would be required to keep people from nodding off.  For me this ended up being the most fascinating part of the day, as we spent a few hours learning the history of the old Jewish quarter and other neighbourhoods around the Golden Horn.

We sat in a smoky cafe learning to play the board game okey and drinking warm, sweet salep.  Due perhaps to the time of year I wasn’t able to find that delicious beverage anywhere else during my time in Istanbul – initially a disappointment, but now an enduring memory.

We somehow gained entry to the grounds of Fener Rum Erkek Lisesi, a breathtakingly gorgeous private school with an incredible view.  Fethi knew the caretakers, or something.  It was probably safest not to ask.

Fener Rum Erkek Lisesi

And finally, the last stop before dinner – and the one I was least looking forward to.  It was time for a traditional Turkish beating massage.  Soap.  Steam.  Large hairy men pounding you to within a inch of your life on a marble slab, lying there virtually naked and trying not to scream too loudly.

It definitely had all of that – and yet, somehow, was still an enjoyable experience.  Once the initial awkwardness had worn off, and my arms had been returned to their sockets, I could see the appeal.  In fact, it’s even something I’d volunteer to do again – and that surprises me.

By early evening the “official” part of the tour was over, and we decamped to a restaurant near infamous Istiklal Street for dinner and drinks.  A group of elderly men played strange, beguiling songs from a small stage.  We drank raki.  Platefuls of food were piled onto the table.  We drank more raki.  Fethi came out with a few disturbingly accurate personality assessments.

Istanbul restaurant

And then we drank more raki.

Dropped back near my hotel around midnight, I gave Fethi a hug as I stepped out onto the street.  Despite doing this multiple times a week, he had managed to make the day seem more like showing friends around his city than anything else.  For someone as cynical about group tours as I am, that was a remarkable achievement.

Going on the Other Tour was probably the best birthday present I’ve ever had.  It ticked all the boxes – experiencing a new city, trying new food and drink, hanging out with locals, and was something I would never have bought for myself.

Which brings me to the big question: was it worth it?

Because this tour ain’t cheap.  At 200 euros, it’s far from it, in fact.

The thing is that it’s hard to put a value on the day, because it’s one of the very few tours that you couldn’t easily recreate yourself.  With a detailed set of instructions from somebody in the know, it might be possible to have a somewhat cheaper version of many of the experiences – but without Fethi’s insight and colour, they would never be the same experiences.

On that basis, then, I’ll answer the question with a guarded yes.  It’s a hell of a lot of money to spring on a one-day tour – even if that day did last for 15 hours – but then again, this is a tour like no other.

I guess that’s why they call it the Other Tour.

 

What do you think?  Would you ever consider paying that much for a one-day tour?

25 Responses to “The other tour of Istanbul

  • I would like to do the tour but certainly would not pay that much. More of a case of out of my budget than the price itself

    • Yeah I think I would have a really hard time justifying paying that amount for it ahead of time. Luckily I didn’t have to make that decision … yay for great birthday presents hey?

  • So you’re paying 13.33 Euros per hour for someone’s intimate knowledge of a city. 200 Euros is a hell of a lot but broken down like that, not bad, I think. Having said that, much as this tour seems really good, like Natalie, that’s just not in our budget.

    Wondered where you’d been playing okey when I saw the photo on Facebook a while back. Now we know.

    We’re looking forward to salep season here – when the weather’s a bit colder. Winter comfort. 🙂

    Julia

    • Yeah you’re right – broken down to 13 euros an hour, including all transport, food and drink, massage, boat hire etc etc etc … I guess it’s actually a pretty good deal. Still seems like a lot of money all in one go though! 🙂

      I’d seen old men playing okey the day before and wondered what it was. It’s a great game! I wonder if there’s a travel sized version available…

      I miss salep and ayran!!

  • I’d love to give this a go! Lauren is definitely the best girlfriend ever x

  • The tours sounds fabulous…something completely different. It is expensive but it’s certainly far more reasonable when you break down the costs. What’s going to happen when Fethi heads to New York and takes on the world..he’s going to need a charismatic employee or will it fold?

    • He’s in the process of handing over to someone else – a brother or other relative, I think – at the moment. It’ll be a hard act to follow, but they’ll be learning from the master at least! 😉

  • Fethi Karatas
    6 years ago

    What a nice post man, thank you for sharing it with the world 🙂
    I wouldn’t change a thing in it!

    And to answer your question: hell yeah I’d pay for it… But then again, I am a little biased I guess.

  • Sounds so awesome! Looking forward to whatever he comes up with in NYC 🙂

  • Irma Clement
    6 years ago

    Dave, is this 200 euro per person? I will be traveling with my friend to Istanbul in February and this sounds very interesting!

    • Hi Irma – yup, it’s 200 euro per person. Not sure if there’s a discount for more than one person or not – probably just drop Fethi a mail through the website and ask, I guess. Tell him you know me – although knowing him, he’ll probably raise the price as a result… 😉

    • Fethi Karatas
      6 years ago

      Hey Irma,
      This is Fethi, if you really wanna join the tour, just contact us at [email protected] and we’ll do something special for you.

  • Yeah I would – and have – for things or places that are significant to me. I paid a lot, relatively, for private day tours in Vietnam (to see war sites including where the Kiwis and my dad were predominantly based) and Turkey (full day on Gallipoli peninsula with one of the most eminent authorities on the topic). Granted the prices included a vehicle too. I never regretted spending the money, but the obligation of a tip on top bugged me!

  • sounds like a real live with the locals kinda tour. I don’t think I would ever pay that much but im sure it would be a great experience, Istanbul especially being such an amazing city!

  • just think of it as adventure tourism. people in your country pay more than that every day for a bungy jump or skydive and think nothing of it. I think there is a danger that people miss out on experiences because they 1. refuse to do tours and/or 2. they are stuck on a budget that doesn’t allow them any leeway. The key I think is to get the balance right, sometimes a tour does offer you the best option/ experience but you have to pick the right tour. Or the other one, ha ha!! You may have got a similar experience if you’d couchsurfed with some amazing outgoing, knowledgable host who could take you similar places, but that’s a big if. It sounds like a tour I’d pay for, and if I were you, I’d hang on to Lauren, she’s a keeper!!

  • Awesome tour – I definitely would (and have) paid comparable amounts for an insider view of a culture and the opportunity to engage with real people. The home meal sounds like a highlight to me, although I think the massage would be pretty great too! I’ll be spending my birthday in Turkey next week and although a bit more commercial, BF has arranged a Cappadocia balloon ride for my present! I can’t wait and have really enjoyed reading your Turkey posts as I prepare for my own adventures. Keep up the great writing!

    • The meal was incredible – I didn’t eat anything as good, no matter how much I paid or how fancy the restaurant was, the rest of my time in the country!

      Thanks for your kind words about my Turkey posts – I’m sure you’ll have an incredible time there! Enjoy the balloon ride 🙂

  • Thanks for reminding me about the tour again. I was there with my girlfriend in july this year and we both think it was worth the 200 euros. You realize Istanbul is so much more than Sultanahmet and Taksim when you’re finished, and personally I appreciate the city even more now. Fethi is an intelligent, social and fun guy, the right guy for this kind of tour.

    By the way Salep is readily available from supermarkets. Every time I’ve been in Turkey (except now in july), I’ve bought it from the corner shops. Maybe you were unlucky.

    Oh and Dave, very good blog you have here. Interesting reading. 🙂

    Greetings from Norway, have a nice evening

    • Thanks Even! And yeah, I think I should have been able to find salep in the supermarkets – it was just that the cafes that had it on the menu all told me it wasn’t available for one reason or another. Ahh well, it’s an excuse to head back when the weather is cooler, I guess!

  • I am sure it would be a great tour.

    Yet, I just think it is far too overpriced, and, while I value the experience you get from the tour (I really do not doubt it is unique), I can’t accept such price, as I perceive it as a rip off, no matter how much food you will be given, and the boat trip.

    There is no way my friend and myself will spend 400 € for a day, walking around, indeed seeing things from a great perspective, and guided by a great man, inclusive of food and the boat. There is a limit to what a tour guide could cost, and that exceeds what we feel should be a decent limit.

    As for the comparison to bungee jumping an similar extreme sports, the gear it is used for such adventures, and the checks that have to be made to keep them 100% safe and new, are costly. I do see a reason for such sports to be costly. You pay for the excellent condition of the gear, therefore for being safe while going for something otherwise totally unsafe.

    Yet, walking and eating and taking a boat, while being introduced to a certainly different and great Istanbul by a cool and intelligent and inspired guide, where is the added value that could justify such a costly price ? 400 € for 2 people for a guided tour in Istanbul with no particular expenses to be covered by the tour guide ? mmmhhhhh….., I wish I did not value 400 € as 400 € 🙂

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