Daily Secret offers insider intel for Istanbul, Athens, Shanghai and more

insider intelLast month, I went to a designer-clothing pop-up sale in the back of a restaurant, scored an invite to an exclusive party with Champagne and gourmet truffles, and got the manager’s private phone number of a hot new nightlife spot. I’m not famous or especially well-connected, I’m just a subscriber to DailySecret.com. Daily Secret is website and email newsletter that delivers insider intel for twelve cities from Buenos Aires to San Francisco, plus English-language editions for Athens, Istanbul, and Shanghai. Founded in Athens in 2010, Daily Secret spread to Istanbul last March, with over 200 secrets and counting.

The Istanbul secrets are compiled and curated by a team of 15 “scouts,” ranging from a fashion blogger, to a food critic, to a non-profit specialist in new companies who often hears about new ventures before they open. You can register with the site to receive the daily secrets, or search online by category, neighborhood, or date posted. Not all secrets are fancy or expensive, but they tend to be sophisticated and high-end. Daily Secret likes to be the first to write about a new service or business, or provide an added value for readers: an exclusive discount or giveaway, the unlisted phone number, or a spot on the guest list of an event.insider intelI met with Laura Wells, co-founder and editor of Istanbul Daily Secret, to get her best tips and favorites for the Turkish cultural capital. With a background in news journalism, Laura is an American expat with a discerning eye and impeccable tastes, who vets each secret and hopes that if you like the secret’s description, you’ll like the place too.

A year after the Capital of Culture is over, why travel to Istanbul in 2012?
Istanbul is not about trends or time-sensitive titles, though it is ‘hot’ these days. Istanbul has been around for thousands of years, and there’s nowhere else like it. It’s exotic, and yet also very accessible to foreigners, in terms of culture and things to do.

Essence of Daily Secret in one sentence?
We discover the best insider ‘secrets’ of each city for our members (in our case, Istanbul), that most locals don’t even know about!

Favorite museum/culture spot with no tourist buses in sight?
Turkey is now becoming known internationally for its modern art market. The most impressive art museum in Turkey, I think, is actually a private, family-owned museum. Its collection pairs renowned artists from around the world with local Turkish talents, and entrance is free! The Elgiz Museum/Proje 4L often has receptions & exhibits of emerging Turkish artists as well as many panel discussions in English. It’s one of Istanbul’s best-kept secrets, truly!

Where to go for an only-in-Istanbul souvenir, that’s actually made in Turkey?
I love artistic souvenirs that can become heirlooms, and we recently discovered a brand-new company started by the wife of Turkey’s Minister of EU Affairs, Egemen Bagis. His wife Beyhan has worked with local artisans to develop Anatoli, which offers three lines of exquisite pieces for the home ranging from straight traditional to modern based on an old motif. Beyhan Bagis conducted research with a professor of Turkic Studies to resurrect these designs and unusual pieces; for instance, Anatoli carries an incredibly elaborate silver-plated, hand-wrought sculpture that’s actually an Ottoman-style rose water holder to make the room more fragrant. It’s the closest thing to owning an antique (there are many fakes here!). The prices start at 65 TL, so nearly anyone can purchase something, and they’ll all fit in your carry-on. Read more here.

Best new hotel in a hip neighborhood?
For a reasonably-priced (and now very hip) hotel, Georges is a standout! The co-owner & manager Alex Varlik, a Parisian transplant, is very hospitable, and I love that they preserved this historic building’s original details. You’re steps from the Galata Tower, but the entrance’s in on such a quiet, little cobblestone street. Even Istanbul’s glamorous set is now flocking to this “old town” establishment, the intimate restaurant/bar Le Fumoir. Just opened this month across the Golden Horn, HHK Hotel is a charming new property with sauna, pool, and hammam, and we’re giving away a 2-night stay in February. The winner can be from anywhere in the world, you just have to be a Daily Secret member.

Comfy and cool bar you wish was in your neighborhood?
To hang out with the young art crowd & intelligentsia, head to the less-visited Asian side, for your pick of funky hangouts on Kadikoy’s Kadife Street (aka Bar Street). Karga at #16 is an art and performance space in an old building designed by the same architect as the train station. It recently celebrated 15 years and has its own magazine. Hidden above street level, Dunia at #19 is a new 2-story restaurant/bar that prints its schedules so you can hear a performance, watch a movie, and see an exhibit. Arkaoda at #18 is a lounge for music lovers, and the kind of place the owner doesn’t necessarily want you to find – unless you know someone, that is.

Where to splurge on a last-night-in-town dinner?
For a proper Ottoman meal and to try dishes you can almost never find anywhere else, as they did with the former Empire, try Pasha Bebek. Unlike many of the restaurants serving the traditional cuisine here, this is elegant, and in a ‘hot’ neighborhood. The hostess, Anita, is like an encyclopedia about all the dishes and she loves sharing the history behind them. She’s there every night and speaks wonderful English.

Recommended tour guides for more insider intel?
One of Daily Secret’s employees, Resat Erel, is also a long-standing private tour guide, also fluent in English & French. He’s a member of TURSAB, the tourist guide association, and he mainly gives tours to visiting dignitaries. He knows all the ‘secrets’ of Istanbul and is a great asset to us! In return, we have to give him up on certain days. If you want to have a private tour based on your preferences, he’ll work with you to shape your itinerary. His email address is: resaterel@gmail.com, phone +90.532.670.1369. For a culinary tour to try lots of different dishes, in very little time, and get to walk around the city or cross the Bosphorus by boat – Delicious Istanbul is a new company providing cooking classes and tasting tours for 2-6 people.

What’s happening in 2012 for Daily Secret?
Vancouver just launched, and we’re also launching Android & iPhone applications for each city this month (we’ll be announcing them on our sites, and they’ll be available through our sites and in the iTunes store), and people will be able to see the secrets in each neighborhood as they pass through, like a personal tour guide. We’re also working on English versions of all foreign cities.

Sign up and browse the secrets at www.dailysecret.com and find them on Facebook.

First bar made of glacial ice opens in Patagonia, Argentina

The first ice bar in Patagonia, Argentina, opened last week, which also happens to be the first bar in the world created out of glacial ice, according to Paola Singer of The New York Times. Located just outside El Calafate, Glaciobar is the newest addition to Glaciarium, a new science museum focusing on the region’s hundreds of glaciers.

Glaciobar will provide patrons with gloves, hooded capes, and boots for warmth. For health and safety reasons, however, the maximum time allowed in the bar is 20 minutes. During this time, most people choose to sip on the house cocktail, a mixture of Fernet con Coca and Coca Cola.

Want to see for yourself what Glaciobar is like? Check out this video:


Weekending: Varna, Bulgaria

weekend bulgaria travel varna
Back in September, the end of the Muslim month of Ramadan offered locals and expats like me an excuse to go on holiday while our American friends were celebrating the end of summer and Labor Day. With more time to explore than a typical Weekending trip, I checked out Turkey’s most western neighbor, Bulgaria, and fell in love with modern and medieval captials Sofia and Veliko Tarnovo.

The place: Varna, Bulgaria

Varna is known as the summertime capital of Bulgaria, a Black Sea beach town that’s a destination unto itself with several notable museums, an active cultural scene, and the gateway to the coastal resort towns.

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  • Unlike many of the purpose-built, touristy resort towns that litter the coast, Varna manages to maintain a nice balance of beach town and actual city. Pedestrian streets Knyaz Boris and Slivnitsa are great for window shopping and people watching day and night, and Varna has a handful of quirky and interesting museums to visit. The Archaeology Museum is one of the country’s best, and my visit to the creepily-cool Medical History museum (with nice Bulgarian lady following me around turning lights on and off as in VT) was one of my favorite travel experiences. Strolling the Sea Garden is a pleasant way to spend an afternoon, though the zoo is maybe the grimmest I’ve seen yet (I could have easily stuck my head into the lion’s cage with no interferrence) but with admission under $1, it’s hard to complain.
  • The variety of daytime diversions extends to nightlife too, with everything from sceney beach clubs to seedy casinos to dive bars. Indian Bar has an eclectic decor of Native American art and Italian soccer banners which manages to be more charming that offensive, while Saloon Bar is just the kind of place I’d love in my neighborhood: cheap drinks, good music, and a bartender that remembers you after one drink. Varna is also the birthplace to Happy Bar & Grill, a chain restaurant all over Bulgaria (and now in Spain too) that resembles a love child of Hooters and T.G.I. Friday’s, in the best sense. Happy has a vaguely nostalgic rock-and-roll Americana theme going on, a menu of Bulgarian food and pizza (they also have some sushi restaurants), and waitresses clad in miniskirts and nude pantyhose. There are several location including a tiki beach bar, and any of them are good spots to take advantage of free wi-fi, decent coffee, and as many ’80s music videos as you can handle. Varna is a bit pricier than other towns in Bulgaria but still a steal by Western standards.

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  • Lovely as Varna may be, the travel season is really limited to summer. While there is plenty to do in cool weather, there is greatly reduced transportation in and around town, many waterfront cafes will close in winter, and you’ll miss out on experiencing the summer scene. The Black Sea has been the hot weather refuge of many Europeans for decades and Varna retains some old-school (and Communist-era) flavor (see the above photo of the thermal pools frequented by the elder residences) while joining the modern world with boutique hotels and sushi restaurants popping up to serve a growing international clientele. If you visit Bulgaria in cold weather, your time would be better spent exploring the old towns and museums in central and western Bulgaria.
  • I’d be remiss in wrapping up a series on Bulgaria without pointing out the obvious obstacle: Cyrillic. Invented in Bulgaria and not Russia, the alphabet is less complicated than you think but takes some adjustment and practice to feel comfortable reading signs and maps. I was fortunate to travel with my Russian-speaking husband who could at least read the alphabet (though Russian and Bulgarian are as dissimilar as English and Spanish) but I got the hang of it quickly enough. Rather than trying to memorize the alphabet in advance, transcribe a few key and familiar words, such as your name, your hotel, and the towns you are visiting so you can begin to recognize the characters. Also, Bulgaria’s quirk is the reverse head nod: they nod horizontally for yes, vertically for no. This feels very foreign the first time you experience it but makes an odd sense after a few days.

Getting there

Most of the international flights to Varna are from Eastern Europe, though the great budget carrier Wizz Air flies from London and Sofia. Bus service is excellent throughout the country (about 7 hours from Sofia) or from Istanbul (10 hours) or Bucharest (7 hours), but train service is slower and less comfortable.

Make it a week

Rent a car or bus hop along the coast if the weather is good, taking note that if a town has a foreign name (like Golden Sands) it’s probably an overbuilt tourist town. You could also combine with other regions of Bulgaria. I fit in Sofia, Veliko Tarnavo, and Varna comfortably in an 8 day Saturday – Sunday trip, traveling between cities by bus and returning to Sofia for my international flight on Wizz Air.

Read about more Weekending trips here.

Crocodile Dundee pub is for sale

Want to buy a piece of movie history? Wrestle crocodiles and relive the 1980s? Now you can, because the Walkabout Creek Hotel, location of some of the most memorable scenes from the 1986 hit film Crocodile Dundee, is up for sale.

Located in the small town of McKinlay in Queensland, northeast Australia, it’s on the Matilda Highway and gets good business from both Australians and tourists. It was previously named the Federal Hotel but was called the Walkabout Creek Hotel in the movie. When the movie became a hit the owners changed the name. It was originally built in 1900.

Needless to say, the place is filled with movie memorabilia and is a pilgrimage site for movie buffs visiting the Outback.

Crocodile Dundee, a sensitive and realistic portrayal of Australian rural life (sarcasm) was part of the boom in the Australian film industry during the 1970s and 1980s. The boom started when the eerie 1975 mystery Picnic at Hanging Rock received international acclaim. The working class drama Sunday Too Far Away became a hit that same year.

Mad Max came out in 1979 and launched a trilogy of hugely popular films. Plans to make a fourth Mad Max film experienced long delays and now it appears the fourth movie will instead be a remake of Mad Max 2 (released as Road Warrior in the U.S.) and will be titled Mad Max: Fury Road. It’s due to be released in 2012.

Weekending: Sofia


Since moving to Istanbul, I’ve gotten the chance to travel to a lot of interesting destinations, from Beirut to Bosnia, that are much easier and cheaper to access from Turkey than America. For my first long (more than a weekend) trip, I went to Bulgaria for a week over US Labor Day and Turkish bayram (end of Ramadan holidays). Over the week, I traveled from the capital city Sofia to medieval hill town Veliko Tarnovo to Black Sea coastal Varna, and will explore the different flavors of each region in future posts.

The place: Sofia, Bulgaria
Travel writer (and Bulgaria fan) Robert Reid notes in his Lonely Planet Bulgaria guide that visitors to Sofia should not expect the “new Prague.” While Sofia may never compare to the Czech Republic capital in terms of the sheer number of historic buildings and monuments, you may discover a taste of Old Europe with the modern nightlife and budget prices that made Prague so popular in the past two decades. After the fall of Communism 21 years ago, Bulgaria developed steadily enough to join the European Union in 2007 (albeit as its poorest country), and hopes to join the Schengen visa zone next year. It’s now being touted as a destination for adventure and budget travelers with a small but growing amount of foreign visitors discovering its many pleasures.

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  • One of the major pluses for Sofia (and even more so in more rural parts of Bulgaria) is the price tag. Dinner for two can be had with a nice bottle of local wine for less than $20. High-end hotels that would cost hundreds of dollars in other European cities rarely top 100 Euros and many comfortable options can be found around 50 to 60 Euros (a Rick Steves tour group was staying at my hotel, the lovely but reasonable Arena di Serdica). Many of Sofia’s best sights are free, including the landmark Aleksander Nevski church (check out this link for photos of the beautiful interior, as cameras aren’t allowed inside and the postcard selection is lacking) and the daily markets are great to browse – try Aleksander Nevski Plaza for antiques of questionable province, Zhenski Pazar for Chernobyl-sized produce, and Slaveykov Square for books in various languages. Bulgarian beers and wine are generally 2-4 leva (under $3) and a generously-poured cocktail is only a few leva more.
  • Along with cheap drinks comes a fun, creative nightlife scene. While sipping wine in the candlelit converted barn bar Hambara, I wondered why New York doesn’t have cool spaces like that (answer: probably breaking a lot of building codes). Apartment (just down the road from Hambera on Neofit Rilski) is another well-known spot for travelers, expats, and locals, set in an old house with different rooms for different vibes. If you’re looking for something a bit more glam, Planet Bar de Luxe is delightfully over-the-top with purple tutu-clad waitresses and a gift-shop in the bathroom (and I thought Sarajevo had the best bar bathroom). Soviet-era dormitories have been converted into a hotbed of nightclubs and bars. Creativity isn’t just limited to the nighttime – great collections of art are housed in the National Gallery and the well-curated Sofia City Gallery, along with interesting graffiti and small galleries around town.

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  • Sofia’s vices and nightlife may not be for everyone. After five months in a country where alcohol is heavily taxed, low-priced and tasty wine is a big thrill for me, but not everyone has “cheap alcohol” on their vacation must-have list. Vegetarians may soon grow bored with pizzas (practically one of Bulgaria’s national foods, eaten with ketchup and mayo by locals – try at your own risk) and salads in Bulgaria include meat and cheese almost as a rule. Like in much of Eastern Europe, smoking is legal in most public places and quite widespread; a recent ban was overturned and replaced with a law barring underage from bars.
  • While the city center is easy to explore with plenty to do, it is small and once you leave the center, the abundance of Communist-era architecture may be less than charming. You can choose to embrace it and marvel at the seemed-like-a-good-idea-at-a-time Soviet monuments like the poorly-covered up Monument to the Bulgarian State or the huge National Palace of Culture (NDK) eyesore. If you’ve had enough urban adventure, Mount Vitosha towers over the city with outdoor activities year round.

Getting there

Small but serviceable Sofia Airport is served by flights all over Europe, including low-cost carriers Wizz Air and easyJet. Bulgaria also has excellent bus connections throughout the Balkans and Eastern Europe, with a clean and convenient bus station not far from the city center. Read on below for other destination ideas in Bulgaria.

Make it a week

There are multiple day and side trip opportunities near Sofia including Rila Monastery, one of Bulgaria’s best and most famous monasteries; the tiny wine town Melnik; and ancient Plovdiv. You can also hop a bus to venture into the Central Balkans or out to the Black Sea for beach time, as I did. Stay tuned for more on Bulgaria travel.

Read my previous Weekending trips from Istanbul here.