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.

Istanbul after dark

You can read any guidebook or travel article for ideas on how to spend your days in Istanbul, taking in the city’s many world-class museums and bustling neighborhoods. But at night, you’re better off using local resources and recommendations as a starting point and then following your own instincts. In the name of research, I checked out a few diversions from the wholesome to adults-only. While by no means an exhaustive guide to Istanbul’s myriad nightlife choices, there are a few tips to keep in mind on what to do after dark.Going to the movies
Fortunately for non-Turkish speakers, foreign movies are shown in their original language with Turkish subtitles, so while you may not be able to watch a French art-house film, you can count on the latest Hollywood movies in English. Bonus: you can increase your Turkish vocabulary by following along the subtitles; I picked up some choice curse words and euphemisms watching Get Him to the Greek. The foreign-ness of the experience begins when you purchase tickets – you actually choose and reserve your seat in the theater – a new but welcome experience I haven’t seen in the US. Corn is a beloved food staple throughout the country, so popcorn is always available, though they haven’t figured out the butter thing. Before the feature begins, you’ll be subjected to ten minutes or so of loud Turkish advertisements (have you ever seen liquor ads at the movies, let alone for competing brands?) and previews in various languages. Just when you reach the halfway point, the lights will come up and there will be a ten-minute intermission to use the bathroom, get more dry popcorn, or speculate on how Inception will end. Check for listings online (Google “movies Istanbul”); some theaters let you buy tickets on their website.

Beerhalls and cocktail bars
It may be a Muslim country but alcohol flows freely in Istanbul, albeit for a price, particularly for imported liquor. Learn to love Efes (the domestic beer), raki (strong but foul-tasting anise-flavored liquor), and Turkish wines (şarap SHARAP – beyaz for white and kırmızı KURMUHZUH for red); all of which can run from 5 TL for a half-liter of beer in a low-key tavern to 20 TL for a glass of wine in a more upmarket locale. For the most variety of bars, from old-man pubs to rooftop lounges, head to the Beyoglu (BAY-YO-LOO) district off Taksim Square and turn down any street leading from the mostly-pedestrian Istiklal Caddesi. Best bets for a variety of cafes and bars are Cihangir (down the hill from Taksim along Siraselviler Caddesi), the “French Street” in Galatasaray (midway down Istiklal and left at the big high school), and Asmalı Mescit at the opposite end of Istiklal. At Kafe Pi near Tunel, we were probably the first people in a decade to order the above-photographed Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles shots and they were as delightful as you’d imagine. Wander around until you find a spot that suits you and enjoy the people-watching.

Clubs – dancing girls and salsa dancing
The city’s top nightclubs line the Bosphorus, the most famous is Reina, though it’s more infamous for exorbitant drink prices, posturing crowd, and frequent closures for noise pollution and other offenses. Slightly more laid back but still pricey is Anjelique in Ortakoy, where a bottle of local wine will run you around 60 TL or if you’re flash, 400 TL for the full Absolut bottle service. Make a reservation for dinner if you actually want to get into a club. Actually want to dance instead of just stand around in stillettos? Back in Beyoglu, Cuba Bar has live music and salsa dancing on weekends. Looking for a more, er, gentlemanly club? The city’s nicest strip club (actually, might be the only one) is Regina Revue (WARNING: link not remotely safe for work or any other place you don’t want to be seen looking at naked women) north of Taksim near the Hilton Hotel. More burlesque than pole-dancing, the club is harmless, fairly cheesy fun with an unapologetically bordello-esque decor. My friend and I were the only non-working women there but neither we nor our male companions were harassed by the clientele or the dancers. The “shows” range from a writhing woman on a motorcycle to an inexplicably artsy number with a Trojan horse prop. While not a typical choice for a Friday night out, my table had a great time guessing the story behind each dance and the nationality of each (almost all natural) dancer (nearly all Russian or Eastern European), and there are certainly seedier places to spend an evening.

Find another fun night spot in Istanbul? Leave us a comment below.

Next clubbing hotspot–the West Bank?

One thing that travel teaches you is that wherever you go, people want to have fun. You just don’t expect that people are able to have fun in some places.

The West Bank is commonly perceived to be one of those places. The Israeli blockade, factional power struggles, terrorism, and poverty should be enough to kill all the fun in the region. Yet some Palestinians are determined to buck the vibe by opening nightclubs to give locals the chance to relax in what has to be one of the most stressful places in the world.

One popular club is al-SnowBar in Ramallah, 10 km (6 miles) north of Jerusalem. Their Facebook page, which has more than 550 fans, explains that the club offers day and night activities. By day, “families can relax and enjoy both good food and swimming. Al-SnowBar offers a full restaurant with its own personal chef, full bar service, and argyleh (hooka) service. Al-SnowBar is soon to be offering a basketball court.”

How many Ibiza clubs offer a basketball court?

At night it becomes more like what you’d expect from a club with “Jazz nights, weddings, exclusive parties, and DJ nights.” There’s also a bonfire that clubbers like to dance around.

Sounds pretty cool, and it’s only one club among many, but as a BBC report points out, only a small percentage of Palestinians can afford to go to such places. The clubs are doing well, however, and draw in people from other towns. A Palestinian woman from Jerusalem explained that she comes to Ramallah to party because she doesn’t feel welcome in Jewish-owned clubs. So while Palestine isn’t about to join places like Goa in the international clubbing circuit, it’s nice to know that even in the toughest conditions, people can still have a good time. If you want to join them, check out this handy guide to traveling safely in the West Bank.

Photo of Ramallah courtesy Soman via Wikimedia Commons.

World’s first ecological nightclub opens in London

Just opened in Pentonville Road, Islington (Greater London) is Surya (Hindi for “Sun” and Sanskrit for “Sun God”), the world’s first green nightclub.

It will generate its own electricity when people move on its floors, will operate on solar and wind energy, has air-flush waterless urinals and low-flush toilets, and free entry for cyclists and walkers. Otherwise club entry is £10 and customers must sign a pledge towards helping combat climate change.

Brainchild of Mr.Charalambous, head of Club4Climate, the club’s dance floor is made of crystal and ceramic, which when trodden on generates electricity under the concept of “piezoelectricity”. This current is fed into nearby batteries, which in turn fuel the club. It is estimated that if a large group of clubbers danced vigorously, they could generate 60% of the club’s energy needs.

With aim of inspiring the youth to get involved in tackling the issue of global warming, Charalambous said in the Times of India: “Unless we stop preaching to people and use an inclusive philosophy we’re never going to create the revolution to combat climate change.” I couldn’t agree more.