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.

Civil War secret message decoded

Civil War, civil war
A coded message sent to the beleaguered Confederate commander of Vicksburg has been cracked, the BBC reports.

The Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond has had the message in its collection for more than a century. It had never tried to decipher the code of seemingly random letters until this year, when they sent it off to retired CIA codebreaker David Gaddy. While Gaddy is trained to break sophisticated modern codes, this early cipher was still tough enough to take him several weeks.

It turns out the message was sent to Confederate General John Pemberton telling him he wouldn’t be getting any reinforcements. The city was the key to the Mississippi River and had been under siege by Union forces for months. The message was dated 4 July 1863, the same day Pemberton surrendered. The bad news was probably the last straw. With his men short of food and munitions and the city in ruins, Pemberton’s last hope was getting reinforcements.

The fall of Vicksburg opened up the Mississippi River to Union gunboats and cut the Confederacy in half. It was one of the turning points of the Civil War.

[Photo courtesy U.S. Army]

Photo of the day (10.21.10)

Do spies wear sundresses? Flickr user jrodmanjr snapped this woman in Moscow‘s Red Square and imagines she may be a cold war spy, her black briefcase full of classified documents. More likely an art student with a portfolio, but any any rate, its fun to speculate on the secret lives of strangers. As a photo, it’s pretty interesting too: nicely framed, distinctly Russian, and the mysterious girl’s dress balances nicely with the colors of St. Basil’s Cathedral.

Photograph any intriguing people on your travels? Submit your photos to Gadling’s Flickr Pool & it could be our next Photo of the Day!

Now Open: the Pentagon’s super secret art collection


Did you know the Pentagon collects art? The United States military began taking an interest back in 1840 and today, the total collection counts more than 15,000 pieces produced by some 1,300 actual American soldiers. Most of these artists are self-taught, enlisted military personnel and depict the sights and scenes of life in the armed forces–often at war and often in other countries.

I got a sneak preview of the exhibit a while back and was amazed by the talent and emotion depicted in the collection. From Vietnam to the Gulf War to Iraq and Afghanistan–these paintings explore an insider’s view of war, sometimes tender and sometimes horrific yet utterly lacking in propaganda or modern media. One artist even painted on canvas torn from combat tents because that’s what was available in Iraq.

Interested travelers can get a taste of our nation’s long-hidden art reserve in Philadelphia, where 300 pieces have been chosen for a special exhibit, Art of the American Soldier at National Constitution Center. The show opens today, September 24, 2010 and runs until January 10, 2011, after which it will begin a national tour.

(Attack at Twilight; Roger Blum, Vietnam 1966)

Retro cocktails and old-school ambiance at speakeasies around the U.S.

One of my favorite bars in Chicago, the Violet Hour, can be a bit difficult for first-timers to find. There’s no sign, no address, no windows, and upon first glance, no bar there at all. But if you look more closely at the boarded up storefront, you’ll see there is a door. And once inside it, you’ll be transported to another world – one where cell phones are not allowed, where plush curtains absorb the sound of patrons engaged in quiet conversation and candles provide the only light, where it’s “sitting room only” and capacity is strictly controlled, and where inventive cocktails are expertly handcrafted using ingredients like egg whites, rosewater, and homemade bitters.

The Violet Hour is a speakeasy style lounge. The old-timey uniforms of the staff and the novelty of the mystery location provide a gimmick that gets people in the door (once they find it anyway), but what keeps them coming back are the quality cocktails, quiet, relaxed atmosphere and extremely talented staff. Costing $12 each and taking around 10 minutes to make, the cocktails aren’t for those looking for a quick buzz. But for intimate evenings with friends, a romantic date, or just a darn good drink, the Violet Hour is worth searching for.

Along with the Violet Hour, Budget Travel also recommends several other speakeasy lounges around the United States. From Los Angeles to New York and Cleveland to New Orleans, these hip haunts serve up retro cocktails in glamorous throwback settings. You can “party like it’s 1929”, without that pesky Prohibition law.