For those of us who grew up outside the city, summer is perhaps the most claustrophobic time to be living in Istanbul. The good news is, you can find spots truly untouched by urban development just a few hours outside of the metropolis.
To really get in touch with nature on your weekend getaway, I recommend opting for a tent to spend the night under the stars. Whether you have never gone camping or are an aficionado, there are some spots you are sure to enjoy within a three-hour drive of Istanbul.
To access most of these areas, you will need a car. If you are renting, I recommend choosing a vehicle with a higher clearance to help navigate bumpy mountain roads. The first time you visit these spots, it’s a good idea to travel during daylight hours to avoid hitting any nasty potholes or taking a wrong turn.
As one last word of advice, please, leave no trace. These places are a refuge for city-dwellers only because they have been kept clean and undisturbed. Dispose of all your trash in a dumpster, and respect the flora and fauna you encounter.
Sahilköy, Şile, Istanbul
Perks: Toilet and shower facilities, beach access to the Black Sea, a restaurant on site, tent and bungalow rentals, accessible by bus
If you are new to tent camping, starting out at a campsite with amenities is a good way to get a taste for the activity. Sahil Kamp Istanbul is the perfect place to start out, located on the northern Black Sea coast of Istanbul. The campsite is accessible by buses (line 139S) that depart three times a day from Üsküdar and stop at Sahilköy, or you can drive and park your car at the campsite parking lot. If you don’t have your own tent, you can rent a tent or a bungalow. After setting up camp and stringing up your hammock between the pine trees, you’ll want to take a dip in the Black Sea or soak up some rays on the beach. This campsite offers plenty to keep you entertained while still getting you out of the urban jungle.
Perks: Toilet facilities, dumpsters, registration office, firewood for sale
If you are looking to get deep into the woods, Sülüklügöl Campsite in Bolu province is just the place for you. After paying a modest entry fee, you can pitch your tent next to Leach Lake, as it translates in English, nestled between verdant, densely wooded hills.
The first sound you will probably notice is the symphony of frogs. I am not sure I have ever seen as many frogs in one place as I did at Sülüklügöl. The area is home to 406 different species of plants, 38 of which are endemic. There are a number of hiking trails you can take, both around the lake and back into the woods in the opposite direction. Make sure to bring bug spray because the mosquitos can be bothersome.
The weekend we spent at Sülüklügöl, it rained the whole time, even flooding our friends’ tent. Nevertheless, the drizzle only heightened the fresh, earthy scents and blanketed the lake in a mesmerizing layer of fog. Seeing some places on a rainy day may dampen your impression, but Sülüklügöl is not one of those places.
Soğucak Plateau, Sakarya
Perks: Free of charge, outhouses, family friendly
Soğucak Yaylası (or plateau, in English) is the perfect place for families with kids. This large, grassy plateau is situated atop a peak in the Samanlı mountain range in Sakarya province. Though Google maps may show two routes, make sure to take the road that runs through Ilmiye – the other is a logger’s road that is not friendly to passenger vehicles. You can pitch a tent anywhere, though I recommend driving across the plateau once you emerge from the woods, as there are some outhouses along the tree line on that side.
The tall grass makes for a soft bed and also an ideal playing field for kicking a football or throwing a Frisbee. This spot is also perfect for star-gazing. Before turning in for the night, put out a blanket and lie on your back to watch the Earth spin.
If you want to get some hiking in, you can walk 5 kilometers (3 miles) to the Doğansivri fire tower – just ask a local to point you to the trailhead. On a crystal clear day, you may be lucky enough to see both Sapanca Lake and the Black Sea beyond it.
Make sure you bring sunscreen with you if you are fair-skinned because the UV exposure increases at higher altitudes. Once you have made your way back down the mountain, I recommend washing the dust off with a swim in Sapanca Lake at Harmanlık.
Sultanpınar Plateau, Bolu
Perks: Free of charge, humans nearby in case of emergency, well-suited for leisurely hikes
Sultanpınar Yaylası, on the Bolu-Sakarya border, is perhaps my favorite plateau in the region. This plateau is home to a rustic village. We encountered some car trouble on our first trip to Sultanpınar and about half a dozen villagers offered tea and assistance, with one even urging us to spend the night at his house. We were the only campers there that weekend and pitched our tents on the opposite side of the pond from the village. There are no designated camping areas, so pitch your tent wherever your heart desires. Be warned, there are no bathroom facilities.
If you have time to explore, the area is home to several plateaus, skirted by mixed forest, carpeted in stubby green grasses and laced with streams. You can hike between some of the plateaus, though you will want to ensure your phone is charged so you can use the GPS if you wander too far from your campsite.
Mount Uludağ, Bursa
Perks: Free of charge, total silence, no mosquitos
Mount Uludağ, the highest point in the Marmara region at 2,543 meters (8,343 feet) above sea level, is a spot I would only recommend to experienced campers due to its isolation and exposure to the elements. Three lakes rest near the peak of the mountain – Kilimli Göl, Karagöl and Aynalı Göl. Just type in Karagöl Uludağ and Google maps will get you there. A dirt road leads to the edge of the Karagöl, where you can pitch your tent. We parked near the road and backpacked our supplies over the ridge to Aynalı Göl. This lake is nestled in a depression marked on one side by a rocky ridge and the other by a sheer rock face.
If you have never camped above the tree line, the silence is extraordinary – slightly even eerie if you are used to the sounds of songbirds and frogs when you camp. But, no need to worry about mosquitos or flies. The altitude is too high for flying insects. The nights get very cold, so bring warm gear if you want to catch any winks. You will also want to bring firewood with you as there is nothing to gather above the tree line. Again, sunscreen is a must.
During our stay, we were visited by two giant Akbaş sheepdogs who were tending a flock of sheep and goats. They were friendly enough, but always remember that sheepdogs are not pets and keep a respectful distance.
If you are in for a strenuous hike, you can trek up to the summit from the lakes. It takes about an hour and covers rocky terrain, so be sure to bring good shoes and enough water.