If you are looking to take a mini-vacation that includes waterside vistas, cool forests and the slow pace of small-town life, look no further than Sapanca in Turkey’s northwestern Sakarya province.
Just a decade ago, Sapanca was only locally known, primarily a spot for Istanbulites with summer homes. In the past five years, however, the beauty of Sapanca Lake coupled with the verdant Samanlı Mountains stole the hearts of tourists far and wide. But even as villas for foreign buyers go up left and right, Sapanca has managed to maintain its small-town vibe, for the time being.
Especially if you live in Istanbul, be sure to set aside a weekend to explore Sapanca’s artisan shops, take a bike ride along the lake and enjoy fine dining beside waterfalls and dense forests.
How to get there
Getting to Sapanca from Istanbul is particularly convenient thanks to the Istanbul-Arifiye train line that departs from Söğütlüçeşme or Pendik and stops in Sapanca, dropping you off conveniently close to the lakeside and town center. The trip is about an hour and a half, roughly the same amount of time it takes to drive in a car from the Asian side of Istanbul. If you are traveling from Ankara, you can take the high-speed train to Arifiye. You can also take a bus from any city with Sakarya VIB or another line.
Where to stay
Sapanca has a wide selection of lodging options ranging in style and price – from quaint hostels by the lake to bungalows nestled in the woods. Many of these options are listed on Airbnb. If you are interested in indulging in Sapanca’s famous spas, you may want to book a room at the Richmond Nua Wellness Spa Hotel or NG Sapanca.
Picnicking and dining
From picnics to fine dining, Sapanca can accommodate a range of tastes. If you want to stick your toes in the grass for a picnic, Koru Picnic Area near the lake in central Sapanca is a beautiful, wooded spot to spread out your blanket. There are also a restaurant and bar nearby, in case you want to take in the ambience without packing a lunch.
A bit farther down the shore is Harmanlık, where you can picnic right next to the water. The tables get snatched up fast on summer weekends, though, so make sure you get there early if you want a table.
About 15 minutes from Sapanca’s center is Kurtköy Park, another gorgeous spot for a family picnic. The wooded park runs right along the water and is a popular spot for cookouts.
If you are looking for an upscale dining experience, I suggest heading out of the center city up into the mountains, about a 20-minute drive by car or taxi, to soak up the invigorating forest air over a luxurious Turkish breakfast or a fresh, sizzling trout at Istanbuldere Alabalık Evi or Sopeli restaurant. These two sites are like a page out of travel magazine, with table areas connected by walkways and bridges that skirt streams, ponds and waterfalls. During the COVID-19 pandemic, these are the ideal restaurants for eating out – outdoors, spacious and far-removed from the crowds.
If you prefer a panoramic view to a wooded wonderland, check out Sapanca Seyir Terası, a restaurant that overlooks the lake. This spot offers a view worth seeing in daylight or at night.
For a morning coffee or afternoon snack, stop by Bağdat Avenue in Kırkpınar. This street is lined with quaint cafes and grand, unique homes. Check out Green White for an iced coffee or burger, or pop into Matranç for some homemade ice cream. If you want a snack to go, grab some hot simit from Akyol Simit – easily the best simit I have ever eaten in Turkey.
If you are ready for a break from Turkish food, there is a Palestinian restaurant – called Filistin Lokantası – in the city center of Sapanca that offers delicious hummus and falafel, as well as a variety of heartier dishes.
Walking, biking and hiking
There are plenty of places to walk off all of that food. Sapanca has three lakeside promenades, two near downtown Sapanca and one in Kırkpınar.
The promenade – or sahil, in Turkish – in Kırkpınar offers a stunning view of the lake, whether you choose to walk or sit at one of the cafes lining the walkway. The promenade in Sapanca gives another prime view of the lake and is dotted with hookah cafes, tea gardens and benches. The theatrical Turkish ice cream sellers and the corn on the cob roasting over coals can be pretty enticing during an afternoon walk.
If you are interested in biking or jogging, or just want to walk without the distraction of vendors, head down to Harmanlık. An exercise path runs almost 10 kilometers (6 miles) along the edge of the lake from Harmanlık to Uzunkum Park to Gölbaşı. This trail is particularly stunning at sunset. You can rent bicycles of all sizes from Sapanca Municipality’s bike rental stand at Harmanlık.
You can also take a hike deep into the woods at Çatalkaya Valley Recreation Area in Yanık. This hiking trail offers fresh air, verdant views and a rich diversity of plant life. You can get there by car or by taking the Sapanca-Izmit buses that stop throughout Sapanca center city. The local buses accept cash – just make sure you know where you want to get off.
Swimming and other thrills
Not everyone is a fan of lake swimming, but if you have never taken a dip in a lake, Sapanca Lake is a good place to start. Especially if you are traveling with children, you won’t want to miss out on this opportunity to cool off and take a swim. Other than some to-be-expected lake grasses and a few pointy rocks, the waters are clean and the perfect temperature for summer swimming. The best place to swim, especially with children, is Sasa Harmanlık, a complex that includes a restaurant, bungalows and a beach. There is an entrance free to access the beach, but it is kept clean and includes a dock to jump off of.
As Sapanca has developed into a tourist destination, outdoor entertainment options have cropped up in recent years. Özkum restaurant near Sapanca promenade offers a ropes course with a view of the lake. You can take an ATV ride, play paintball or fly down a zip line in Yanık, near Meşelik Park. Sopeli restaurant in Mahmudiye also has a zip line of its own – just make sure to let your food settle first.
In my experience, Sapanca is unusually full of creative and resourceful people. Some of these artists have put their wares up for sale, and if you are bored of the same shopping-mall gift and decor options available in Istanbul, you’ll want to check out the artisan shops in Sapanca.
If you travel by car, you will probably notice some shops as you drive around town, particularly on Izmit and Bağdat avenues. The other name used by locals for Bağdat Avenue is the Silk Road, because it is the historic route of the Silk Road that ran from East Asia to Europe through Istanbul. The route continues to be an avenue for artists to sell their wares – from woodcarvings to handmade jewelry. You can also shop for these items on Sanat Sokağı (or Art Street, in English) right by the main Sapanca lakeside promenade.
Kırkpınar and Kurtköy host annual arts and crafts festivals that, for me, embody all the wonders of summer. Dozens of stands line the edge of grassy parks as artists sell everything from pottery and paintings to handmade furniture and lamps. Local chefs and cooks sell their own mouthwatering artwork, from döner to gözleme to rolled grape leaves. The event runs late into the night as live music draws festival-goers together at the central stage each evening. Unfortunately, these festivals have been canceled this year due to COVID-19, but keep them in mind for next summer.
Before returning to Istanbul, you may want to pick up a houseplant or fruit tree for your balcony from the many greenhouses and small landscaping businesses throughout Sapanca. You can find almost any kind of plant and the most knowledgeable experts in the region on what would grow best in your apartment. What could be a better souvenir of your weekend getaway in Sapanca than a tree?
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