While some may wonder, “Can you ride a bicycle in Istanbul?”
Tourist guide Semra Özbek Akgöl has guided nearly 10,000 Dutch tourists on bicycle tours through the city’s historic sites. She shares her journey and stories from guiding tourists who often exclaim, “You are so lucky to live in Istanbul.”
Semra Özbek Akgöl was born and raised in the Netherlands. Her journey from the canals of Amsterdam to the vibrant streets of Istanbul speaks to her adventurous spirit and her deep commitment to introducing the rich history of Istanbul to tourists worldwide.
She studied business at Trakya University. After working in corporate companies, she switched industries and became a professional tourist guide in Dutch, focusing entirely on tourism since 2005.
Wanting to offer a different tourism experience, Semra decided to explore Istanbul’s major historical sites using a bicycle. For the last 10 years, she’s been touring the city alongside tourists, avoiding traffic hassles.
“I was born and raised in Amsterdam, but I have been living in Türkiye for 34 years now and in Istanbul for 14 years,” says Semra, reminiscing about her father, one of the first Turks to work in Germany.
When Semra’s family moved back to Türkiye after her father’s retirement, she was 13 years old and did not want to leave the Netherlands. However, her father’s choice to relinquish their life in the Netherlands motivated her to use her Dutch language skills for a new purpose.
She tells her story with a sense of destiny, reminiscing, “Fate had it that the place where my father boarded the train to go to Germany at the age of 26 is the same Sirkeci Train Station where I now start bicycle tours with tourists.”
“My husband and I have been organizing bicycle tours daily for the past 10 years. Initially, I had concerns like ‘Can you ride a bicycle in Istanbul? Can we get tourists to ride?’ We eventually overcame those concerns.”
Regarding the tours they organize, Semra shared, “We offer bicycle tours on two routes, both covering 10 kilometers.” The first route is our most requested tour, encompassing iconic sites such as Hagia Sophia, Sultanahmet, the Hippodrome, Topkapı Palace, Süleymaniye Mosque and the Spice Bazaar.
“The second is the Golden Horn tour, which extends to Eyüp, a significant sacred place for Muslims, and includes Fener, Balat, the Bulgarian Church and the historic Byzantine Walls. This tour provides a firsthand experience of three major religions. We make stops at 10 different points, offering valuable information to our guests and ensuring they can explore the interiors of mosques and madrasas. For the convenience of guests of all ages, we also provide electric bicycles,” she continued.
“Most of the participants in our bicycle tours are Dutch tourists. The reason for this is the fact that we organize bicycle tours in Dutch. I speak Dutch very well because I have lived in the Netherlands. Dutch people often tell me I speak Dutch better than many Turks living there.”
“Cycling plays a significant role in Dutch culture, starting almost from birth. Exploring Istanbul’s historical attractions on two wheels provides Dutch tourists with a unique thrill.”
“Eleven years ago, I unofficially toured King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands for two days in Istanbul, who is now the Dutch King. We took the Kadıköy ferry to cross to the other side. We visited mosques, ate Turkish food and even rode a tram. I do not think I need to say that he loved Türkiye.”
Istanbul is quite different from what European tourists are used to. It is unique because it spans Europe and Asia, with the Bosporus flowing through the middle and bridges connecting the two continents.
“In this busy city, there are not many bike lanes, so we mostly ride on sidewalks, passing historical sites everywhere. The streets can get crowded, parking is chaotic, traffic is a constant issue and you will hear car horns and see lots of scooters. But despite all that, you can also find peaceful and well-kept parks amid the urban hustle,” she continues.
“While we mainly use the coastal road and sidewalks along the Golden Horn in Istanbul, what makes it special is how polite and considerate the people are. Locals often give way, apologize and make room for cyclists. Tourists love this and say, ‘You can not find this in the Netherlands.’ However, our city’s roads could be better, and many wish for designated bike parking areas and clear road signs.”
“Mehmed the Conqueror greatly admired Hagia Sophia. In Istanbul, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman and Turkish cultures coexist harmoniously. Before 1453, it was Christian and after the conquest, it became Islamic. When you visit Sultanahmet Square, you’ll see the influence of both the fifth-century Byzantine era and the 15th-century Ottoman period all around you.”
Diverse religions and architectural styles converge here. After the conquest by Mehmed the Conqueror, a significant Jewish population joined the mosaic of Muslim, Greek, Armenian, Jewish, Bulgarian and other cultures, shaping the city’s rich heritage.
“Our Peninsula Bicycle Tour’s highlight is the Hagia Sophia Mosque, which deeply impresses tourists. We highlight Mehmed II’s efforts to convert Hagia Sophia into a mosque while preserving its historical and decorative values. He protected mosaics depicting Jesus and Mary. In the 12th century, Europeans looted Hagia Sophia during the Fourth Crusade, taking treasures back to Italy,” she said.
“For example, revealing that the bronze horse statue in San Marco Square originally belonged to Istanbul surprises them. I aim to correct their misconceptions and unveil the truth.
“One of the topics that impress tourists the most when I talk about it on our bicycle tours is what the Prophet Muhammad said about the conquest of Constantinople, known as Konstantiniyye at the time. When they learn that after a statement in the sixth century, the conquest was realized by Fatih in the 15th century, they express great astonishment. During our three-hour bicycle tour, I conveyed that Topkapı Palace represents the place we primarily came for. As I share such information during our tour, I must say that they sometimes get excited and surprised,” she explained.
“When we arrive at Gülhane Park, I point to the bust of Atatürk and explain that after World War I, Western powers had plans to plunder the Ottoman Empire and confine the Turks to a tiny corner. However, Mustafa Kemal and his patriotic comrades ignited the Anatolian spirit and initiated the War of Independence. Unfortunately, their knowledge of Türkiye is often incomplete or incorrect. Many of them say, ‘We have misunderstood Türkiye.’ This, to me, is much more important than any material gain.
“Our people’s limited opportunities for international travel and language barriers make foreign destinations seem appealing. However, we often underestimate the beauty and value within our own country. This sentiment extends to the guiding community, where minor setbacks might lead to statements like ‘This is Türkiye for you.’ Even when we host international events like bicycle tours or marathons on the peninsula, there’s a tendency to wonder, ‘Will it end in Sultanahmet again?’
“Türkiye boasts a rich history and is a melting pot of various cultures and religions, making it a truly precious destination. If we adopt a more positive and solution-focused approach, many challenges could have straightforward solutions. Let’s strive to address these issues effectively,” she emphasized.