Story of World House Hostel

ISTANBUL

Since 2006 providing and improving quality

The building that was to become World House Hostel was constructed in the year 1860: a quiet Genoese-style stone house in the neighbourhood called Galata. It was an unassuming structure then, that blended into this Italian-flavoured neighbourhood like a tree in a forest. Yet it was only steps away was the iconic Galata Tower, and Grand Rue de Pera – a renowned street where to spend time required following an aristocratic dress code (nowadays Istiklal avenue) – could be reached in a minute’s walk. And between these two city landmarks, the stone streets echoed with the voices of merchants, residents, and craftsmen of a very cosmopolitan sort. Italians, Turks, Jews, Arabs, Greeks, Armenians, Albanians and many other groups lived and worked in this quarter. Simply peering out the window of the hostel today, it is easy to squint, employ a little imagination, and picture a 19th century milieu. Even in those days, the locals were getting used to foreign visitors. European diplomats and their families had recently begun settling here since the 17th century; European styles of architecture and dress became vogue; ambassadors, artists, officials, and nobles from around the world strolled along Grand Rue de Pera, between cabarets and brothels or simply sipping coffee while locked into discussion with their hosts of Ottoman aristocrats.

As time went on, things began to change. Multiple wars, the collapse of an empire, the formation of the new republic, and decades of rapid social and economic changes dramatically changed the face of the neighbourhood many times over. By the 1990s, over one hundred years after this building was erected, Galata was only starting to recover from a century ups and down, of neglect and disrepair, and by the 21st century this simple Genoese-style building had become an unassuming workshop for various tradesmen. Copper smiths, lamp repair businesses, and even barber shops have all been housed here in very recent times. While the near-by regions of Taksim and greater Beyoglu were undergoing reconstruction campaigns on behalf of the Turkish government, Galata and many of the lower areas along the banks of the of the Golden Horn remained more subtle, more silent, more undiscovered by the traveling guests. Many building facades went unrefurbished, still retaining the appearance of many decades of disrepair. The famous walk down Istiklal Street ceased at the Tünel Square, leaving an unlit frontier between there and the waterfront. The hostel’s accountant Pinar recalls that in the early 2000s, Galata was a very sleepy location indeed: “It was very different from the place you see today,” she reminisces, “the streets would be quiet after 8pm, and it was uncommon to walk around after dark.” It was not until the mid-2000s that the prospects for the area, and for this building, began to change.

The neighbourhood of Galata, which has throughout history been a high point of international interest, was once again garnering the attention of the city’s foreign visitors. Only now, in the 21st century, this interest came in the form of tourism, backpackers looking for a new world to explore, and curious minds looking to peer into the deep history of the neighbourhood. And all the while there was the Galata Tower, which had never ceased to be a site of beauty and fascination. Many would still venture over from Sultanahmet or other districts to come see it. A new chapter in the life the district was soon to be written, and it promised to be a chapter of development, vibrancy, renewed café and entertainment culture, alternative venues and more. It was a stirring ambience not felt, perhaps, since the latter years of the Ottoman Empire or the hay-days and the Orient Express. It was, in many respects, a chapter made for the adventurous free-thinkers, and the young world explorers. At the time, however, accommodation for young travellers was still centralized in the Old City. It was a small group of close friends and recent graduates named Tahir, Baris, Şerif and Emek, who noticed a need for hostel-style accommodation in Beyoglu. In December of 2005, these young men, who had been exposed to international ideas by their visits to United States, and recently edified by their own backpacking journeys throughout Germany, Italy, Spain, and Greece, took the first steps to founding what was to become one of the first youth hostels on this side of the Galata Bridge.

The inspiration for founding this hostel came from many places. Serif, the brother of Tahir and owner of World House Hostel, cites his 8 years of growing up in a youth boarding school as a primary motivation. He explains, “In a school like that you learn about community, and coming together, and learning together. In a way, you come to share experiences; you share everything.” It was with the ideal of creating a community and shared space for staff and international guests alike, and sensing the need for a new type of accommodation in the burgeoning region of Galata, that this group of world-weary friends noticed a vacancy in this unassuming stone building on Galip Dede Caddesi. They hopped on the opportunity in December of 2005, and it turned out to be a daunting task indeed. They had only enough money to rent out the first floor, and upon first stepping inside they breathed a sigh of doggedness. The interior was ramshackle. There was no doors, windows, and clean floor-space. Anyone entering was greeted with a flurry of birds. As one person colourfully remembers: “It looked post-war footage!” The group soon set to the hard task of converting a quiet, windowless, and doorless building into a suitable home for travellers and staff. By April of 2006, the rooms, the restaurant, the lounge, and the amenities were nearly all set in place. The hostel was a smaller, cozier affair than it is today – it consisted of only one building then; the restaurant occupied what is now the back lounge, and the number of beds was only 20. A small but tight-knit staff was composed, many of whom remain dedicated community members to this day: they were mostly family, friends, and young local students interested in getting to experience the world through Istanbul’s international guests.

Finally the name World House Hostel was chosen, and it fit the place like a well-knit sock. It was a title that encaptures both internationality and locality, both globe-trotting and domesticity, both the excitement of travel and the comfort of home. The night before opening day, expectancy was in the air. The staff had burned the midnight oil, trying to put everything possible into working order. By morning, everyone took a breath and peered out of the window in anticipation. And they were taken aback by what they saw. One could virtually breathe the enthusiasm of the backpackers, who were literally lining up at the door waiting to get in, lay down their heavy bags, unwind, and start immersing themselves in the budding, colourful, musical area that they saw around them. So eager was that first round of guests, that they even helped to hoist the last couple of beds up the winding staircases to give them enough place to sleep later in the evening. Soon even the locals saw the magic of World House Hostel. The lively conversation, strings of travel stories, the smiles of the guests, the succulent scents of Altun abla’s food wafting through the lobby, the diverse personalities of the visitors and staff alike – perhaps it was all too much to ignore, and ever since the hostel’s inception even many of the neighbouring families and shopkeepers have been in the habit of dropping by for lunch, for a chat, or just to say hello.

As the years went on, more and more hostels came to populate both Beyoglu and Galata, but World House Hostel’s unwavering reputation for friendliness and open-handedness ensured a steady flow Australians, Americans, Canadians, and European backpackers. Many languages accompanied this influx, including English of course, but also a great deal of French, German, Dutch, Farsi, and various Asian languages began flooding the once-abandoned corridors. World House Hotel quickly began to resemble the Tower of Babel. The curious and multi-lingual staff was put to good use. Soon the fledgling hostel also became popular with young professionals and students. Particularly, it was Erasmus students from around Europe who stayed first at World House Hostel, before finding residences in and around Galata. Being more removed from the bustle of Istiklal Avenue, and separated from the touristy central of Sultanahmet, the area of Galata offered a quieter, more easy-going alternative for those looking to escape high-stress, fast-paced tourism. Thoughtful students would often fill the lobby with enlivening conversation and philosophizing. These young guests were notable for their diversity, and came from a nearly countless number of countries, religious backgrounds, fields of study, or world views. Güney, the hostel’s former manager, recalls several instances of Erasmus students who, after a spell at World House and a semester of living in Galata, have fallen head over heels for Istanbul, some even extending their stay here indefinitely. This seems to be a common occurrence: many people with initially little idea of what this neighbourhood offers find here a home away from home, and eventually a home in itself. Naturally, the hostel became a place for forming friendships. Our accountant Pinar, who started working here in 2008, recalls an instance in her first year when a series of groups at World House Hostel – who were all regulars, having returned annually since it the hostel’s opening – got to know one another so well that they one day decided to follow their collective fancy and booked a group trip to India.

It became commonplace at World House for the guests and staff to fuse both short and long term friendships. Nights out on the town together were frequent, and small tours of the city became a learning experience for everyone. There was even the occasional candle-lit dinner party. The building of the hostel developed over time as well. In 2007, the hostel expanded to include the neighbouring building; the kitchen was moved over to allow more room for eating and conversing; and the amount of beds were nearly doubled, then tripled. The summertimes especially became golden and precious, especially after the hostel installed a café and summer terrace in 2010. The chatter of jubilant guests, staff, and locals could be heard tripping down the sunny street for days at a time. As the years went on, World House Hotel continued to draw an unprecedented international presence into the street, and in many ways the development of the neighbourhood into the place you see today depended on the effects of World House. For example, the Turkish government took notice of the foreign interest in these streets, and only very recently began recognizing the areas south of Istiklal Avenue as historically important. A far cry from the picture of 2006, in 2013 the area now contains many security cameras and a vastly reduced crime rate. The streets are populated long after 8pm, and people from all walks of life stroll the streets merrily. The locals too, who perhaps 10 years ago were unfamiliar with inter-cultural communication, have been warming up to their foreign guests enthusiastically, and visitors are often greeted with healthy dollops of Turkish hospitality and affability (not to mention the occasional cup of tea). As there grew a market for cultural merchandise, musical instruments, crafts, and alternative eateries and cafés, a vibrant network of small businesses began to open right around the vicinity of the hostel, adding greatly to the colour and ambiance.

Galip Dede Caddesi can now virtually be considered a continuation of the famous walk along Istiklal Avenue, not a departure from it. As owner Şerif describes, “It was was like we were pilgrims into the street.” Thus, World House Hostel evolved into what you see today, as a place of relaxation and fascination for guests from around the world, a welcoming nook nuzzled in the heart of Galata, a forerunner of the hosteling scene in the region, and the ideal stepping-stone for visitors hoping to experience Galata and Istanbul in their own personal way. Just as the neighbourhood and the building have evolved since 1860 and the years of Ottoman intellectuals and multi-cultural populations, things are continuing to change year by year. But one thing is certain, which is that the area of Galata will continue to thrive as the colourful and animated core of Istanbul, and that World House Hostel will stand here in the heart of it, ready to serve as a temporary home for travellers in this immortal city.