Istanbul is the most incredible place I’ve ever visited, and so far it is the only city that’s made me question whether or not New York is actually the center of the world. It’s difficult for me to write about Istanbul. For one thing, it’s such a complex, paradoxical city that a superficial travel post cannot do it justice. For another thing, I’ve been obsessed with Istanbul for years; visiting it has been one of the highlights of my life, and every time I try to write this, I have to stop and catch my breath.
Istanbul will make you feel breathless, too. This huge metropolis, with a population nearly twice the size of New York, has the most spectacular setting in the world. It straddles two continents, Europe and Asia. A sea channel called the Bosphorus Strait divides the European side from the Asian side, while a horn-shaped waterway called the Golden Horn bisects the European side into an Old Town and a New District. Istanbul is also bordered by two seas: the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara (which flows into the Mediterranean Sea). As the only sea route between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean — not to mention its location along the Silk Road, and extensive rail networks between Europe and the Middle East — it’s easy to see how strategically placed Istanbul is, and why it feels like the center of the world.
The former capital of two empires (Byzantine and Ottoman), Istanbul’s significance throughout history is undeniable. It started as a Neolithic settlement back in 6000 B.C., but fast forward to year 330 A.D., when Emperor Constantine made Istanbul the eastern capital of the Roman Empire. When the western side fell, the Eastern Roman Empire became known as the Byzantine Empire, and Istanbul was called “Constantinople”. Constantinople was a crucial center of Christianity and shifted Roman power eastward as the empire expanded its borders and lasted for over a thousand years.
Eventually the empire fell, and in the mid-15th century, the Ottomans conquered Constantinople and made it the new capital of their empire. Mosques were built, population boomed, and the borders of the Ottoman Empire expanded as far west as Hungary and as far south as North Africa. Constantinople, which was renamed “Konstantinye”, became the largest and most prosperous city in the world.
However, by the 18th century, the empire was struggling once again and collapsed during World War I, after over 600 years of reign. From the ashes of the war came Turkey’s greatest hero: Atatürk. Born Mustafa Kemal, the army officer led Turkey on a three-year-long liberation movement to repel invading armies. He prevailed and established the Republic of Turkey in 1923. He was even bestowed an honorary last name “Atatürk” (father of the Turks) by parliament. He is responsible for the secularization and Westernization of Turkey, and Constantinople was officially renamed “Istanbul”. Turkey’s fascinating and tumultuous history is far from over, and our trip to Istanbul happened to be during an extremely contentious time — when the country was to vote for or against increasing the power of conservative President Erdoğan (pronounced AIR-doh-wan) to an almost dictatorship level of power. We were intrigued by the prospect of witnessing history first-hand.
After landing at Istanbul Ataturk Airport, Anthony and I caught a cab from the airport to our apartment in the New District. The cab driver was surprised when I told him to take us to Galata Kulesi, which is the Turkish name for Galata Tower. “You speak Turkish?” he asked, impressed. “Hayir,” I responded, which means no and was one of the four Turkish words I had learned right before our trip.
During our half-hour ride along the waterfront, I started tearing up as we got closer and closer to the Istanbul I recognized after years of obsession. There’s the Hagia Sophia! The Galata Bridge! Those infamous seagulls! And those blue-domed mosques that I can’t tell apart from each other!
The cab dropped us off at Galata Kulesi since our apartment was less than a block away. Our neighborhood of Beyoğlu (pronounced bey-yo-lu) was incredibly charming, with historic buildings, lots of cafes, and cobblestone streets. It was reminiscent of New York’s Soho, but with better views because Beyoğlu sits at the peak of a hill. In fact, I wasn’t expecting how much uphill walking we’d be doing in Istanbul. The Galata Kulesi was once an observation tower, then a prison, and is now a tourist attraction. We arrived at such a magical time, when dusk gave the tower a warm glow.
Our Airbnb, one of two apartments on the sixth floor of a luxury building, was even better than our Athens Airbnb! The expansive studio had modern appliances, a fireplace, and two balconies — one with a panoramic view of the Golden Horn, the other was practically touching the Galata Kulesi. On our first day, we spent the evening watching the sunset from one of our balconies, as the skyline of domes and minarets slowly became silhouettes and the Golden Horn glittered with light reflections. It was much more extraordinary than watching the sunset in Santorini, if you ask me.
One of the first things we did was visit Hagia Sophia (pronounced ay-EE-uh so-FEE-uh), a building that may have actually changed my life; ever since I studied it in AP Art History back in 10th grade, Istanbul has been at the top of my bucket list. Originally a Greek Orthodox cathedral, then an Ottoman mosque, and now a secular museum, Hagia Sophia is a literal representation of Istanbul’s history as a crossroads of cultures. When the Ottomans converted the cathedral into a mosque, the bells, altar, religious paintings, and any mosaics depicting icons were destroyed or plastered over, while Islamic features, such as the four minarets outside and a mihrab that points to Mecca, were added. In 1935, it was converted to a museum but retains its unique elements of both Orthodox Christianity and Islam. The architecture of Hagia Sophia has influenced architects around the world ever since. I actually cried when we were inside.
The area surrounding Hagia Sophia is touristy but quite pretty. We were lucky enough to be there during tulip season, when exultant yellow tulips could be found everywhere. The word tulip derives from the Persian word “turban” — an appropriate name since its shape resembles turbans, the fashionable accessory of the Ottoman Empire at the time.
We visited two functioning mosques, Sultan Ahmet Camii (better known as the Blue Mosque) and Süleymaniye Camii, both of which look very similar to each other. The Blue Mosque was constructed in the 1600s and took just seven years to construct. With five huge domes, six minarets, eight smaller domes, and hand-painted blue ceramic tiles filling the interior, the Blue Mosque is stunning and is considered to be the last great mosque of the classical period. It is the only mosque in Istanbul with six minarets. According to folklore, an architect misheard the sultan’s request for “altın minareler” (gold minarets) as “altı minare” (six minarets). At the time, only the central mosque in the holy city of Mecca had six minarets, so the sultan in Mecca built a seventh minaret so as not to be upstaged by Istanbul.
We then walked down to the Underground Cistern, a vast subterranean reservoir that dates back to the Byzantine Empire and is roughly the size of two football fields. The reservoir was built to meet the needs of a growing wealthy city and to provide water in case of a shortage. 336 columns support the brick ceiling, and most of them were recycled from earlier Roman ruins found in Constantinople. Water once filled the space halfway to the ceiling, but eventually the cistern fell out of use, and today it’s just a shallow pond, formed from rainwater that leaks in through cracks in the ceiling. For any James Bond fans, you may recognize the Underground Cistern from the 1963 film From Russia with Love.
One of my favorite areas in Old Town is Hasırcılar Caddesi, a street filled with vendors selling things for actual locals, which was a nice change after walking through the touristy Grand Bazaar. We smelled spices from the nearby Spice Market, picked up some coffee from a vendor that had a long line of loyal customers waiting to buy bags of fresh beans, and tried a snack called künefe, which consists of layers of shredded wheat soaked in syrup, filled with soft cheese, cooked in a flat copper pan, and served with pistachios.
The most vibrant part of Istanbul is right by the Galata Bridge. It’s as chaotic as any New York subway station during rush hour, except instead of being packed in a smelly rat-infested tunnel, Istanbullus get jaw-dropping views of the Golden Horn. Ferries carry thousands of commuters between Old Town and the New District, between the European side and the Asian side, and up and down the Bosphorus. The Galata Bridge, which is what we walked over each day to get to Old Town, is bustling with pedestrians and rows of fishermen on the upper level, while seafood restaurants line the bottom level. One afternoon, we bought a balık-ekmek (fish sandwich) from one of the small boats near the pier. Fresh mackerel is caught that day, grilled right there on the boat, and stuffed into a baguette with some lettuce.
Another lovely meal we had was breakfast at Cafe Privato, a cafe in our neighborhood with outdoor sidewalk seating and a small patio in the back. In fact, it was so good that we went two days in a row. Turkish breakfasts are sumptuous feasts. They typically include fresh bread, an assortment of cheese like feta and kashkaval, marinated olives, sweet butter, honey, fruit preserves, eggs served in a skillet, spicy sausage, börek (phyllo pastry layered with meat or cheese), kaymak (clotted cream), sliced vegetables, and unlimited cups of Turkish tea. Anthony actually got dizzy from looking at the overwhelming amount of dishes on our table.
Whenever we travel, I always try to organize either a meal with a local family or a cooking class, and the cooking class we took in Istanbul was our absolute favorite. Cooking Alaturka is run by a hilarious couple that teaches classes in their intimate restaurant. We learned how to make five traditional dishes, and this was the most hands-on class we’ve participated in so far. There was just one other student, an Indian woman from Bahrain, so we got to spread out in their spacious kitchen and take turns practicing numerous cooking techniques. We made ezogelin çorbasi (a comforting red lentil and bulgar soup with mint and chili), kabak mücveri (lightly fried zucchini patties with herbs, served with feta), etli yaprak dolması (grape leaves stuffed with minced meat), imam bayıldi (eggplant braised in olive oil and stuffed with onions and tomatoes), and incir tatlısı (walnut-stuffed figs in syrup). Each dish involved completely different ingredients and cooking techniques as the others, which doesn’t always happen at cooking classes. After two hours of cooking, we spent the next three hours dining together and discussing everything, from the upcoming referendum (our teachers forlornly and correctly predicted that the “evet” [yes] campaign would win), to nail art (everyone gushed over my travel-inspired manicure), to observations of different countries’ reactions to Turkey’s travel safety warnings (European and Asian tourists still seem to be flocking to Istanbul despite the warnings, while Americans are the only terrified hypocrites).
On the days leading up to the highly anticipated referendum, we couldn’t help but notice “evet” banners all over Istanbul, while only in certain neighborhoods, such as ours, had some “hayir” (no) banners. Clearly, there were disparities between the two campaigns. April 16 was the day of the referendum and we actually forgot about it for the most part, as the city was running as normal and we didn’t notice any obvious chaos. When we got home that evening, we turned on the news and heard that the “evet” vote had narrowly won, with the major cities voting against it and rural areas voting for it — sound familiar? The results are widely contested since as many as 1.5 million unstamped ballots were counted. Nevertheless, the existing parliamentary system will soon be replaced by an executive presidential system. Those in favor of the “evet” vote believe that this will bring a more stable government, while the “hayir” campaign argues that it gives too much power to President Erdoğan. Just like the U.S.’s disappointing and potentially rigged presidential election last year, Turkey’s referendum results will pose similar challenges to the future of the country.
On our last full day in Istanbul, we caught one of the many ferries from the dock in Old Town. It was packed with tourists eager for a cheap ride up the Bosphorus, as well as a few vendors walking around selling tea, simits (Turkish bagels), and helva (Turkish halva). After a picturesque turn at the Golden Horn, our ferry took us up the Bosphorus, past the Ortaköy Camii, Dolmabahçe Palace, and Rumeli Fortress. We rode under the Bosphorus Bridge, which is the first intercontinental bridge in the world, and past waterfront mansions that constitute some of the most expensive real estate in the country. Just when I thought I knew Istanbul, the city humbled me again. Istanbul is huge, and our ferry ride helped me visualize exactly how 15 million people can fit into this captivating city.
Istanbul. No other word evokes so much in me. When I hear it, I’m taken back to the squawks of seagulls plunging through the air and the clanging of long metal ice cream scoopers. I’m taken back to the smell of pistachios and freshly grilled fish on rocking boats. Most of all, I’m taken back to the sun setting on the Golden Horn and the energy of a city so precious that two empires claimed it as their capital. It was an honor to visit Istanbul, and I will be back.
Tip for future travelers:
- Get an e-Visa before your trip. Just purchase it online, print it out, and bring it with you. When you arrive at the airport, you can go straight to customs instead of standing in another line at the visa kiosk.
- Stay in the New District — preferably somewhere with a view of the Golden Horn. For information on our Airbnb, feel free to message me. I can’t recommend it enough!
- Uber works well in Istanbul and is sometimes cheaper than a normal taxi. When taking any cab, make sure the meter is on. If it’s not, just say, “Taksi metre, lüften.”
- When catching a ferry, aim to be there at least ten minutes before it’s scheduled to depart so you can claim the best seats (upper deck, left side, up front). Otherwise, you can always stand in the back, but you won’t have a seat.
- Things to eat: pide (Turkish pizza), lokum (Turkish delights), as many pistachio desserts as you can stuff into your stomach, simit, ice cream (Turkish ice cream has a uniquely dense, sticky texture, and the entertaining vendors will play a game with you before handing over the ice cream), midye dolma (stuffed mussels with aromatic rice, herbs, and spices), kokoreç (grilled lamb intestines), and balık-ekmek. Many things that we think of as Greek are actually Turkish, so you might even prefer things like baklava here than anywhere else in the world. The best baklava I’ve ever had was at a little shop in our neighborhood called Sakarya Tatlicisi. When buying Turkish delights, make sure to customize your own selection; those pre-made boxes are not as good.
- Take a cooking class with Cooking Alaturka. Schedule it for the beginning of your trip because the teachers give helpful travel advice at the end of class.
- For unbeatable views of the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque, have a meal on the rooftop of Seven Hills Restaurant.
- To avoid the crazy lines at Hagia Sophia, go right before it opens. However, the best lighting for photography is later in the day — when it gets crowded. The choice is yours. If you’re visiting other museums, purchase a Museum Pass from one of the museums, and it will give you free access to the others.
- Skip the Grand Bazaar. While its status as the world’s oldest shopping mall is impressive, it feels just like that — an old shopping mall. Most vendors sell the same trinkets, and the Grand Bazaar actually felt somewhat underwhelming since we had recently visited Marrakech, which now has even crazier markets in the medina.
- If you only have time for one, go to the Süleymaniye Mosque instead of the Blue Mosque. They look almost identical both inside and outside, but Süleymaniye is much less crowded. Ladies, you’ll need to cover your hair, shoulders, and legs, but mosques provide clothing if you forget to bring a scarf.
- Drink tea during breakfast. Turkish coffee is much less popular (despite its dominance in Turkish restaurants found in the U.S.), and the tea will sometimes be free.
- Stop being fearful. Some well-intentioned people were so terrified of our trip that they even demanded we cancel it. As you can see, Istanbul is completely safe if you’re a savvy traveler, and the rest of the world excluding America seems to understand that. Traveling obviously teaches me about the destination, but it also teaches me a lot about my own country. The reactions we received and the misunderstandings we had to deal with were, frankly, disappointing. Americans disappoint me in many ways, but the hypocrisy of some — merely because Turkey is a majority-Muslim country dealing with political issues like everywhere else — really saddened me. When we returned to the U.S., the customs guy asked me incredulously why we went to Turkey. I gave him a brief lecture on Byzantine architecture and told him to educate himself a little more. Readers, if you base all your travels on safety advisories, you will never travel to anywhere interesting. As of today (5/4/17), the Bahamas, Belgium, Brazil, China, France, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Morocco, Peru, the Philippines, South Africa, and Thailand are just a few of the countries that are currently at “high risk”. I plan on traveling to almost all of those in the near future.