Turkey was the first country I slept in outside of the U.S. On my way to the middle east, and later stationed there, Turkey became a part of my foreign identity. It represented everything I knew and didn’t know about life outside the U.S. My time was largely spent at military bases and airports, with a few trips to Istanbul. Which I hated.
Maybe it was culture shock. Maybe Istanbul truly was a bad city. Regardless, I wasn’t excited for my return after ten years. Oh how times have changed. I can say with no reservation that Istanbul is quickly becoming one of my favorite cities. Granted, it’s not perfect, but they are laying a foundation that will grow into something special.
Recep Tayyip Erdoğan took office during my visit as the first popularly elected president in Turkish history. Although there has been some controversy surrounding him, the fact remains that Istanbul has taken a very “western” approach to it’s development and their government is a large part of that. Istanbul is a city of contrast still. Extreme liberalism next to extreme conservatism. Short and revealing skirts next to full burkas. Traditional Turkish restaurants next to Starbucks. Turkish coffeehouses next to bars. Istanbul truly is a city on the rise and it was a treat to see it.
I recall how much I hated Edmund Pevensie as a child after reading he sold out his family for these things. At the time I didn’t get it. Now…….mehhhhhh. Depends on which sibling. The Turkish LOVE sugar. And the famous Turkish Delights don’t disappoint. The Turkish say “Tatlı yiyelim, tatlı konuşalım”, meaning “Let’s eat sweet and let’s speak sweet”.
MMMM Turkish foooddddddd. Check out my piece on Istanbul Street food here http://minoritynomad.com/worlds-best-street-food-istanbul-edition/.
Istanbul residents love to be outside. You’ll see families walking the street and children playing well until midnight. It initially caught me off guard but I soon realized that Istanbul is largely a very safe city. You’ll see pure joy in the faces of these children as they play and explore in this city.
İstiklal Caddesi is the main pedestrian street in Istanbul. Filled with cafes, restaurants, shops, and street vendors, it’s the first place any tourist should visit to get a feel for the city. The tram is cool but take a walk from Taksim Square down to Galata tower. Lots to see and do.
You don’t have to be a seafood lover to get behind these delicious mussels. At first sight these appear to be plain old Mussels however, you’ll be surprised to find out they are actually filled with orange mussel, herbed rice, pine nuts and currants. You can’t walk a few blocks without running into a street vendor steaming these bad boys. Served with lemon the best way is to eat them right away. The vendor will crack one open for you. Squeeze on a bit of lemon and use the shell to scoop out all the street gourmet goodness.
We’ve all heard of the famous Istanbul Spice Bazaar. It’s not until you venture through the narrow walkways and stalls that you realize how immensely unique Turkish spices are. Try a taste or two. Vendors are more than eager for you to sample their wares. Prices are always posted clear and tend to be on the cheap side. Especially if you get a bit away from the crowds in the front part of the Bazaar. If taking spices home ensure they are vacuum sealed (which most do) and placed in your checked luggage.
We stumbled upon this cemetery. Truly having no idea what it was. It’s located between Hagia Sofia/Blue Mosque and The Column of Constantine, also known as the Burnt Stone in Istanbul. It’s fairly small but the details are beautiful. And you just might meet some friendly cats who will show you around. Be careful of touts. They will approach you in an attempt to get you to their shop. DONT GO!!!
I love this view. Possibly one of the most chaotic places in Istanbul. The docks near the New Mosque and Spice Market are always crowded with tourist as it’s the setting out point for many Bosphorus Cruises. Something I highly recommend.
Although I loved Hagia Sofia, the New Mosque is my favorite religious site in Istanbul. What I enjoyed about it was their seemed to be an authenticity to it. I found the people visiting there were largely middle eastern. Many were there to actually learn and understand more than taking photos. The New Mosque location makes it’s very convenient for a quick stop in.
So these guys are great. They drive around local neighborhoods with delicious fresh fruit and vegetables. They yell and people come to their windows and lower a basket down on a rope. Tell them how much they want (and I noticed most already knew) and paid. The food is placed n the basket and pulled back up. I honestly have never seen this on such a large scale.
Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar owes quite a bit to it’s history. Unfortunately the offerings aren’t quite as impressive. Great place to browse but some of the prices were just ridiculous. Even by Bazaar standards. I did find clothing to be quite reasonable. And the items they did have were quite unique.
Turkish people are VERY proud to be Turkish. I will go so far as to say on par with the U.S. I have never seen so many people displaying their flag outside the U.S. Quite impressive. Turkish people will happily tell you EVERYTHING that’s good and bad with Turkey.
Hagia Sofia holds a very special places for me. It’s the only “bucket list” place I’ve ever had. Visiting for the first time was truly a personal milestone for me. Experience i’ll never forget.
Notice the young man is holding tissues while the other an iPhone. There is a DEEP economic divide in Istanbul and it’s only getting bigger. The Gypsy community is quite strong in Istanbul but not as aggressive as i’ve seen in other countries. Many sell things, like tissues and water, on the streets and in bazaars.
Dolmabahçe Palace in Istanbul, the largest palace in Turkey, is stunning. A 19th century palace, and home to 6 sultans, Dolmabahçe Palace has opened it’s door to thousands of tourist in recent years. The only way to see the interior is through guided tour but the outside is largely open to the public. Just walk around or have a seat on the grass overlooking the river.
As a veteran and history buff I really enjoyed the Istanbul Military Museum. It’s as if for the last few hundred years the Turkish decided to save EVERYTHING related to conflict for this very museum. This place is impressive. Anyone interested in Ottoman history really needs to visit. I especially liked the campy military campaign depictions. I was told they usually have a military band giving free concerts there as well.
Often eclipsed by it’s more famous neighbor, Hagia Sofia, Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmed Mosque )stands apart as a shining example of modern Islam. Welcoming visitors from all over the world, Sultan Ahmed Mosque gives a glimpse into the lives and prayer of Muslims. The first Mosque in Turkey to have six minarets, it’s certainly stands out architecturally. Be sure to check prayer times and clothing restrictions before visiting.
James Bond anyone? The Basilica Cistern, is the largest of several hundred cisterns that lie beneath the city of Istanbul (wish it was still called Constantinople). This cistern provided water for the Great Palace of Constantinople and other buildings on the First Hill. I found it a bit boring but the views can’t be beat. One of those must see items because it’s just so unique. Especially given it’s age and all the turmoil this city has seen.
Istanbul isn’t yet a great city. There are quite a few logistical, economic, and promotional issues that need to be addressed before it will be on par with New York, London, Berlin, and Tokyo. But as it stands now, Istanbul is a progressive and particularly modern city. A mix of delicious food, dynamic culture, and strong history make Istanbul a must visit.
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