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.

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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.

Turkish Delight in Istanbul Turkey

Turkish Delight in Istanbul Turkey

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”.

 

Balik ekmek vendor in Istanbul Turkey

Balik ekmek vendor in Istanbul Turkey

MMMM Turkish foooddddddd. Check out my piece on Istanbul Street food here http://minoritynomad.com/worlds-best-street-food-istanbul-edition/.

Turkish children eating Turkish Taffy in Istanbul

Turkish children eating Turkish Taffy in Istanbul

Turkish Child Chase birds

Turkish Child Chasing birds outside mosque

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.

The Christ Deesis Mosaic in Hagia Sofia

The Christ Deesis Mosaic in Hagia Sofia

 

Taksim Tram

Taksim Tram

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.

Stuffed Mussels in Istanbul Turkey

Stuffed Mussels in Istanbul Turkey

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.

Spice Market in Istanbul

Spice Market in Istanbul

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.

Royal Ottoman Cemetery, Sultanahmet in Istanbul

Royal Ottoman Cemetery, Sultanahmet in Istanbul

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!!!

New Mosque,Hagia Sofia, and Bosphorus crusie boats

New Mosque,Hagia Sofia, and Bosphorus Cruise boats

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.

New Mosque from Galata Bridge

New Mosque from Galata Bridge

New Mosque entrance

New Mosque entrance

 

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.

Man selling vegetables from truck in Istanbul

Man selling vegetables from truck in Istanbul

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.

Maiden's Tower at the southern entrance of the Bosphorus in Istanbul

Maiden’s Tower at the southern entrance of the Bosphorus in Istanbul

Maçka Democracy Park in nisantasi Istanbul

Maçka Democracy Park in nisantasi Istanbul

Lanterns at Grand Bazaar

Lanterns at Grand Bazaar

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.

Istanbul Street from Grand Bazar

Istanbul Street from Grand Bazar

Istanbul residents with Turkish Flag

Istanbul residents with Turkish Flag

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 Aya Sofya in Istanbul

Hagia Sofia Aya Sofya in Istanbul

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.

Gypsy begger in Istanbul

Gypsy begger in Istanbul

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.

Grand Bazaar Entrance in Istanbul

Grand Bazaar Entrance in Istanbul

Dolmabahçe Palace in Istanbul

Dolmabahçe Palace in Istanbul

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.

Dolmabahçe Palace Clock Tower in Istanbul

Dolmabahçe Palace Clock Tower in Istanbul

Crowds near Spice market in Istanbul Turkey

Crowds near Spice market in Istanbul Turkey

Chain Placed on the entrance of the Golden Horn during the conquest of Istanbul

Chain Placed on the entrance of the Golden Horn during the conquest of Istanbul

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.

Cannon in front of Turkish Military Museum

Cannon in front of Turkish Military Museum

Fishing from Galata Bridge into the Bosphorus

Fishing from Galata Bridge into the Bosphorus

Blue Mosque in Istanbul

Blue Mosque Sultan Ahmed Mosque  in Istanbul

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.

beyoglu galata tower in Istanbul

Beyoglu galata tower in Istanbul

Basilica Cistern in Istanbul

Basilica Cistern in Istanbul Yerebatan Sarayı

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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