“Once you visit Turkey, you can’t not go back.”
Those words were uttered to me and my mother as we awaited for a flight to depart to European shores many many years ago and those words always stuck, they lingered at the back of my mind with each new destination I set out on until finally I gave in and just went there to see for myself. These two women in retirement age, had a passion for Turkey that lured me there and will likely leave an indelible impression on you. Having finally visited, I’m not sure what exactly is so enthralling about this country or it’s largest city, but it will likely be on your mind long after you depart it’s shores.
Entering the arrivals area at Istanbul airport is to step into a chaotic scene where pieces of the Middle East are evident in the way people show full emotions, yelling, hugging, children full of noise and smiles evident wherever your eyes lay. Formerly known as Constantinople, Istanbul was officially adopted as the name in 1930, meaning ‘to the city’, and what a city it is!
Catching a taxi to the neighborhood where I stayed, Sultanahmet, to us foreigners, the neighborhood where the Blue Mosque is located, drove us passed pieces of crumbling and ancient walls from the Ottoman era. They stand, with the edges of the Bosphorus nearby and beyond those walls, there are glimpses of newer and symbolic pieces of Istanbul.
Blue mosque visitor/Glimpses of a mosque through the trees/Carpet maker/Quiet boats near Kumkapi/Historically strong walls
Istanbul is a city of 14 million busy souls, making it the 6th most populated city on earth so you cannot underestimate it’s size and how much there is to see.
The Blue Mosque is obviously one of the most visited sites in Istanbul and is an active mosque, so is closed during prayer times to tourists for 90 minutes each day. This means you need to determine what time to visit (which changes daily as prayer time is determined by the sun) and attire has to be modest, this means no shoulders or ankles exposed. They lend out head coverings for women and it is a requirement the entire time you are inside to have your hair covered.
The Blue Mosque/Veiled at the Blue Mosque/Hagia Sophia and the illuminated fountain
Across the square lies Hagia Sophia which is a thousand years older than the Blue Mosque and was originally a church, than turned into a mosque and the minarets added. It stands as a museum today and the interior still reflects its origins as a church.
A location within 10 minutes walk from both sites and a place I was told by the locals to visit during my stay (but didn’t manage to see) was Topkapi. This UNESO heritage palace was home to the Ottoman sultans for 400 years and was used for state occasions and royal entertaining during this time. Standing today as a museum to what at it’s peak was home to 4,000 people, the grounds are so large, that you’d likely need half a day to thoroughly enjoy this historical site.
Street juice/Sunshine ship/Ferries view towards Galata Tower
A former tour guide who I met and gave amazing advice on where to go and what to see during my visit suggested that The Grand Bazaar wasn’t worth my time, with only three full days in the city, I opted to visit the Spice Market instead and picked up some deliciously dried figs. The only advice for the Spice Market is to go with your gut and don’t hesitate to say no when you feel that way, you have to be assured in your answer and continue on your way, there are so many vendors selling similar products that you really have multiple choices for what you want to purchase.
Spice market goods/Seagulls swirl around the ferry
If you want to get up above the streets and see the city from a different angle then the Galata Tower is the place to go to. Located near the Spice Market, there is another reason to go in the summer with free events being held outside it. Offering panoramic views across to the Asian side and along the Bosphorus this Tower will give you a good perspective of the city.
During your visit, whether you want to go to the hub for local’s to unwind or want to dance the night way than the place to go to is Taksim Square. This is the spot where the city barely sleeps and you can enjoy a different side of Istanbul, away from the mosques and sight seeing. If wanting to go at night, try and go with other people than on your own, as its a better bet for safety.
Quiet contemplation/Elif Nursad artwork/Little gazers/One last look
Turkish food is varied and three day visit means I didn’t get to try too many dishes beyond some traditional meals. The kindness of one of the vendors at the Spice Market convinced me that my dislike for Baklava all these years was unfounded with a syrupy delight of Pistachio Baklava that disappeared in a few bites. Dinners of Lentil Soup and Iskendar were hearty, filling and healthy.
Turkish food is a wonderful mix of warming meals with fresh ingredients, they know how to eat truly wonderful food and there was nothing to not like. A lunch of Pide was the closest thing you can come to pizza for a Westerner and it was perfectly simple opting with our choice of a cheese Pide. Trying local baked rice pudding thanks to a hotel concierge was something that will surely be recreated soon enough on here as it was unlike any rice pudding I’ve tried before.
Cheesy pide/Iskendar/Turkish tea/Kaymak and honey with a dash of turmeric
Wherever you find yourself walking near a mosque when the call to prayer happens it is a pinch worthy moment of how life functions here, so different, so specific, in their religious traditions that there was an excitement to seeing local men flow towards their houses of worship from all directions. When you are from a Western secular society the way of life in Turkey, is something very different than what you can imagine living in and that is one reason why it is so enthralling and fascinating, for it looks similar and at the same time is so vastly different from my own land.
The yearning to return to this city is founded in the simple differences and the sheer unwavering kindness of the people who will leave you with an impression that won't soon be forgotten, connect with them and you'll never forget how open and warm their culture is. It’s once you’re on the streets that you meet the locals who look you in the eye as you walk passed and try to entice you with pashmina scarves or Turkish carpets and serve tea with a kindness you can’t help but fall for. Istanbul is woven between East and West and the line is invisible over the blue and it makes it a truly unique place that you won't soon forget.
He said "Photo"/Side smile
For local information here is the main Istanbul site.
If you have a spare day, it’s ideal to visit the Princes Islands which are made up of four islands where cars are not allowed, making them a place of peace to get away from the busy city.
Bosphorus boat tours are a huge thing and there are a number of companies, here is a link to give you an overview of which would work best for your preferences.
While in Istanbul, it is worth a stop at the Elif Nursad Atalay Art Gallery, a local who grew up in this gallery, it will only be there for another year and her talent and kindness cannot be underestimated.
If you would like to visit Üsküdar (the Asian side) than you'll likely catch the ferry from Eminönü, which is next to the Galata Bridge and across from the Spice Market. The ferries run frequently through the day and it's worth sitting outside on the journey just to see the birds swirl around as locals toss bread to them. The ticket can be bought just outside the ferry terminal and each building has it's destinations written on the wall outside. Note: The ticket is a token that will come out with your change, this did lead to some confusion, but a number of locals helped rectify the situation for me swiftly.
There are a number of historical sites that can be visited on day trips, for more information on options such as Troy or Gallipoli look here.