After Budapest’s gentility, Istanbul hits me with an onslaught of sounds and smells. I arrive a few hours before my friend April, who is joining me on this leg of my journey. I take the bus from the airport to Taksim Square to the sound of a thousand horns honking in a hundred tones and rhythms. Men weave through traffic on foot selling bottled water and simits (like bagels) or stuffed mussels worn on trays on their heads. Twenty million people live here, and there are signs of new construction and development everywhere.
April arrives in time for dinner, and I take her into Nevizade, a small section of the Beyoğlu neighborhood near Taksim Square in the modern, hip European side of the city. She is immediately enchanted by the narrow alleyways filled with cafés and restaurants, each one with a man outside trying to convince us they have a special table upstairs for us. We want to sit right on the street, though, in the middle of all the action and people watching. We finally find a place with seats available next to the street, and our waiter Cerdan treats us like queens. April is a food lover, and I am excited to introduce her to the way Turks eat dinner: it’s a long affair starting with cold meze (appetizers), then warm meze, then a main course, often shared. All of this is punctuated by sips of cold rakı, Turkey’s version of ouzo or Sambuca. It’s made from grape seed and anise, and it goes down smoothly and packs a powerful punch.
Before long we’re both full, happy, and drunk. We make our way back to our apartment and do our best to navigate what we’re already calling the Death Spiral, a narrow, steep staircase made even more treacherous by the lack of handrail and the pitch black darkness we have to climb it in. We’ll both sleep well tonight.
We have to be up early the next morning navigate the funicular and tram for a Foods of Turkey tour I’ve been invited on by Walks of Turkey. The tour takes us by ferry to Kadıköy on the Asian side of the city. We are served tea on the ferry, and we learn that Turks use clear glasses so they can see the strength and freshness of the tea.
We then move on to pastries at Istanbul’s oldest bakery, the candy shop, the cheese store, the pickling store, and the butcher shop, sampling the wares at each stop. I am amazed at how much I learn about Turkish food on this tour. We’re already full when our guide announces it’s time for lunch, which consists of huge shared platters of grilled meats and vegetables, cheeses, and bread freshly baked in a tandır oven. Around two in the afternoon we finish our tour with Turkish coffee, complete with a reading of our coffee grinds. My cup sticks to the saucer, which I am told means my wish will come true. This tour is one of my favorite things I’ve ever done in this city.
That night we go to the Hojapaşa Dance Theater to see the Dervishes whirl. It’s my fourth trip to Istanbul but my first chance at this experience, and I’m looking forward to it with excitement. I’m a little worried that this will end up being one of those cheesy “just for tourists” shows. We’re warned in advance that photography is not allowed because this is a legitimate religious ceremony, and while that’s disappointing on one hand, it bodes well for the quality of the show we’re about to see. Within moments I am transfixed. The motion of the whirling and the rhythm of the music have a hypnotic effect that draws me in. I study the face of each dancer, and it’s clear they are in a trance as well. I marvel at their balance, how they all whirl in step with each other, all with with their eyes closed. It is a powerful and memorable experience that gets its point across: we are all part of this spinning universe, and if we work together in harmony we can create beauty. We follow the show with an overpriced and overcooked fish dinner under Galata Bridge in Eminönü.
The next day it’s the Grand Bazaar, the oldest and largest in the world, where April has a day scheduled with a jeweler she’s been referred to. I amuse myself by getting lost in the warren of alleyways and shops that all look alike. I know not to do any real shopping here, because the vendors won’t haggle (but the shopkeepers in the surrounding neighborhood will). I still enjoy looking at shops filled with brightly lit lanterns and colorful pottery and scarves. It’s something out of a dream when I hear the muezzin call the faithful to prayer.
That evening I want to introduce April to her first nargile experience, so we hang a right on Istiklal Street and head toward Galata Tower, window shopping the whole way. At the base of the tower is a charming café a friend introduced me to on my first visit, and April immediately loves it as much as I do. We order apple flavored tobacco and Turkish tea and watch with curiosity as our waiter Adem prepares the nargile for us. Unfortunately something April ate at lunch isn’t agreeing with her, so before long we leave. Within minutes it’s clear something is really wrong with her, so we hail a cab to take us back to our apartment. She holds it together through the ride, but the moment we steps out she throws up into a plastic bag she’s been carrying. The Death Spiral is particularly challenging tonight in her current state.
We realize we’re almost out of toilet paper, so I go back out to hunt for some. There are men everywhere here, especially at night, and it feels intimidating although I know I am in no real danger. The presence of a busload of heavily armed police right outside my apartment does less to make me feel safe than it should. I find what I believe to be toilet paper, but I’m let down when I get home and discover it’s really paper towels. (Who labels paper towels “Extra Soft” anyway?). I saw through the roll with a bread knife to make it the right size and hope April doesn’t notice in the dark.
After a rough night bowing to the porcelain god, April wakes the next morning game for some sightseeing. I take her first to the Hagia Sophia, built by the Emperor Justinian in only five years, from 532-537. It was initially a cathedral, then during Ottoman times a mosque. It has been a museum since 1935.
On our way we’re approached by Suat, a young, handsome Turkish carpet salesman, who offers us a way to skip the long ticket line. April is still a bit pale, so we take him up on it. He knows a scalper and gets us two tickets without any markup on the price. Awesome! But then he tags along inside with us. He’s very sweet and tells us a lot about what we’re seeing, but we quickly realize what he wants is for us to follow us to his uncle’s shop so we can buy carpets. No matter how many times we say no, he still sticks with us. If I ever go back into software sales leadership, I just might hire him. Along the way he shares with us that tourism is way down because the western media makes people think the country is unsafe because it is at war with the Kurds and now with ISIS. He tells me that most of the crowds we see are Turkish tourists, who are much less likely to buy carpets than visitors from Europe and the US. Business is really hard these days, he says, and I suddenly wish I were in the market for a new rug.
We next head over to Sultan Ahmet Mosque, commonly known as the Blue Mosque for the 20,000 tiles in that color which decorate it. The Hagia Sophia is grand for its rich history and great unsupported dome, but to me the Blue Mosque is infinitely more beautiful. It is open to visitors of all faiths for several hours each day, and we find ourselves in a huge crowd of tourists. Support staff assist with long skirts and head coverings for those with knees and shoulders visible.
Next it’s the Basilica Cistern. We’ve finally managed to ditch Suat without buying a rug, much to his disappointment. The Cistern is across the street from the Hagia Sophia and has the capacity to hold 100,000 tons of water. It is supported by columns brought from all over the Roman Empire and is lit with dim, eerie lighting. It’s my favorite place in the city.
We end our day at the Spice Market, which I’ve been eager to visit, but we leave quickly when we realize it’s a smaller version of the Grand Bazaar that’s even more densely packed with people. I’ve lost April a dozen times in the crowd but she knows to look for my hat. Vendors shout their wares to get my attention. “Ciao, are you Italian?” they ask. “Just look, no harm in looking. You are beautiful!” My red hair and light green eyes make me stand out and I keep my sunglasses on as much as possible during the day to minimize the attention. I suddenly understand at a visceral level why some women like wearing a burka. The Spice Market is a massive crush of humanity that’s not for the claustrophobic, and I can’t get out of there fast enough.
Taxi drivers here are a special breed that make New Yorkers look weak, and trying to hail one at five in the afternoon is a unique experience. April and I joke that Uber would definitely have surge pricing at this time.
It’s our last night in Istanbul before driving to Cappadocia and we stop to toast ourselves for how much we’ve managed to pack into a few short days, including April’s food poisoning. We promise ourselves we’ll take it slower in Cappadocia. It’s a promise we’ll quickly break.
The top sites to see and things to do are:
- Hagia Sophia
- Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmed Mosque)
- Grand Bazaar
- Topkapi Palace
- Go back to the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque at night when they’re all lit up
- Do the Istanbul Food Tour from Walks of Turkey. It’s phenomenal.
If you have time:
- Turkish bath
- Whirling Dervishes
- Shopping on Istiklal Street near Taksim Square
- Dolmabaçe Palace
- Spice Bazaar
- If you only have a limited time in the city, taking an organized private or group tour could be a good idea because that way you’ll skip all the ticket lines at the various sites (except the Blue Mosque, which is free but requires visitors to wait in line).
- Taxis are all metered now, so the worst they can do is take you the long way. I’ve never had a problem with that.
- I recommend staying somewhere near Taksim Square. The Old City is where you’ll spend your days visiting the historical sites, but your evenings will be best spent in Beyoğlu and Nevizade. Best to have your lodgings within walking distance to the restaurants and bars.
Have you been to Istanbul? What’s your favorite place to visit there?