Istanbul has everything you could want in a city- there’s a beautiful body of water (Bosphorus Strait), interesting architecture, delicious food, fascinating history, friendly locals, fun bazaar shopping, and a forgiving exchange rate… I’m in!
Three friends and I spent five days in Istanbul. I’ve uploaded a sampling of photos from the trip (there were many more, but I don’t want to overwhelm you!)
Two words could probably describe my experince in Istanbul: SENSORY OVERLOAD. Smells, colors, tastes, sounds… Istanbul streets are constantly bustling with life. Even deserted streets have interesting street art or stray animals scavenging in garbage cans.
I loved walking up and down the hilly streets, ducking into little shops full of clothes, bags, soaps, jewlery. Lining many streets are fruit shops displaying colorful pineapples, oranges, pomegranates for fresh juice. Little street food stands sell bagels, kabobs, and other goodies. The smell of roasting meat for “donner” sandwiches was constantly wafting around. Our group of four fell in love with a little coffeeshop, Cherry Bean Coffees, near our apartment. Little dinky French expressos can’t hold a candle to rich Turkish coffees and satisfying frappuchinos! Yum. Other food highlights: sweet and sticky baklava and fresh fish.
The weather in Istanbul continuously surprised us. Torrential rain, sunshine, wind, clouds… the ever-changing climate reminded me of New England. If you don’t like it, just wait a few minutes and it will change!
We were lucky enough to have a few sunny days, which we spent admiring the Bosphorus by boat. Wind whipping through my hair, I loved sitting in the sunshine and admiring the European coast, and then walking to the other side of the boat and checking out the Asian side. Being near water definitely put me in a summertime mood. I was surprised by how green and lush Turkey is. On one boat cruise we hopped off on the Asian side of Turkey and hiked to the top of a hill. We were treated to an amazing panorama of Turkey…. so cool! On our second boat cruise, we decided to go to one of the Princes Islands, four islands off the coast of Turkey. Even on the island, there was still an abundance of stray animals… very sad to see kittens and puppies curled up near trash bins. There were tons of strays in Istanbul.
Visiting the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia were highlights of the trip for me. We visited these two sites in the same morning, and I was struck by how different I felt at each place. While the Hagia Sophia is now considered a museum, the Blue Mosque is still used by practicing Muslims. Everyone must remove shoes before entering, and women are supposed to cover their heads with a scarf. I don’t usually think of feet as particularly spiritual, but it felt peaceful to pad across the red carpet in bare feet! The mosque was stunning, with beautiful script writing on the walls and geometric designs spanning the ceilings.
Hagia Sophia, on the other hand, was first a church of Constantinople, then a mosque, and is now a museum. Arabic script and geometric designs were prominent, but there were also a few illustrations of Jesus on some walls. Interesting mix. I loved climing to the second floor and looking down at the large main open room. There was also a spectacular exhibition on arabic calligraphy. Such cool aesthetics, with just words! Too bad I can’t read Arabic
Our group got our shopping fix by visiting the Grand Bazaar, one of the oldest and largests covered markets in the world. Wikipedia says there are over 3,000 shops and I’d believe it. There’s a labyrinth of stores displaying scarves, tapestries, porcelain bowls, sunglasses, jewlery, antiques, and more. Lots of “evil eyes”, blue eyes that symbolize protection against bad luck and/or evil. We had fun haggling over items with dramatic store owners who frantically typed on calculators and would pretend there was no way they could budge from their high prices.
Istanbul is certainly a different flavor than Paris. A little spicier, hipper, less poised and “Western.” While headscarves for women are explicitly outlawed by secular France, burkas are acceptable and prevalent in Istanbul. I also noticed a cultural difference regarding men in Istanbul. It is socially acceptable for grown men to link arms as they walk down the street! In a clearly platonic manner. I’ve never seen this in the US or in France. It’s so cute!
I felt a little college-like living in a shared space with three other girls. Since I live in a host family in Paris, it has been quite a while since I’ve spent so much continuous time with people my own age. Getting ready together, eating meals and laughing, and taking an obnoxious amount of pictures made me think of living in the dorms at school, even though Istanbul is a far cry from central NY. I’m glad I had such great travel companions while visiting Istanbul. Spicing up my time in Europe with this trip was the perfect amount of culture shock combined with relaxation.