Intense Istanbul (part 1)

By: Kelly

Istanbul is the kind of city that doesn’t invite you into it slowly, teasing you to dip your foot in the pool of it’s smells, tastes, sounds, and sights. Instead, it assaults you with them. Men selling the day’s fresh catch by the Galata Bridge, Men begging you to talk to them, to look at their restaurants menus, to ask you one question, to help you with your map. Women in burkas with their heads down contrasting with women in the latest fashions, bare shouldered, the mosques perching on every hill, calling to Allah five times a day. This is Turkey.  Istanbul is the biggest city with over 20 million people. A city that spans across continents with half a foot in Asia and half a foot in Europe. The people are an exact representation of the city itself, half a foot steeped in tradition and pride and the other in modernism, forward thinking, joining their European counterparts. This country that is 99 percent Muslim but with only 1/3 of that population actively practicing seems to be slowly prodding along, charting it’s future course.
When we arrived, we got picked up by an airport transfer that we had previously arranged. A man was holding a sign with our names and we headed off with him and two other tourists for a long ride to Sultanahmet, the tourist district where most tourist sights are located. The driving in Turkey is nuts and I’ve been in nuts driving situations but Turkey far outdoes my previous ones. If there are 4 lanes, people make them 8. If people are crossing, nobody slows down, narrowly missing pedestrians. We pulled over on the side of a highway to let one of the drivers out. There are women selling things, like kleenexs on the side of the dangerous highway where there are no sidewalks or shoulders. The man turns up the Turkish music and tells us, “Welcome to Turkey!” We pass so many mosques that are so different in architecture, the sunset shining on them and I know how wonderful this country is going to be.

Our Neighborhood

Our Neighborhood

Once we are finally dropped off at our hostel, Bahaus hostel, we relax. We made it. Once inside, we realize how nice Bahaus is with it’s roof deck with a bar and tons of cushions and spaces to relax, overlooking the now lit up city. We met Jack from Cambridge and Melina from Melbourne, who were our new roommates and before we knew it they were whisking us off to dinner. Our firs vegetarian Turkish meal was not as wonderful as we expected. It lacked imagination and was basically just spinach and green beans, but we had an Efes beer and some nice bread so we were full. Once we got back, we heard word of a number of kids in our hostel going to an opening of a club night with Vili, one of the Turkish guys who works at the hostel. We decided to join them so we took a cab into Beyoglu, which is the more modern neighborhood with chain stores, clubs and restaurants. Sultanahmet where are residing is basically a backpackers ghetto, full of hostels, cheap and crappy food, but close to all of the historical sights that first-timers to Istanbul want to see. Beyoglu is much more modern and you imagine actual citizens of Istanbul residing here, not just tourists. Regardless, the club was amazing. It was up 9 flights of stairs on a roof where they had two djs and tons of good-looking Turkish twenty-somethings dancing and drinking exceptionally expensive cocktails for Turkey. Ten liras per beer which equals about 7.50 USD. Good thing Jack was ending his holiday and was feeling giving since he bought us ours. We all danced for a few hours, enjoying that we ended up in such a hip spot of Istanbul on our first night in Turkey. Right before we were getting ready to leave, the cops came in and turned off the music and asked everyone for their id, not caring much about us from the hostel since we were all tourists. I asked Vili why, but he said that it happens all the time. We took a cab ride home with two guys from our hostel and our cab driver was manic, same as our airport transfer. He was blaring “Like A Prayer” and driving 200 miles per hour while doing Austin Powers dance moves with his hands, BOTH of his hands. Thank god we made it home in one piece.

Our Street

The next couple of days, we took the time to do four things.
1. See really amazing sights around Istanbul. We saw Hagia Sofia, built is 537AD and is one of the oldest churches turned mosques turned museum since 1935. They are renovating it, and it is still stunning.

Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sofia


Two Religions

When the Church was converted to a Mosque, all the Christian mosaics were plastered over. They have been renovating since 1935, trying to uncover and protect the past.


We saw the Blue Mosque (named for the blue tiles on the inside) which was equally as impressive at Hagia Sofia and more authentic since it is still a mosque today. They still make the call to Allah and people still pray inside. Everyone must be dressed conservatively enough and take their shoes off upon entering the building.

The Blue Mosque

The Blue Mosque


Blue Tiles

Blue Tiles

We saw the Grand Bazaar which was manic and crazy. Basically a Turkish shopping center selling clothing, rugs, toys, jewelry, food and chock-full of very persistent men, wanting you to date them.

Things for SaleDSC_0064

Things for Sale

We saw the Spice Bazaar which was Ellie’s favorite sight, with loads of spices and Turkish delights.

Spices!Sweets!more spices

We saw Istiklal Cadessi, which is basically the Oxford Street of Turkey, but pedestrianized with millions of people who walk up and down it every day. We saw the Istanbul Modern which was my favorite sight. The Istanbul Modern is one of the most amazing and cutting edge modern art museums I have ever been to. Better than the Tate(but smaller) and quite close to MOMA in the quality of the art being shown. Lots of installations, feminist art(which is interesting in Turkey, of course) and lots of mixed media. Because of Turkey’s muslim history, there was little art created before 1935 that wasn’t primitive in subject matter. This is because according to the Qu’ran, it is forbidden to make art in that has something living as it’s subject such as a human or a landscape. Each room elicited more of a squeal from us than the next. It also has a gorgeous café overlooking the Bosphorous. If I lived in Istanbul, I would go here once a week.

2. Get incredibly lost every time we left the hostel.
Maybe we just had a very crappy map but we were lost more than we weren’t until we figured out where all of the districts were in relation to each other and that to get out of Sultanahmet, we needed to follow the tram tracks.
3. Figure out that one must just ignore all of the men, greeting you and asking for your conversation at all times
The touts are incredible. If you stop to look at a map, all of the men come over and say “Can I help you?” but what they really mean is “Will you buy a rug before I tell you how to get to where you are going?” or “Can I take you on a date after I close my shop?” The men are harmless and incredibly smart with their handle on 5 different languages to talk to all sorts of tourists but they are pesky. In the US, it’s rude to not say hello to someone who says hello to you, but we realized that we must ignore the touts or we will be drawn into further conversation with them. The first day, for example, some man offered us help navigating the very easy and short distance between the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia. Towards the end of our walk together, he said that times had been tough and would we come to his store to look around since he had been kind in helping us. We brushed him off and agreed that we would come though we knew we wouldn’t. When we got out of the Blue Mosque, he WAS STILL WAITING FOR US! We spent 40 minutes in the mosque. We didn’t want to go with some strange man to his store so we told hum we were sorry and explained that we didn’t’ think he would be waiting for us. He was angry but left us alone. We learned our lesson quickly.
4. Figuring out that good vegetarian food actually exists in Turkey. It’s not just spinach and doner kebaps. We found Parsifal which is a vegetarian restaurant and it was delicious. We also realized that Turkish mezzes are the way to go for us since they are various dips and salads that are normally appetizers and nearly always vegetarian.

Lunch on the Bosphorous with John

Lunch on the Bosphorous with John

So after our first weekend in Istanbul, we realized that we were beginning to understand and become more confident and comfortable in Turkey. I knew we were ready for further travel to Capadoccia and to come back to Istanbul the weekend after.


1 Response to “Intense Istanbul (part 1)”

  1. 1 sultanahmet October 9, 2009 at 5:28 am

    Ahh!!! Blue Mosque , HAgia Sophia , people and apple tea…
    I will return..

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