Istanbul is the most populous city in Turkey, and has historically been the center of the Turkish empire. This city was founded as Byzantium around 650BCE and later became Constantinople during the Roman empire. Naturally, this city is a historian’s dream! And amidst the blizzard I encountered, it was also a photographer’s dream.
I couchsurfed in Istanbul with a Turkish host who was originally from the south. Through him I learned that most people migrate to Ankara or Istanbul in search of jobs, and although the call of prayer still occurs 5 times a day, this city is as cosmopolitan as it gets, and is changing the face of Turkey. Istanbul is filled with restaurants, night clubs, sheesha bars and concert venues. Of course these places are surrounded by historic mosques and century old Turkish baths. It is such an immense clash of history that I was literally in heave
It has been a while since I’ve traveled completely solo so I was nervous but also excited for 10 days in Turkey. Surprisingly Istanbul was fairly easy to navigate with its immense metro system. I was able to explore the city just using buses, trams and the subway. Most people do NOT speak English here so it was quite a feat (I did get lost a few times).
Although I was initially disappointed with the cold weather, I forgot how mild European winters were and actually enjoyed it. My host lived in the main area of Istanbul, about a 10 minute walk to Istiklal Cadessi (Independence Street) which is the main tourist hub. It’s a long avenue filled with shops where the locals and tourists alike hang out on any given day. At night the kebab vendors hang out here till 6am, so you can never go home hungry! Another Turkish past time is smoking sheesa (known as nargile in Turkish) while drinking tea at a local nargile “bar”. It’s a traditional past time that has been adopted by the new culture, since you can watch the football game, play cards and smoke.
I never crossed over into the Asian part of Istanbul since majority of the sites are located in the European part, mostly within the Old City area. The main sites are the mosques – Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia, both are within walking distance of each other. Although Blue Mosque is quite breathtaking form the outside, it’s Hagia Sophia that took my actual breath away from the inside.
Originally built as a church, later turned into a mosque and now preserved as a museum, it is quite amazing to see Arabic lettering with frescoes of the Orthodox Holy Family on these walls, side by side. I spent an entire day exploring these ancient walls, feeling a little part of history. This was once the largest cathedral in the world! Other historical sites to see include the Valens Aqueduct (from the late 4th century), and the Basilica Cistern (one of the many cisterns that remain from the 6th century).
I spent a day exploring the Topkapi Palace, which used to be one of the main residences of the sultans from the Ottoman Empire. The palace is a museum where numerous gemstones, swords, and Islamic paintings are on display. The grounds of the palace are vast, overlooking the Bosphorus, making it picturesque and a great place to actually relax and take in the beautiful views. Although the palace consists of thousands of room (only a few are open to the public), the most interesting room I came across was the ‘circumcision room’, which luckily was open to explore. The artwork, the lavish furnishings inside each room, the structure of this palace all makes one wonder how extravagant life must have been during the Ottoman’s rule.
Istanbul was my first look into Turkish culture and what I love most about it is the food! Delicious breads, meat and desserts! I was in foodie heaven wondering how have I not had this food before?! But wait, I have.. under the disguise of Greek food! As any Turkish person will tell you, the Ottoman’s also ruled Greece and the cuisine in these two countries are essentially identical! I also enjoyed how respected women were in Istanbul and how everyone was willing to help me. I had to lug my suitcase in the snow, walking uphill from my host’s apartment to my shuttle bus. There was so much snow on the small side streets that calling a cab was impossible so I decided I will walk and lug my 20kg bag with me. To my surprise I had 2 different men haul my bag for me! Just strangers, walking down the street who came and helped me. I was appalled and its this kindness of strangers that make me fall in love with the world each time I travel, and helps to instill my faith in humanity!