The mood was a little more somber than I would have liked as the three of us boarded our early morning flight to Istanbul. Turkish airlines (like all other airlines I flew in Europe) tried to make the trip as enjoyable as possible with a hot meal, free alcohol, and Turkish delight candies throughout the 2.5 hour flight; but reality was beginning to set in. Our fabulous European summer was coming to an end. From Istanbul the three of us would be going our separate ways; Kristina to Vienna to start working again, Adrianna to Bosnia to reconnect with family, and myself to Nepal for yoga teacher training. We had registered for a Turkish tourist visa online the night before (which I would highly recommend as it made passport control a breeze), and within minutes of stepping out onto the bustling streets I was awakened from my temporary misery, filled with adrenaline and completely hooked.
It’s pretty much impossible to be in a bad mood in Istanbul. Firstly, it’s incredibly appealing to the eye. Numerous beautifully architected bridges connect land across the Sea (the Bosphorus bridge will even transport you to another continent; Europe to Asia), and intricately designed mosques line the horizon.
Our taxi was filled with nervous laugher (and white-knuckles) as our taxi driver performed death-defying driving stunts to get us the 25 minutes or so to our hotel. I’ve been a passenger in a tuk tuk in Bangkok and on the 401 in Toronto during rush-hour, but this traffic was like nothing I’ve ever seen. Drivers are aggressive and will squeeze through alleys so narrow I wouldn’t even ride my bicycle down them! I think the most surprising thing was the young children that ran out while traffic was at a standstill to sell ice cold water bottles to drivers and passengers through their windows. I held my breath every time those little feet hit the pavement.
Hotel Triplets was in the absolute best location; right off of lively Istiklal Avenue and a few minutes walk to Taksim square. There’s just no other way to describe Istiklal Avenue other than pure insanity; one of those things in life you have to see to believe. I read that over 3 million people per day visit this street; and I can tell you from personal experience that it is equally busy mid day as it is in the middle of the night. It’s loud, it’s spirited and just so much fun to be a part of. Dance parties start around street musicians, the sweet smell of roasted chestnuts comes from street vendors, and the odd (peaceful) protest is all just a regular sight while walking up and down this 1.5km road.
I felt like we hit the jackpot as our hotel was located on a pathway mid strip. Unfortunately, the alley was filled with local men who stared (with full 180 degree head turn) as we walked by everyday, but after a few days I came to realize when you are a blue-eyed, blonde-haired girl in this city you get attention everywhere you go.
There was a minor problem with our initial room, and within minutes of our arrival management had upgraded us to a suite on the top floor. The girls weren’t crazy about the 6 floors of spiral stairs multiple times per day (no lift), but I absolutely loved the large terrace overlooking the street. This is where I practiced yoga every morning and drank beer every evening (counter productive, I know). There was a cute little patio set out front of the hotel to eat lunch, and although the front desk staff spoke only bare-bones English, we could always seem to get the information we needed.
After getting settled, we decided to do some sightseeing. We took the metro five or so stops to make our way to the Grand Bazaar. Within one millisecond of stepping on the train I immediately regretted it. It was hot and sticky outside, and multiple other people’s sweaty skin was touching mine along with a smell that I just can’t seem to forget. I did end up using this train line a few times to get around during my stay and I have to admit it was pretty efficient, just not my personal cup of Turkish tea. I much preferred walking to get where I needed to go; this way I could explore a little more and take in some of the richness of this crazy metropolis in areas off the beaten path. For anyone that plans to visit Istanbul and use public transit, I would recommend the Istanbul Card. It costs about $3 CAD to initially buy and saves 50% off each ride. The card can be purchased at most convenience stores and then loaded with cash at machines in the underground stations. Multiple people can share one card, so it made quite a lot of sense for the three of us for the five days we were in town. Istanbul metro card works for all transit; trains, buses and ferries. We took advantage of the half hour ($2 return trip) ferry ride and spent one day exploring the Kadikoy district on the Asian side of the city. It had an incredible food-centred market filled with fresh produce, spices, fish, olives, cheeses and pretty much anything else you could imagine.
There were so many eclectic restaurants and menu items were definitely cheaper on this side of the city. Happy hour brought out the crowds and every patio was bustling for $4 beer and popcorn specials! Regardless of all this, I could have just sat on that ferry back and forth on the Sea all day; I loved enjoying Istanbul from this vantage point while getting a tan.
The Grand Bazaar itself was something I’m happy I experienced once, but have no desire to do again. It was all a little much. The male vendors will do or say just about anything to get you to come into their space and have a look at their jewellery, scarves, and knockoffs (all overpriced, and the exact same as the guy next door’s stuff).
I much preferred the shopping in the little street shops lining the Karakoy district, close to the Galata Tower (which boasts a stunning view of the entire city from 200 feet above).
This area was backpackers haven, and the vibe was much more chilled out. People sat on steps and drank beer in public (something I never saw anywhere but here), funky coffee shops hosted live musicians, and the pieces for sale in the shops were actually hand-made when they said they were.
In terms of markets, the Egyptian Spice Bazaar was unreal. It was the same cat-calling and complements as the Grand Bazaar, but at least there was sampling of delicious sweets and dried fruits to make it bearable. There were huge containers of vibrant spices, nuts, teas, dried fruit (the mangos are like candy) and best of all Turkish delights (locally called lokum). I sampled so many over the course of my visit that I became a serious connoisseur; differentiating between the cheaper sugar-based and the richer honey confections. I loved the traditional pistachio and walnut pieces, but I sampled cranberry delights coated in coconut that came a close second.
The mosques were the most uniquely stunning thing about Turkey. The way the domes dominate the city’s skyline is something out of a magazine, but truly nothing compared to all there is to see inside them. Five times each day (sunrise to sunset) there is a call to prayer from loudspeakers at the top of the 3000 plus mosques in the city. The chaotic chant echoes through the streets of Istanbul; at first I found it a bit unnerving, but like everything, it began to grow on me. If worshippers couldn’t make it to a mosque, they took off their shoes and knelt on blankets in the public streets, bowing their head to the ground.
The Blue Mosque (named after the blue tiles surrounding the inner walls) is a tourist attraction, but also an active place of worship. It’s free to go inside and look around, but we quickly realized our shoulder-less H&M dresses were not appropriate attire. We were given body and head coverings at the ‘visitor’ entrance and instructed to remove our shoes before stepping inside. It was dimly lit on the interior, with the only sources of light being low hanging chandeliers and stained glass windows above.
Next we visited nearby Hagia Sofia; a Christian church turned imperial mosque, and now a museum. The line up was long and it cost about $15 entrance fee. We opted to pay $25 to get a personal guide and skip the line (well worth it in my opinion). There is so much history here, dating back to the 6th century, and it’s much more interesting hearing about it from someone who knows rather than aimlessly wandering around by ourselves.
There is a column with a hole in the middle covered by bronze plates at the northwest of the building (also called the perspiring column or the wishing column). We channeled our inner superstitious side and turned our thumb clockwise in the hole and made a wish before we exited. Fingers crossed!!!!
The currency in Turkey is Liras, and (even with our crappy dollar exchange rate) things are quite inexpensive for Canadians when travelling to this country. We stayed in a 4* hotel that included Turkish breakfast ( breads, jams, honeys, cheeses and olives) for around $20 each per night and ate for about $10 a day. Alcohol was the only thing I noticed to be more expensive for European standards, and although cold beer could be purchased from convenience stores, I noticed it was wrapped tightly in newspaper for transport after 9pm.
The best money I spent in Istanbul was at a Turkish bath (also called ‘hamam’). It was like no spa experience I’ve ever had, and well worth every penny. Upon arrival you are given a cloth to cover up and instructed to use the steam room and sauna to sweat. After about 10 minutes three girls came to retrieve us and we entered the bathing room. The large, warm room had flat marble beds and basin-style sinks with antique bronze faucets. Firstly, the cloth cover-up is removed (no being shy in this place), and then exfoliation process begins. I’m not joking when I say I lost two skin colour shades; it was disgusting to see how much dead skin was removed from my body (and I promise I shower everyday!). Then I was mummified in a seaweed wrap for 30 minutes or so. It could have been the soothing music, the clean sweet smell, or the radiating warmth, but I actually fell asleep on that hard marble slab. I was awoken and coated head to toe in soft, fragrant bubbles. The art in which this foamy lather is made is so beautiful; a silk cloth is dipped into the soapy water then gently swayed back and forth to create an air pocket. The bubbles are then wrung out all over and I was washed head to toe; the cleanest I’ve ever been I’m sure. The day of bliss continued with a relaxation massage, chocolate face mask and tea by the pool (all for less than $100). I would highly recommend the bath we visited, Alaturk Hamam. The services were awesome, spa was so modern and clean, and best of all they offer complementary transportation to and from your hotel in a very comfortable Mercedes.
Like most cities, space is in high demand in Istanbul so things are built up instead of out. This made for some very unique dining opportunities with great views. Just off of Istiklal Ave there are side-streets filled with restaurants that boast open air terraces on every floor overlooking the happenings below. Tapas are great in Turkey, specifically the olive tapenade and fresh bread.
The street food was cheaper and really (really) delicious. Donairs (with shaved meat from those turning spits) were literally everywhere; some of my clothes still smell like slow-roasted poultry and lamb. The ice cream was so unique; made from goat milk with a texture I’m not at all used to. The most spirited ice cream men are all dress up for scooping pistachio, lemon, butterscotch, berry or chocolate flavoured goodness. They ring cowbells and play little illusion tricks with the cones when you order; it’s noisy and so entertaining to watch.
In terms of unique Turkish cuisine, I especially loved the Kumpir. It’s a baked potatoe (innerds mashed with butter, cheese and salt) topped with a smorgasbord of condiments. There were pickles, corn, olives, tomatoes, coleslaw, mushrooms, spicy hummus, meats and hot peppers to choose from.
My guiltiest pleasure (after the Donairs, Kumpir, and cheeses) were the chai lattes in Istanbul. They were creamy and spicy, nothing at all like Starbucks. Turkish coffee was served after every meal, and as much as I love it, it didn’t compare to the chai.
Underneath Galata bridge is a row of seafood restaurants, and (if you can bare the smell, and dodge the thousands of lines and hooks from fisherman on the bridge above) it’s a beautiful place to watch the sunset. The freshly caught fish are placed on ice-filled trolleys and then carted to each table for presentation, selection and then the chef prepares it! I made the personal choice not to eat seafood as the water itself looked fairly polluted with garbage (although I was happy to see one afternoon the city-managed garbage collection boats).
We ate fresh salads instead of seafood and watched the sunset hit the Yeni Mosque in such a way that I almost didn’t believe it was real.
The night life in Istanbul was interesting to say the least. Club promoters stand on Istiklal Avenue after dark and offer the thousands of ladies that pass by drinks and free cover to come inside. They promise lots of people and crazy parties, and don’t take no for an answer. Kristina and I said “not tonight, maybe tomorrow” for days before we finally bit on our way back to the hotel one evening after a couple drinks (how they remembered or faces day in and out amongst all those people is still beyond me).
The club was a lot fun, but I loved where we had spent the earlier part of the night, overlooking the twinkling lights of the city at Balkon Rooftop Bar. The vibe was relaxed, the music easy to listen to, and of course the view was stunning. The lounge-style bar kept it simple and dark as to not pollute the electric city glow below. Here we met groups of new friends, drank mojitos (and then switched to beer when we saw the price!), and snacked on the free salted peanuts at the bar.
Many people we spoke to raved about 360 Istanbul as having the nicest rooftop bar in the city, and we had to check it out for ourselves. Extremely nice view, but it came at a price (a glass of wine started at close to $20). We opted for some pictures on the terrace and then bee-lined it out of there.
It’s no secret that Turkey has been getting some negative attention in the media in terms of public safety and recently the Canadian government advised using extreme caution when travelling to this country. I’d like to say that this is completely unwarranted, but the truth is there were definitely things I saw throughout those five days that made me feel slightly uneasy. I saw mothers using their small children and babies to get money from strangers on the street. Well after midnight there would be 2 and 3 year-olds banging on drums or sleeping on ripped blankets; dirty and wearing tattered clothing. Even on busy, touristy streets in the middle of the day I witnessed protests. Nothing at all violent (although these protestors were extremely passionate); hundreds of police officers were on hand in case the scenery changed. It was uncomfortable to see kids (no older than 18) in bullet proof vests, carrying four foot shields with a gun half their size in hand. None of this would at all affect my decision to return to Istanbul, it simply reinforced the extreme gratitude I feel in knowing that I live in a country where I can safely and peacefully go about my daily routine.
Those five days in Istanbul came and went in the blink of an eye. Turkey was by far the biggest surprise of my Euro summer (in the most positive sense of the word), and to quote Kristina, “we really went out with a bang”. As I sat in the airport alone awaiting my flight to Kathmandu (one thing that is definitely more fun with company), I thought about all the amazing places and people that have impacted my life throughout the past 5 weeks. In the midst of it all we had no idea we were making such special memories, we just knew we were having fun. I covered some serious ground on this continent, but I suppose my journey is best measured in all the new friends I’ve made and not the kilometres I travelled.
For me, it was always more important who I was travelling with and less important where I was going next. I’m closing this chapter with the biggest smile on my face and so much love in my heart. I am ready for what’s coming next. I’m already in love with the cities I haven’t yet been to and the people I haven’t yet met.
New month. New beginning. New mindset. New focus. New intentions. New start.