I had meant to go to Belgium but when I looked at Google Flights tickets were so expensive! And then I noticed down on the side, under ‘other destinations’, the cheapest flight from my airport on those dates was Istanbul. Intriguing…. an ancient city once the center of the Roman Empire, the bridge between Europe and Asia, a cosmopolitan clash of tradition and modernity, cultures and religions.
Five minutes later I had written to my Japanese dancer friend Misako and said “You wanna go to Istanbul with me for the weekend?” And she said yes. And I said “Are you serious because I’m going to buy the tickets right now.” And she said yes. It was about the most spontaneous trip planning I’d ever done.
I was happy to have Misako go with me both because she is fun and so interesting to talk to but also because to me Turkey seemed like this exotic, faraway destination that maybe was better with friends. I think that was my skewed perspective American media brain giving me it’s-close-to-the-Middle-East-wimp-syndrome but anyway- having Misako was great because it helped me to slow down. It was interesting to note that as an American I had to get a visa whereas she did not. Visas are super easy though- you just do it on-line it takes about 3 minutes.
Another thing we didn’t know when we hastily bought our tickets- it was Ramadan. All I really knew about Ramadan is that Muslims fast during the day. Was that going to be OK? Were restaurants going to be open? Were we going to starve and not be able to drink alcohol?! Turns out Turkey is officially a secular state and of course we were in a touristic big city so the restaurants were open and there were people selling food in the streets all hours of the day. On the bus into the city we weren’t sure though and we struggled between trying to be very polite and hide our food while also being really hungry.
The food in Istanbul is amazing. Roasted corn from the street vendors, a special kind of ice cream that is made with orchid powder so it’s very sticky, this magical kind of lemonade, fresh pomegranate juice, eggplant that actually tastes good, so many sweets. Each time we went to a restaurant the waiters tried to get us to stay by giving us free tea or hookah (that we didn’t really want). Once we’d been at a place for about forty-five minutes waiting for our food when the waiter finally admitted “the chef is still asleep but please stay.” But we had sightseeing to do.
People were extremely helpful and kind for the most part in Turkey though I did get a teensy tiny bit robbed and a teenier tinsier bit kidnapped about 20 minutes after arriving but that’s not the moral of this Turkey trip story. The moral of the story is the food is amazing (even the airport food) and the city is wildly interesting. And if you ever want a boyfriend and you are an American girl- go to Istanbul. I was very popular. But do make sure the taxi drivers don’t rip you off or drive away with you still inside.
When the evening call to prayer ends the fast each sundown (called iftar) the city really becomes a party. Outside in the square in front of the Blue Mosque hundreds of Turkish families congregate to share a picnic together. It was really a magical time of day and I would recommend going to Turkey specifically during a summer Ramadan if possible. It was really cool to feel the energy of celebration that iftar brings.
Istanbul is huge and split into the European side and the Asian side by the Bosphorous river but most attractions are based in a small area called Sultanahmet. We couldn’t do all of them because we were going chill Istanbul mode but we did explore these places.
The Hagia Sofia
Built in 537AD. It was the largest cathedral in the world for a thousand years. It has been a church and a mosque and now is a museum. With cats inside.
The Blue Mosque
An actively functioning mosque so visitors are not allowed in during the five prayer times per day. Luckily, you hear the call to prayer wherever you are in the city so you know when you need to avoid it. The mosque provides proper covering for those who do not bring their own though I always recommend bringing a scarf when you travel- it serves many functions.
The Spice Market and the Grand Bazaar
The Grand Bazaar was just way too crazy and grand for me but the area right outside the Spice Market was probably my favorite part of the city.
Roofbars, raki and the other side of the bridge
We crossed a bridge with men fishing to get to Galata and Karakoy- the hip part of town- where we ended up at a coffee shop talking to an American writer based in Holland who got his PhD in Berlin and was staying in Istanbul for two months to write an article and who basically knew more about ballet than I do. Travel friends are so interesting.
Prior to taking the Havatabus to the airport we checked out a traditional hamam, or Turkish bathhouse. I couldn’t take any pictures inside the beautiful rooms (you can see here) but I could take a picture of this tiny pair of underwear they gave me to wear. They made us get on a marble slab in the center of the room to soak and scrub us and I giggled when I saw Misako out of the corner of my eye- well, I couldn’t really see her because she was covered head to toe in bubbles. It was the perfect way to finish a weekend of walking but I would probably not do it again. Even though the woman pinched by cheeks and said I was adorable and held my hand as she walked me out.
And now for Misako trying the popular Turkish drink raki. It is strong strong strong.