Istanbul, A Love Letter to Turkey’s Most Famous City
By James Pham on August 2nd, 2016
Editor’s note: Istanbul (and Turkey) have had a difficult year, to say the least. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go. As author James Pham explains, there’s a lot to love in Eurasia’s most famous metropolis.
I know we’ve only known each other for a few days, but in that short amount of time, I’ve really grown to love you. I love how I never know what to expect from you. Are you Asian or European? You could easily be considered both. After all, you’re the only metropolis in the world to straddle both continents. Are you old or new? (I love how it’s called the New Mosque, even though it’s practically 400 years old.) Are you Muslim or Christian? I just never know with you. What do I call you? Constantinople? Byzantium? Maybe I’ll just call you “Gorgeous” and count the things I love most about you.
I love that I can stand practically anywhere, do a 360 and spy a spire or minaret or dome in the distance. I love that I can walk on marble, then round the corner and have a beautiful cobblestone lane underfoot.
“…being with you is like walking in a fairy-tale land where graceful domed mosques with soaring minarets and half domes vie for their piece of the sky.”
I love that some squares pipe classical music while a block away, European techno blares. I love that being with you is like walking in a fairy-tale land where graceful domed mosques with soaring minarets and half domes vie for their piece of the sky. I love how big things come in packages big and small here. There’s Hagia Sophia, once the greatest church in Eastern Christendom, then the chief mosque of the Ottoman Empire and finally a museum and then there are the smaller “big” things like the tucked away Rustem Pasha Mosque with its every-shade-of-blue tiles.
I love the shimmering metallic mosaics found inside along with the largest dome ever constructed (at least for a thousand years until Michelangelo built the dome over St. Peter’s in Vatican City, Rome). Just a stone’s throw away, I love the silhouette of the Sultanahmet Mosque, with its six minarets and the blue Iznik tiles that gave it its other name, the Blue Mosque.
Have I also told you that you’re a great cook? When it’s cold and rainy, you know that the smell of roasted chestnuts or a fragrant apple tea served in a tulip-shaped glass will warm me up.
“I love when you make melt-in-your-mouth kofte (meatballs) and succulent lamb kebabs.”
I love that your lokanta (fast food) restaurants serve really great, elegant food, but cafeteria style, making it easy for me to just point to what I want. I love when you make melt-in-your-mouth kofte (meatballs) and succulent lamb kebabs. Remember that time we stopped in the tiny fishing village of Anadolu Kavagi, right by the Black Sea, and you made me a seafood platter of grilled fish and mussels and calamari? Good times, Istanbul, good times.
I even love that you’re a shopaholic, with your bazillion bazaars selling everything from the kitschiest of fez hats and Turkish delight rolled in pumpkin seeds, chocolate, or coconut (or coconut and chocolate!) to ancient coins and gorgeous Iznik ceramics.
“I love how the mountains of colorful spices in the Egyptian Spice Market fight for space alongside exotic teas.”
Oh, how I wish I could take more of your treasures with me! I love how the mountains of colorful spices in the Egyptian Spice Market fight for space alongside exotic teas and how even the bazaar buildings are beautiful with mosaics on the floor and painted ceilings. I’m still grossed out by the availability of leech treatments, but I’m willing to let that one go. But the Grand Bazaar, with its more than 4,000 shops? C’mon. Even you don’t need that much retail therapy.
I love how we travel together. Sometimes, we go by boat, like the time we cruised up and down the Bosphorus Strait, Europe on one side and Asia on the other, passing fortresses, waterfront mansions, and gleaming palaces.
“I’ll have to admit that I’m not all too crazy about the tram, though, with its crush of people try to surge and fit into spaces that don’t exist.”
Or the time we took the Tünel, the world’s shortest metro line with only one stop (after London and New York it’s the third oldest passenger underground in the world) traveling up the steep and narrow 555-meter incline and getting out at Istiklal Caddesi, the raucous mile-long pedestrian-only stretch filled with stores selling antique engravings, visually stunning food, and the latest fashions. It’s the place to see and be seen. Istanbul, I’ll have to admit that I’m not too crazy about the tram, though, with its crush of people try to surge and fit into spaces that don’t exist. But no one’s perfect, right, Istanbul?
People and Places
I love how you surprise me with too-cool-for-school places, like the underground Basilica Cistern (aka the Sunken Palace) with its 336 columns providing water to the ancient palaces or the tiny Mosaics Museum with its grand tessellated courtyard from the 6th century’s Great Palace or the Circumcision Room in the Topkapi Palace, with its soothing greens and blues designed to relax royal princes before the big snip…
And I love your children. Always nice and polite and so very helpful. I like the contrast of how some of your daughters are dressed in full burqa and hijab while others sport the latest trends. I love the fact that people are still lined up, fishing on the Galata Bridge, rain or shine, day and night.
“I love you even though I’ve had a glimpse of some of your character flaws…”
I love you even though I’ve had a glimpse of some of your character flaws, like your jealous streak. I saw that side of you in the Harem within the Topkapi Palace, where four centuries of palace women were locked up for life in admittedly posh surroundings. But it’s safe to say, you’re different from all my other loves. With them, I felt like I knew them in a relatively short time. But you, Istanbul, I can get lost in you for days without getting even close to knowing you well.
Dreaming about a gap year in Istanbul? We can help.
Stay in either the Taksim or the Sultanahmet areas. Taksim has loads of shops and good eats (including the very entertaining pedestrian-only Istiklal Caddesi street), while Sultanahmet has tons of mosques, palaces and museums, all within blocks of each other. I stayed at the excellent Minel Hotel, a very small 9-room hotel that was affordable, new, and just minutes from all that great history in Sultanahmet. It was nice to be able to see the gorgeous mosques in daylight and lit up at night.
To get to the city center from the airport, there are three options: a taxi for about 45-60 Turkish Lira (TRY) or $15-19USD , the express bus to Aksaray for about 10TRY plus a taxi for approximately 20TRY or the metro to Zeytinburnu and then walk, or switch over to the tram to continue on to Sultanahmet for 4TRY. Trams can be extremely crowded (like mashed up against the glass, crowded). I had to physically remove some old Palestinian guy’s hand from my shoulder… You can also give Uber a go for 30-40TRY .
Every time you switch transit lines, you’ll need to pay . You can either pay 2TRY for a token or buy a transportation card which you top up with money (these are sold in kiosks around town selling other things, like kebabs). The benefit of the card (For 6TRY, non-refundable) is that your subsequent trips (within 2 hours) are discounted from the card at a progressively cheaper rate per trip (1st trip, TL 1.75, 2nd trip, TL 1.00).
Don’t waste your cash on the trips advertised around town, the cruise up the Bosphorus is easy to do on your own. From Eminonu (on the Marmara Sea) to the end of the line at the Black Sea, it’s only 25TRY round-trip. It takes about 1.5 hours each way with a 3 hour stopover at Anadolu Kavagi.
Climb to the Yoros Castle in Anadolu Kavagi for sweeping views out to the Black Sea (I really climbed this time, no taxi, honest!) and have a feast at one of the fish restaurants right over the water (you can get a fixed price menu meal, for around 15-20TRY).
Want to learn more about Turkey and Istanbul? Read on at the links below: