Istanbul, A Love Letter

Dear Istanbul,

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? (Or both because you’re the only metropolis in the world to straddle both continents). Are you old or are you new? (I love how it’s called the New Mosque, even though it’s practically 400 years old.) Are you Muslim or are you Christian? I just never know with you. What do I call you? Constantinople? Byzantium? Maybe I’ll just call you “Gorgeous”.

I love that I can stand practically anywhere, do a 360 and spy a spire or minaret or dome somewhere. I love that I can be walking on marble, then round the corner and see a beautiful cobblestone lane. 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 small packages like the small, practical tucked away Rustem Pasha Mosque with its every-shade-of-blue tiles, and how big things also come in humongous packages, like the Haghia Sophia, first the greatest church in Eastern Christendom, then reconsecrated to the chief mosque of the Ottoman empire and finally to a museum. I loved 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). If that weren’t enough, I love the silhouette of the Sultanahmet Mosque, just a stone’s throw away, with its six minarets and blue Isnik tiles, hence its other name, the Blue Mosque. Do you really need that many mosques so close together? But alas, it’s not a matter of need. It’s a matter of beauty and celebration.

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 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 kazillion 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 Isnik ceramics. (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 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. Or the time we took the Tunel, the world’s shortest metro line with only one stop (after London and New York, the third oldest passenger underground in the world) traveling up the steep and narrow 555 meter incline and letting out at Istiklal Caddesi, the racous mile long pedestrian-only stretch  filled with stores selling antique engravings, the most 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 all too crazy about the tram, though, as a crush of people try to surge and fit into spaces that don’t exist. But no one’s perfect, right, Istanbul?

I love how you surprise me with too-cool-for -school places, like the underground Basilica Cistern (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 hajib while others sport the latest trends. I love the fact that people are still lined up, fishing on the Galata Bridge, even in the rain and even at night.

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 (haram is the Arabic word for ‘forbidden’) where four centuries of palace women were locked up for life in admittedly posh surroundings (only Christians and Jews, no Muslim girls). But safe to say, you are different from all my other loves. With them, I felt like I knew them all in a relatively short time. But you, Istanbul, I feel like I can get lost in you for days and not see the half of it. So don’t think of it as “good bye” Istanbul. Just “till we meet again”.

Travel tips:

  • Most tourists 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 Sultanahmet from the airport, there are three choices: a taxi for about 40-45 Turkish Lira ($25USD), the express bus to Aksaray (TL10), and then a taxi (TL20) or the metro to Zeytinburnu and switch over to the tram to continue on to Sultanahmet (TL4). Be aware that the trams can be extremely crowded (like mashed up against the glass, crowded). I had to physically remove some weird old Palestinian guy’s hand from my shoulder… There are, however, shared shuttles TO the airport for only 5 euro.
  • Every time you switch lines, you will need to pay. You can either pay TL2 for a token or buy a transportation card which you top up with money (strangely, these are sold by regular kiosks selling other things, like kebabs). The benefit of the card (TL6, non-refundable) is that your subsequent trips (within 2 hours) are discounted (1st trip, TL 1.75, 2nd trip, TL 1.00).
  • The cruise up the Bosphorus is easy to do on your own. Don’t waste 50 euro on the trips advertised around town. To go all the way from Eminonu (on the Marmara Sea) to the end of the line at the Black Sea, only costs TL 25 return. The trip takes about 1.5 hours and leaves you at Anadolu Kavagi for three hours and makes the 1.5 hour trip back, which amounts to a relatively long day. However, lots of fish restaurants right over the water await you (set meal, TL 15-20) and you can climb to the Yoros Castle for sweeping views out to the Black Sea (I really climbed this time, no taxi, honest!) Don’t forget to bring ID with you to leave as a deposit for the audio guide, a very good value at only TL 5.

James Pham is a school administrator, travel blogger, and sometime photographer. He spends way more of his savings on travel that he should. You can find more of his musings at fly, Icarus, fly

All photos belong to the author and may not be used without permission.

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