Okay, this is long sorry! I’ve got a lot to say about Istanbul I guess……
In hindsight, I’ve realized that Istanbul was one of those places that I just couldn’t fully appreciate in the moment- I think it was a combination of sensory overload and culture shock that had me feeling kind of uneasy- but the more time that distances me from memory, the more I realize how awesome it actually was.
To be fair, my sister and I’s first encounter with a local was a bit of a scary one- but it was unfortunately also one that set the tone for the rest of our trip. The encounter made it crystal clear that we had just entered into a very patriarchal society. To make long story short, my sister and I were harassed on the bus from the airport into the city by a Turkish man who became furiously angry when we made it clear that we were very uncomfortable with his creepy advances on the PUBLIC BUS. Luckily, a bystander who witnessed everything stepped in to help us find an alternate way to our destination so we could get off the bus and away from the crazy man.
Mostly this experience just really sucked, but one good thing that came of it was that we were forced to re-evaluate our cultural norms and appreciate them from a new perspective. We were reminded how fortunate we are to be from one of the most liberal countries in the world, and then within that a city that is incredibly progressive (I’m talking about Seattle of course) . Though cat calling and the likes are unfortunately something that also happens in the states it was a completely different experience in Turkey. The fact that it was in the middle of a public bus, with plenty of other people who for the most part did nothing, and the fact that the man was so angry about our disinterest made that experience that much more unnerving. It’s scary to think that women have to deal with this regularly, and that they have to some degree be submissive with the various forms of abuse. The young girl who helped us was visibly upset and uncomfortable, but she kept her cool amidst the crazy man’s rampage. We asked her if she could tell us what he was angrily going on about, and she responded that it’s better if we didn’t know. I can’t even begin to imagine what it would be like to have to face this all the time. If this had happened in the states I probably would have told the man off and stepped away, but in Turkey there was a different vibe. Maybe it was all in my head, but I was genuinely scared of what this man was capable of if we pissed him off.
Anyways, after our scary experience we arrived at our couchsurfing location which turned out to be pretty far form the center of town. Relative to the size of the city, it was “centrally” located, but we didn’t realize just how big Istanbul was. It was a good 40 minutes to an hour to get into the touristic city center area. After the first night we decided that moving over to a hostel nearer the center was in our best interest if we wanted to see as much of the city as possible during our five day stay.
So we moved over to the World House hostel which was conveniently located in Galata street- an area that we found to be more conducive for sightseeing and touristing. The hostel is located between two of the most touristic areas of the city (taksim area and the mosque district) and right next to the Galata tower- an area surrounded by tons of local restaurants, cafes, and tourist shops. Yes, we liked being by the tourist shops. I just wanna say that I feel like ‘touristy’ areas unfairly get quite a bad rep these days, people seem to want to steer clear of them at all costs so they can experience wherever they’re traveling to ‘authentically.’ Honestlyyyy though, in places like Istanbul that aren’t necessarily the safest places to travel (especially with the whole language barrier issue), I’d say a touristy area could actually be safer and more comfortable. From personal experience, it sure made for easier communication, exploration, and just for peace of mind.
One of the things I was most excited about for Istanbul was the food- and all in all I’d say it didn’t disappoint. Sure, I wasn’t able to find the ‘perfect’ doner kebab that I was on a mission to taste, but we found plenty of other delicious places. We did notice however, that if you were able to find good food, it was usually really good. But if you were unlucky enough to find bad food, it was pretty darn bad- on one occasion I had the most flavorless, disappointing, and dry kebab of my life near the Galata Tower.
On the flip side, we had some spectacular food a couple of times. One that stands out was a place called Ciya Sofrasi in the Kadikoy neighborhood on the Asian side of Istanbul. The hostel receptionist along with some friends of friends of ours, who are local to the city (and we had the pleasure of hanging out with twice during our stay) both recommended us to this restauran, so we had to go. I completely understand why it was such a popular recommendation- I’d definitely recommend it to anybody visiting Istanbul as well. They’ve got a really varied menu with all sorts of kebabs, doners, soups, etc. and a ‘salad’ bar type thing where you’re charged by weight. I loved the salad bar as I could see exactly what I was about to devour, and I could sample a bit of everything (like a little smorgasbord, perfect for an indecisive mind like mine). We asked the waiter to recommend some dishes to us for our entrees, and I wish I could remember the names because there were so delicious, but I don’t. Thought I’m sure anything there would be delish. Another tasty eatery was a falafel shop right down the street from our hostel called Kikero Falafel. If you’re looking for a quick, cheap, and fresh bite to eat this is highly recommended (I got it twice in one night…oops :O )
Turkish Baklava was also a defining part of my trip haha…. Truth be told, I always found it to be an overrated dessert which I very rarely found myself craving back home. Five days in Istanbul was all it took for me to fall in love honey drenched dessert. I ended up buying different kinds of baklava every day at some point!
I guess Turkish coffee is also kind of an important thing to try…..although we didn’t really like it too much. It’s really unlike any coffee I’ve had before- it almost has more of a tea flavor in my opinion. The remnants that sit at the bottom of the coffee were also confusing to us, and I just couldn’t adjust to the flavor of the coffe. From out experience, it served more like an espresso than a latte, often with quite a bit of sweetener automatically added. Not a huge fan of it, but I suppose it’s worth trying if you’re Turkey.
The mosques in Istanbul were really something else. They probably stood out the most from all that we were able to see…they’re just so completely different from anything that I’d seen before, or anything that you’d see in probably any western country. Their immensity, the feeling that we felt when stepping into one (whether good or bad), the grandiosity, the detail, the size- it was all larger than life in these mosques. They for sure left a lasting impression.
We also really enjoyed perusing the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Market of Istanbul- despite constantly being pressured into buying things from the relentless vendors. Actually, the vendors kind of made the markets fun in a weird way haha…..You’d step into a shop and almost instantly be offered free tea, nuts, baklava, dried fruit, you name it. Initially, we felt overwhelmed and guilty for accepting their free offers so we’d feel obliged to buy something (anything). Eventually we learned that we’d end up broke and without any space in our suitcases if we kept going at that pace so we learned to just say no 🙂 We even picked up some haggling skills and were able to bring down the price of a couple of souvenirs we bought!
Soooo, kind of a long post, but I just felt that Istanbul has probably been the city that has pushed me the most out of my comfort zone, has been most exotic, even scary at times, but all in all it was a really awesome experience.
If you’d asked me a month ago if I’d consider going back to Istanbul, I would’ve probably said that it was very unlikely. If you were to ask me now, I’d say that once things get a bit more stable, I definitely would consider going back!
– Sinceramente, Gigi