10 Great Reasons to Fall in Love with Istanbul

Istanbul is a huge metropolis where, for a Westerner, nonstop juxtapositions and contradictions crop up everywhere you look. Istanbul is openhearted and pushy, macho and seductive, stunning and verbose. It runs on high octane and vast beauty. Admiring an ancient mosque on the horizon, your gaze is interrupted by a delivery guy hurtling down impossibly narrow and crowded streets on a scooter, intent on delivering Subway sandwiches or McDonalds hamburgers. Just an average Istanbul evening.

With a population estimated from 13.5 to 15 million or more (New York City has 8 million), Istanbul forms the center of the second-largest metropolitan area in Europe and ranks among the world's largest cities by population. The city, much like Turkey overall, is highly commercial and institutionally secular. Yet, in a country where 99% of the population identifies as Muslim, it can also radiate faith and observance. Many women, especially in the Old City, go "covered" in accord with their religion—but being covered can mean anything from wearing a designer scarf, a sheer tunic and leggings, to a full burka. Meanwhile, in the New City—which, ironically, refers to the more Westernized part of Istanbul, merely 400 years old—hip young people wear every clothing brand and custom style imaginable.  

When we started to plan our trip to Turkey, friends routinely burst out with, “I love Istanbul!” along with a flood of suggestions for what to see and do. Yet, of the more than 30 million who visit Turkey every year, relatively few come from the US. The 10-hour flight from New York likely plays a role here. Another obstacle is that particular American syndrome of not having, or not taking vacations.   

But still, as we explored and talked to people, we realized that, like most Americans, we really didn’t know much about why Istanbul inspires such enthusiasm. We learned. Visiting Turkey isn't cheap[i] and it definitely takes some planning.[ii] But if you like to travel and experience a very different culture while still feeling welcomed and at home, Istanbul (and Turkey as a whole) is your place.

Here are 10 reasons we found the city so compelling, and we think you will, too.

1. Location, location, location: Water and views and warmth. 

Istanbul is unique among the world’s cities in straddling two continents. The historic Bosporus Strait, which connects the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea, separates its more-touristed European side from its Asian side, where the vast majority of its residents live. An inlet of the Bosporus know as the Golden Horn further separates the two halves of the European side—the Old City, which contains most of the city’s historical sites, and the bustling New City, home to the bulk of Istanbul’s business and cultural life.

The city’s steep hills, topped with impressive mosques, make it a place of unforgettable views across its magnificent waterways, which are constantly busy with crisscrossing boats and ships of all kinds. Istanbul’s architects seem to have used every opportunity to showcase these views. Rooftop restaurants abound,[iii] and hotel rooms and apartments open onto terraces and balconies. Sometimes it seems that the whole country is oriented around giving as many people as possible a great view. (A Turkish saying goes “An apartment without a terrace is like a man without a belly.”)

We were lucky, for part of our time in Istanbul, to score a seventh-floor room in the New City with a fantastic view of Topkapi Palace, Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, the Suleymaniye Mosque, and the beautiful Bosporus, all at once.[iv] And no, the room didn’t cost an arm and a leg. Such things are possible in Istanbul.

Most of the time, you can enjoy all this beauty in comfort. Istanbul has a mild Mediterranean climate—generally warm, but rarely super hot. (On the downside, it can be humid, and it does snow in the winter.) Summer visitors can expect day after day of bright sunshine, with virtually no rain.

2. I can’t believe my eyes: Istanbul’s architecture.

It's not just nature that makes Istanbul beautiful. A couple of thousand years at the hub of civilization has filled the Old City with breathtaking architectural wonders. Hagia Sophia's vast domes and newly restored, vividly expressive mosaics recall the glories of Byzantine Christendom, even after the church was converted to a mosque for 500 years. The astonishing Sinan, sort of the Shakespeare of Ottoman architecture, contributed the airy, elegant Suleymaniye Mosque in the mid-1500s. Half a century later one of his disciples supervised construction of the Sultan Ahmed (Blue) Mosque, with its dazzling tiles and six minarets, directly facing Hagia Sophia. The city abounds with smaller gems as well, such as the delicate Rustem Pasha mosque, named for a devious vizier who would have felt completely at home in the world of Game of Thrones.

The religious monuments are fabulous, but the city offers a great deal more. Not to be missed is the haunting Basilica Cistern, a huge underground vault supported by rows of ancient, intricately carved Greek pillars, built in the sixth century by thousands of slaves to ensure a steady water supply for the city's rulers. And, of course, there's Topkapi Palace, home to the Ottoman sultans for nearly 400 years, until the late 19th century. Although the entrance looks like the inspiration for Disney's Magic Kingdom, the palace’s graceful courtyards, gardens and low-slung buildings, perched on a promontory overlooking the Sea of Marmara, the Bosporus Strait and the Golden Horn, evokes an era of privileged seclusion. It's easy to imagine peacocks and gazelles wandering the inner courtyards.

There's nothing like ruling the world from Austria to Azerbaijan to ensure truly generous gifts, along with a fair amount of plunder, and much of this wealth is on show in various of the pavilions. A display of armaments reflects centuries of glorified warfare, with an enormous greatsword attesting to the fact that huge, powerful men had a valued role long before the NBA. Intricate castings, carvings and jewel-work adorn scimitars, swords, daggers, and rifles that look too beautiful to use—and too lethal to be mere accessories. There’s even a jewel-encrusted mace! And speaking of jewels—well, you'll never again see emeralds or diamonds the size of those on display from the palace treasury.

3. The welcome mat. 

A highly sophisticated travel and tourism infrastructure makes Istanbul, and Turkey, unexpectedly easy to visit—and with more than 31.5 million visitors in 2011, all that organization sure helps. Turkey ranks as the sixth most popular tourist destination in the world. In fact, Istanbul alone, with seven million foreign visitors, became the world's 10th most popular tourist destination in 2010, when it was named the European Capital of Culture

Turks never make you feel bad for not speaking their language. They convey that the onus is on them to communicate with you, their guest. And millions of Turks do speak English, many fluently, some haltingly, pretty much all happily, even when they have only a few words to share. Turkey's travel agents, guides and hotel and restaurant personnel are a marvel of informative helpfulness. Say what you need, or even just hint, and it's taken care of with dispatch. Tour guides are university trained and genuinely expert in the country, its history and its treasures. Having a "master guide" help plan your trip via email before your arrival is a real asset.[v] Hiring a personal guide for a day in Istanbul, which will run about $150, will fill you in on all the tour books have to offer and more, as well as providing an opportunity to have an extended conversation with a smart, informed Istanbuli who speaks fluent English. “Taksis” are inexpensive and ubiquitous—and despite warnings of “scrambling,” we found the drivers smart, quick and honest.

Istanbul is a fabulous city for wandering on foot, with most of its best-known sites within easy walking distance of one another. A stroll across the Galata Bridge reveals a flurry of activity—dozens upon dozens of fish restaurants on the lower deck, and a throng of pedestrians, cars, trams, fishermen (yes, they’re all men) and tourists on the upper. Istanbul is also a great place to take to the water, whether for 20 minutes or for the day, its bustling waterways navigated by dozens of boats and ferries each hour. 

In terms of getting to Turkey, fly Turkish Airlines (a Star Alliance member with United) if you can. Not only do they feed you, they actually bring a chef on board, and you can taste the results. When in your life have you had really good airline food? (United, from sheer disorganization, canceled our 7pm flight from Newark at 11pm, kept us in the airport until 2am for rebooking, then held our baggage hostage until 6 the next morning.  We were thrilled to make the change to Turkish Air, even though it meant racing over to JFK.) Turkish Air has recently initiated new direct flights to Istanbul from a few US airports, making the voyage that much easier for us Americans.

4. Street culture and cafe society—and the painter who speaks 21 languages.

In the New District, narrow, winding streets climb steep hillsides lined with 19th-century buildings and linked by even narrower alleys.  Beyoglu, or the Pera, as the area is commonly known, was traditionally home to Westerners and the usual blend of artists and intellectuals. The New District’s hippest neighborhoods—Cihangir, Tophane, Galatasary, and Karakoy—are filled with shops, clubs, restaurants, and cafes, many just a couple of tables and chairs in an alleyway or spare open space. 

Turks love to eat, drink and talk outside in the warm weather. Cafe patrons sip Turkish coffee—a thick, rich brew in which the grounds sink to the bottom, with a result that looks like grainy mud—and the ubiquitous, strongly brewed Turkish tea, drunk in small, clear glasses that are very hot to the touch.

Istanbul street culture is about the character of the neighborhoods, the authenticity of the vibes and the incredible mix of the new and old, the crumbling and the elegant. Much of the New City is a maze of nooks and crannies, with “collectable” stores adjacent to chic boutiques and run-down upholstery shops beside elegant townhouses. Wandering the labyrinths and climbing the hills becomes a magical mystery tour of rounding the next corner to discover yet another fascinating spot.

Food, culture, conversation, and attitude are readily available. A tiny restaurant/music club posts a sign that reads, "Don't Think Twice. Come in. Trust the Chef." (We were glad we did.) A nearby vintage store offers "Objects of desire for the slightly deranged collectioner seeking identifiable memories."  

The Old City is no slouch in terms of outdoor culture, either, although its focus is more exclusively and intently on the tourist trade. Hundreds of handsome, clever English-speaking men—again, always men—work incessantly to bring you under their spell, or at least into their restaurant or shop. The give-and-take can be fun, even when you refuse their pleas. It’s all part of what seems to be a never-ending conversation. (Turkish men are talkers.)  

And speaking of talking, in the Old City we found the painter who speaks 21 languages, by his own account. Ilhamy Atalay,[vi] an artist and unique character, owns a marvelous gallery/museum/personal theater in a battered ancient setting along a cobblestone street near Hagia Sofia. Atalay's wife, sons and daughter all have a hand in the prolific spread of colorful, unique, sometimes tongue-in-cheek art on display. Atalay says he needs to communicate with all his visitors, and clearly he loves to. As we looked on he effortlessly shifted from Turkish to English to Spanish to Finnish ... so those 21 languages may not be an exaggeration.

5. The weight of time in the glow of day.

The city's loveliness, the warmth of its people and the grace of its buildings bring on an urge to romanticize, which regularly crashes up against reminders of an often brutal and brutalized past. Istanbul's location at the boundary between two continents and the passage between two seas has made it a nexus of power for millennia, an invitation to conquest and plunder. Walking through the city, you notice a crumbling brick archway, a ruined pillar, a cafe in what was once a Greek home, a guidebook reference to people who used to live in a neighborhood. These reminders of war, invasion, expulsions, and massacres lie immediately alongside soaring testaments to aesthetic sensitivity and spiritual longing.

Istanbul is a city where you feel time, in all its complexity. Jason and his Argonauts sailed the Bosporus in their mythical search for the Golden Fleece, and the city is pretty much as old as mythology itself.  Byzantium—the ancient name for Istanbul—was founded by Greek colonists in the seventh century BCE, but people were apparently living here for thousands of years before that. Byzantium became Constantinople, and for a few centuries a center of the Christian world, in AD 330. In the 15th century it fell to Islamic forces from the East and became the center of the Ottoman Empire. 

Just in the last century, a sultanate (veils and harems and eunuchs—the real thing) fought the World War I on the losing side, fell in the aftermath, and gave way to a republic, which maintained a precarious neutrality through World War II and a strategic alliance with the West in the Cold War that followed. Greeks whose families had lived here for centuries were expelled, as ethnic Turks were forced out of Greece. Armenians endured a widely denied genocide, while Jews found a sometimes uneasy refuge during and after WWII. 

More recently, the researcher in charge of a census of minority populations died in a suspicious car accident. No one stepped up to take his place, and the results were never published. Kurds, Alevis and other minority groups took notice.

It's hard to imagine not falling in love with Istanbul. But the city itself testifies to the myriad ways that love affairs can go wrong, derailed by other lovers and other passions.

6. Dealing with difference: An encounter with Islam.

In a period yet again dominated by headlines like “Muslim Rage” (Newsweek), people wonder if Istanbul is safe. The short answer is yes, very. In fact, it offers the most welcoming environment imaginable in which to encounter Islam as lived reality. Especially if you start your visit in the Old City (which we recommend), right in the midst of the crowds, excitement and non-stop energy, you’ll immediately feel the pervasive influence of Muslim practice.

The powerful blast of the daily call to prayer can come as a shock at first. Muezzins’ sonorous but piercingly amplified voices spread from each mosque’s minarets five times a day, beginning at dawn. (After the first 5am wakening our guide said don’t worry; your sleep won't be affected. Much to our surprise, she was right.) The muezzins together create a sort of call and response, such that the eerie and beautiful prayers arise from one direction, and then another, then yet another, and then go back to the first, surrounding the visitor with their haunting melodies even as the Turks go about their business.

Which is not to say that in Istanbul, Turks take their religion for granted. Quite the contrary, it seems. Young, modern and cosmopolitan Turkish men talked spontaneously about their faith, with reverence and devotion. In some ways, their thoughtfulness made adjusting to the attire of women even more complicated. Especially in the Old City, where devout Muslim families come from across Turkey and around the world to visit the amazing shrines, a large number of women follow religious and cultural teachings that require their heads, arms and legs to remain covered in public. Seeing a woman in simple hijab—a veil that covers the hair and neck—and a light long-sleeved shirt seemed relatively unremarkable. But as the covering grew to include the long black robes of the chador or burka, it increasingly challenged familiar notions of fairness and equality, particularly in 90-plus degree heat. It’s not easy to watch a woman in a wool scarf and heavy, ankle-length raincoat walk down the street, accompanied by her husband in tight jeans and a lightweight T-shirt and an 11-year-old daughter who can still wear a summer shift. 

What's faith? What's choice? What's oppression? These questions and others went through our heads again and again. Unfortunately, we had no opportunity to talk to the women themselves about their lives. Western-looking Turkish women spoke English and worked in Istanbul’s tourist areas (although nowhere near in proportion to the men), but more traditional Muslim women pretty much did not. When men spoke for the women, they inevitably—and apparently sincerely—portrayed going covered as a choice that Muslim girls make freely.  Given the relative lack of employment for women (they make up only 27.9% of the Turkish workforce), the absence of women in the country’s government (only 1 of 26 ministers is female), and the country’s ongoing and serious degree of violence against women, particularly covered women, these assertions are impossible to take at face value.

Traveling to far-flung locales inevitably challenges values and stimulates thought about differences. We came away knowing from experience that Islam can form the core of a deep and compassionate morality, but also with a deepened feeling for how it can justify oppression and injustice. Which on the one hand is obvious—all religions have that potential—but which nevertheless felt like a continual eye-opener.

7. A century of change.

The past century in Turkey is in large part the story of how Turks have tried to balance their Islamic faith and their desire for a place in a modern, Westernized world. These efforts have led to a continuing heady brew of Islamic and Western culture and values in Istanbul’s daily life.

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who shepherded Turkey's transition from Islamic sultanate to Western secular society in the 1920s, is often described as the country's George Washington. But he's really more like Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Hamilton rolled into one. A war hero and revolutionary leader, he moved the country into a parliamentary democracy, oversaw the creation of a new constitution, curbed the power of religion, transformed the legal system, advocated for women’s rights, expanded public education for boys and girls, even created a new Turkish alphabet that was credited with improving public literacy from 10% to 70% in just two years. Quite a guy, and many Turks—particularly Westernized women—revere him to this day. 

But time passed and Turkish politics stagnated, to say the least. Enter Recep Tayip Erdogan, first elected prime minister in 2003, who's vying to rival Ataturk's place in history. Erdogan is an exceptionally adroit politician, by anyone’s standards. Re-elected by an impressive majority to his third term as prime minister last June, he inspires admiration from those who have profited from the country's increased stability, rapid economic growth, and expansion of international influence. But some fear his ambitions as well, accusing him of courting conservatives by reverting to his Islamist roots and retreating from earlier commitments to civil rights and free speech in order to boost his popularity and ensure his rule.

8. Raki, rocket and tomatoes to die for.

Turkey is a major eating and drinking culture, and no matter the level of hotel, a boffo breakfast—a veritable feast of bread and cheese and tomatoes and fruit and other good things—comes with the tab. Turks tend to overwhelm with their food—in restaurants, an order for one is usually enough for two. Our guide in Istanbul claimed that Turkey had the third-best cuisine in the world—a debatable assertion, but it is really tasty, and the selection goes far beyond humus and yogurt.

We traveled in August, and we were again and again astounded by the fresh and tasty produce we were offered. Turkish salads are staples and as good as they come. A simple rocket (arugula) salad with tomatoes was a meal in itself—everything was just that fresh and delicious. (For the first time in his life, Don acknowledged a rival to the New Jersey tomatoes of his youth.) Peaches, nectarines and figs had the kind of vivid color and intense flavor we thought only existed in books.

Fish, especially sea bass, can be extraordinary when fresh (Turks do have a tendency to freeze their seafood), but traditional Turkish meals are all about shish—small pieces of grilled meat, lamb or chicken; kofte—a blend of minced lamb and herbs; and mezzes—dozens of cold and hot “starters” of greens, veggies, meats, and seafood which accompany every meal, or make a meal in themselves. Many Turkish restaurants give you visual tours of their food, especially the mezzes, before asking for your order. Also, Turks make very good pizza, with thin, crisp crusts and lots of cheese.[vii]

Despite the Islamic ban on alcohol, there is lots of drinking (and smoking for that matter) in Istanbul. Raki, an anise-flavored alcoholic beverage similar to Sambuca, Ouzo or Pernod, is the national drink. (Rumor has it that Turks will split a bottle of raki with dinner. As we value the use of our legs, we did not test this custom personally.) The main beer is the very good Efes Pilsen, which has 80% of the market. Tuborg is often available for those who crave a more upscale brew.  

For the most part, though, it makes sense to steer clear of wine, which is not a mainstay. One exception is Cankaya, which produces a consistently satisfying white. And be prepared—many restaurants serve their red wines chilled. 

9Shopping, anyone?

At this point you might not think you need anything further to add to the pleasures of Istanbul, but just in case, the Turks make it extremely easy for you to buy things. Many things. Maybe Turkey isn't the world's most capitalistic society, but Istanbul did invent the enclosed shopping mall—the sprawling, chaotic labyrinth known as the Grand Bazaar—in the 15th century. The innovation seems in character.  Goods spill out of storefronts onto the streets—not just souvenirs but housewares, vegetables, clothing, furniture, even boat engines.  

And Istanbulis have certainly turned their attention to the tourist market. Anywhere a visitor could conceivably cast an eye (and we do mean anywhere), shops appear to tempt them, selling everything from fine ceramics, jewelry, textiles, and leather to the ubiquitous, sometimes delightful "made in China Turkish souvenirs" (to quote a friend).[viii] And, of course, carpets, and rugs, and more carpets, and more rugs, from the finest silk showpieces or plant-dyed nomadic treasures to products that have a lot more familiarity with a factory floor that with a weaver's hand. Overall, the sheer accumulation of things makes for a constant riot of color and form, an unending feast for eyes already glutted on the city's many beauties.

10. A cat lovers’ paradise.

When Barack Obama visited Istanbul in 2009, he was surrounded by the usual heavy security—which didn't stop a cat from slipping up in front of Hagia Sophia for a quick presidential rub. Cats are everywhere in Istanbul—tabby, calico, gray, and the occasional pure white. Though technically strays, these animals make themselves very much at home, graciously accepting the food and attention that is their due. Every restaurant and cafe has its resident felines, who wind their way among the tables or just drowse on a nice warm wall.

Legend has it that a cat saved Mohammed from a snake, and Istanbulis repay the debt, feeding, watering and generally indulging their beloved kitty companions. And the cats are inspiring as well—nothing models such complete sensual ease as a cat asleep in the sun. Not a bad reminder in the midst of a day of seeing, learning and taking in so very much, so very pleasurably.

[i] It’s possible to visit Turkey on any traveler’s budget, from backpacker to five-star. Planning ahead will give a sense of the options and help keep it manageable.

[ii] Rick Steves’ Istanbul, actually written by two natives, Lale Surmen Aran and Tankut Aran, is fun, useful and informative in equal measure. It’s an indispensable companion for grasping and navigating the city.

[iii] 7 Oceans, in the Old City, has a fantastic view over the Bosporus and the Sea of Marmara, an extensive, tasty menu, and a great service team.

[iv] The Hotel Villa Zurich is a great reasonably priced hotel (rooms run between $125 and $150 a night) in a hip New District location. Try to get a room on one of the higher floors, or go for the suite.

[v] We had a creative and savvy guy named Caner Yucefaydali (canercaner [at] hotmail.com) who lives in Cappadocia (a fascinating area in the middle of the country known for its unique landscapes, cave hotels and "fairy chimneys"--more on all that later). Caner helped us plan our trip and handled and brokered a lot, including in-country plane flights, rides to and from airports, hotel rooms, etc. He also served as our guide when we visited Cappadocia.

[vi] www.ilhamiatalay.com

[vii] 49 Pizza, located in a beautiful, brick-lined building in the New District, offers great pizza in a relaxed setting.

[viii] We particularly enjoyed the selection of (Turkish-made) glass and textiles at Tribal Art, in the Old City. tribalarthome.com


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