7 Days in Istanbul
Istanbul, its 14.4 million inhabitants, and its two thousand six hundred and seventy-five years of history intimidated me. The city consists ofÂ 5,000 square kilometers of land that have been the seats of the Roman, Byzantine, Latin, and Ottoman Empires. While I cannot claim to understand the history of this modern day metropolis split between two continents, I do understand that I should know more about it, and during our week living at the edge of the Bosphorus I learned a little bit more.
Istanbul is big. It is much larger than I expected, but it is alsoÂ more run down and lessÂ put-together. For example, the apartment we stayed in is on the 3rd floor of a concrete building that was probably built in the 1970s and it is already falling apart. None of the interior doors shut cleanly, the stairs have tiles that are busted and broken, the balconies have exposed and rusting re-bar where concrete has broken off, and every electrical junction box is loose within its concrete wall opening. We might have just happened to be in the most run down building of the entire city, but I think not. Based on what we saw, buildings like this are being torn down left and right to make room for newer and bigger versions of the same.
Taksim Square isn’t very visually interesting. It is one of the most mentioned “destinations” in our neighborhood, but from what I could tell, the Republic Monument is surrounded by way too much barren concrete open spaceÂ whereÂ squirrely street kids run around haunting the tourists taking photos. Perhaps the space is used for street fairs and events more often in the summer, or maybe there is a greater plan for landscaping, or maybe the beautiful buildings that used to line the square have been ruined over time? To me, it is just awkward right now!
Everyone drinks tea. The hot beverage is delivered by young men carrying silver trays and is always in a small tulip shaped glass on a tiny saucer with baby spoons and one cube of sugar. When you finish drinking, you place your saucer, glass and spoon in an inconspicuous spot and it is then collected by the same young man.
Turkish Coffee is not my favorite. We tried it a couple times, but no luck.
The city has a large tulip budget. Big beautiful blooms line the highway connecting the airport to the city, and I am convinced that the flowers are there to convince visitors that Istanbul is at the top if its game.
Most people working in the service industries are men. During our week there, the only women I interacted with were the ones behind the cash register at the grocery stores or Starbucks. Everyone else was a man. Every server, shopkeeper, ferry operator, security guard, taxi driver.
The ferry system is robust and a little confusing at first. You can criss-cross the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn to any destination by purchasing 4TL ($2) tokens at the automated machines. It took us a few rides to understand that if you are at a stop where that multiple routes stop at, the only way to know if the arriving boat is yours is to watch the clock. So even if a boat arrives at the platform going in your direction, don’t get on!
All restaurants, cafes, bars and coffee shops have outdoor seating. At first glance, I thought this was awesome…and then I realized that 90% of the people sitting outside were smoking. I am still shocked that I cannot stand to be in the presence ofÂ cigarette smoke, but it really ruins my experience. I have never smoked myself, but my parents smoked in our house and cars the entire time I lived at home. But ever since I left home at 18, I have lived and worked in smoke-free environments. So unless you are oblivious to 2nd hand smoke, al fresco dining in Istanbul will be problematic.
The experience of seeing the interior of the Blue Mosque was more impressive to me than seeing Hagia Sophia. There are plenty of reasons for this; construction, lighting, quantity of visitors, perception of chaos, etc. Also, my expectations for Hagia Sophia were much higher because the history is extremely rich and diverse because its function has evolved and changed over time, and unfortunately you can tell. Newer elements appear temporary, while original elements are often defaced and fading. In contrast, the Blue Mosque was designed to be a mosque, and still functions as one. For this purpose, the space is beautiful and every detail is in place all the way down to the subtly striped carpet.
The Grand Bazaar & Spice Markets were great! We expected to be hassled and herded from one aisle to the next, but instead we casually walked through and were only occasionally greeted.
The city feels safe. When we arrived, I expected everyone to be hustling me or trying to steal from me. Luckily, that wasn’t the case and it is just like every other big city.
I don’t want live in Istanbul. We aren’t really in the mindset of living abroad again anyways, and if there was a great opportunity I would live there, butÂ it is not top on my list.
In conclusion, our week in Istanbul was a success. We saw everything we wanted to see plus some, and we felt like we were living there. I also know that we only scratched the surface, and with a little more research we could fill an entire month of exploration here.