Istanbul: My Most Unexpected Trip
Istanbul: my most unexpected trip
A Travel Story by Heather Dornblum
We're Going to Istanbul, Wait, What?
When I was living in Europe during the year of 2015, I spent most of my weekends traveling to all of the places I had dreamt of. Italy, Spain, Ireland, and the south of France came first! I hadn’t thought much about other places to visit aside from most of the countries in Western Europe. I went to Prague and Budapest and loved the ancient vibes of those cities; they felt different than places like Paris or Madrid. At the end of my year abroad, in December, my best friend offered the idea of visiting Istanbul, Turkey. It was a place I had never considered going to, and didn’t know much about. Still, I went along with her and two other friends for a four-day trip. Here is my experience of visiting the beautiful city of Istanbul.
Arriving to Istanbul
My best friend and I flew from Paris and arrived that night to Istanbul Ataturk Airport, which sits to the west of the main city. We were lost trying to find our way into the city via train, and nobody whom we asked for help understood English. Finally a young man who spoke a little English helped us buy tickets, got us on the train, showed us where to transfer, and even swiped us in on his card, even though none of it was convenient for him. His kindness was a great welcome to the city, where I was experiencing some culture shock, as the language and currency were very foreign to me. We got lost a few more times before finally finding our hostel, which was in the Karaköy area, near the Galata Tower.
The wonderful thing about Istanbul, as with many of the cities I visited in Europe, is that you can explore most of the city on foot. Public transportation is available, and sometimes we did use the tram and metro, but for the most part, we walked all over the place. We crossed the Atatürk Bridge to get from Karaköy to Eminönü, a quarter of the city where many of the 16th century mosques are. We explored the outdoor markets and bazaars, which sell everything from knockoff designer handbags to jewelry to spices and teas. The salespeople were determined and pushy, but still respectful, and I did not feel uncomfortable while shopping in the bazaar.
Entering my first mosque was a surreal experience. We emerged from the bazaar to be in a courtyard near the Suleymaniye Mosque, so we decided to check it out. At that time of day, people were praying, and we were not allowed to enter until they finished. We removed our shoes and wrapped our scarfs around our heads before entering. I was amazed by how detailed and interesting the interior of the mosque was; it was unlike anything I’d ever seen before! People praying on their knees outside, men and women separated, was a new experience for me, too. I learned while there that 99% of Istanbul’s population (around 15 million people) is Muslim.
Amazing Prices and Food of Istanbul
While out walking all day, we made a point to stop and try different foods in little restaurants and cafes. The Turkish tea was absolutely delicious, and less than 10 Turkish Lira (only two euros or so) for a whole pot! We ate baklava, dolma, and falafel like there was no tomorrow. We even took on the habit of getting freshly made smoothies a few times a day, because they were so inexpensive! Souvenir shopping also barely dented the wallet. Being accustomed to higher tourist prices from most of my travels, I was pleasantly surprised that the prices in Istanbul were low and the quality of the food and products to buy were high!
There were a few entrance fees to some of the mosques we visited, but they were never expensive. The Basilica Cistern, an incredible underground cistern the size of a cathedral, and dating from the 6th century, only cost around 20 Turkish Lira (less than 4 euros). The tour guides hovering around the mosques, persistently trying to get hired, were pricier, but we never took on a guide. One of them took us into the Sultan Ahmed Mosque and gave us directions and tips on what else to do in the area, for free! The Turkish people were so friendly, considerate, and joyful to be around. I never felt any dislike from them, being a tourist. It was already proving to be so much different than I’d ever imagined Istanbul to be!
Taksim Square and Nightlife
I’m not too crazy on nightlife when I’m traveling, but being in a group of adventurous women, I decided to check out what the city had to offer after dark. Our hostel was within walking distance to Taksim Square, a popular and crowded shopping area full of bars, restaurants, and clubs! We went out to random bars and dance clubs all over İstiklal Caddesi, the main shopping boulevard that stems from Taksim Square. Each place we tried had something different, from live music, to free drink incentives, to Spanish music, to pole dancers, to free pizza! The locals were lively and interested in practicing English with us. For not being big on partying or clubbing, the Istanbul nightlife was the perfect amount of fun without being too wild or expensive.
Oh, But That Turkish Spa We Went To
We found flyers for a day spa at our hostel that cost 50 euros per person, which may sound expensive, but was an unbelievable bargain for what we got! A man from the Spa came to pick us up at the hostel, and drove his Audi like a professional through the tiny, pedestrian-crowded streets of the city. He even allowed my friend to drive his car, because she mentioned that she was curious to drive in a city with such flowing traffic! The spa itself was beautiful and serene. We were taken into a sauna where we melted for half an hour, before being brought into a bathing room. Now, this was truly one of the strangest experiences I have ever had.
The bathing room was cast in blue lighting, with walls and floors made of cool marble. It was just my best friend and me there, along with the two women who would be washing us. It was very bizarre to lie on a marble slab, butt-ass naked, and allow a total stranger to hand-lather my entire body in soap and then wash me off with a hose, like I was giant baby. And to have that be happening at the same time as my best friend was a foot away, also butt-ass naked, and also being scrubbed by a stranger, was really something! We still laugh about it. I never felt more clean in my entire life.
The spa treatment terminated with a mud face mask and body massage. By the end of it we had conversed a lot with those two women who washed us, and they told us about their lives and how they’d come to Istanbul to work, from India. I wasn’t happy to hear that the spa mistreated them by overworking and underpaying them. They were also not allowed to accept a tip from us, which was unfortunate.
Why I’d Recommend Istanbul
After four days of walking around the city, visiting every mosque we came across, trying new food and meeting so many friendly people, our time in Istanbul came to an end. I would have loved more time to explore the outer reaches of the city, and also more of the Asian side, since Istanbul sits across both Europe and Asia, geographically. The rolling hills, covered in buildings, mosques, towers, and homes, was extraordinary to behold. I would have loved to take a boat across the Bosphorus Strait and photograph the city from that perspective.
More than anything, I was surprised by how clean and modern the city was, while also being full of striking, ancient landmarks and history. I felt safe traveling as a woman, and never once had someone try to steal anything from me or hurt me in any way. They tried very hard to sell me things in the bazaar, but it was always playful, harmless banter, not harassment. Istanbul may seem foreign to you, as it did to me before I visited, but the reality of the city is different than what you may have been told. It is a unique city that is definitely worth visiting, if for no other reason than to see 400 year-old mosques. Push yourself out of your comfort zone and go!
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