Istanbul is a worldly city, with cultural connections to the east and to the west. Asia and Europe blend together with the movement of people back and forth across the Bosphorus. Expect some challenges in this exciting, cosmopolitan city if you want to enjoy it
Don’t Psyche Yourself Out Before You Arrive
People in Greece warned us not to visit Turkey. We could be kidnapped by ISIS agents they said. People in Turkey are very anti-West right now, they said. Go at your own risk, but it’s a bad idea.
We arrived to an empty airport. There was no line for customs. There was nobody else there with us. We supposed the other people on our plane had a connecting flight, but this re-enforced the uneasy feeling we already had.
In 2013, we travelled to Michoacán, Mexico. Everyone warned us against it. At least, I’m a native Spanish speaker, though.
Our hotel was in the Sultanahmet neighborhood, the old European part of Istanbul. The reception directed us to the sofa. Mustafa, a young go-getter from reception, brought us two glasses of hot Turkish tea (çay).
In Turkey, inviting you to a relaxing glass of çay is meant to put you at ease. Çay is a time to relax during the busy day. This was a wonderful gesture.
Mustafa drew the tourist spots in the Sultanahmet neighborhood on a map and then told us that the hotel sold tours to parts of Istanbul that would be harder for us to reach on our own. We thanked him and went for a first look at Istanbul.
Brilliant, Fast-Talking Shop Salesmen
Aggressive salesmen whisk you into their shops and sit you down for a glass of çay. You wonder how the salesman got you inside, but he’s all smiles and charm. That’s how.
You’re from Venezuela? They have an uncle there, and then tell you a detail or two about Venezuela just in case you doubted them. You live in New York? They have a cousin who lives there, and you get some more details to prove that, too. These salesman are always two steps ahead of you.
Taxi Rip-off Left Us In An Unknown Area
We talked with the driver through our Google Translate app. Through his app, he told us about his friend who lives in Miami. Then he pulled over in a tunnel and said we would be getting out here! We could see on our iPhone map that we were nowhere near the restaurant.
Our driver complained there was too much traffic because of the mayoral election. He show us the translated text on his phone: There was access to the Istanbul metro through an entrance in the tunnel.
It’s difficult argue through Google Translate.
The City Metro Is Much More Difficult When You’re Struggling With The Alphabet
There are machines at the metro stations where you purchase your metro card. Dan tapped the button for English, but the options were still incomprehensible because the names of the choices were still in Turkish.
A young English woman who had been in Istanbul for months, took the 200 lira note (approx. $50 USD) out of Dan’s hand, the only cash left in his wallet, and she pressed the buttons on the machine.
We could tell something wasn’t right by the look on her face. The machine didn’t give her the change she was expecting and we ended up with a $50 metro card and no more cash. She sincerely apologized and left us.
Finding a train back in the direction of our hotel was trial and error. Our first attempt lead us further away, but we finally ended up at the University in the Sultanahmet neighborhood. It was the Golden Horn, which meant we couldn’t be too far from the hotel.
The metro to the University in the Sultanahmet neighborhood was quick and from there we had to walk two blocks to the tram.
We were caught in rush hour and we weren’t able to get onto the first couple of trams, and then had to squeeze onto the third one. Within a few stops, the tram emptied out. A woman in a burka saw us. She looked at her children sitting across from her and ordered them to give us the seats. She smiled at me with her eyes and I smiled back.
Ferries On The Bosphorus
Dan had read that we could take the ferry to the Asian side of Istanbul. Mustafa at the hotel reception realized he wouldn’t be selling us a tour and gave us the vaguest directions to the ferry. Several ferries cross to different points and, since we didn’t know the difference, we took the first one we could find.
The trip across the river was an exciting ride between continents. We stood at the back of the ferry and watched the domes and minarets of the mosques fade into the distance of Istanbul Europe and then we ran to the front to see modern Istanbul Asia approaching.
We were excited take the ferry to the Asian side of Istanbul. Mustafa at the hotel reception, though, was unhappy with us. We didn’t purchase the tour he offered us, so he didn’t help us out with ferry. We were on our own.
Several ferries cross the Bosphorous to different points. Since we didn’t know the difference, we took the first one we could find.
Still covered with dust from the construction site at the ferry terminal in Asia, very hungry and somewhat fed up, we ate and found a restaurant that was highly-rated on TripAdvisor.
Meeting People Is Key If You Want To Feel A Connection
Olive Anatolian restaurant is on the top floor of the Yasmak Sultan hotel. We had a view of The Hagia Sofia from one side and the Bosphorus River on the other.
Our waiter, Murat, spoke very good English. Murat became our first friend in the city. We still communicate with Murat on Instagram.
We returned to the restaurant the next day for a private cooking class with Chef Hatice and her assistant. She chose a traditional 4-course Turkish meal for me to prepare.
The preparation lasted about two hours in the hot restaurant kitchen. We had a great time.
Dan and I came back to the restaurant later for dinner. Murat served to us the dinner I had prepared.
Connecting people is the key to feeling connected to a new place.
Culture Shock Is Your Problem, Not Theirs
We learned that we could connect with the people of Istanbul, even without language. We continued to meet people for the remainder of our stay. The Blue Mosque, the basilica cistern, the trips on the Bosphorus, the Grand Bazaar and the spice market make Istanbul a culturally and historically important city, but our best memories are of all the people we met in this international city.
Just because you’re having trouble in a city doesn’t mean the city has a problem. Travel can be complicated. You need to be strong and face new problems head on. You can do it, and it’s important that you try. Because the whole point of travel is learning about a new place. With all the frustrations we faced, we were so unhappy our last night, thinking we would be leaving the next morning.
Things To Do In Istanbul
- Sultanahmet neighborhood in the Golden Horn. Most of what you’ll want to see is here, in the old part of Istanbul, on the European side. The neighborhood is safe to walk.
- Yasmak Sultan hotel. The Olive Anatolian restaurant is inside. I recommend the cooking course.
- The Blue Mosque is stunning. Women need to cover their hair. Everyone has to remove their shoes to enter. (Bring a headscarf, or buy one at one of the local stores out on the street. The store clerk tied mine for me.
- The Haga Sofia. This was once a church, later a mosque, and then a museum. We just read that it’s being converted back to a mosque.
- Enjoy çay. There are a lot of beautiful, little places to enjoy a cup. My favorite was on the cobbled street Soguk Çesme Sokak.
- Basilica Cistern: Wander the 6th-century dark caverns that stored waters for so many centuries.
- The Grand Bazaar. Be prepared to barter and still end up overpaying. This historic bazaar is still a must-see, even if you just want to stop for a cup of çay.
- Is Bank Museum: Mohammad Ataturk is the father of modern Turkey. He was first president of Is Bank. This is a fun visit. The museum has English descriptions.
- Bosporus Cruise. You can take a cruise along the picturesque Bosporus. You can also take the commuter ferries to the Asian side. The Asian side of Istanbul is very modern. You’ll find upscale shopping malls with the Apple Store and Eataly!