Why go to Istanbul?
I was drawn to Istanbul because of its rich history. Originally called Constantinople, this ancient city was founded by Constantine, who single-handedly moved the seat of the Roman Empire from Rome to his namesake city. While the Western Europe mired in the Dark Ages, it was the center of the world at the flowering of the Byzantine empire; and eventually, cradled the mighty Ottoman Empire for hundreds of years. At one point, the Ottoman Empire reached over the entire peninsula of Greece and vast stretches of the modern-day Middle East. All of these places were affected by the grand Constantinople, and felt the ripples of its political activity and cultural shifts.
I spent three weeks in Istanbul during the month of October. What an adventure!
When you walk down a street in Sultanhamet, you are bound to be overwhelmed. There are colorful shops everywhere, filled to the brim with trinkets and jewelry and scarves. Cats come up to you from seemingly everywhere, acting like starving dogs. Turkish shopkeepers stand along the streets. They’re going to talk to you, each and every one of them. And they will all convince you they’ve got the best deals in town.
The Hagia Sophia!
Istanbul has over three thousand mosques. Two of them, the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia, are located in Sultanhamet. Five times a day, both of these mosques loudly proclaim the call to prayer. Restaurants and shopkeepers turn down the music, but it seems like most people keep going about their normal activities.
The markets, meanwhile, are busier than you could imagine. Narrow streets, winding around in some nonsensical way, are littered with people. People in Istanbul aren’t the best at walking, either – I’ve never inadvertently run into so many people during a short walk in the market. Food, plastic children’s toys, watches, jewelry, and so much more! If I had to guess, I’d think that Walmart got the idea of overstock and overstimulation from the Grand Bazaar. Exchange natural sunlight for florescent lights, and it may as well be the craziest Super-Walmart you’ve ever seen.
Istanbul is a heady blend of ancient civilizations and thrilling modernity, and not to be missed! If you are headed to Greece, or anywhere in Eastern Europe, make it a point to get there. You will not be disappointed.
On a side note: Don’t let the rumors fool you – it’s not dangerous to walk the streets of Istanbul if you’re female. It’s true, Turkish men do harass women tourists, but just ignore them. They’re not going to touch you, they’re just going to tell you you’re beautiful. Don’t do anything you wouldn’t do in a city at home, and you’ll be fine. Travel with a buddy, don’t go down dark alley-ways, don’t drink a cocktail you left on a countertop – you know the drill.
Top Three Favorite Experiences:
The Hagia Sophia
1500 years of history lie in these walls! It’s a stunningly beautiful building, inside and out. This was my favorite experience in my entire European adventure. A Christian church that was later turned into a mosque, there are layers of mosaic and paint on the sky-high walls. I can’t express enough how fantastic this was – go there! Just do it!!!
Cost: 25 Turkish Lira, about $12.
The Grand Bazaar
It’s touristy, it’s overpriced, it’s uncomfortably crowded – but it’s the thing to do! Wandering through the alleys, with brightly colored things for sale on every shelf is simply fun. You’re going to be yelled at to buy stuff, but if you go in with a small amount of money (or the determination to save it all for the cheaper Egyptian Bazaar!) you will be fine. It’s also fun to take pictures in there! Just make sure to keep your things protected, I can only imagine this place is a pickpocketer’s dream.
Dazzling lights at the Grand Bazaar
Cost: However much you wanna spend!
Every big city in Europe seems to be on a river. Istanbul doesn’t like to be left out of all the cool trends! The Bosphorus runs through the city, separating the Asian side from the European side, and Sultanahmet from Beyoglu and Taksim. Hop on a boat for a couple of hours and see everything from the water! It’s a great way to spend a sunny afternoon, and you might even see dolphins! We were lucky when we went, and an entire pod of dolphins followed us for about half an hour. Simply magical.
Cost: The one we took was 10 Turkish Lira (about $5). There are more expensive ones, but we were traveling on a budget!
Places to Stay:
We stuck to hostels. My two favorite hostels were: Sultan Hostel in the heart of Sultanahmet, and Harmony Hostel, which was a little closer to the Topkapi Palace.
A hostel typically costs around 7 or 8 euros a night. A great deal in comparison to many places in Europe! However, it’s best to wait until you’re in the city to pick a hostel (if you’re going to choose one I didn’t recommend). We started out at a hostel that had decent reviews and was extremely cheap…it turned out to be kind of scary. Basically, the room was full of bunk beds crammed together, so you felt like you were sharing a bed with the person next to you. The men who stayed there harassed us all the time, and greeted us with creepy “Good morning, beautiful!” the second we woke up. Not worth the cheap prices.
Also, for fans of the website couchsurfing.com: I would not recommend couchsurfing in Istanbul. We made couch requests a month ahead of time, and hundreds of responses started flooding in to my inbox. Every male in the Istanbul area wanted two girls to stay on his couch. I heard horror stories from a friend: these included marriage proposals, sexual harassment, and even sexual assault. Just don’t do it. It’s not smart. You’re in a different culture, and it probably means something different when you’re asking to sleep on someone’s couch. Be aware of this.
How to get there:
We flew in from London, and the ticket was around $350. Not the cheapest option!
According to other travelers, going through Bulgaria is fun and pretty inexpensive. If you happen to be in Eastern Europe, this could be a great fit for you. You could take trains and buses through Bulgaria and into Istanbul for about half the price we paid to get from England to Istanbul.
When you get into Istanbul, keep in mind that you have to pay for a Turkish visa. This will cost you, if you’re an American citizen, $20. From what I understand, you have to pay this in cash. I also had a friend buy her visa online ahead of time, so that could be another great option if you’re on a time-crunch, or just want to keep things convenient!
What to eat:
Plenty of vegan options in Turkey! At a restaurant, you can easily find yourself something that’s vegetable based. Hummus, eggplant dips, and most dolmas are vegan friendly. My favorite treat was simit! This street pretzel was chewy and cheap, plus they sell them absolutely everywhere! And finally, there was a fantastic dessert called cezerye – kind of like Turkish delight, but made with carrots. Don’t ask me how! All I know is that it’s delicious!
And one last thing:
I don’t recommend smoking as a habit, but you’ve gotta try it when you’re in Istanbul. It’s so fun to sit around with friends, smoking apple-flavored tobacco, and watching Istanbul walk by you. Certainly worth the experience.
Walking these alleyways can be tricky!
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Photo: Abbie Zulock