Istanbul is without a doubt the biggest culture shock I had while travelling. I had a few expectations about the city, but I was completely surprised by how different it turned out to be. First off, I knew the city was big, but not this big. It seems like there are four downtown areas and the city spreads indefinitely in all directions. In fact, did you know it is the largest European city and the fifth largest in the world? What makes it so interesting is the contrast of old and new architecture. On our way from the airport, we went through modern neighbourhoods with newly built residential towers, but when we arrived to Beyoglu we were surrounded by Ottoman architecture.
Socially speaking, some neighbourhoods were also more conservative than others. We stayed in a more historic area of the city, which was definitely more conservative. Men were sitting on the streets drinking tea and enjoying the day while barely any women could be seen. In those neighbourhoods, it really seemed like gender roles were strictly defined! However, in other areas it seemed more progressive.
Something I will for sure remember is how friendly and helpful Turkish people are. Whenever we needed directions, even if they didn’t speak much English, they would do their best to help us. Turkish people are certainly proud of Istanbul and their country, and they really seem to appreciate it when foreigners come to visit 🙂 As foreigners, it’s great to feel welcomed!
On our first day in Istanbul, we walked to the Galata Tower where we got the see beautiful sights of the city. That’s where I realized just how big it was and I felt slightly overwhelmed by it. I truly felt far away from home! I also could see Asia for the first time on the other side of the Bosphorus.
One of my favourite days of the trip was when we visited mosques. Since I had to wear pants and a scarf, I wanted to visit all of them in a day so that I wouldn’t have to wear warm clothes two days in a row. It was about 30 degrees all week and we walked a lot so let’s just say I took a cold shower when we got back to our Airbnb!
My favorite mosque (by far) was Pasha Cami, which is the first one featured below with the blue mosaic. A funny anecdote about this visit is that after walking 10 minutes around the monument, we still couldn’t figure out where was the entrance so we asked a couple of guys at a street corner restaurant. They pointed us to a really fishy and dark stairway going inside a thick brick wall. We couldn’t believe that was it, but we went nonetheless thinking we were about to get mugged! To our surprise, that was actually the entrance to get to the mosque. Since it isn’t as known as all the other ones, there were only a few other tourists so that that made the experience a lot more authentic.
I have to say that from an architectural point of view, I thought mosques were a lot prettier and more inviting than the churches I’m used to see in America. They are so colourful with the beautiful mosaics and all of them have hanging lamps which makes the atmosphere very cozy. However, I still don’t like the fact that women cannot access the main praying area of the mosque.
When we visited the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, which is the second one below, we got there half an hour before the prayer so we stayed to hear it and it was such a special experience! The prayer actually happens six times a day and it is a reminder of how religion still plays a big role in that city. However, Istanbul is still a modern city because of its proximity to Europe. It truly is a blend of European and Islamic cultures.
Food is without a doubt one of the best things about Istanbul. There are tons of cafes and restaurants at every corner of the city. When I got there I really wanted to try all the traditional turkish food but sadly I’m pretty sure I ate a pide that was cooked in newspaper so I probably ate a lot of ink and I was stuck with a stomach bug for the rest of the trip. Because of that, I went back to more conservative food choices like pasta, salads and omelettes. I really wanted to try more variety but I didn’t want to feel sick for the entire week! However, even if I did go back to Americanized food choices, everything was still super delicious and it had its own Turkish twist to it!
Halfway through our week in Istanbul, we discovered the Café Lumière which was steps away from our Airbnb. It had this super cute backyard area and the food was amazing. We went back four times!
Another restaurant we really enjoyed was Van Kahvalti Evi for its brunch. We went there during our first few mornings in the city and we really enjoyed their scrambled eggs with sausage and tomatoes. It was served with this delicious bread that I’ll have to find in Montreal…
I got to spend my birthday in Istanbul, which was pretty special even though I did miss my family since I usually have dinner with them. Nonetheless, I made the best of that day in Istanbul! I was very excited to visit the Topkapi Palace, which was the residence of Sultans for about 400 years, so that’s what we decided to do to celebrate my twenty-third birthday.
One of the best parts of the visit was the armory, where we were able to see jewelled swords and daggers, as well as other fighting equipment such as mail armor. I couldn’t help but let my imagination run free and think of which equipment I would have chosen to fight with! I also really enjoyed the visit of the Harem, especially for its architecture.
At night, we went out to Taksim for a dinner at Midpoint, a beautiful restaurant that has a terrace with a view over Istanbul. Taksim was full of people! I’ve never seen such a busy street, not even in Times Square in NYC. It was very impressive. At the restaurant, I had an amazing rhum mojito, which turned out to be the best drink of the entire trip! However, alcool is very expensive in Turkey. That mojito cost about $15CAD, so even though I wanted to get another one, my budget did not allow it. If you’re ever in Istanbul, I definitely recommend Midpoint for its views over the city as well as the food. With that being said, don’t expect the service to be extremely fast – Istanbul runs a lot slower that what we’re used to in America.
I really wanted to do a day trip outside of Istanbul, so we headed to the Prince’s Islands the day after my brithday. We took a ferry to get there and the views were so beautiful. I was afraid to get sea sick, but since there weren’t any waves everything went smoothly! When we got there, we rented some bikes and rode around the Buyukada island for a couple of hours. I don’t have much photos of the day since we were biking for the entire time, but it was fun to get out of the city and experience another part of Turkey.
The visit to the Dolmabahce Palace was my favourite activity of our week in Istanbul. The palace is probably the most beautiful one I have ever seen thanks to its proximity to the Bosphorus. It is seriously a magical place and I am so glad we took our time to visit.
Sadly we couldn’t take any pictures inside since it is forbidden, but I couldn’t recommend the visit enough! The last room we visited was the Ceremonial Hall and it is so beautiful that the Turkish government still holds event in that room to this day. It contains the world’s largest crystal chandelier and it is absolutely breath-taking.
There is also a painting museum as part of the property that is worth visiting. I was mesmerized by a lot of oil paintings that represent landscapes and scenes of Istanbul.
On our last night, we went back to Midpoint to enjoy the view of Istanbul one last time. The dinner was delicious and we were right on time to enjoy the sunset. I think by that time we missed North American food so were went for good old nachos and pasta! (Yes, I do know pasta are technically Italian).
On our last day, before leaving for the airport, we went to the Grand Bazaar. There were so many beautiful things that I wanted to bring back but sadly my luggages were full and to be honest, after three weeks in Europe my pockets were pretty much empty! If I ever go back, I’ll make sure to buy a Turkish lamp. They were so beautiful. In fact, Turkish and Ottoman designs and architecture really conquered my heart and I’ll make sure to have a few accents in my home later on.
Istanbul turned out to be a surprising city in so many ways. I loved it for so many reasons, but also didn’t like a few aspects. I will miss the food, the sights, the diversity and the architecture, but I will not miss the conservative policies that are led by religion. I am a feminist and an atheist and I had some discomfort with certain situations. However, I will remember the good aspects and I strongly suggest you go at least once to experience this culture!