Istanbul is a city caught between worlds, split between two continents; a city where young girls in jeans walk hand-in-hand with girls in burkas. It’s a culture full of color and textile. Thousands of years of architecture line each street. The city is pulsing, never silent, yet the Bosphorus is calm and inviting. Spices and the scent of rose hips permeate. Five times a day, prayers fill the streets and at night, during Ramadan, families raise their hands to receive their Iftar feast. But while Istanbul is full of all this, plus amazing monuments and museums, I found the experiences outside these made my trip truly memorable.
1. Chilling with a Cat in the Hagia Sophia
All through Istanbul are stray cats and dogs. When you sit down at restaurants, cats will often rub against your legs in anticipation. Sidewalks through crowded streets become cat walkways as they stay on the prowl for food. Dogs can often be found outside of mosques, lounging in the sun. In the Hagia Sophia, I met a cat hamming it up for photos. Here I am at one of the greatest monuments in history, and a chubby cat is sitting on the marble just hanging out and staring at tourists.
Many of these stray animals have tags on their ears. This means they have been spayed or neutered and put back on the streets. The government has animal feeding programs for these strays and they are well loved by the Turkish people. Because within the Muslim faith, animals are considered unclean, most religious people do not have pets. Hence, these animals are the city’s pets. And they often can be found in the city’s greatest places.
2. Putting on a Graduation Gown to go into the Blue Mosque
I tried to dress appropriately to go into the Blue Mosque, but my dress was deemed too short. I thought it counted as below the knee, but the lady at the kiosk disagreed. I was swiftly handed what looked like a hooded graduation gown. I would have been embarrassed, but everyone around me was in the same boat. Some Australian guys in front of me also were forced to put on long skirt-like garments, so we all entered the mosque stifling giggles. But standing in the Blue Mosque, an amazing testament of art and faith, I was humbled and awed by the rich colors, intricate designs, and silent reverence that filled the space, despite my strange graduation-like garb.
3. Getting Lost Behind the Spice Bazaar
During my first moments in the Grand Bazaar, I felt like everything was crashing in on me and I had no space to breathe. The bazaars of Istanbul are an assault on all the senses. They are packed; smell of spices, sweat, and leather; colorful and filled with vendors yelling that their product is the best, inviting you to come in, asking you where you’re from. My inner introvert was absolutely terrified. But once I got used to the sounds and sights, I found each bazaar to be an exciting adventure.
Istanbul locals do not shop in the bazaars, as they cater to tourists and their prices are inflated. So if you want a real taste of where Istanbul shops, wander out and get lost behind the Spice Bazaar. Behind the Spice Bazaar are vendors selling clothing to local women in headscarves and well as a large assortment of wedding and linen shops, furniture, and more.
I wandered into a shop specializing in beautiful head coverings and bought a couple amazing Turkish scarves for much cheaper than I saw them offered anywhere else. Wandering down streets filled with Turkish people shopping and bargaining with each other gave me a sense of a more real Istanbul.
4. Relaxing on the Top Deck of a Bosphorus Cruise Boat
After jumping into the Bosphorus from the top of the boat, I sprawled out across my seat on the the top deck, a warm breeze playing with my hair, and watched the Asian side of Istanbul float by. My relaxation was deep and intoxicating. It felt strange wearing such little clothing after a couple of days of long skirts, but I can’t say I’ve ever loved being in a bathing suit as much as I did during this moment.
5. Pretending to Break My Ramadan Fast Outside the Blue Mosque
At the end of each day during Ramadan, locals flock to the beautiful park outside the Blue Mosque. They set up blankets, bring food and drink and wait to break their Ramadan fast with their Iftar feast. As prayers fill the loudspeaker, the entire park outstretches their hands and then digs in when the prayer ends. It is a time of celebration and community. The air is electric and buzzing with energy. One of my favorite meals in Istanbul was sitting at the Blue Mosque, eating kumpir (a street food similar to a baked potato but with spices, olives, and many delicious Turkish toppings) as I watched the Ramadan festivities take place. I didn’t fast during the day, but still enjoyed experiencing a slice of Ramadan in Istanbul.
6. Learning Joseph had a Technicolor Coat and a Turban
The Topkapi Palace is high up on the list of places to go in Istanbul. Areas like the Treasury and the Golhane gardens are always mentioned, and yes, the harem is well worth paying the extra ticket price. If you were forced to be a concubine to a sultan in Istanbul, at least rest assured that your pad would be sweet. But I found the Destimal Chamber to be the most fascinating area of the palace. The Destimal Chamber is the room housing the Destimal bundle, a group of sacred religious items: Abraham’s pot, Joseph’s turban, Moses’ staff, David’s sword, scrolls belonging to John, and Muhammad’s footprints. I knew all the Bible stories—but I did not know the Qaran’s take on them, so reading these stories and seeing how vastly different they are from the ones I grew up with was shocking and enlightening. Plus, I really hope Joseph actually rocked that turban.
7. Becoming a Turkish Chef
One of the best ways to learn a city is through its stomach—and Istanbul has a famous stomach. Your worst meal in Istanbul will still be a darn good meal. I took a class with Oguz at his Turkish Cooking School. He brought my class to his favorite spice shop, we bought fresh produce, and we sampled Turkish Delight at a hundred-year-old candy shop. Then we cooked and drank Turkish wine while listening to Oguz’s stories about the city he loves. Not only did I leave the class with authentic Turkish spices and some killer recipes, but I also met two boisterous Australian girls, a women from Bosnia, a man from France, and couple from New Jersey, and a couple from Taiwan, who I ran into numerous times on the rest of my trip. Plus, I am now a pro at making smoked Turkish eggplant, which my vegetarian roommates are going to love.
8. Visiting a Turkish Bath (a.k.a. Heaven) and Having to Wear a Diaper
I was a bit concerned about visiting a Turkish bath, or hamam, after hearing two of the girls in my cooking class say that they came out feeling “a bit violated, but very relaxed and smelling of lemon-scented dishwasher soap.” Turkish baths in the more touristy areas tend to be more expensive and a bit sketchy. Workers aren’t always treated or paid well and tourists don’t get the best experience. Instead, get your recommendations from a local and head to a respected Turkish Bath.
I visited the K?l?ç Ali Pa?a Hamam?, a 435-year-old bath. Be sure to make reservations and check the hours for men and women before visiting. I was gently ushered into the marbled and quiet oasis of a lobby. You’re supposed to bring a bathing suit bottom, but I had mistakenly grabbed a one-piece suit. Because the experience involves a body scrub and steaming, this wouldn’t work. One of the attendants gave me this little disposable bikini bottom made of the same material as a diaper that covered basically nothing and served little to no purpose. Despite my unfortunate garment and trying to get used to being naked in front of multiple strangers, I loved being in the hamam. I felt like a content, gurgling little baby every time soapy bubbles and water were poured over me and soon lost all of my embarrassment and concern about the experience. Afterwards, I rested in the lounge, covered by a towel, and had fresh orange brought to me. Walking out into the bustling streets of Istanbul afterwards, I felt as if I had been gifted a brand new extra-soft body.
9. Learning to Haggle
I’m not the most outgoing of people. The loud manners and wheeling and dealing of Turkish merchants immediately made me uncomfortable. But you should almost never pay the first price you are given at a stall or tourist shop in Istanbul. Very few things have price tags, with a reason. Merchants are trying to get you to pay as much as they can and will start off with a high price. Because it is not in my nature to haggle and the Turkish merchants are pros at getting tourists to shell out large sums, I found myself often out of my element. I definitely spent too much on some items. But on my last day, I finally found my courage and scored some great deals. I was unreasonably pleased when I bargained with a man at a scarf shop over a beautiful silk scarf and got it for the price I wanted.
10. Meeting the Absolute Coolest People
Istanbul is a crossroads for travelers from all walks of life and locations. Be it Europeans looking for a part of Europe they haven’t explored, people from all parts of the Middle East, Australians on holiday, and everywhere else, you are sure to meet fascinating people. I was charmed by the young Saudi Arabian family with the most well behaved baby on my Bosphorus cruise. As the man jumped off the boat into the Black sea, he exclaimed, “This is the best thing to ever happen on this trip!” Then there was Neil, a man from the UK who works in Hong Kong and made us laugh till our stomachs hurt. Chamile, a French lady who worked at the hotel I stayed at, married a Turkish rug merchant and shared pictures of her cats with me and talked about trying to keep them off the rugs. Oguz emailed me after the cooking class and urged me to contact him any time I have any questions while cooking any of his dishes. I spoke with an extremely elegant refugee from Syria in a pottery shop as she showed me around and we complimented each other’s styles. The Turkish people are known for their hospitality. Take them up on it; engage with everyone you meet. I wasn’t disappointed.