Turkey is an incredible country that I am not done seeing. I have been to Istanbul a few times, but there is so much here that deserves to be seen seen. It is a much different place than when I was there the first time around, and may be getting worse, but I do think it will still be safe for tourists (just not journalists).
At least start with Istanbul, but try to plan some time to see Pamukkale, Antalya, Ankara and maybe even the coast in the north. There is an immense amount of history here, people are beyond friendly (unless you meet them near a tourist site), and the whole place is beautiful. I’ve been here in the winter, and the Fall, and both were incredible.
Istanbul (Spend at least 4, maybe 5 days here, I’ve only done 5 total, & not all at once)
On my third time to Istanbul, my favorite city in the world, I realized that I have a love/hate relationship with it that is hard to explain. The most creative I’ve been so far is to equate it with Nicolas Cage and his 1967 Shelby Mustang in “Gone in 60 Seconds.” He both loathes/loves that car. In the movie he gets away from a ton of police in that car, but was found by the police in it, he almost dies in it, but is saved because of it. That’s kind of how I feel about Istanbul. I have been cheated, conned, & battered by this place and yet, I can’t help but love it.
The old city is beautiful, most of the people are charming, there is history unlike anything we have in the West, and yet, it is strangely familiar. The Haggia Sophia is, without a doubt, my favorite structure in the world, and I’ve been three times already. The following a things you should do, at the minimum, followed by what you should skip, and then, a story of where the pain and struggle of Istanbul comes in.
Things you should do, at a minimum:
- Go to the Haggia Sophia, walk around, and take it all in.
- This was the largest church in the world when it was built. However, when the Muslim’s took over they destroyed all the Christian remnants, or so it was thought. In reality, they just covered it up and it was discovered during renovations 100 years ago from present day that much of the Christian art was still there. So, you can see Christian works next to Muslim works side by side. It really is a fascinating experience. Attaturk, the founder of modern Turkey (and top 3 of my favorite historical figures of all time), turned it into a museum and so the dress code is lax, and people of all faiths can enjoy it, just like it has been over time.
- The Blue Mosque across the street is a beautiful structure, but is also a working Mosque, and so you’ll have to dress tastefully and potentially cover up
- Tokapi Palace – The largest palace in Istanbul, really pretty with great views
- Basilica Cistern – The largest of several hundred ancient cisterns that lie beneath the city of Istanbul.
- Tower on the otherside of the river- It’s a bit touristy and there is a restaurant on the top, but it is still a stunning view and well worth it.
- Boat cruise on the Bosphorous – Incredibly cheesy, and I hate that, but the views really are stunning and it is the best way to see them.
Also, I think it is important to note that Turks will do all of the things above as well, which I think is a good sign. If nationals don’t think something is important enough to go to, then it is probably not important enough for us to go to either.
Things to avoid:
- There are conmen galore in-between the Haggia Sophia and The Blue Mosque. They’re awful; obnoxious, incessant, and out to get everything they can from you. Avoid them at all costs and don’t be afraid to be mean. ANYONE you meet in that area you should not trust, even if they say they’re not from Turkey. Anyone that says “my friend” or “my brother” you should essentially tell to go to hell, because they are anything but. I cannot stress this enough.
- The painted steps on the east side – There are some beautiful photos of these steps on Instagram, Pinterest, Google etc. In reality, it sucks. The paint washed off and now it is sad and not worth the time or money to get there.
- Eating on the bridge over the Bosporus. There are restaurants here with fresh caught fish that is really good, but is also like $50/pound. Don’t do it, just walk down the street to a place where the food is 1/5 as much, and the fish was literally just walked a few hundred yards.
- Taking a taxi from the airport – Okay, it can be okay, but research what the real rate should be ahead of time, and if it is around rush hour (same times as anywhere else) then you need to go ahead and take the train. It costs $2 and is faster than a taxi.
This is inside the Haggia Sophia Museum. It started out as a church when Istanbul was still Constantinople, and then became a mosque when the Muslims took over. However, they didn’t destroy many of the Christian symbols, just covered them up. So now, you have this fascinating contrast of Christian Religion side by side with Islam, and it makes for an incredible experience.
I was lucky enough to see my good friend Derin while in Istanbul. She is Turkish and was in town visiting family while on summer break from teaching in San Antonio. It was great not only seeing her again, but her cousin turned out to be an incredible guide and took as all over the city. The view behind us was where we had tea and hookah, and this was just a bit of what they showed us.
This is the Spice Market within the Grand Bazaar. I wish I knew more about spices, because this was cool enough, knowing what I was doing would have been even better.
This was one of my favorite memories of Istanbul. We came during Ramadan and in many Muslim countries you are not allowed to eat, and people may be quite hostile if you eat anyways. However, no one cared in Istanbul when we ate during the day, and at night you had large crowds gathered in front of the mosques with many Muslims preparing food for the sunset (when they are allowed to eat) sitting side by side with secularists snacking away. It was amazing in its subtlety in that we only hear about the extremists or the bad experiences, but at the end of the day, most of these people are just like us.
It reminded me of 4th of July celebrations years ago with my family on the lawn of the Fort Worth Botanical garden. Eating there, waiting for the fireworks. This was quite similar, and I absolutely loved Istanbul for it. The people were nice, the city was beautiful, and the culture was fascinating. I look forward to going back.
That night, Chloe and I went out to eat and met up with some other vacationers. One was from Texas ironically enough, and the other three were from Australia. They were awesome people, and we got along really well. It was nice to be with other young professionals with whom I could share interesting stories with, and who enjoyed being adventurous. This did though lead us to some interesting situations.
As most of you know, there were a number of protests in Istanbul a few weeks ago, due to their government possibly stepping out of its mandate (for example, more journalists are imprisoned here than any other country in the world), but the people we met up with were staying in Tahrir Square, and had had no problems. So, we went looking for a bar and stopped when we heard the protests. We had seen the police, but they were just sitting around hanging out, and so we had assumed the protest was already over. Not long after we found out the protests were just starting and below is a picture of the crowd that lit trash on fire, destroyed ATM machines and threw rocks at police. That said, 95% of the protestors were very civil, and many people were actively trying to keep my friends and I safe. It was something I will never forget, and I am very grateful to their community there that let me witness a small piece of their long history.
This shows you how close we were to the action. At one point I was standing here and they started firing rubber bullets overhead. That was really the only time I got nervous, but they were firing well over me, and had no intention of hitting me.
1000 year old Turkish bath
Medusa pillar in the Sultan’s Catacombs
The Basilica Cistern (shout-out to Kathryn Fish for telling me the correct name, thanks!)
View of the Blue Mosque.
Me in front of the Haggia Sophia, because it was Monday and it was closed, I was unable to go inside.
Country level of difficulty – 5/10 if you are careful near tourist spots
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