My wife and I spent almost a week in Istanbul, Turkey a couple of weeks ago. For our vacation we really wanted to find a place where we would not totally feel like tourists…and a place that had culture, architecture, history, great food and nightlife. We could not have chosen a place better than Turkey.
We loved it there. Turkey rocks and I am surprised not more people from the US visit there and talk about it. I wanted to share some thoughts and observations from the trip. I HIGHLY recommend everyone to visit Turkey and spend a few days in Istanbul and then other parts of the country.
- We stayed in the Sultanahmet neighborhood, walking distance from Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque and the Topkapi Palace. We deliberately decided to not stay in some sheeshy place but a cute little hotel tucked away in the middle of other peoples’ homes, shops, restaurants.That is the best way, in my opinion. Some of our friends had recommended upscale hotels but now we realize they are further away from where the action is, are too expensive, and frankly do not let you have an experience with the local people. We would start each day with a breakfast on the terrace that overlooked the 6 minarets of the Blue Mosque and beyond. A relaxing breakfast was a perfect way to start days filled with walking.
- Everything is so clean! We were quite surprised. Here is a country that almost feels like Middle East, and yet everyplace we went to felt clean and tidy. We literally saw cleaning crews every few minutes when we walked down the Istiklal Street. That said, I must say spending time inside blue mosque was a bit difficult. Visit there would have been much more peaceful and calming if the carpets were not smelling so much of shoes/socks/body odor.
- We noticed that despite being a country with a significant tourist population at any given time, a lot of people we met in the biggest city did not speak English. While it wasn’t too difficult to communicate eventually, it was a surprise given how westernized everything else appeared.
- Istanbul is such a delightful blend of East and West. You can literally be under a bridge and look at Europe on one side and Asia on the other. Turkey also seems to have opened its doors to a lot more people than some other European countries. We met an Iraqi businessman who told us it was the only country where Iraqis could land at the airport and get visas. Hence, he did a lot of his business and spent vacation time in Turkey.
- We spent almost an entire day at Hagia Sophia. Probably longer than most would but the juxtaposition of Islam and Christianity in a centuries old building was too beautiful to quickly digest. Where else can you see mosaics depicting Maria, Jesus being presented with gifts from St. Augustin at the same time as the pulpit with inscriptions that a Muslim Imam would lead prayers from? History revealed, literally within layers of cement & plaster.
- Istiklal is quite a street. There are streets a bit like that in Germany, Switzerland and Nederlands that I have walked on, but this is so long and so crowded compared to anywhere else. Shops, restaurants, cafes on top of each other and people amassed as though a rave is happening. No matter which direction I turned to walk on Istiklal, I felt there was a mob walking towards me. It was an interesting feeling – even for someone who grew up in a crowded city like Karachi. By the way, at one end of Istiklal is the local bar scene and yes, it is very European and its very awesome!
- While food everywhere in Istanbul was interesting and unique, we had amazing meals where we crossed over to Kotakoy on the Asian side. Walk down the narrow streets, have an amazing kebap at a restaurant, dessert of yogurt with honey or Turkish Delight, strong Turkish coffee and then buy spices at half price compared to the Spice market. And while we talk about food: don’t miss the fried fish sandwiches (street food) at Eminonou, and on the European side, if you see just white people sitting at a restaurant drinking wine, move along…Food probably is mediocre and all of them followed some tourist guide book to show up there. Ask locals where would they eat if it was their birthday and you might get the real taste of Turkish cuisine.
- We enjoyed our visit to Ortakoy as well. Take a ferry over or a bus from Taksim Sq. Its a gorgeous riverside village. You can join the pizza lovers at the fancy “House Cafe”, or take my advice and grab a “kumpir” and “waffles” and sit on the benches along the river. This village comes alive in the evenings. By the way: Kumpir is a baked potato with stuffings dish that I think I will never stop salivating over. If it arrived in the US, it would take the country by storm!
- A trip down river Bospohorus is a tourist must. Its actually fun, and summer breeze is wonderful. But we also stopped at a place towards the end of the trip and had lunch at a secluded restaurant on top of the mountain. Most relaxing 2 hours we ever spent anywhere. Serene, quiet, gorgeous views, great food, and a sense of detachment from the general pace of life.
- Some other observations:
- Grand Bazaar is super touristy. Not worth the time for the shops…but interesting environment and architecture around the Bazaar.
- Spice market is over-priced. But even some locals were surprised that we bought spices at >50% discount to negotiated prices in the spice market on the Asian side.
- People generally seemed over weight. Not good. I wonder how the health indices track in Turkey?
- Ciragan Palace is over-rated as a place to stay. Go there for coffee, take in the view, and walk out before the resident pianist starts belching out western tunes on the Grand Piano 🙂
- If you don’t have Turkish coffee at least once a day, you are missing the most amazing drink from that country/region.
- I had the most expensive coffee I have ever had – that also tasted like crap. I ventured under the bridge near Eminonou and decided to have a latte. Cost me nearly $8 and it was so terrible I had to dump it.
- We decided to buy some semi-expensive decorative items at the Museum Shops. Just before paying for them I convinced my wife to try and find the same things outside the Museum shops even though the sales people kept telling us these things are not available in general markets. Well, we found them outside for 50% the price and saved hundreds of dollars. Later we saw the same things at 400% price at the airport.
- We were surprised at how many bookstores we could see all over Istanbul. A great sign that society values learning and literature….but I wonder how they will fare as digital media infiltrates ever so deeply. While we could, we bought tons of books there.
- Service at the airport is kind of crappy, which is disappointing and surprising. We were scammed by the tax return booth who was were literally returning only 50% of money they should. I bet the rest was going into their pockets. Turkish friends: this is really not what you want your visitors to take away on their way out of your country.
- Last but not the least, my wife and I had such an amazing time learning about and discussing the history of the Ottoman empire.
- this was a grand empire. this was a rich state. and these people lived a lavish life. wow.
- the treasury at the Topkapi place blew my mind away. There were so many diamonds and rubies and emeralds there that I tried to convince my wife these must be replicas. Holy smokes. I have never a diamond as big as the one I saw there.
- I saw relics of important people in Islam at the Topkapi Museum. As a religious person, it was spiritually quite interesting.
- We spent a few hours inside the Dolmabache Palace and countless hours debating if the westernization of the Ottoman rulers brought the empire down? It is said that the King mortgaged his empire to build this lavish palace that simply does not fit the local climate or culture. It is like the Palace of Versailles but maybe a little too much. Crystals from France, Vases from Germany, plates from England etc etc. But it lacked life and warmth. Unfortunately. We saw photos of the Ottoman empire in the 1500-1600s and they seemed happy, elaborately dressed in their velvetty garb. Those from 1800s look more run down, and odd in British type uniforms. The beauty of Turkey today is that it blends some of the best from East and West. But did the Ottoman rulers go too far too soon, or did they get enamored with the least useful elements of the Western civilization? Or was it the palace intrigues that distracted them away from their people’s welfare?
Needless to say, we loved our time in Turkey. We will go back and we would like all our friends to visit there. Turkish people were extremely friendly to us, and we felt like home. We felt safe and witness to a country that is only now starting to emerge again as a leader at the global stage. If I could, I would try to find a way to go back there often so I can learn more about their economy, politics, culture, and prospects for the future. Hey startups in Turkey, kick it up so I can find work reasons to visit too!