The week before Christmas we traveled from India to Istanbul, the first stop on the European leg of our trip. But before we left Mumbai, there was some work to be done. We scrubbed off the scent of our last overnight bus, shoved our dingy, Indian traveler clothes in the trash can at the hostel, and went to the Levis store for some skinny jeans so that we didn’t feel like total urchins while dining at flashy restaurants in Istanbul and Spain. I forgot how good it feels to dress up and not be covered in a constant layer of dust!
When we landed in Istanbul, Zach’s cousin Joe welcomed us to his apartment in the center of town, where we indulged in a week of comforts: coffee, a warm bed with fluffy pillows, brunch, bars with atmosphere, street art, high speed wifi, and most of all, cheeseburgers. Visiting Istanbul was the most familiar experience we’ve had in the last 16 months. It was cold, people wore black, no one cared what we were doing, where we were going, and no one was trying to sell us anything. Folks just went about their business and we went about ours.
After so much sightseeing in India, we were a bit torn between Istanbul’s tempting sights or our own, more basic desires like wearing heels and drinking whiskey and going to a drawn out brunch that wastes half the day. The thing is though, you don’t have to choose. Istanbul is a young, modern city steeped in a history that is older than most and is predominantly Islamic, as opposed to most other historically Christian European cities.
In coming to a Muslim country, I was prepared to wear loose fitting, conservative clothes and to be thinking about not offending folks. That may be necessary in rural Turkey, but Istanbul was full of tight jeans and funky leggings. For some, that was jeans with a headscarf. For others, it was lots of layers of long clothing, but in any big city, you will find a variety of fashions influenced by everything from religion to pop culture. There were plenty of indicators, from style of dress to the call to prayer, that we were in a city where Islam is the dominant religion, but that was just one of the many characteristics of the largely secular city. In areas where conservative dress was important, like at a Mosque, there were signs written in English and assistants to help tourists feel comfortable and respect the customs.
We spent a Saturday morning at the organic farmer’s market in Sisli, took the metro home and after dropping our mandarins and olive oil (a half liter bottle for 7 bucks!) off at the apartment, went up the Galata Tower (built in 500 AD) and watched the sun set behind the dozens of minarets that pierce the city’s skyline. We spent a lazy morning Skyping friends, gorged ourselves on a traditional Turkish village breakfast, then had our minds blown by The Basilica Cistern from the 5th century and tasted Turkish wines at one of the city’s newly opened wine bars.
On Christmas Eve morning, I spent the morning at the Kilic Ali Pasa Hamam, enjoying a traditional scrub in a gorgeous, renovated Hamam spa. After the exfoliating scrub, you lay in silence on a heated stone in the center of the room and gaze up at the light that comes streaming through the stars carved in the marble domed roof. Now this is the way to experience Islamic architecture. A trip to the Hamam was once a normal activity for Turks, but now is more of a touristy thing to do. A highly recommended touristy thing to do. At 130 Turkish Lira, or about $65, it is one of the more expensive activities in Istanbul, but it is worth every lira.
We lived like kings in Istanbul, a city that feels a bit like a young kid a with an old soul. There are endless historical sights to see, the nightlife is great, and their restaurant scene is well on it’s way. Even though most folks don’t speak English, the city was easy to navigate and people tried to help when we asked them (or had that lost look on our faces). I can’t recommend a trip to Istanbul highly enough.