Is Istanbul Still Worth Visiting?

“If one had but a single glance to give the world, one should gaze on Istanbul.”

Alphonse de Lamartine

Looking back, we were so fortunate to have been able to visit Central Europe and Turkey when we did. The war between Russia and Ukraine shows us all how fragile peace can be. How in a moments notice worlds can be shattered and places that seemed too familiar and safe can be alien and devastating.

We were just in nations who have now accepted millions of refugees. Slovakia and Hungary share a border with Ukraine. Both of those nations are now shipping weapons to help fight Russian aggression while taking in countless fleeing Ukrainians.

Turkey is playing a large role, maybe a larger role than you realize, in fighting Russia right now. Historically Istanbul and Moscow have been bitter rivals competing for influence over Eastern Europe and the Black Sea. Today this rivalry is expressed through Turkey’s NATO membership and willingness to foil Moscow’s military plans any way possible. Turkey has closed the Black Sea to military ships making it nearly impossible for Russia to resupply their fleet. Turkey is also supplying Ukraine with high tech drones and military aid.

We were so fortunate to have visited these nations during peace time. If you’ve followed along my writing you’ve seen me emphasize the importance of peace compared to the horrors that war and occupation bring. I’ve warned against the rising extremism and rampant nationalism that is arising. This can be combated through travel. Experiencing another culture firsthand reduces your stereotypes and fills you with a sense of global connection. We truly are more similar than we are different on an individual level.

Topkapi Palace interior, unbelievable detail

It feels eerie that I was just reading about the Soviet invasions of Budapest and Prague for my recent articles. History doesn’t repeat but it sure does rhyme. Seeing Kyiv, Mariupol and Kharkiv surrounded and besieged is a shocking reminder just how relevant knowing our recent past truly is.

Social science education is more important now than it has ever been. Of course the hard sciences need their due but not at the disparagement of social science. Our lack of understanding about history, politics and anthropology means we may be damned to repeat the same mistakes of the past and fall prey to the same ideological traps of nationalism and racism.

This is why it was so important for me that we visit Turkey. I insisted upon it.

I often discuss with my best friend places we are longing to visit and one common theme emerges: places we can go now that we may not be able to in the near future. For him it was Hong Kong, for me it was Turkey and Central Europe.

There is so much beauty and wonder in these places of the world, it is maddening that we may lose site of that and see troubled areas revert to war and regress to aggression. There is comfort in discomfort, in learning seeing and experiencing the new. Travel is truly the antidote to disinformation.

The bustling markets and streets were wonderful to experience.

Wandering through the Spice Market was stepping into a painting, floating through a dream, into another world I knew existed but had never experienced. Something captured me and lifted my feet off the ground. I swayed and drifted with the crowds that would have normally given me anxiety. The chapter of a perfect novel had come to life. I have never experienced something so familiar yet so new.

Seeing the strange in the familiar and the familiar in the strange is what my Cultural Anthropology professors always emphasized. Seeing the common connections through vastly different cultures while also examining the bizarre customs of our own allows you to gain a new perspective and a broader understanding of humanity.

This experience shows me I need to seek out cultures that I am less familiar with, something inside me resonates deeply with new cultural experiences. We need to broaden our travel horizons even more.

Is Istanbul still worth visiting? Absolutely. In fact Istanbul is not to be missed.

Marveling at the myriad lamps in Istanbul’s markets.

Istanbul Itinerary

We arrived in Istanbul in the late afternoon. Our flight landed at Sabiha Gokcen Airport in Kurtkoy, on the Asian side of the country, so we can technically say our trip took us to two continents. Istanbul is the only major city to sit atop a continental boundary, physically and mentally conjoining two continents.

Since we arrived later in the day and the taxi ride took well over an hour, it was getting late by the time we checked into our hostel. We had just enough time to drop off our bags, take a walk around Sultanhamet square and eat dinner.

Instantly we were both gripped with a brand new feeling. We had stepped out of one world and entered another. The dizzyingly tall minarets, the friendly street dogs and cats, the captivating call to prayer that punctuated the cool evening, all reminded us that there is so much to see here.

Of course one of our first stops was to get Jamie a dessert! Baklava and Turkish Delights were a must-try. Both delicacies differ from traditional chocolate sweets in that they focus more on honey and nuts with floral and fruit flavors. These treats harken to a time before the cocoa bean was available in the Old World.

Feeling hungry we decided to do some brief research into dinner spots. My usual methods of finding a local hotspot were ineffective here. There are many paid ratings and fake Google reviews that absolutely do not reflect the reality of a restaurant. Five stars and Zero stars are both misleading and abused in their own ways. Asking the hostel front desk he confirmed my suspicions that ratings are not to be trusted and good, authentic food is hard to come by in Sultanhamet.

The location of our hostel was fantastic. Absolutely ideal in fact. We could walk to the Hagia Sofia, Sultanhamet square and Topkapi Palace within a few minutes. Turning the corner from our room we were greeted by the impressive exterior of the Blue Mosque.

The downside to this amazing location was the feeling of it being a bit touristy. Although for us this may not have been a bad thing, being our first introduction to a new culture, continent and people. For a more traditional stay I would suggest another neighborhood besides Sultanhamet, possibly in Galata.

Fortunately we were able to find a good dinner in a popular place with no problem. We ordered a testi kebab, something new to us both! It was delicious tender lamb meat stewed in tomatoes, onions and other aromatics all sealed in a clay pot. The presentation was perfect as well. A group of Turkish musicians set up shop just outside the restaurant as we were being served. The flair of the dish, the cracking of the clay pot and the Turkish music all combined for an unforgettable experience. We had made it to Istanbul!

The next morning we were awakened early by the call to prayer emitting from the nearby minarets. Our plan was to visit the infamous Blue Mosque but we arrived as the second daily call to prayer was just finishing. Worshippers were making their way towards to mosque in masse.

A friendly man stopped and pointed out that it was a less than ideal time to visit the mosque. He was disarming with a quick joke and made a political quip that had us both laughing. It goes to show that political ideas and rhetoric originating at home in the USA makes its way across the globe, for better and for worse.

He said his family rug store was just around the corner, right by our hostel unbeknownst to him, so we felt comfortable following him. He pointed out various sites and buildings, proud of his city. Although this exact scenario could lead to something sketchy, Jamie and I were aware alert and intuitive about him. That doesn’t always prevent scams, but so far for us it has worked.

Fresh fruit for sale in lively Galata.

He led us to exactly what he said he would, although I’m not sure it was actually his family in the shop. People here are quick to call someone family and use the terms brother or sister, aunt or uncle rather loosely.

We were ushered upstairs and pumped full of teas of all kinds while the rug store salesman gave us his presentation. We liked the flair and spectacle of the myriad colorful rugs being displayed out before us. He went over the quality of the stitching, the techniques used to make the borders and the time it all takes to hand sew an entire floor rug.

Although impressed, we were not about to spend hundreds on a rug we couldn’t even take home, and we politely told them so. Taking budgetary cues from us to lower the price he presented us with some more affordable yet still beautiful rugs. We were smitten. I did some mental calculations and figured I could throw out an old pair of jeans and a dress shirt that was starting to fade to make room in my luggage for the rug. Rugs now. Still we were honestly a bit hesitant. They offered us the second one for a fraction of the cost of the first, in typical bargaining fashion.

So in the end, after several rounds of tea and sweet delights we walked out with two magnificent Turkish rugs. How I fit them in our overstuffed suitcases is still a mystery to me, but they made it home intact! Speaking with a second rug dealer later that day confirmed we got a good deal. The second dealer shook his head and honestly told us he couldn’t compete with the price we paid earlier.

Even though we didn’t purchase from Rug Dealer #2 we were able to have a nice conversation about San Diego. He had lived in Balboa Island and visited Venice Beach in LA back when he was younger. His fond memories of San Diego and his familiarity of places we know from back home made an unexpected connection for us halfway across the globe. Sometimes you really can find the most familiar things in the most far-away places.

After our rug orientation detour we needed to see the mosques we had originally set out to lay eyes on. The Blue Mosque itself was underwhelming due to construction in the interior. We knew that the majority of the mosque was blocked off but all we could see was a single square of the ceiling. Everything else was draped in plastic construction wrap.

Hagia Sofia as seen from the always lively tourist hub of Sultanahmet Square.

Hagia Sofia was a stunning contrast. The massive dome interior was awe-inspiring. The history of this legendary building is just as incredible as its outward appearance. Constructed in the 500’s CE this religious building is 1,500 years old. It has changed hands across several empires, changing its religious affiliation throughout the ages as well.

The inside of the Hagia Sofia is incomprehensibly large. The scale on which the domes were constructed would be an engineering feat even today, never mind a millennium and half ago. You can trace the heritage of Istanbul through the architecture: the ancient Roman domes and stone, the Byzantine sprawl, the soaring Ottoman minarets, the Islamic imagery all reveal the storied past of this land.

This is one of the most impressive places we have ever seen. The fact that there are no statues or human imagery at all is fascinating. Because of the prohibition of portraying humans, Islamic art and architecture is often geometric focused. We sensed this uniqueness here as the rain washed over the ancient façade.

Under the Ottoman Empire Hagia Sofia was converted from church to mosque. When Turkey transitioned back to a secular state, Hagia Sofia followed. It became a museum in 1935. In a sign of the times the current government has re-opened it a functioning mosque, adding regular worship services in 2020. Both functions now exist simultaneously, worship and tourism.

All women must cover their head before entering any mosque. This conservative law is liberally applied in that Jamie’s rain jacket hood sufficed. Just like at the Vatican, the rules were not too strictly enforced if you acted in good faith.

After a full day of rug shopping, tea tasting and mosque hopping we needed something to soothe and calm us. On a whim we ordered salep, a kind of milky tea. Turkey is known for their teas and we were having so much fun exploring all the flavors. This drink is made from the roots of orchid plants native to the region. Although delicious, I found out afterwards the rise in consumption is making the plant endangered.

Breakfast the next morning was just what I was hoping for. We wandered around, rejecting reviews and star ratings for our own senses. We saw an adorable place, smelled the delicious aromas and decided to stay and eat. I was served a wonderful dish of eggs, onions, spices and tomatoes called menemen. The eggs were silky smooth and perfectly mixed with seasonings and tomatoes.

After a full breakfast we headed to the Grand Bazaar. Known as the world’s largest mall by locals it supposedly contains thousands of individual shops. It was in fact massive but it was not to our taste. The stores were mostly mall kiosk type shops sprinkled with gold jewelers and Turkish delight stores. Interestingly we did see locals lined up around the corner exchanging the Turkish Lira for a more stable currency. The exchange rate had shifted dramatically overnight, not in Turkey’s favor.

Compared to the overwhelming sites, sounds and crowds of the Grand Bazaar we thoroughly enjoyed the Egyptian Spice Market. Teas, spices and flavors of all kinds were piled high in mounds. Enticing colors and exotic flavors excited our palates.

I’ve ever seen so many tea flavors in my life. I’ve also never seen tea in powder form, I think I’ll stick to leaves for myself but the experience was still fascinating. An unknown fact about Turkey is that Turks lead the world in tea consumption. More than Brits even! Everywhere you go you will be served tea. At breakfast, lunch, dinner, even while shopping.

Shop keepers serve tea here with no obligation to buy anything. It is obviously used as an icebreaker to make you feel more comfortable and to strike up a conversation focused on their store, but simply sitting with a shop keeper while having a cup of tea then choosing to leave without buying anything is absolutely fine. It’s a smart way to keep you in the store longer in hopes something will catch your eye, it truly is not meant to be a scam or pressure situation. Some will readily hand out pieces of Turkish delight as well, take some if you want just don’t abuse the system!

I would love to explore Galata more, maybe next time…

After the day out exploring and having kebabs for lunch Jamie headed back to the hostel to research and rest while I headed over to the Istanbul Archaeology Museum complex. The grounds were pretty, it included an outdoor statue exhibit as well as entry to three connecting museums. I am stunned by early Middle Eastern history. The rise of cities, of farming, of organized society as we know it today is all reflected in the artifacts present here.

The most impressive piece is the Alexander Sarcophagi. Carved in exquisite detail it does not contain the body of Alexander the Great but does portray him in a stunning relief. I’ve never seen a better example of classical stonework.

After reconnecting with Jamie we walked back over to a dinner spot that caught our eye. It featured an older lady making bread by hand as well as a lavish décor catered to the idea of Ottoman elegance. We sat on a throne chair, each guest was given a unique table but ours was unmistakably the best! Although the food and tea were average it was a fun experience none-the-less.

Waking the next morning we were determined to beat the crowds to Topkapi Palace, the royal residence of the wealthy Ottoman Sultans. Built to a human scale, it immediately feels different than European palaces and royal complexes. Topkapi is walkable and accessible, if allowed inside that is. The highest room is but two stories up. It expands horizontally not vertically. The geometry and interlocking courtyards present a unique take on the Mediterranean style palace. We were inspired to seek out more unique styles and cultures.

Marvel at the marble, Topkapi Palace makes perfect use of geometry and form.

The best food of our stay in Istanbul was to be found across the straits in the neighborhood of Galata. When, yes when, we revisit Istanbul Jamie and I would both like to stay here.

Galata seems more trendy and hip than Sultanhamet. The food was undoubtedly better. From our unreal village breakfast to the buffet style tiny hole in the wall, these were the best grape leaves, cheese and dishes we had in Istanbul. There seemed to be more of a mix of locals and tourists making their way up and down the steep hills. In a sense this neighborhood reminded me of Lisbon or San Francisco, located on hills with plenty of up and coming restaurants and influencers.

Galata Tower is the main attraction here. It peaks above the skyline allowing those who climb (or take the elevator up) a fantastic view of one of the world’s largest cities sitting across two continents. The tower contained a different history exhibit on each floor, some more informative and factual then others.

Serendipitously enough, we were in Turkey for Thanksgiving. Although we didn’t eat any turkey itself we did find a true Village Breakfast spread.

Sitting down to our Turkish feast we were awed and overwhelmed with plate after plate of choices. Cheese, dips, spreads, breads, tomatoes, tea, it all overflowed across the table to our delight. It was so spectacular and such a visual and sensory overload, I didn’t even miss Thanksgiving food.

Overwhelmed by Turkish “Thanksgiving” food, in the best way possible!

After wandering the neighborhood a bit we found ourselves in a trendy tea spot. I ordered sage tea while Jamie opted for rose. Each was unique and fantastic in its own way. Turkey really is for tea lovers.

Ominously we did see riot police in heavy gear assembling for anticipated civil unrest that night. Nothing manifested in Galata that evening. We were present, however, yet un-impacted by a woman’s protest as well as an economic protest and bank run. We should appreciate the freedom to gather and express dissent openly here in the US and across most of Europe.

That night after returning home from Galata we decided to walk down to the sea and go over everything we were thankful for so far on this trip. Our health, being together, choosing what we wanted to do each day. We both felt so blessed. So blessed to able to take this trip. Blessed to be with each other, each of us taking a massive leap of faith to make this trip happen. Blessed to be here now, taking it all in.

Brief History of Istanbul

The “Alexander” Sarcophagi, depicting Alexander the Great, not containing him…

I strongly considered breaking this post into two separate ones like I did Rome. I simply have so much to say. Istanbul is one of the few cities that I feel have the depth of history and cultural influence that Rome has.

Istanbul, then known as Constantinople, was the center of the Western half of the world, not just Western culture, for something like 800 years.

Istanbul has changed personalities several times over the millenniums. Once a minor Greek city state called Byzantium, it was absorbed into the Roman empire and given great prominence due to its location controlling access to the Black Sea. Byzantium functioned as a gateway between the Middle East, the Back Sea and the Mediterranean, a crossroads of cultures and a fortress against invaders.

Renamed after the Roman Emperor Constantine, the newly christened Constantinople became the eastern capitol of the Roman empire. Constantinople counterbalanced Rome, the Eastern and Western halves. Think Los Angeles and New York, the leading global cities of each respective region. Thriving metropolises that control much of the global trade, wealth and culture. Loved and hated in equal parts.

Across ancient Constantinople massive Roman buildings were constructed. A Hippodrome for horse and chariot races, the incredibly impressive Hagia Sofia cathedral, and an Egyptian obelisk were all constructed (or brought) to Constantinople. These ancient monuments still mark out the heart of modern Istanbul, Hagia Sofia and the Obelisk are still visible whereas the horse racing track now forms the main oval-shaped public space of touristy Sultanahmet Square.

When the Roman Empire became too large to manage and was split in half, Constantinople became the center of the Eastern empire. This split between east and west, Rome and Constantinople, is still reflected today in the separate churches, languages and cultures of Eastern and Western Europe.

The Eastern Roman Empire, or Byzantine Empire as it is called, survived in some form for another 1,000 years after Rome. Constantinople was the empire’s cultural and political center. The tenuous land connection from India and China into Europe flowed through these streets and filled the market places with spices, porcelain, pepper and silk.

Looking across the straits from Galata Tower, that’s Asia on the top left

Constantinople was the trade hub that connected East to West, South to North. You could find Scandinavian Vikings guarding the Byzantine Emperor, Arabian merchants bringing spices from East Africa, Greeks who followed Christianity and called themselves Romans and prolific nomads from as far away as Mongolia, all gathered here.

The vast wealth attracted rivals, enemies and internal coups. As the Byzantine Empire slowly shrank over time, defending Constantinople became the main priority. Walls of an incredible scale were built. Taking advantage of the natural location and geographic protection enhanced by fortifications, the city was virtually impregnable to outside invaders.

The waning days of the medieval height of the city were marked by an invasion, not from the East as always feared, but from the West.

Western Europeans motivated by religious rhetoric and dreams of golden riches occupied and toppled the city. In a bizarre series of events Crusading knights, initially called to protect Jerusalem from Turkish armies, ended up destroying and conquering Constantinople, a fellow Christian city.

A dispute over payment and a lack of promised funds turned the Catholic Crusaders against the Catholic Byzantines. This forever marked an unrecoverable split in the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches. Sometimes the love of money trumps religious affiliation in the worst way.

Never the same after this betrayal and conquest, Constantinople was weakened and later surrounded and besieged by Ottoman Turks. The Turks brought with them a new more powerful cannon that punched holes in the once formidable medieval walls. Using ingenious tactics such as walking ships over land to avoid Byzantine defenses, the Turks were able to conquer this once legendary city in 1453 CE.

The glory of the city survived the decay and conquest that marred the precious centuries. Even as a shell of its former self, Constantinople quickly rose again to function as the capitol city of another empire, the Ottomans.

This time the city was to be called Istanbul.

Put away your negative ideas of Istanbul. Wipe clean the fear and stigma so many of us wrongly associate with anything Islamic. Interior, Hagia Sofia

The Ottomans brought to Istanbul new sources of wealth and splendor, connecting it more deeply with Middle Eastern cultures, converting churches to mosques while constructing lavish yet human scale palaces. Another major change was the shuttering of the trade routes from East to West. No longer could exotic goods and basic spices readily come over land to Europe. A major source of wealth was drying up for European merchants, pushing them to search for a sea route to Asia. This ultimately may have opened up the Atlantic sea trade routes and ironically rendered Istanbul obsolete from its role as the global trade hub.

Just like the Byzantine Empire before them, the Ottomans found their grip on power slipping. After reaching a high water mark surrounding Vienna, the Ottomans were slowly pushed out of Europe. Unified European forces centered on Vienna were able to recapture Budapest, forming the Austro-Hungarian Empire. These two Empires, Ottoman and Astro-Hungarian, were to play out their rivalries across centuries, both at times competing with the Russian Empire for control and influence.

All three of these empires were based on unions between multiple cultures, languages and identities across massive geographic distances in a time of limited communication. As these connections became strained and tenuous over time, a new ideology we call Nationalism took precedence over loyalty to Empire. Each culture within these Empires sought to govern themselves rather than be a part of a massive conglomerate of territories with royal overlords. These tectonic plates of ideas erupted into the First World War.

From the dust of the Ottoman empire that settled after the earthquake of World War 1, Turkey emerged as a smaller but unified nation state that we know today. The founding father, Ataturk, set Turkey on a path to become a non religious nation and follow a course that aimed towards Europe and modernity. While some nations such as Iran, Iraq and Syria have eventually been turned towards extremist and religious governments Turkey remained officially secular, and even joined NATO.

Recently Turkey has been taking a political turn for the worse. The rise in power of one-man-rule and the corruption and intimidation that follows are apparent. Erdogan is an emerging dictator who wants to harness the power and fear of Islamic movements to push Turkey away from the West. He stands against much of what Turkey was founded on and what has made it a stable and modern nation.

Loving the geometry of Istanbul’s architecture.

In the End…

I took a fascinating Political Science course at SDSU from a professor who was politically exiled from Turkey and forbidden to return to his home. He has been warning against the rising extremism and hypocrisy of the Erdogan government for years. His passion for his home, the beauty it has and the culture it offers, always inspired me yet saddened me. He should be allowed to live, speak and criticize his government in his own home yet he is forced to leave for speaking the truth.

We need to take notice around us and guard against the rise of cult of personality, of one man rule, and of rising national extremism.

Ironically the current war between Russia and Ukraine has put Turkey firmly back into the Western camp, as least militarily. Turkey and Russia have a long history of clashing over control of the Black Sea. Russia’s only access to the Mediterranean is controlled by Turkey, who have now cut them off completely.

The Turkish government has stood hand in hand with the EU and the US in opposing the Russian invasion. Turkey is sending weapons to Ukraine just like the EU and US are. Politically Erdogan may be moving away from the West but militarily Turkey and the US are tightly linked. In fact if Russia were to attack Turkey the US is obligated to join the war on Turkey’s side.

I hope to see Turkey take a path away from dictatorship and one man rule. Although their history of military rule is frightening as well, there is a path for Turkey. They have a tumultuous history of flipping between tentative democracy and “benign” military dictatorship but beneath all the bullshit is a population that offers some of the most rich, complex and amazing cultural experiences to be had. The people here are what matters, their voices need to be heard both globally and locally in Turkish politics.

The sun sets and the Istanbul sky lights up, security camera ominously placed.

While experiences may vary, we felt no discomfort or anything weird from anyone. It felt incredibly safe for Jamie to go out without a head covering. Many women went without one, wearing a burqa is apparently uncommon in the city. Even entering the mosques which require women to cover their heads, all Jamie had to do was pull her rain jacket hood up.

Of course major cities are generally more tolerant than rural places, Istanbul felt right at home among the cities we saw across the rest of our travels. In fact the plumbing and sanitation was much better than anything we saw in Greece.

Overall there was a lot of hesitation and some reticence and whispers of “be careful” when I told people I wanted to see Istanbul. I absolutely stand by my assertion that it is currently unwarranted. Istanbul is far removed from the Syrian border and there are no threats to tourists who wish to see the rich Turkish culture here.

That being said, this all may change in the near future. Turkey is in danger of slipping away from its safe spot as a tourist destination. I do not like the authoritarian path the government is taking. The rise of Islamic extremism is deeply concerning. The economic situation is volatile at best, in fact the currency dropped overnight when we were there forcing a run on banks. We saw Turks stand in line for hours to change out their currency for something more stable. Hourly the conversion rate changed, mostly to Jamie’s and my favor.

For all the headlines and political flaws, Turkey was fantastic to us. Nowhere were people more welcoming, more friendly and more open. Europeans have a stereotype for being closed off and quiet. In that regard Turks and Americans are so much more alike than we realize! Strangers will chat you up and show you a great place to eat or explore. They are proud to show off their home and brag to a stranger, just like Americans.

Istanbul is but a slight taste of things to come. The new flavors we’ve experienced will be incorporated and experimented with to produce an even more unique experience next time we travel abroad.

I am reminded that there is so much to see, taste and try. We must always be discovering, always exploring.

There are some places in the world that simply must be gazed upon.

Istanbul is one.

See you all next time, in Munich!


Jamie & Austin

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