Taksim greets us with empty arms. Slow drizzle on a Tuesday night in Istanbul is falling on the pavement as we walk past the bright shops, and only a few locals hurry somewhere through the fresh dark air.
Did the ongoing war in Syria finally manage to scare everyone away? It must be because of the recent bombings near Sultanahmet, those that happened shortly after my first visit to the Queen of cities.
As for us, we had various reasons to come back to Istanbul and we felt just as, if not more comfortable than in November. However, now in the middle of summer, I can´t help but think of the empty market, guarded by men in uniforms and full of heaps of souvenirs nobody is buying.
And what I feel is sadness. That is why I am writing this text now, when it is unlikely for tourists to book cheap flight tickets (one of the airline companies was even offering a free ticket with every ticket bought) to Istanbul. Counterintuitive as it might seem, I hope the kind, good Turkish and Syrian people I got to know during my visits, the generous hosts and friends, will not suffer because of the cracking economy based on tourism. I can imagine it is pointless, but still:
Let me share a couple of thoughts and advises for a first timer in Istanbul.
I haven´t taken a taxi one single time in Istanbul. The 27 millions of inhabitants of this city get around smoothly thanks to a perfectly organized public transport system. Metro, buses, tramway, ferry and cablecars cater to locals as to tourists; to save up and avoid chaos and stress, get a so called Istanbulcard and charge it some money in advance; one ride costs around 3 – 4 turkish lira, depending on which bus you wish to take. You can buy it in one of the stands near every station and charge it in a yellow machine.
Tip: take the ferry – multiple times. There are several stations around the city coast and you will get to enjoy the bluest mediterranean blue while you drink the turkish tea on the deck, sun hitting your face, white seagulls hunting for fish above your head.
Go from the station near the Sultanahmet mosque to Harem, then take to the left and walk a bit to get closer to the Maidens tower. It is a building on a tiny island close to the coast and right in front of it, you can sit down on cushioned seats, drink cay (tea) and watch the sunset while the birds fly around. In November, the sun falls behind the mosques of the city, in may, it sets almost behind the Maidens tower. The colors are different every time, but I promise you will splurge half of your camera´s battery just for this occasion.
Ancient merchant´s hotel
If you have a local friend, investigate a bit. There is an old half abandoned hotel in the zone of the ancient Grand Bazaar; they built it when the market was new, to host all of the merchants coming from all corners of the world and today it is a home to a couple of shops. Occasionally someone uses the roof to turn a movie, you could have seen it in the recent James Bond. It is a little tricky to get there so you will need a locals help. (Don´t forget to bring some coins for the guard.) Go there at dusk when the call to prayer covers the city, flowing from the tall white minars of the “mescits“. Sit at the round rooftops and feel, watch, listen, smell.
The turkish word for a mosque is mescit (read masjid), there are many of them and they all have similar architecture. I have visited the famous Blue mosque where you can enter for free and enjoy the floral motives painted on the roof and walls. In the vicinity, there is another one, Aya Sofia, where they ask you to pay 50 liras and I didn´t enter, because I´m too cheap – it´s a lot for me and I bought a ton of pistachios, almonds and baklava for that money instead. At the same time, tourist traps are turning me off. You can decide for yourself and enter or not, depending on your mood. I am sure the insides are amazing. Sultanahmet which is just next door is also beautiful.
Besiktas Mosque near the university
Walk along the coast on the European side. You will get to a big street with walls on both sides, where you will see old beautifully adorned gates. When you get to the end of the street you will see a mosque right above the sea. You can take a ferry nearby if you don´t want to walk back, but do eat a filled potato before leaving.
Suleymani is another mosque worth the walk and you will get there through the narrow cobblestone streets above the bazaar. The view from up there is gorgeous but if you have a sensitive skin, be sure to wear sunscreen as the sea and the white walls reflect a shitload of UV rays right into your face and eyes.
Before setting on the journey to visit all of the mosques in the neighborhood, look into the mirror and check if you wear appropriate clothes. You need a scarf to cover your hair, long pants that don´t show your ass too much or loose skirt under your knees – and forget about the cleavage. No sexy pics from the mosque, please. You will also be asked to take off your shoes upon entering; all of the mosques have a space to keep your footwear while you admire the sacred spaces to your hearts content.
Obviously, if you don´t have the appropriate clothes, you will be offered a basic set – be it a “coat” to put on your normal clothes or a cotton skirt with a shawl to cover your head. Before you start being bitchy about Muslim misogyny, remember all the churches who do the same and how silly you look on your last years photos with a big blue piece of cloth wrapped around your nude legs. I guess it is more comfortable to just dress the way that is expected – or stay outside.
Eat and buy
Go to the market and try the local sweets; if you don´t have a sweet tooth, eat the nuts – they are a lot fresher than their counterparts available to buy in Slovakia at least. Try the typical Turkish breakfast – it´s most important part is to share because it´s several plates! Eggs with onion and tomato, olives, cheese, bread and, obviously, tea. If you get the chance, find a local host – Turkish people are very hospitable and will make your stay all the better.
Surprisingly, the bazaar where everyone tells you to buy the best and cheapest products is a bit overpriced. You will get better prices in the surrounding streets but you can also buy stuff around Taksim – many times it is cheaper.
I wrote down how much I paid for these things:
- postcard – 1 – 2 tl
- magnet – 1 – 3 tl
- sunglasses – 10 – 50 tl
- scarfs – 5 – 50 tl
- ceramics – 5 – 20 tl
- pistachios – 40 tl /kg
- almonds – 42 tl /kg
- dry fruit – 20 tl /kg
Prices change, obviously, but I hope this is a little helpful to get an idea.
Where to stay
When I visited for the first time, we didn´t manage to find a couchsurfer who would be free to host us. Even to find an AirBnb was difficult. However, in May we were easily able to find an (amazing) host on Couchsurfing even though we were three people. I think it is due to the drop in tourism the city is experiencing at the moment.
I highly suggest you to find a local host – the people here are very welcoming and love to share food, tips and time with their guests.
Should you travel to Istanbul at the moment? (2016)
I think I will visit once more before this year is over. I love the relaxed feeling and the mix of different cultures and peoples in the city and I am not much worried about getting killed there – it is more likely I will get hit by a car but I still ride my bicycle on the road, don´t I?
You need to decide for yourself whether you can relax and feel comfortable even though you are constantly massaged by gruesome news and worried friends and familiars.
I have spent more than a year living in Bogotá, Colombia which is notorious for its crime rates but I never got into trouble – and rest assured I have felt a lot safer in Istanbul all the way. I wouldn´t ever be so careless about taking photos in popular neighborhoods in Bogota as I was in Istanbul where I wandered around as I pleased. Check this website for a crime statistics comparison – maybe it will make you feel better about your upcoming trip to Turkey.
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