Location: Istanbul, Turkey
The first time I went to Istanbul I was 22 years old and it was my first trip through Europe. I had joined one of those ‘party’ tours at the behest of two of my friends whom I had met up with along the way, and the two things that still stand out in my memory today from that trip are how much I hate traveling on organized tours, and my very first time in Istanbul.
Istanbul is a real melting pot of cultures and traditions. On one had you have the traditional Turks who faithfully answer the daily calls to prayer, and dress in the traditional garments as they go about their daily business, then you have the secular Turks who are very western in their fashion and behaviors. The city itself is a mix of histories spanning the gauntlet from Roman, Byzantium and Ottoman influences. In addition to this, as the gateway to the West from Asia’s East, this was where the Silk Road traders were heading; to the bazaars of what was then known as Constantinople or the ‘Eastern Rome’.
For a 22 year old history nerd already high on my first travel experience abroad, Istanbul was nothing short of magical. Everywhere I looked, everything I experienced, and all the exotic smells and sounds left me feeling like I was walking in a dream. Now as a slightly jaded 31 year old, returning to the place that I had visited so many times in my dreams since, Istanbul had lost none of it’s magic for me. The people were the same, the sights just as grand and exotic and the food… ah the food… better than I remembered. Maybe I was high on too much Turkish coffee and sweet baklava, but found myself lost in this magical place once again.
If you have the opportunity to go to Istanbul, aim to spend at least three full days to see the main sights and fill your belly with all the baklava and turkish delight you can! A traditional Turkish bath, or Hamam, is definitely an interesting experience; you steam yourself on a marble slab and then get washed and scrubbed down by an attendant, and your guaranteed to feel like a baby afterwards. Then head to the bazaars, mosques, museums and cruise down the Bosphorus River because there is so much to this city that you’ll want to come back again, just as I did.
And a little tip, if you find the lines for the Blue mosque too long or you would like a more intimate mosque experience, I recommend a visit to the Rustem Pasa Mosque, located a short walk from the Egyptian (Spice) Market. It’s free to enter, always quiet, not so touristy and just as beautiful as the Blue Mosque – only on a smaller and more intimate scale.
First photograph by Siu On Auyeung, all others by Jelena Stipanicev.