Where East meets West! Ahh, the ole cliche! But nonetheless this city does have a fascinating history of fusing Islamic ideologies and western values. I'd been wanting to visit it for some time now. Just seeing some photos of Istanbul's majestic mosques alone should be enough to draw anyone in. But it's history, being the former seat of the Byzantine empire and the Ottoman empire, certainly adds to it's appeal. Plus it's location is extremely unique, at the confluence of two rivers, meeting in the sea of Marmara, which has always made it very tricky to conquer.
Right off the bat I had gotten myself into a bit of quandary as I landed at a different airport than I thought I was landing in. I had foolishly assumed that Istanbul only had one international airport! I was walking around outside the airport hopelessly looking for the metro, the M1, to get me into Istanbul when someone informed me that informed to M1 is the line that goes to the Ataturk airport. "This isn't Ataturk?!" I asked. Nope, it was Sabina Gokcen airport. Ohhhh.
Ok, no big deal, just a different airport! One on the complete opposite side of Istanbul, and wayyy out there. I was able to hop on a bus that was supposed to take me somewhere near the city. But this was not looking promising, google maps (thankfully I bought a SIM card at the airport) was telling me that bus connections would take 2 hours to get to the city center! How big is this goddamn city?! And why is this airport so horribly connected? No metro, no direct bus, wtf! After an hour on this slow moving local bus I bailed to try and take the metro lines, but I didn’t have the card you need and I couldn’t read the directions in Turkish to buy one. Ok, I give up. Taxi time!
After a while in the taxi we finally crossed over the massive bridge going over the Bosphorous, which connects the ‘Asian side’ of the city to the ‘European side’. Buildings and houses were smashed into the hills as far as the eye could see, a population of 15 million in total. You really got a feel for how massive and spread out the city is. The area I was staying in consisted of a maze of walking streets so the taxi had to drop me off a few blocks away. It was $12 for a solid 45 minutes of driving, pretty reasonable! I made it to Istiklal Avenue, which is the main shopping and pedestrian street, and boy was it a popular place to be. The most striking thing to me was diversity in the dress, especially for the females. Women in full on burqas walked alongside women wearing high heels, skirts, and bare midrifts. It was an interesting juxtaposition! Turkey is 99% Muslim, but attitudes about religion vary greatly.
I found the side street up to my hotel, which was filled with outdoor cafes and Turks drinking coffee and tea and smoking shisha. I liked this place already. I was pretty famished at this point so I found my way into one of restaurants nearby. I ordered some sort of meatball + eggplant kebab and a salad. I was expecting some sort of small bowl of salad, but what I got instead was a massive plate that could have filled me up all by itself. Then the kebab came out, but it wasn’t just a kebab, it was a whole plate of shredded lettuce, carrots, roasted tomatoes, peppers, pilaf, and bread. The salad order was not necessary. Well looks like I wouldn’t be going hungry in Turkey. The whole thing was $6. I wouldn’t be going broke in Turkey either!
That night I made it down to waterfront to take some photos. The most prominent mosque from my vantage point was the Suleyman mosque. Suleyman (the magnificent) was the Ottoman empire's longest running ruler and perhaps the most famous. He doubled the size of the empire in the mid 1500's to include most of north Africa and the Balkans, as well reforming the judiciary and building a lot of buildings.
The next day was super jam packed touristy day! I rented a bike so I could get around to as many attractions as possible. Note: Istanbul is set up or horribly for bicycles! First up was the Sultan Ahmed mosque (blue mosque) and the Hagia Sophia Museum, which are right across from each other. The Hagia Sophia was used as a church for about 900 years, then as a mosque for 500 years, and then turned into a museum in 1935 by Turkey's very secular ruler, Ataturk.
Next up: Istanbul's eccentric Balat neighborhood.