Back in 2003, I worked as a stock broker. I enjoyed the interaction with customers, but didn’t really like the pushy sales aspect of it. I would sometimes have long and wandering conversations with my potential clients – one of them, a New Yorker named Joel stopped me during a pitch for Krispy Kreme donuts one day and said out of the blue “What the hell are you doing working as a stockbroker? You need to quit that job, move to Turkey and open a guest house on the shores of the Bosphorus!” I should have listened to him, but instead slogged through stock broking for a while more, wrote some books, worked as a commercial fisherman, and eventually became a tour guide in Hawaii – before finally ending up on the shores of the Bosphorus nearly a decade later…now in 2019, I look back at the time I was in Turkey (from 2010-2012) as one of the most deeply fulfilling periods in my life – largely because of my connection with the Bosphorus…I have no idea how he knew – but Joel was right. I wrote the following while I was there.
It’s impossible not to love Istanbul. This magnificent city of 17 million people, more than 5000 years of history, and more than a little bit of shopping, sight seeing, and culinary adventuring.
Istanbul is divided into two major parts…Europe and Asia. In fact, Istanbul (that’s Constantinople) is made up of the oriental, the occidental, and everything in between.
Those who come here and have the money, like to stay at the 5 star Ciragan Palace Kempinski Hotel which sits alongside the Bosphorus and boasts gardens, shops, and ultra fine dining.The high school next door used to be a harem. There is a helipad so you can land your helicopter. The master suite is just 15,000 Euros per night (About $22,500 at current exchange rates)Those who don’t have the money can find plenty of other options like the Four Seasons which used to be a famous jail. Or maybe you want to search Istanbul hostels.
In terms of transportation, the tram (metro) is by far the easiest and most hassle free, but in Istanbul, the taxis aren’t too expensive, they just take longer to get anywhere because of the traffic. As for buses, too crowded for me, but sometimes necessary. It’s that or driving and frankly…do you want to drive in a city of 17 million? No freaking way.
Turks are incredibly nationalistic and you see the beautiful red flags and the images of the modern day founder of Turkey Mustapha Kemal Ataturk everywhere -as you should. Ataturk created a state that could have easily become fascist but instead, he turned it into a Republic and handed over the reins of power. A rare and amazing hero.
Still, it’s not all wonderful. Plenty of cabbies will charge unwitting foreigners Euro fares and give change in lira. There are rip offs in rug merchant shops, restaurants, and souvenir shop. Just the other day, a longtime Istanbulu immigrant friend and I sat down for lunch without asking the prices first. Complacency is not your friend. The cost was a staggering 47 lira…about three times what we normally would pay. The moral, Pay Attention or Pay Too Much.
Here’s an example: you give the cabbie 50 Lira. He drops it when you aren’t paying attention and then tells you that you only gave him 5 lira and he demands the rest of the payment. Since the notes are the same color and you are new to Turkish money, you apologise for the mistake and give him a 100% bonus. Lame, but it happens.
One of the things I love about Istanbul is that it is a friendly city to not only western tourists but also to eastern and Muslim tourists. In this city you see fully veiled Saudi women and their families eating next to distastefully clad housewives from Orange County and their families. It’s equal opportunity for East and West. Same goes for when you go to the hamams, the bazaars, or into the mosques…of course, in the mosques, hopefully everyone is covered appropriately.
Istanbul is a city filled with bars, restaurants, shops and ancient historical sites. From museums to the nightlife in Taksim to Friday prayers to just wandering around Beyoglu and finding Ottoman Palaces that are falling down and held up by nothing but vines right next to brand new apartment buildings. Compare and contrast and no wonder so many American’s ask why the city is so rundown….it’s not rundown, it’s 5000 years old. The decrepit next to the sparkling new is something we don’t see in the segregated west. In Istanbul the poor neighborhood might have rich people and the rich neighborhood will certainly have poor people. No economic segregation going on here. It’s real. Modernity becomes part of history eventually…and in Istanbul you can see what was once modern but now is ancient.
And then there is the food. Far from being just kebabs and chorba (soup) there is a wide and varied cuisine in Istanbul from pide and pizza to homemade ravioli, balik ekmek (fish sandwiches) and then there is the palace food. Palace food tends to be the over the top stuff the Ottoman Sultans enjoyed. Things like quail inside duck inside goose inside something even bigger. The Ottoman version of Turduken.
If you prefer you can find Indian, Chinese, and even Mexican food. I have to say though, the tacos aren’t as satisfying and the sushi, well…it’s expensive and not quite right. Still, it is here. And then there is the view although I find this equation to be fairly good: the better the view the worse the food up to about 40 lira. After 40 lira the food begins to taste good again. So, want a good view…make sure you don’t scrimp or the taste will ruin the view for you.
And the view is great whether you are looking at the famous Blue Mosque, the amazing wonder of the world the Aya Sofya or even the tree lined and ancient Constantinople Hippodrome. Mosques, Churches, Greek and Roman Ruins, and plenty of museums showing everything from ancient Lydian to modern Istanbulu art. The view in Istanbul is like no other.
Even the over the top Topkapi Palace which sits like a jewel on the crown of the Sultanahmet area is now available for you to sip tea in or have your breakfast next to. It wasn’t always this way since this was the political and cultural center of the Ottoman Empire when it was the strong man of the world, rather than the sick man of Europe.
Like all of Istanbul there are more than a few fat cats, plenty of wild (though tagged) dogs, and no shortage of grassy places to enjoy a picnic. Plus you can see the staff of Moses and the sword of Mohammad among other religious relics. No one seems willing to tell me if they’ve tried throwing the staff down and making it into a snake though. if you tend towards the more worldly treasures you might enjoy seeing the Topkapi Dagger or the Spoonmakers Diamond (5th largest in the world). One local friend told me that the Prophet Abraham’s missing saucepan is also in the museum…now how in the world did that happen?
Still, Topkapi is for Amateurs, the Pros head to Dolmabahce Palace over on the other side of the Golden Horn.
The Versailles of Istanbul is worthy of the name and whereas you don’t get to see all of Topkapi, Dolmabahce is thrown in front of you like a white slave before the potential Ottoman buyers looking to diversify their harems. Beautiful, dangerous, and well…expensive. All the yellow metal you see there is real gold.
Go out at night in Istanbul and you will find that the gold changes hands quickly and easily as the frantic hustle and dance of one of the world’s largest cities never stops. From the junk buyers to the carpet sellers, everyone is still working at night and those who aren’t are taking vanity to extremes as they show what modern, hip, young, rich Istanbul is all about. Watch a Turkish soap opera and you might think things are exaggerated. They aren’t.
As for food, you can spend little at the food stalls in Mehene, Nevisade Sokak and Kumkapi. Or you can spend as much as a corrupt Vizier somewhere else. And if you want to spend, there isn’t a better place to do it than in the clubs. Step into a club and the price of drinks goes 3 to 20 times higher than elsewhere but that’s all about the status of being there. You are there drinking, so obviously you have plenty. This is where you go if you want to impress the other sex and there is one thing that impresses Turkish women more than anything else…. When I was teaching, I would ask my students what was more important Love or Money…out of hundreds of Turkish students only two girls ever said love. Money is where it’s at and if you aren’t flashing it, you’re missing out on the ‘action’ in Istanbul.
But hopefully, you won’t miss out on experiencing real life here. The life on the streets, drinking tea, riding the ferry with commuters, playing backgammon on the streets, or just walking around the next corner to see something that is unexpectedly beautiful.
There is one more area where you will need your wallet…shopping. Istanbul is filled with shopping and while the prices can be very reasonable, you can also spend as much as you want. Prices will vary by as much as 1000% from shop to shop. Seriously. Where is the shopping in Istanbul? …everywhere. Literally.
But there is no place to shop like the Grand Bazaar (even if the prices are two to three times higher there for most things) With more than 4,000 shops spread in some 60 streets along with a post office, a bank and a mosque of its own with even a health centre within the Grand Bazaar. And I might add, this is all covered. It’s the first indoor shopping mall and it is filled with carpets, ceramics, antiques, jewellery, gold and well…everything else.
Pay a visit to Café Bedestan. It’s worth the trouble and finding it will be your adventure. Just go in the Grand Bazaar and start asking.
Also everywhere is the ambiance, the feeling and a part of that is the smells. From the spice market to the smell of coal being used to heat samovars to the smell of cigarettes wafting out of a chai shop. It’s all a part of this incredible place.
And as we are talking about tobacco, it is a good idea to mention the nargile (hookah) cafes. Sheesha is usually just tobacco with some molasses and maybe a bit of apple. It’s smoked without contact to the fire and filtered through water. Nope, it’s not dope. Used to be it was opium or weed, but now…sorry hippies, just tobacco. Still, it can be fun, relaxing, and more than a few people claim it gives them a buzz.
The real buzz though is just wandering around the streets of Istanbul and seeing all the wonders that exist here…