East meets West: My unexpected journey to Istanbul
In the Fall of 2012, I was contacted by my cousin who had been expressing interest in traveling. He told me of a great deal going on with Turkish Airlines for a round trip flight for $530 to Istanbul, Turkey. He asked if I wanted to go, and I promptly responded yes. It's not often that I make a spontaneous trip to the outskirts of the Middle East with just a little more than a month to prepare. This was one of those times, I guess!
Some time and many moons have passed since I was in Turkey, but I have finally gotten around to catching up on my travel blog, and at the time of this trip, the idea to do this website had not even existed yet. My memory and knowledge of locations visited may not be as great as some of the other locations I've been lately, but I'll do my best to recall everything, so bear with me!
Istanbul is known as being a gateway of the Eastern and Western civilizations. It is only city in the world that is on two different continents (Europe and Asia). The influence of Eastern and Western cultures are prevalent in this two continent city. This makes Istanbul to be quite a unique experience.
Since my visit in 2012, Turkey has been in the media repeatedly, much for negative reasons. Many people of this country have been affected by the ongoing terrorist attacks throughout the country. It is sad for me to see these kinds of things going on in a country from which I remember people being so friendly and helpful. It's also disappointing because this discourages tourism to this region of the world. Which means a lot of people will be missing out on what Istanbul and Turkey have to offer the world in culture, history, food, and more! It is unfortunate that so many people simply look over Turkey as a potential vacation destination. Before I wound up buying a plane ticket for this unexpected journey, I never would have considered Turkey as a travel destination, now I would recommend it to anyone looking for a cool interesting country to visit.
Despite what you see on media constantly, Turkey is a relatively safe country to visit aside from the recent terror attacks. And as I mentioned before, the Turkish people are very friendly and welcoming. A lot of people who live in Istanbul also speak English, so if you don't speak Turkish there is no reason to worry about a language barrier for the most part.
There are a lot of things I remember fondly of my time spent in Turkey. One of the biggest things I took away from this trip was that it was very influential in enabling my passion for world travel, and for photography. Essentially, this was the trip that sparked my growing interest in travel, photography, and learning about the various cultures of the world.
I could spend a lot of time talking about all of the aspects of Turkey I enjoyed, but I will try to sum it up to just a few. I will always remember Turkey for it's great culinary scene. So far this has been my most favorite foodie destination. I feel that most meals that I had in Turkey were delicious. On top of that, the variety and types of food seemed never ending. There is something for everyone in Istanbul.
I spent most of my time eating typical Turkish styles of foods, but I did try some American style foods that had a Turkish spin on it as well.
One of my favorite dining experiences is one that I vaguely remember oddly enough. It was in Goreme, and was called Turkish Night Show, click here to go directly to their website. For the price (about $50.00 if I remember right) we got to witness traditional Turkish dancing by performers, great appetizers, salads, a main course, and alcohol. It was a great deal, and a blast to watch the performers. For those who enjoy dancing, it gets interactive towards the end too! There are plenty of other spectators to get interactive with as well. I met people from all over the world that night who were there for the show. My memory of this night is very poor unfortunately, due to alcohol being included with this dinner night. It definitely would be a worthwhile activity to experience if you are in Goreme or in the Cappadocia region of Turkey.
Turkey was filled with great restaurants. There was so many great places to eat and foods to try. I couldn't even begin to sum up all of the places we went to eat. In Istanbul, I had made arrangements to stop at a restaurant where I was recommended to visit by a family friend who knew the owner. The restaurant was called The Pudding Shop, and was owned and managed by an older man named Adam. He was very friendly and he took time out of his day to speak with us and ask how his friend from the United States was. He then provided us both with a large platter of various Turkish foods to try out. The food there was delicious, and it is buffet style serving so it is a good place to get a quick bite to eat. Check it out, its right near the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia. I would later found out this restaurant was actually a world famous and that it has had some pretty high caliber patrons at one point or another.
Aside from all of the delicious dining options at restaurants, there is a ton of street food offerings through the many cobblestone streets, bar regions, and other places in Istanbul. An elderly Turkish fellow outside our hostel sold the most delicious ka-bobs I've ever had!
I don't know what it is about street food across the world, but it always seems to be some of the best food.
While in Turkey, you would be hard pressed to not stop at the plethora of pastry and bakery shops. The amount of desert foods in this country is amazing. I suppose they are famous for the deserts after all, hence the Turkish Delights. Somehow I had gone my entire life without trying Baklava until I traveled to Turkey. Clearly, something was wrong with me if I had gone 24 some years into life without trying Baklava.
To sum things up, the culinary experience I had in Turkey is what I compare other country's culinary style up against now. So far Turkey has been my favorite. Unfortunately, for other countries around the world, the bar has been set high for culinary mastery. Thanks a lot, Turkey!
One other little side note, turkey is very difficult to find in Turkey apparently. We spent Thanksgiving (USA Holiday) in Turkey, and attempted to find a traditional Thanksgiving meal of turkey in Turkey with no success. So don't go to Turkey in search of turkey, or ask the locals where you can find it.
If you are looking for a city that has a endless amount of sight seeing opportunities, look no further than Istanbul. Holy crap! We were in this city for several weeks, and every day we had something new to see or do. The opportunities seemed endless. The amount of historic buildings in this city is ridiculous. The most famous historic building title probably goes to the Sultan Ahmet Mosque (Blue Mosque) and Hagia Sophia.
The Blue Mosque to this day, is still used for prayer, while Hagia Sophia now serves out it's days as a museum. Both of these buildings have been around for a incredible amount of time. The Blue Mosque was completed in 1616, while the even older Hagia Sophia was completed in 1480 (nearly 1,500 years ago)! Any history buff would love the opportunity to explore and see these incredible buildings, and better yet, these are just two of many old buildings that can be found in Istanbul.
Despite these cultural and historical icons, there is much more to see. Famous places such as the Topkapi Palace, Basicila Cistern, Galata Tower, and more are all within short distances of each other in Istanbul.
There are even more places that I have not even mentioned above. Those are just some of the most popular destinations to visit in Istanbul.
If shopping is your thing, you should definitely give the world's 'oldest' mall a shot. By this, I am referring to Istanbul's world famous Grand Bazaar. The Grand Bazaar began its construction way back in 1455. The exact time of completion isn't exactly known. Be prepared when entering this maze of a bazaar. It is easy to get lost in this historic building. It has over 4,000 stores. It is extremely busy, and can be quite busy throughout the day. You may recognize the name as the building that Daniel Craig drove a dirt bike on top of and inside of in order to catch a villain in the movie Skyfall.
Beware for pick pockets when visiting here! While your here, utilize the opportunity to brush up on your bartering skills. A lot of places in Turkey allow for bartering of prices for goods and services. Haggling over prices is traditional in Turkish culture, and you should see it as a unique opportunity to experience the country, and maybe save some cash. Of course, that depends on your bartering skills!
After the Grand Bazaar you should check out the other famous shopping experience at the very busy Spice Bazaar of Istanbul. The Spice Bazaar another spot where you need to keep a eye out for pick pockets. The aroma from this location will be overpowering, yet likely leave you hungry and craving food.
I could go on for quite a while about all of the many different things to see and do in Istanbul, but I am going to choose to just highlight the above locations. There are a lot of cool museums to check out as well. You will likely find brochures to hundreds of different things in what ever hotel or hostel you may stay at.
Make sure to plan time for all of these awesome places. It takes a long time and a lot of energy to visit all of these destinations. They are all within decent walking distance though, for the most part. There is also a tram that runs through many of the historic areas and tourist sights. You should set aside some time to just sit on the many benches around Sultanahmet Park (the area that sits between Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque). It is a great people watching area, and it really makes you ponder about the grand scheme of life. It is truly remarkable how old these historic buildings are, and what they have witnessed through during their lifespan.
I almost forgot to mention to check out the Galata bridge and Taksim Square. The Galata bridge is a rather interesting experience. The top portion of the bridge serves as a typical bridge for vehicle traffic, while the bottom hosts a ton of different restaurants serving various Turkish foods, mostly seafood focused due to its location over the river. It definitely is a great location for fresh seafood as there are tons of people fishing off the bridge. When they catch something they bring their catches directly to restaurants just 10-15 feet away.
Be warned, prices here may be a bit higher, and its a bit of a tourist trap, but its a a cool experience to have if you have the money to spend. A lot of boat tours also take off from around this bridge. I would highly recommend doing one of these boat excursions. It gives you some great views of the city, typically from the Bosphorous Strait. It really puts into scale how large this city really is (nearly 15 million people, it is also the largest European city, and 7th largest city in the world)!
Taksim square is another tourist area known for its shops, hotels, restaurants, bars, and clubs. If you are looking to spend money or go out at night, look no further!
I found the Turkish people to very welcoming, hospitable, and friendly! Don't let the media and news contort you to thinking that the Turkish people are unfriendly, violent, and hate Westerners. Most people around the world in general have good intentions and love to learn about other people's cultures. Of course, there are always bad people to, but the vast majority of our experiences with people in Turkey were very positive. We received lots of helpful advice, recommendations, free food, and more.
I encourage anyone who has interest in this region to make the journey out here. I felt very welcome in Istanbul, and Turkey as a whole.
The night life
Wow, is the best way I can describe the Turkish nightlife, primarily speaking just in Istanbul. The majority of our night life adventures took place in Istanbul. There are a ton of places to get your drink on in Turkey. My favorite area was Taksim Square. There was a ton of restaurants, bars, and clubs to check out in Taksim Square!
There is something for everyone here. There are traditional Turkish style bars which have a bit different set up compared to a Western style bar or pub. They serve traditional Turkish drinks, play Turkish music, and provide Turkish entertainment. You will also find Western influenced style bars, pubs, and clubs here as well.
There is a lot of great live music going on here as well. So be prepared for a wonderful nightlife experience. If you want low key, you'll surely find it and if you desire bass pumping beats you'll find that too.
I spent many nights in the Taksim Square and Istiklal Street bar district. You won't run out of great options for your nightly entertainment. There are other bar regions in Istanbul, but these were the areas we primarily went to.
One last note about night life in Turkey, make it a priority to try the national drink called Raki. Raki is a clear liquor based from grape distillation. It is typically served as is, or with water mixed in which gives it a cloudy white appearance. I did not particularly enjoy this beverage which tasted like black licorice, but when in Turkey, do as the Turkish do!
Safety in Turkey
While I wish I never had to write this section in any articles, safety is of utmost importance. During my stay in Turkey in 2012, I never really felt uncomfortable or unsafe. It is definitely a different culture to get accustomed to, but it is welcoming. I would recommend traveling light and not drawing a lot of attention to yourself either way. Keep a look out for the pick pockets and scammers, which frequent pretty much any big city in the world. Avoid wandering out late at night on your own, instead opt to stay in groups. It is a easy city to get lost in if you are unfamiliar with your surroundings!
There is a lot of political activism in Istanbul, and throughout Turkey. It is an interesting thing to experience, but for safety aspects, I would recommend not participating or being around these for too long. These have been targets of terrorist attacks, and government officials also intervene on these. You'll probably enjoy your experience in Turkey better if you are not in a jail or a Turkish prison which was made famous from the 1978 movie, Midnight Express.
Remember that terrorist activity has picked up in Turkey in recent years, be extra careful. While it is not a every day occurrence, it is always a possibility unfortunately. If something doesn't feel right, or something seems suspicious, get out of your current situation, and notify authorities immediately.
Where to stay?
There is a TON of places to stay in Istanbul. There are countless amounts of hotels scattered all over throughout the city. Though, most of them will be found in the tourist regions. You will have no trouble finding budget friendly or lavish accommodations. Aside from hotels, there is a very large network of hostels in the tourist areas. I recommend staying in hostels, especially if you are younger. It is a great way to network and meet people, get travel recommendations, and find people to explore Istanbul with.
There is also a very large Couchsurfing network in Istanbul. This was where I had my first Couchsurfing experience too actually. I ended up going to a CS outing at one of the local bars. I met a lot of great people, and learned a lot about what CS is about. Learn more about CS and what it is about by clicking here.
Both hostels and Couchsurfing are great ways to reduce your spending while in Istanbul. It can get expensive, especially if you are living Istanbul to its fullest. For some further tips on budgeting and saving money while traveling, check out my article on traveling on a budget by clicking here.
There are many modes of transporation to get around Istanbul and Turkey. I did not rent a vehicle while I was here, which is typically my style of travel, but I felt I would have been very overwhelmed driving in Istanbul.
I stuck to walking, taxi's, buses, boats, and trams (trains basically). I would recommend taking a Taxi or shuttle bus when coming from or going to the airports. I would also make prior arrangements for these, as it can be a nightmare when you first leave the airport. There was a ton of various people seeking to pick up confused tourists and bring them to their destination further into the city. I'm sure its a area of frequent scamming and overpriced rides.
This vacation was probably where I developed my strong hate for riding buses. I had spent several overnight trips (around 12 hours) in the confined spaces of tourism buses.
They had a tendency to be crowded , have screaming kids, and the occasional person with bad hygiene, which always seems to wind up next to me no matter it be a bus or plane!
Cappadocia was a pleasant surprise from my trip to Turkey. I had never heard of the place before venturing to Turkey. It is a hard place to describe. It has an otherworldly like landscape and feel to its scenery. It is rocky, rugged, and almost desert like, but it's not. It is famous for its lunar like landscapes and 'fairy' chimney' like formations, which often are comically known for resembling a certain body part of the human anatomy.
The region is known for its crazy rock formations, and these said rock formations are very 'soft' which were quite easy for people long ago to carve out and create dwellings. Cappadocia came to be what it is due to three volcanoes that rest in this central region of Turkey. Their eruptions over a long period of time have provided much of the material that now makes up these rock formations. That and a very long period of weather erosion contributed to these odd formations.
While the geological history of this region is fascinating on its own, this area also boasts a rich historical prominence in Turkey. There are several ancient underground former civilizations that can be found in this area. They are composed of some ridiculously complex tunnel networks. Some of these crazy formations were built as defensive structures, some for religious purposes, and general living. It was an amazing experience to visit this region. It is perplexing how complex these civilizations and cities were.
The entire time I was in Cappadocia I was just waiting to be attacked by Tusken Raiders, or kidnapped by Jawas. Fortunately, or unfortunately this never occurred. Cappadocia was once looked at as a potential filming set for Star Wars, but it was not chosen due to government warnings of a potential civil war that could break out at the time of the filming. If you do ever explore Cappodocia, you will quickly think of the two sunned planet of Tatooine.
One of the things I wish I would have done while in Cappodocia is get an aerial view by hot air balloon. This is a very popular thing to do in Cappodocia. The views are supposed to be unreal! It is not overly expensive either. If there was only one place in the world that you could ever go on a hot air balloon, this would probably be one of the best places to go and do it!
Turkey will forever go down as a fond memory of a travel destination for me. I had a great time here, and experienced a lot. It was where my passion for photography and world traveling began. I believe Turkey as a whole has something for every type of tourist or traveler.
Istanbul has not been known as Istanbul for its entire existence either. In the past it has been also known as Constantinople, Byzantium, and even other less well known names. It has a lengthy history which has impacted the city through various rulers, conquests, and time periods. Istanbul truly has stood the test of time in one way or another. Checking out the historical sights that can be seen in Istanbul is a must for those interested in world history.
Istanbul and Turkey have been set as a filming location for movies produced all over the world. One can easily tell why it was chosen as a filming location after a visit to this wonderful city and country. It truly is a perfect location for British espionage agents to wine, dine, and gather important Intel about foreign enemies. Just for trivia sake, Istanbul and Turkey have now been a part of three separate James Bond films to this date. These include the highest grossing Bond film Skyfall, also From Russia with Love and The World is not Enough. If you haven't noticed with my other blog posts and tourist destinations, I have chosen a lot of Star Wars, Game of Thrones, and James Bond filming locations to travel to.
I cant stress enough in this article that while Turkey can be dangerous as of late due to heightened terror attack risk, but it is still a great country to visit. Don't let the fear producing news agencies discourage you from visiting this beautiful country. The overwhelming majority of people here are great, and do their best to ensure that tourists from all over the world enjoy their stay in Turkey.
If you are ever looking for a place that contains a boat load of history, scenic city views, ancient historical buildings, great food and deserts, fantastic nightlife, and great landscapes, Turkey and Istanbul may be for you!
This article only describes just a blip of what this Mediterranean country has to offer. There was so much more that I didn't get to do, and awesome cities to see. I would say even a two-week venture to Turkey would not suffice timewise for all of the things to see and do. Though, even a week is better than no time spent in Turkey at all.
Turkish Baths-I did not get to participate in this activity during my time in Turkey, but they are world famous. Try it out and let me know how it was!
Izmir- a cultural hot spot and coastal city in Western Turkey. I've heard nothing but great things of Izmir.
Also thanks to:
Ryan Cutler, who allowed me to use some of his photography from our journey to Turkey in 2012. Check out more of his travel photography and other photography work by clicking here.
Check this out:
A more condensed version of my review can be found on a Turkish travel website too, along with more detailed information about Turkey and Istanbul! You can go to this website by clicking this link here.
Don't be too critical on the photos I took or my memory of this vacation. This trip occurred over 4 years ago and I'm just finally writing this entry on it. I was also just in my very beginnings into photography, and only had a cheap point and shoot!
Other photos from my trip: