The hustle and bustle of hundreds of people shopping on Istanbul’s renowned Istiklal street looks as busy as ever. The smell of roasted chestnuts and corn permeate the air. Vendors selling fresh mussels lure the hungry passersby. Waiters beckon travelers and tourists from the alleys to smoke hookah and grab some snacks to unwind from a brisk Saturday evening. It is just as common to observe women wearing hijab (a head covering worn in public) as much as it is seeing others showing off a new hairstyle from the salon. You see, Istanbul is a confluence of cultures.
Istanbul is Turkey’s largest and most populated city known for its eclectic mix of food, architecture, and people. It’s considered the “gateway to the east” and the only metropolis that connects two continents, Europe and Asia. Throughout history, the city of about 15 million people has witnessed the defeat of and succumbed to the victories of empires. But with the combination of cultures and cuisines that combine global flavors also come caveats.
As the sun sets on Istanbul’s famed Bosphorus river, “Fatih,” as he wants to be called, has a worried look on his face. “Istanbul lost its soul,” he says, slowly sipping his Salep. On July 15th, Turkey commemorates the one-year anniversary when a faction of the Turkish army attempted a coup and failed. More than 200 people died in that attack on Istanbul. Since then, Turkey has been returning to normalcy after continued violence in the country claimed more lives later in the year.
Things are calmer now. Vigilant police strategically placed throughout the city are welcomed by Turks and easily visible in the city’s busiest areas. Shoppers walk by them seemingly unaware of their presence. Fatih says despite the massive crowds on Istiklal, tourism isn’t what it used to be. “For Rent” signs scattered across the city indicate an economy struggling to regain stability as many Turks have decided to move out of the city or even the country like Fatih has considered. “More entertainment venues are being closed. More than ever people prefer to stay at home on weekends.”
However, thousands of undeterred tourists flood into Turkey every day to capitalize on Istanbul’s preferable currency rates and are drawn to what “The Gateway” has to offer. This historic city holds nearly three thousand mosques within its boundaries as well as numerous churches and temples. One of the most popular mosques and landmarks is called Sultan Ahmet Mosque or the “Blue Mosque” and is nestled in the city’s downtown. The mosque is still active with imams on standby to teach willing listeners about Islam. This mosque showcases the exquisite tile work that Turkish architecture is known for. Hagia Sophia, another landmark, once a church, later a mosque, and now a museum, possesses both Christian and Islamic influences. Despite reservations about Istanbul’s future, Fatih says he cannot deny Istanbul’s deep and unique history. “Istanbul is best place to discover ancient world from pre-history era to modern world,” he says. “You can discover Greek, Turk, and Armenian culture in one city.”
Less than two miles away, the Grand Bazaar, one of the world’s oldest covered markets attracts thousands of people daily. More than 4,000 vendors sell their wares throughout the labyrinthine shopper’s paradise. Customers can buy anything from sunglasses to carpets, to designer knock-off leather goods, which vendors assure are of higher quality than you can find anywhere else in the world.
If shopping isn’t on the agenda for the day, travelers can escape the frenetic pace of Istanbul’s downtown with trips to the Prince Islands, a chain of nine small islands in the Sea of Marmara. Ferries frequently travel between Istanbul and the four islands open to the public. This journey takes travelers into a different time with Victorian-style houses and when horse-drawn carriages were the fastest mode of transportation. The only other way to get around here is on a bicycle or by foot.
Back on the mainland, there is rest for the weary at a hamam or ‘Turkish bath.’ For anywhere from $20 to $80 (prices can vary more), visitors can luxuriate during a scrub and a massage after resting on a warm marble slab designed to relax tense aching muscles and relieve stress.
The Bebek neighborhood attracts diners with a desire for an upscale eating experience. The residential district extends along the shores of the Bosphorus providing expansive views of the city’s beautiful vistas. Restaurants serve fresh fish with prices comparable to moderately-priced eateries in U.S.’ larger cities. Residents and tourists can enjoy this scenic neighborhood at a local park and by traversing the wide sidewalk that borders the neighborhood and lines the Bosphorus bypassing picturesque marinas and other popular venues.
There are a variety of sights and things to do in Istanbul, a city ranked among the world’s top 25 destination cities. From its hundreds of mosques to the thousands of marketplace vendors to the scenic vistas providing a fantastic backdrop to the vast alimentary Bosphorus, tourists will always find something to enjoy. Despite ongoing security concerns in Turkey, statistics show it is still one of the safest major cities to travel to around the world. Fatih says even though his country is experiencing uncertainty, he feels safe. “It is one of lowest crime-rated cities among metropolitan cities,” he says. “Since the 1st of January, Istanbul is quiet and nice.”
Adventurous tourists will discover a lot to enjoy about Istanbul. For some who are originally outsiders, Istanbul has become a permanent place to live. “Turkey is a beautiful country with many possibilities,” says Adelein Weum smiling brightly. She lives in the city but is originally from Norway. “You can travel to all cities by plane, bus and boat. Come experience this beautiful country.”