We weren’t really sure what to expect from Turkey. We had friends and fellow travelers who raved about Istanbul, but after Morocco we were a little leary. What we found in Istanbul was, in some ways what we originally expected in Morocco.

The people were incredibly friendly and welcoming. The city is modern and cosmopolitan for the most part, especially the Asia side, in Kadikoy where we stayed. The area on the northern peninsula around Taksim Square seem a bit more run down and the southern peninsula has the amazing old mosques, palaces and architecture of the Roman, Ottoman and Byzantine Empires. It was the capital of each at different points in history.

Obelisk and Mosque

An example of historical and cultural diversity in Istanbul – An obelisk stands in a former Roman hippodrome on the doorstep of the Blue Mosque.

 

I’ve never seen so many clothes stores or really stores in general. It appears there is a lot of shopping going on here. No matter where you go or what time of day, there are lots of people! Its bustling for sure, but in an organized modern developed country kind of way, with no donkey carts and where motor bikes stay on the road, while pedestrians stay on the sidewalks and walking streets.

Busy streets of Istanbul

In the city you get the impression of progress. There is a lot of construction and improvements being made, rather than things falling into disrepair as we’ve seen in various places (Zimbabwe and Morocco come immediately to mind). For example, in October, a brand new subway line dramatically cut the transit time from the Europe to Asia side of Istanbul. Previously a ferry was the fastest public transportation option between the two sides, but this subway route runs under the Bosphrous Strait, apparently its the deepest subway in the world. The stray cats were even well fed. I have a working theory that the condition of stray animals reflects on the condition of a society. Istanbul has A LOT of cats, every where, but almost all appear healthy and well-fed. These cats aren’t scavenging, people are buying cat food for them and putting it on the street. Frequently, there are even piles of “excess”, so there’s need to fight over it.

Istanbul Cats

I can see why Istanbul is so popular among Western tourists. It’s a European city, but because of its history as the center of three separate empires, it is unlike any other European city. It is also the only city bridging two continents, creating a unique fusion of Europe, Middle East and Asia. It feels foreign and exotic, but still familiarly European as well. For instance, there’s the Grand Bazaar, but also plenty of modern shopping malls.

Grand Bazaar

Ferries and Mosque

The huge domes and tall minarets of the mosques dominate the skyline and the call to prayer is heard everywhere. Head scarves and burkas are seen, but aren’t predominant. There is a noticeable societal segregation between men and women. For instance, we saw few women in bars and hookah cafes, but that was true in the pubs of Ireland as well. There don’t seem to be rules forcing this, society seemed pretty free, it just seems to be the way it happens.

Hookah Cafe

Speaking of bars, even though this is a predominently Muslim county, there are bars and liquor stores in about the same quantity as we are familiar with in the US. This is a significant difference from Morocco, where these were few and far between and most were obviously targeted at tourists.

Even though though it seems Europeans come to Istanbul to party, alcoholic beverages are not what I would call affordable. We were in Istanbul for New Year’s Eve and enjoyed two pints of Guiness – for $15US. It was worth it though – we do love a  good Guiness 🙂

New Year's Guiness

Another surprise was that we found that many Christmas customs have actually made their was to Istanbul.

Christmas Tree at Mall

At first glance it just seemed like just a normal, if completely secular version of Christmas – Santa Claus, Christmas trees, etc, but then we noticed it was oddly fused with New Year’s, like they were part of the same holiday. We were tipped off by our host who talked about Christmas and New Year’s interchangeably almost like they were two names for the same thing. We thought this might be a language or translation thing, but then we saw it everywhere.
While in the US, Christmas and New Years are pretty separate holidays each with their own “things”, in Turkey, anything appropriate at Christmas seems appropriate for New Year’s.  For instance, our waitress on New Year’s Eve was wearing a Santa hat and they were playing Christmas carols. Other waitresses were wearing devil horns…making for an interesting combination. I am only sorry I don’t have a photo of that for you.