Growing up, whenever August would roll around and the promise of the new school year was just around the corner, I would become giddy with excitement and start planning out every little thing. What would I wear the first day of school? Which Jansport backpack should I get that I would still like by Spring? How many folders and notebooks should I get (and realistically actually carry with me)?
Those pre-school jitters that began to rush in and become the focal point of my attention have yet to dissipate and translated to another area of my life: travel. I get giddy with excitement, researching the next location that I’m traveling to.. to the point where I am (completely) unproductive in all other aspects of my life, but leave me with hoards of information about the country or city. So maybe not completely unproductive? Leaving for Istanbul tomorrow morning and I have done my fair share of research about the culture, customs, must-sees, must-dos and an array of other things. While experiencing a place first-hand is so much MORE, I have found that researching beforehand to shed light onto the history and how or why things came about, tend to enrich the experience all the more.
The next few days in Istanbul will be fully documented on Instagram and this blog, so feel free to follow along as I discover the ‘turbulent metropolis on the Bosphorus.’ So in digging through every Anthony Bourdain clip, Rick Steve’s guide, Condé Nast article, Lonely Planet column or TripAdvisor review… here’s the gold that I’ve panned out.
Istanbul is divided into two sides by the Bosphorus Strait – the European side and the Asian side, each with a distinct personality.
The first known name of the city is Byzantium, given around 660 BC, and then after Constantine the Great made it the new eastern capital of the Roman Empire in 330 AD, the city became widely known as Constantinopolis (or Constantinople) meaning ‘the City of Constantine’. The name Istanbul is believed to derive from a Medieval Greek word, meaning “to the city”. Since it was the only major city in the vicinity, this is probably where the name was adopted from (much like how people today often colloquially refer to the nearest urban center as “the City”.)
Some of the Neighborhoods:
Old City or Sultanahmet:
The Old City is laden with rich culture and stories of the past; history hangs in the air here as it was once pride of Byzantine emperors and Ottoman sultans. This area isn’t frequented by locals as it is typically teeming with tourists and throbbing with merchants waiting to haggle. This area is also considered the ‘European Side’.
Grand Bazaar: A labyrinth of over 4,000 vendors spaced throughout sixty-four streets, the 15th century market is both a tourist trap and fantastical treasure trove.
Hagia Sophia: Dating from the 6th century, it was originally a Christian basilica constructed for the Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian I. The huge 30m diameter dome made this building the largest enclosed space for over 1000 years. The church was looted by the fourth Crusaders in 1204, and became a mosque in the 15th century when The Ottomans conquered the city. It was converted into a museum in 1935.
Egyptian Bazaar/Spice Market: Also known as the Spice Bazaar, it is much smaller than the Grand Bazaar but focuses on herbalist and spice shops.
Topkapı Palace: The palace served as the imperial enclave of the Ottoman emperors for four centuries. It’s lavishly and sumptuously decorated interior make it a photographer’s dream — each of the four courts that lead up to the harem increase in grandeur and opulence. What exactly is a harem and what purpose did it serve? I’ll get to that below! (Also, this is very telling of how I spent my childhood.. but I cannot say ‘Topkapi’ without thinking of the Pokémon Tokapi.
Soğukçeşme Street: Located between Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace and the gate of Gülhane Park, this car-free downhill cobbled street is lined with traditional wooden houses, two- or three-storeys tall, typical of Ottoman era. Near here is the Fountain of Sultan Ahmed III (at the square in front of the outer gate of Topkapi Palace), the huge standalone fountain was built in typical Ottoman rococo style in 1728.
Sultanahmet Mosque aka Blue Mosque: The six minarets that sweep the skyline make the Sultanahmet or ‘Blue Mosque’ and impressive architectural feat from outside, though the inside is just as gorgeous. Unlike Haghia Sophia, this is still a working mosque, which means no shorts or bare shoulders (shawls are provided) and you will need to remove your footwear (bags are provided that you can place your shoes in).
Basilica Cistern: A giant underground cistern built by Justinian in 532 to provide water to the city in cases of siege. A wooden walkway winds between the pillars, and lights and piped music add to the eerie atmosphere. Bring some type of fish food as you’ll see enormous fish swimming below your feet. The statues of Medussa are impressive.
The following are also located in the Old City: Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art, The Museum of Archeology and the Great Palace Mosaics Museum
Beyoğlu + Taksim: This is the trendy area of Istanbul on the Asian side where the hipsters, young people, professionals and students ‘hang out’, its also known for its nightlife. Separated from the Old City by the Golden Horn, it used to be known as Pera (meaning “Across” in Greek).
Kadiköy: The bustling portside center located on the Asian side is lined fishmongers, neighborhood lokantas, coffee shops, antiques shops, and bookstores.
Good To Know:
The current exchange rate is 1 Turkish Lira: 0.39 USD or .36 Euro (3/24/15).
So $10 USD = 25.5 Turkish Lira
$50 USD = 127.7 Turkish Lira
$100 = 255.4 Turkish Lira
*As a rule of thumb, you are expected to tip 5-10% in restaurants, cafés and bars. Hotel staff expect, depending on their duties, between 5 to 20 Turkish Liras for their services. Turks don’t tip taxi drivers, but round up cab fares.*
Do’s and Don’ts:
DO learn gestures of the head for “yes” and “no”, which can be very confusing. “Yes” is a downward nod of the head and “no” is an upward nod of the head while raising eyebrows and clicking the tongue. Shaking your head might not be understood as “no”. Try to learn the Turkish words “evet”(yes) and hayir (no).
DON’T make the “OK” sign with your thumb and forefinger. It’s considered obscene in Turkey.
DO bargain at the bazaars!
Hello or Good Day: Merhaba (mehr hah bah)
Thank you: Teşekkür ederim (teh shek uer eh der eem)
Please: Lütfen. (Luet fen)
You’re welcome: Bir şey değil. (bir shey de yeel)
Yes: Evet (eh vet)
No: Hayır(Hah yuhr)
I’m sorry: Özür dilerim. (Ö zuer di lay reem) or Pardon (Par don – I like this one!)
Where is the toilet? : Tuvalet nerede? (Too va let ner eh de?)
Help! : İmdat! (Im Daht !)
I’m lost: Kayboldum. (kahy bohl doom)
Hamam: Perhaps better known as Turkish baths
I don’t speak Turkish, nor do I claim to know any… so here’s a more instructive/intensive guide to some rough Turkish for your travels: Turkish Phrasebook
The two major airports serving the area are the Ataturk (IST) on the European side, roughly 40 minutes from the center – depending on traffic, the other is the Sabiha Goçken (SAW) on the Asian side, approximately 75-90 minutes (again depending on traffic).
Must Try Foods:
*Kebabi: The kebap got its name form the cooking style, where they slowly cook the whole lamb hung over especially constructed fire.
*Simit: If you wander through the streets early enough, you’ll see freshly baked simit being transported across the city (often piled high on trays perched on heads). Almost bagel-like in its consistency, simit is a ring of slightly chewy bread covered in sesame seeds. Sold in bakeries and most mobile carts/corners.
*Turk kahvesi (Turkish Coffee): Known for being extremely strong and served in espresso sized cups, the coffee is slowly made on a stove over a very low heat. The end leaves a sediment at the bottom of the cup, so stop drinking before you reach this (it’s not meant to be consumed).
*Baklava: The finest example of the Turkish dessert passion, the ingredients consist of phyllo dough, nuts and syrup. Simple, yet so satisfying to the sweet tooth. However, great craftsmanship is needed to masterfully create this dessert. definitely required. The thinness of the dough layers is crucial. The nuts, walnuts, hazelnuts or pistachios, vary from region to region in Turkey. The nuts are spread in between the layers of phyllo dough, then the dough is dressed with butter, baked and finally soaked in syrup.
*Durum: Essentially a Turkish burrito, dürüm is slow cooked chicken, lamb, or beef served inside a wrap. The perfect takeaway food, dürüm offers the best of Turkish flavours on the go, Anthony Bourdain referred to it as a “‘tastebud torpedo”.
*Turkish Delight: I’ve been curious as to what Turkish Delight actually is ever since I read “The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe”. For those that are also curious, Turkish Delight, also known as Lokum, is a nougaty dessert served with a variety of flavors and fillings and often topped with powdered sugar. It’s always best fresh, as pre-packaged versions tend to go too light on the fillings and too heavy on the sugar, drying it out.
Cheap and available on any street corner, it’s the perfect light lunch or snack while touring.
Harem: The first thought that came to my mind at the word ‘harem’ is one of scantily-clad beauties lounging, waiting for the sultan to act of his sexual fantasies… Basically the scene in Aladdin where Jasmin is in Jafar’s prisoner and wearing the fiery red garments.
Oriental fantasies aside, a harem is actually the area of a home where Muslim women could relax and remove their head-scarves without the fear of being seen by others. The word ‘harem’ means forbidden, and it served as the section of the home that was off-limits to men who were not members of the family.
The most famous harem, and the likely source of many of today’s misconceptions about harems in general, was that of the Ottoman Empire’s sultans. The Ottoman rulers Ottoman rulers had extremely large harems, which included the households of the sultan’s mother and sisters, as well as his wives and concubines. Many female servants attended to the women as well as “eunuchs,” which were males that have to have all their external genitalia removed to ensure that any child born to the sultan’s wives and concubines would be legitimate.
Harem life could be extremely catty as women vied to promote their own sons as the next sultan, resulting in many poisonings and stranglings. This is due to the high official ranking that the mother whose child survived and became sultan would receive. Often times favored eunuchs would do the dirty work for a particular court woman.