It’s been several years since I lived in Istanbul, but it’s one of those cities that gets under your skin. A lot has changed since my time there, but I’ll never forget the things I loved about it the most.
Grilled Fish Dinners
If I was planning to be home for a weekend meal, I headed down to the docks where fishmongers sold whole fresh fish. Upon request, and because I had no idea how to do it myself, the nice gentlemen would behead and clean the fish for me before wrapping it in a newspaper for me to carry home. But if I was heading into the city for the evening, a grilled fish dinner accompanied by a table full of delicious mezze and a tall glass of cold raki could not be beat. I don’t think I ever had a bad fish dinner in Istanbul, although I avoided some of the pricey restaurants that lined the Bosporus. I preferred eating in the less expensive restaurants on lively Nevizade Street, near Taksim Square. Here, hawkers call out to pedestrians, urging them to eat at their establishments, and the outdoor café tables are usually full of laughing friends, couples holding hands, or large families with kids. I always felt like Nevizade Street was where life happened in Istanbul.
My teaching job required me to live on campus for my first year in Istanbul so my neighbors were also my co-workers. While I made some fast friends living and working in such close quarters, it was awkward knowing so intimately the details of each other’s lives. I moved off campus the following year, and into the close-knit neighborhood of Sariyer, which is very close to where the Bosporus meets the Black Sea. My apartment was located on the fifth floor of a six story walk-up that sat high on a hill, providing spectacular water views. My living and dining rooms faced the Bosporus, and my husband and I used to spend hours looking down at the activity: fishermen casting wide nets at dusk as the sun dipped behind their boats, massive cruise ships heading in from the Black Sea on their way to the Mediterranean, the passengers snapping photos of my neighborhood as quickly as I was snapping photos of them. We tracked oil tankers as they headed out to sea and returned on the same day each week. There was the Ukrainian passenger ferry that went to Odessa every Thursday, and once, thrillingly, a huge submarine emerged from under the water before our eyes. It was never boring, and I can only hope that I’ll have a home with such a spectacular view again someday.
Chilly, raw winds are common during an Istanbul winter and nothing warmed me up like a Turkish bath. One of the most popular and—boasting an opening date of 1584—one of the oldest bathing facilities is Çemberlitaş Hamami. Historically, hamams have always been gathering places for people to relax and socialize, and Çemberlitaş certainly lives up to that tradition. Men and women are segregated and in my experience, the women’s side was always relaxing, quiet and friendly. If you’ve never been to a hamam, the procedure can seem slightly confusing, but Çemberlitaş is on the well-traveled path and they are no strangers to tourists—just ask if you aren’t sure what the process is. Generally, after you pay your fee, you’ll be given a pestamel—a cotton and silk wrap that can be used as a towel. You can relax for a while on the large heated marble platform, and then use the marble basins and copper bowls to bathe. You can also opt for one of the attendants to give you a massage and scrub-down. It took me a couple of visits to get used to being bathed by a grown woman, but I was soon giggling like a five-year old whenever I had to squeeze my eyes shut so the soap didn’t run into them while she scrubbed my hair.
My favorite mode of transportation in Istanbul was the passenger ferry. Besides the fact that it felt less death-defying than the speeding buses, I could sit back and sip on chai, and enjoy the scenery whether day or night. Istanbul is known as the City of Seven Hills so the landscape rises and dips along the Bosporus, while mosque minarets rise up and slice the skyline. I especially loved passing by the Ortaköy Mosque, a Baroque Revival style building that was designed to play with the changing light of the Bosporus. Sometimes on a lazy Sunday, my husband and I would board a ferry at Sariyer, ride to its terminus at Eminönü, grab a balik ekmek from the fish sandwich boat, and then turn right around and head back home to Sariyer. It was a peaceful, cheap, and stunningly beautiful way to spend the day, especially when the sun sparkled on the Bosporus.
Just across the Bosporus from Sariyer, there is a small fishing village called Anadolu Kavağı. Initially, the most noticeable thing about the village is the ruins of Yoros Castle, a centuries-old structure that the Byzantines, Genoese, and Ottomans have all battled over, and sits high on a hill. It’s a pleasant, moderately easy walk up the hill and visitors are rewarded with steep views down to the Bosporus and Black Sea, and over to the European side of the city. On the way down the hill, the winding cobblestone streets are crowded with shops selling Turkish souvenirs and art by local residents. It’s a pleasant place to spend an afternoon, but it was the calamar ekmek, available at several food stalls along the waterfront, that kept me going back to Anadolu Kavağı again and again. Part of the appeal was that I loved saying I wanted to pop over to Asia for a calamari sandwich, but the sandwich—loaded with fresh deep-fried calamari, with a pungently garlic yogurt sauce drizzled on top—was good enough that I’d go solely for that purpose.
Shopping at the Bazaars
The Grand Bazaar is the hot spot for loading up on Turkish souvenirs. The merchants will negotiate prices, and in fact, expect you to haggle a bit. The nearby Spice Bazaar, also known as the Egyptian Market, is the perfect place to stock up on edible treats like Turkish delight. I lived a long way up the Bosporus from these centrally located markets, though, so luckily there are rotating bazaars throughout the city that spring up in different neighborhoods depending on the day of the week. Every Wednesday afternoon, I would take a shuttle bus from my on-campus apartment down the hill into the heart of my small neighborhood. There at the bazaar, which catered to the locals rather than tourists, I stocked up on fresh vegetables, washcloths, blue jeans, simits, plate ware, and in-season delectable treats like fresh figs and peaches. On Tuesdays, the Kadiköy Bazaar gave me an excuse to go to Asia for a little shopping, and on Saturdays, I loved walking through the stalls at the Beşiktaş bazaar.
The Turkish Carpet Experience
One of my favorite past times was to browse the endless shops selling Turkish rugs. After living in Istanbul for two years and chatting with dozens of salesmen, we learned a lot about the weaving techniques, the designs found in different regions, and the huge variations not only in the rug types but in the salesmen who peddled them. Some merchants only wanted to make the sale, but more often than not, they were very passionate about the rugs they sold, and loved discussing the history behind them, where they were made, etc. Visits to carpet shops almost always involved a glass of tea, pleasant conversation, and a demonstration where the rug was thrown into the air and spun around, in order to see its full beauty in action. The salesmen also loved to point out the special flaw that a good carpet should possess. The purpose of the flaw was to ward off the evil eye because only God is perfect and a perfectly woven rug would be blasphemous. Our favorite shop was Arsah Carpets off the Gülhane tram stop. The proprietor, Huseyin, was endlessly gregarious, telling stories like the one about the arrogant tourist whom Huseyin refused to sell a rug to because he didn’t think the tourist deserved something so beautiful. We must have visited Arsah a dozen times before we bought anything, and Huseyin never pressured us. He understood we wanted to make a careful decision, and before we left Istanbul for good, we ended up buying four kilims. Now, years later, as they are spread out on my living room floor, they bring back happy memories again and again.
The Gateway to the World
Before I moved there, I’d never considered living in Istanbul but as soon as I was offered a job, I realized the travel potential that would be at my fingertips. The city’s international airport has easy flights to Europe, Asia, and Africa, which are much shorter and cheaper than they can ever be from the U.S. Of course I took many amazing vacations within Turkey, but some international vacations I took on my school breaks included Jordan, Greece, Egypt, Italy, and Israel.
Istanbul is built upon thousands of years of history and every walk down a narrow cobblestone street seems to offer another lesson. And then there is the architecture. The Blue Mosque, so-called because of the thousands of striking blue tiles which line the mosque’s interior, is a gorgeous example of 17th century architecture, and still functions as a mosque today. The Hagia Sophia’s history is even longer and more meandering. Built in 537 A.D., it was a Greek Orthodox church for nearly a millennium, then an Ottoman mosque for almost 500 years. Today it’s a museum, massive in size and home to ancient religious mosaics, intricate tiles, marble structures and much more. If you want to visit a grand former home of sultans, visit luxurious Topkapı Palace, which sits high on one of Istanbul’s famous hills and provides sweeping city views. Inside, visitors can tour the huge collection of weapons, jewels, and art from the Ottoman era. Next, go to the city’s underbelly and see The Basilica Cistern, the Byzantine era underground structure that once supplied water to Istanbul’s royalty. For a demonstration of living history, watch a performance of the mystical whirling dervishes as they practice their unique form of meditation, spinning as their white skirts fan out around them, whirling in a quest for perfection.
The Beat of the City
Istanbul is a city of nonstop movement. On Istiklal Street, there were always crowds of people and I always wondered where everyone was going. It was different from the crowds in other large cities. There wasn’t an overload of tourists taking photos like in Times Square, and there lacked a serious sense of purpose like a crowded street in Tokyo has. It looked more like everyone had a separate place to go, but each place was equally important. Perhaps that’s the sign of a culture that works its ass off, but values leisure just as much. I also loved veering off the main streets onto the city’s many side streets (although my husband had a camera stolen out of his hands on one these side streets, so do be careful). One of our favorite walks took us under the Galata Bridge, where you can grab a beer and a bite to eat at one of the many restaurants that line the Golden Horn. Adding yet another layer to this ancient and cosmopolitan city, the call to prayer bounces around from several different mosques five times a day, reminding you that you are in one of the most magical cities in the world.