Time to say bye-bye to Istanbul as we head for France. My visit this year has been bittersweet as the throngs of tourists so common in past visits are nowhere to be seen. In this, terrorists have won.
Yet, Istanbul’s charms are as vibrant as ever. If you can set aside the FUD factor, here’s eight reasons to visit this truly remarkable place.
1. It’s a great value. Food is cheap — a fresh, filling meal costs just $5. Lodging is very affordable. Our three-bedroom apartment secured via Airbnb.com averaged $48/night. Admission prices to attractions are reasonably priced and there’s plenty to see for free simply by walking around. Transportation costs are extremely low. The strength of the US dollar (approximately $3 to 1TL) ensures your money goes a long way in Istanbul.
2. Savory food. You won’t find a variety of restaurants in Istanbul — your choices are Turkish and Turkish — but from the tiny kebap shops to fine dining, the food is tasty! You can never go wrong by ordering tavuk şiş (chicken shish kebab). Don’t leave Istanbul without trying fish at one of the many restaurants under the Galata Bridge or a stew at the restaurant of your choice. Who doesn’t like baklava, but my favorite Turkish dessert is the traditional sütlaç, a rice pudding, that I prefer served cold.
3. Terrific transportation. Public transit in Istanbul is among the best in the world. If you’re staying more than a couple of days, purchase an IstanbulKart for 7TL ($2.33) and start by loading 20TL ($7) on it. You can buy them at some metro ticket offices and/or newspaper stands and small markets near the train stations. The card works on the metro, tramway, buses and ferries. You can automatically reload cash on the card at machines conveniently located in every metro station.
4. Amazing sites. Wherever you go in Istanbul, there’s something interesting to see. Museums abound. Historical structures proliferate. The Bosphorus, with its freighters and ferries, is the glue that binds the European and Asian sides of this sprawling metropolis together. Traveling its length is to quickly see the past in the Ottoman palaces lining the shores and the future amid the skyscrapers dotting the skyline in the distance.
5. Nice people. Istanbul is home to 20 million people, but somehow it retains the warm hospitality found in small towns. The Turks are some of the friendliest people you’ll ever encounter on the road. Most will go out of their way to help you — even when language is a barrier. Learn to say “thank you” right away — phonetically pronounced tay-shay-coo-lar.
6. Bountiful shopping. Istanbul is a shopper’s paradise. The Spice Market, Horse Market and the Grand Bazaar are favorites with most tourists. Be prepared to haggle. Istiklal Street off Taksim Square is a higher-end favorite. If you are looking for a no-haggling shopping experience, there are several malls accessible by metro. If you have half a chance, try to work in a local neighborhood market where everything from fruit, nuts and produce to clothing is available. No haggling here as most items are dirt cheap.
7. Ultra cultural shift. Istanbul is definitely where the East meets the West. Even in a modern world made smaller and more homogenous by trade and technology, there are still distinct differences between the two. The melding of East and West creates a unique cultural experience. It’s exotic, but not so alien as to make you extremely uncomfortable. The first time I heard the call to prayer resonant through the streets, I couldn’t help but think “Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore.”
8. Living history. Since Emperor Constantine made Constantinople the capitol of the Roman Empire, Istanbul has been an integral part of world history. To walk its streets is to stroll through millenia in a living, open-air museum. Even if you’re not a history buff, it’s hard not to be awestruck by the remnants of empires past.
That’s why I can leave this intriguing place, suffering as it is from the latest man-made conflict, with hope for the future. Down through the ages, Istanbul has adapted and survived, emerging bigger and stronger than before while somehow retaining its character.
This too shall pass.