“Istanbul, in fact…is a testimony to the fact that East and West combine cultural gracefully, or sometimes in an anarchic way, came together, and that is what we should search for.”…Orhan Pamuk
Istanbul is a slow, romantic Sufi poem. I stumbled across this poem on one cold April morning – honestly, by sheer fate. I was traveling from Singapore to Google’s Sao Paulo office for work, when I stopped midway in Istanbul. “Why?”, you would ask. Simply, out of curiosity, and to taste mediterranean food, dipped in a tangy Islamic sauce.
My Istanbul journey began minutes after I gathered my luggage, and walked to the area where my hotel had sent a cab. To my amusement though, I didn’t quite stand out as the Indian as I hoped I would – the man who helped me with the luggage confidently surmised that I was American. “Sure”, I said. Perhaps, he had seen the future – I would be in Brazil in the coming days. So technically I could pass off as Latin American – ‘Latin’ being the operative word, that he somehow forgot.
My memory of Istanbul remains a labyrinth of historical places I visited, the best bath I’ve taken, and some candid conversations with an old friend.
The conversations over Turkish wine, and delightful mezes gave me an insight on the Turkish society. There was an underlying fear of speaking against the political regime, increased violence caused by Syrian refugees in the city, and overall faith in the resilience of the Turkish economy. My friend said that joining the EU, despite popular belief was not the Turkish dream. But getting a liberal democracy is. Turkey, to me, was in a state of experimentation – perhaps, a bit tired of its western ways, and keen to experiment with its Islamic past. Most people on the road however, like everywhere else, cared about a good life: a safe country, and a secure economic future.
The conversations gave me a perspective, a lens to view the society. Yet, it was Istanbul’s historical architecture, and it’s way of life, that amazed me. A few sites, and experiences, that remain an integral part of my memory are, as follows:
Hagia Sophia: The Hagia Sophia is the first site to visit in Istanbul, given its rich architecture, and its standing as the Vatican of the east. The Hagia Sophia is the ‘Vatican’ of the orthodox christian church, and literally the symbol of old Constantinople – the city that challenged the standing of Rome, from a religious, economic, and cultural perspective.
Topkapi palace: One of the world’s largest and most magnificent palaces. The rich persian carpets, pottery and tiles, make it a great symbol of Islamic architecture. Many people, including myself are tempted to compare it, and call it the Versailles of the east – but at the end of the tour, I feel it is an inaccurate description. Islamic architecture, forbids the reverence of human forms, and so, there are no frescoes with human figures like in the Vatican or Versailles. But it’s simplicity is what makes it most attractive. By view alone the view that the Topkapi palace offers is unmatched by the Versailles, and Vatican.
Turkish Hamams: This was the most memorable for me. For the first time in my adult life, a woman bathed me in soap froth. I loved the luxury of it all, but for the first few minutes I must confess – I was uncomfortable. I would recommend a Turkish hamam to anyone, who has not had it. It’s caress is more delicate that a spa, and its experience more medieval and charming than what you will get in a modern, concrete spa. I visited the Turkish Hamam, a century that was built by …
The Grand Bazaar: Colourful, chaotic, and yet charming is how I would describe the Bazaar. When viewed in its historical significance, the Bazaar literally emerges as a key post in the ancient Spice Route – where Persian rugs were traded alongside the Turkish Marmara (Marble), and Indian Spice. The Grand Bazaar today however is much like Cairo’s Khan – el- Khalili where tourists bargain for turkish lamps (though now made in China) and Turkish delights. Stores outside sell tasty kebaps, that are a must try!
Basilica Cisterns: One sentence summarizes it all – Tom Hanks in Inferno
Bosphorus Ferry Trips: After a hamam, this is my 2nd recommendation. The Bospohorus is the river that connects the east with the west, the modern and the old. The ferry is a great
Blue Mosque: The Blue Mosque or the Sultan Ahmet Mosque is located right next to the Hagia Sophia. It was built by Sultan Ahmet I to reassert the Ottoman power. It was funded from the treasury, unlike other mosques that were often funded by spoils of the wars.
Suleymaniye Mosque: The second largest mosque in Istanbul (after the Sultanahmet or Blue Mosque). It was built by Suleiman the Magnificent, the tenth, and the longest reigning Sultan of the Ottoman Empire. I had the chance to visit its interiors. It’s a peaceful mosque, where the people still pray. Our tour guide gave a fantistic overview of Islam – which in his opionion, was a religion, capable to be molded to the evolving society. The Mosque also gives spectacular views of the city, and makes a great evening visit.
Dining in Beyoglu: A great venue where the East meets the West. Dining with a local makes a great experience – Turkish people are warm, hospitable, and love sharing their take on Turkish politics, and Turkey’s role in Middle Eastern and International affairs. I sampled some Turkish wine, as well. Although, it was not as fruity as an Italian wine, I did like what I tried. Overall, a great time, in the gateway to the Middle East.
Must visit restaurant for Kebabs: Hamdi Restaurant
As the story has it, Hamdi Arpaci, the founder, came to Istanbul in the end of 1960s, and set up his Kebab shop. With its growing patronage by the Istanbul citizens, the restaurant expanded to 5 floors.
Whilst in Istanbul, I would urge you to try the Menemen for breakfast. It is a light egg dish prepared for breakfast. The simplicity of its recipe means that you can easily prepare it at home as well
Stay: Suitel Bosphorus, Istanbul. Decent, and safe hotel for solo female travelers. Great location, as you can grab quick meals in the Beyoglu/Taksim area. The staff is friendly, and it is easy to grab Uber rides from here. The hotel is not the one you should choose, if you’re looking for something fancy.
Number of Days: 2
Airlines and Lounge: For the Turkish experience to start even before you set foot in Istanbul, I would recommend Turkish Airlines. Should you have access to the lounge (via business class travel or credit card miles), I recommend stepping afoot the lounge, as it is one of the better off airline lounges in the world