“You’re going to Istanbul? Is it safe there?”
Of the places I’ve traveled to, none have elicited as alarming a response as Istanbul has. From tales of small-street hustling to deadly bombings, I heard enough to make me think that I might just make it out of the city penniless, limbless, or not at all.
Yet on the flip side, I heard of beautiful architecture detailed with glorious tiles and carvings, of food bursting with flavor and spices and coffee dark as chocolate, of cats that roam busy streets, always with satisfied stomachs.
When you hear so many different things, how do you decide which way to go?
I go with what I know. In this case, it was these:
- Istanbul is a city where East and West meet. Rich with history, it’s a melting pot of people, culture, and religion.
- It has had more than its fair share of tragedies in the last couple of years, including bombings in some of its popular areas.
- It’s a place I wanted to visit while I still could.
It all boiled down to number 3.
Luckily, my sister decided she wanted to go too, so that eased my parents’ worries somewhat. Since I had just renewed my US visa, getting a Turkish visa online was a breeze. Ate and I drafted our itinerary, booked our flights and accommodations, and agreed to meet up at the Istanbul airport in the morning of May 5th. Ready, steady, go.
“It’s just a four-hour wait. How bad could it be?”
After nearly 18 hours of travel, I arrived in Istanbul at past one in the morning. My sister’s flight was due at 5:30 am. Perfect opportunity to experience a first: sleeping in the airport.
I’ve napped in airports before, usually with my family or friends as we waited for our flight. But never before had I actually slept sprawled across several seats—thankfully, not on the floor!
As early as it was, I was able to snag a full row of seats with a view of the arrival board. I set my alarm, lay my head on my big backpack, hugged my small backpack to my chest. And I tried to sleep the wait away.
I managed maybe two hours. The first thing I checked upon waking was the board.
The wait drew out to five hours. I caught snatches of sleep in between, but mostly, I spent it daydreaming about the city.
Finally, my sister messaged me that she’d just landed and told me to look for our pick up while she lined up at passport control.
I saw the sign with my sister’s name, and stood in wait with my bags growing heavier.
Five hours stretched to six. Our pick up, a slender guy with dark features, kept asking me how much longer she would take, as though I could sense the speed at which she’d go through immigration and baggage claim. I wanted to tell him I’d been waiting there longer than he had, so if anything, I should be the impatient one. But time, and waiting, is relative.
One moment, I’m staring at a man by the doors, a bouquet of flowers in hand. The next, there’s my sister, and we’re off to see Istanbul.
“The Turkish delight is free. A gift from me.”
Narrow streets rolling up and curving down, lined with buildings tall and stately. Take a corner and then—a mosque with a minaret rising high. Over the horizon, there it is, the Bosphorous River, dividing and joining two continents. And everywhere, pigeons, circling and swooping and soaring above all else.
It didn’t take me long to discover the draw of Istanbul—nor did it take me long to get breathless. Literally. My sister and I knew our Airbnb was within walking distance of the Old City’s main attractions. What Google Maps failed to tell us was that the walk would be mostly uphill.
We dropped off our bags, paid for our tour, then went in search of breakfast. By the time we found Cigdem, I was tired, hungry, and running low on battery. I needed coffee, stat.
Thus, my introduction to Turkish coffee—thick, dark, sweetened to taste, and served warm, as warm as the people themselves.
From my friends’ stories, I’d been made to be wary of Turks, but I quickly learned how friendly and generous they are. We were surprised when the waiters at Cigdem gave us free Turkish delights and cake. It turned out that many do give complimentary treats, whether it’s Turkish delight, bread, or tea. On the ferry across the Bosphorous, a woman and her daughter sat beside us, opened their snacks, and offered them to us. More than once, waiters and tour guides chatted us up, genuinely curious about where we’d come from and happy to tell us what they could about their hometown.
You could play cynic and say they did it for the tip, but I honestly felt they just wanted to share their amazing culture, food and all.
They were proud of their city, as they should be. From the famed Hagia Sofia to the bustling Grand Bazaar to the unexpectedly stunning Dolmabahce Palace, and the charming streets in between, Istanbul made me thankful I’d dared to follow that dream. If I heard that anxious voice in my head wondering why there were way more men than women, it was quieted by the fact that they let us be. And if I thought the presence of police everywhere concerning at first, it soon became comforting.
My sister and I walked up and down the city, stopping at cafes for our caffeine (and baklava) fix, and catching the tram when we were too tired to make the trek home. Snuggled warmly in my bed, I heard the same hums and chants through the window as I did down the street. Soon, I got used to it, finding comfort in its routine. But soon after, it was time to pack up and move on.
On all three days of our stay in Istanbul, we walked along Divan Yolu, the Old City’s main street. Every time, we’d see the blue-gray minarets of the Blue Mosque. I’d find my feet slowing, my eyes lingering. I’d caught my first glimpse of it that Friday when we went out for breakfast, and it had me utterly enamored. I’d felt that same breathless wonder each time since.
Really, the Turks know what it means to delight.
Stay tuned for more photos + recommended places to see in Istanbul!
‘Til next time, happy wanders!