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Known as Byzantium or Constantinople, Istanbul is the city that has been the link between Europe and Asia for more than 1,500 years. It connects the two continents from an economic, cultural and political aspect. With a long past and rich varied tradition, it is no surprise that Istanbul is among the most popular tourist destinations, with a lot to offer to anyone.

Where to Stay?

With an urban area spread over more than 1,500 sq km and a population of over 14 million, Istanbul has many districts that provide accommodation. You should easily find a place that suits your taste and your budget.

The two main hotel areas are Old Istanbul and Beyoglu.  You can find accommodation on the Asian side and to the North of the Bosphorus River as well. The tourist attractions are concentrated in Old Istanbul, therefore accommodations are the most expensive there. Even so, among the five-star hotels you can still find mid-priced inns and hostels alike.

Hotel Sultania is one of the coziest boutique-style hotels in the Sultanahmet district, the heart of historic Old Istanbul. Every room features a different decoration and a complete spa center. Perhaps more importantly, it’s only a 10-minute walk from the Hagia Sophia which I know you will want to see.

Beyoglu, on the other hand, is the most modern part of the city, featuring elegant upscale hotels such as the Marmara Taksim. If you prefer a hostel you should look into the World House Hostel. It’s a small and very friendly place just off the district center.

Where to Eat?

Istanbul is diverse and renowned not only for its monuments, but for its cuisine. As a melting pot of so many cultures, the city gives the visitor the widest possible choice when it comes to food. Enter any eatery in the city and you will see an amazing array of fresh dishes prepared from the best ingredients.

One of the things you should try is menemen, a kind of omelet enriched with herbs, pepper, and onions. If you are in Beyoglu, Sutis is perhaps the best place to try it.

Meze is also something that you should not miss. These cold starters are similar to the Spanish tapas, bite-size appetizers such as artichoke hearts, beans, eggplant served on a large plate. One of the best places to try it is Cumhuriyet Meyhanesi, another great place in Beyoglu.

Kebaps are also a local specialty served everywhere. They are available in many different varieties such as Iskender kebaps made from beaten meat pieces, herbs and vegetables. You should also try Adana kebaps which are prepared with very special procedures and offered only by strictly controlled and certified facilities such as Adanalı Yusuf Usta.

What to Do?

Istanbul is an extraordinary place for sightseeing. The Hagia Sophia, the Topkapi Palace, the Blue Mosque, and the Suleymaiye Mosque are all among the world’s most impressive buildings.  I am certain they will astonish you with their beauty.

If you are interested not only in buildings above the ground, you should not miss the Basilica Cistern in Sultanahmet Square. The ceiling of the immense underground cistern is supported by 336 pillars.  With its dim lights and soft classic music, it offers a unique experience that some call romantic, others a bit spooky.

When you are tired of visiting all these extraordinary architectural creations, the Grand Bazaar is waiting for you. They sell everything but come prepared to set your own price, bargaining to get a lower price is an absolute must if you are in Turkey. Food enthusiasts should visit the Spice Bazaar at the southern end of the Galata Bridge. The huge marketplace offers not only spices, but also special cosmetic products such as lotions and creams as well.

If you are tired of sightseeing and shopping and you are looking for a relaxing afternoon in nature and a free dive into the life of the locals, you can go to Yildiz Park. Have a picnic, explore the scenic paths and small hills covered in trees and ponds. The park is an excellent place to recharge for further explorations.

City Explorers Tip

Istanbul provides the unique opportunity to see Whirling Dervishes doing their traditional dance. There are various locations in the city where you can watch them perform. Most tourist go to see them in the Galata Mevlevi Museum on Sundays at 5pm. There is another show as well, on Thursday evenings in the Fatih district.

A Day off the Beaten Path

If you think you have seen it all and you are looking for a day spent off the main tourist attractions, here is an alternative itinerary for you.

Start the day with a copious Turkish breakfast and a cup of special Turkish tea at the Sutis Emrigan on the Bosphorus bank. Even if you are a coffee enthusiasts I demand you try it, too.

When you feel ready, head for Zeyrek, a part of the Fatih district not very much visited by tourists. It offers you the opportunity to see what the life of the locals is really like. If you are looking for more sights to see, you can take a walk on the Theodosian walls, the walls that protected the city for a thousand years and still link the Golden Horn and the shore of the Sea of Marmara.

If you are looking for more relaxation in a peaceful environment, take the ferry to the Prince Islands. The journey lasts about an hour and a half each direction, so you will have the chance to see the cityscape from the water. There is no road traffic on the island, so once there, you can either walk around or hire a horse carriage.

Later on, after you have lunch at a local eatery, you can go back to Beyoglu to take a ride on the world’s third oldest subway. Be prepared for a very short ride, only 573 meters, but you will see a unique construction and enjoy org music during the ride.

Another destination that will certainly delight those interested in how different cultures can cohabit is the city’s Asian part. Just cross the Bosporus and you will experience a different world. Try the Cinaralti teahouse on the waterfront and take in the view – it is like nothing else in the world!

I felt a twinge of longing and excitement when I saw the advertisement reading, “Holidays to Turkey.”  Turkey is part of the three-way tie at the top of my travel wish list.  It is also, the number one place that I’ve been too, but would like to go back.

What makes Turkey a great travel destination?

A lot of must-see places.

The add for Bodrum caught my eye because the Aegean Coast, with its spectacular ruins, underwater archeology and beautiful vistas is one of the parts I missed on my trip 20 years ago and one of the reasons I need to go back.

The other is the Pamukkale where calcium oxide-rich waters flow down a mountainside in pristine white pools.  Next time…

But I would not give up any of the things I did see.

Istanbul

I recently saw a character in a film proclaim Istanbul to be the most fascinating city in the world.  I don’t know what city merits this title, but based on my experience, Istanbul would certainly be in the running.  The sights are remarkable- the myriad of colors, sounds and smells in the Grand Bazaar; the beauty of the Blue Mosque and the grandeur of the Hagia Sophia.  Even the bus station, more like a giant field filled with coaches (how did I find my way to the right bus?), left an impression.

By far, my favorite sight in Istanbul was the Basilica Cistern.  Above, a bustling city with traffic, noise, commerce, hurry. But below, a warm soft darkness, classical music accompanied by the sound of occasional drops of water as condensation dripped from the Byzantine columns into the pool below.  If only every city had such a marvelous place to escape to.

Basilica Cistern. Photo by Jerzy Kociatkiewicz.

Cappadocia

Few places you will see are as memorable as town of Göreme in Cappadocia.  It’s one of those places that makes you wonder if you’ve left earth and are traveling in a sci-fi novel.  Cone shaped rock formations, converted into houses, churches and monasteries – some dating back to the Roman period, are scattered over the landscape.  There is an “open air museum” and it is now popular to take hot air balloon rides over the valley. I would definitely repeat my visit.

Cappadocia. Photo by Daniel García Peris.

 Black Sea Coast

In my limited time, I forsake the Aegean in order to travel the Black Sea coast.  Being in the Middle East had made me long for the lush plant life I was used to and the green forests suited me.  I visited the famous monastery at Trabzon, and tagged along with some other travelers to the hiking village of Ayder.

The coastline was dramatic and sometimes scary.  The curvy road hugged the cliff-side and the insane bus driver decided he needed to pass the vehicle in front of us.  My companions and I reacted with varying degrees of horror.  I was fatalistic, thinking, “This is it. We’re all going to die.” The Ausie in our group cussed out the bus driver and the other Yankee hid his head saying, “I can’t watch this.”  I mistakenly believed the fourth member of our party to be asleep, but he suddenly looked up and with fabulous British understatement said, “That strikes me as dangerous.”

Lake Van

Perhaps the greater danger was at our next stop – Lake Van, in the eastern extreme of the country, not far from the border with Iran. Historic Armenian churches dot the edges of the lake.  Highly alkaline and salt-rich, the water is a natural detergent.  Like good travelers we swished our clothes around and considered ourselves to have done laundry.

The balcony of a restaurant overlooking the lake served as our campground.  The owners were very friendly and let us lock our gear up in their office while we went down to the water. Our packs were not the only things locked in that room, there appeared to be a good stash of arms as well.  We were in Kurdish territory and had heard rumors about “ethnic cleansing”.  I have no idea if it was really happening. The next day when we were trying to get a lift, my friend realized he had lost his passport.  The restaurant owner drove him to town to make a police report and that evening the police came out to our peaceful spot on the lake.

We had unwittingly provided the government authorities a reason to make their presence felt among our Kurdish hosts. Tension was thick.  Everyone sat around a table drinking, pretending there was no problem.  A couple of travelers had guitars and we say songs- Dock of the Bay and The Boxer – trying to keep everyone happy or at least distracted, but also planning our escape should things get dicey.  In the end, the night passed without incident, but we felt bad about putting our hosts, who had been very good to us, in a difficult position.

One traveler’s memoir I read said that the hills of the disputed area are filled with gold.  When I asked why not let the Kurds have their own country, the Turkish man I was talking to spoke of a much more precious resource – fresh water.  Things are not simple.

But such adventures make for good stories later.  The main problem I have with travel is that I both want to go to places I’ve never been and I want to go back to places that I have.  Turkey is a prime example of both.

Istanbul is no doubt a great place for shopping. Have a walk in the Grand Bazaar, a virtual labyrinth of fascinating shops; it’s easy to be drawn by the carpets, copper and brassware, jewelry and all kinds of ceramics.

Hmm, no. My story is not titled ‘Shopping in Istanbul’. I’m more interested in people.

It didn’t take long for me to realize this special and interesting culture of Turkish shopkeepers: the ‘Where are you from?’ culture.

The day I arrived in Istanbul I was told that shopkeepers there like to ask that question (if not a little obsessed with it), and no matter what country you answer they will tell you they have a close relative living there, very close to you. I had no idea how true that piece of information was as I’d just arrived in the city. I started wandering around touristy places and reached the Grand Bazaar. I was fascinated by the nicely arranged shops and the colorful ceramics. I stopped at one or two of the atmospheric little shops, was asked where I was from, but didn’t pay much attention to that until I reached this carpet shop.

The shopkeeper started by quite an odd opening, ‘Your eyes are tired.’

Feeling a bit puzzled, I stopped.

‘You’ve seen too many carpets, your eyes are tired.’

‘Ah, yes, quite.’ I was just trying to give the desired answer; I hadn’t seen any carpet at all.

‘Where are you from?’

‘Canada,’ said my partner.

‘Oh, my wife is from Canada,’ he said with that look as if he’d just found a long lost friend. ‘What about you, lady?’

‘Hmm, Hong Kong.’

‘My wife’s sister is now living in Hong Kong!’ The way he responded gave me the impression that I was only given a standard response. If I said ‘Taiwan’ his wife’s sister would have been living in Taiwan; or if I said ‘Japan’, then the response would have been rephrased with Japan.

The rest of the conversation was all about his carpet shop, where the carpets were from, how they were made and such. I didn’t pay much attention, as I was still amused by his response, remembering what I was told when I arrived.

As we kept walking around the Bazaar, we saw so many more shopkeepers who asked just this very same question, ‘Where are you from?’ Quite predictably, a lot of them had some brothers, sisters, nephews, or uncles living very close to us. I couldn’t understand why, but instead of finding it annoying, we found it quite amusing. Each time we were asked that question by a new shopkeeper we exchanged smile as if we were saying, ‘Hee, another one!’ Sometimes we would even prepare a surprising answer to see how they would respond.

We didn’t count how many times we were asked that question, but we would definitely have failed and lost count if we had tried.

Things were pretty much the same in other parts of Turkey.

In Antalya, even the restaurants asked the same question. Each time we walked past an eating-place the friendly waiters would rush to us and show us each item on their menu. In the conversations, they never forgot to ask where we were from.

I remember this one restaurant just at the entrance of the old town. We were not interested in the place, but were stopped by a very talkative waiter. As expected he began by asking that question, we didn’t answer. He continued promoting his restaurant. Still, we were not interested, so we said ‘Thank you’ and walked away. As we walked, we heard the fading voice of the waiter, asking, ‘Where are you from? Hey, where are you from?’ I couldn’t help but feel really puzzled this time. Why was he so interested in asking that, even if we were walking away, obviously not interested in what he was selling?

If I was to write a list of fun memories of my trip to Turkey, ‘Where are you from?’ would no doubt be the top of it. I’d never answered that question so many times in my life, come to think of it.

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