When I started my 2015 Euro trip, I hadn’t planned on going as far east as Istanbul. However, every traveler I met along the way who had been to Istanbul before told me that I absolutely had to go.
Two months into my trip, I had made it to Split, Croatia and had a 1 week gap between when I planned to leave Croatia and when I was due to meet my friend’s cruise ship in Rome. And so I thought, “When will I ever be in this part of the world again? Might as well make the most of it.” And I booked a flight to Istanbul.
The night before my 6am flight, for which I had to leave my hostel at 3am to catch, I realized that I needed a visa to enter Turkey. My computer was completely dead, having been knocked into the ocean by a group of drunk Brits a week prior, so I ended up spending a tense hour on the dusty computer running Windows XP at my hostel.
Thankfully thankfully I was able to apply for an entry visa entirely online. The next day, I showed the offier at passport control at Istanbul Atatürk Airport my entry visa…via a PDF file on my smartphone.
Even though I’ve physically been further from Vancouver, Istanbul felt the most foreign. Steeped with thousands of years of history and the richness of a culture born from a millenia-long collision of peoples from Europe, Asia, and Africa, Istanbul stands out as the most fascinating place I’ve ever visited.
I met a German/Swiss/Chinese girl on the bus ride from Atatürk Airport to Taksim Square. She had been to Istanbul several times in the past.
“Istanbul is so big,” she said with her implacably accented and slightly broken English. “You cannot imagine how big it is. There are so many different kinds of people here. You cannot imagine it.”
And it’s true. In the week I spent wandering around the city, I cannot begin to describe the number of times I thought to myself, “Oh Grace, you are definitely not in Kansas anymore.”
The New City
Over 14 million people live in the metropolitan area of Istanbul—among its sprawling and hilly streets and alleyways made up of a combination of pavement and cobblestone. This intercontinental city is located partly in Europe and partly in Asia with the two continents separated by the Bosphorus Strait.
The Europe side of Istanbul is divided into two sections, known as the New City and the Old City. These are separated by the primary inlet of the Bosphorus: the Golden Horn.
Most of the steel and glass skyscrapers of Istanbul is located in the New City, as well as Istanbul’s central business district and the tourism and leisure district around Taksim Square.
The bright and colorful common area of my hostel in the Beyoğlu district of Istanbul
Istiklal Avenue is one of the most popular streets in Istanbul, with over 3 million visitors per day every weekend
The St. Anthony of Padua Church is the largest Roman Catholic church in Istanbul; Pope John XXIII preached in this church for 10 years before being elected as pope
A Turkish man smoking a cigarette along one of the many winding alleyways of Istanbul; perhaps one of my favorite photos from my visit!
I stumbled across the Istanbul Museum of Modern Art and was reminded of MoMA in New York and MOCA in Los Angeles
Süleymaniye Camii (Süleymaniye Mosque) at high noon as seen from Galata Bridge
Sunset selfie on Galata Bridge 😀
Süleymaniye Camii (Süleymaniye Mosque) at dusk as seen from Galata Bridge
Galata Kulesi (Galata Tower), also known as Christea Turris (the Tower of Christ in Latin) was built by the Genoese in 1348; I considered climbing to the top when the tower was open to visitors during the day but I was always too close to passing out from heatstroke
View from the top of the Istanbul Sapphire, which is located in the central business district and is the tallest building in Turkey; it was the 4th tallest building in Europe when completed in 2010
This is likely the highest point a Turkish flag is flown in all of Turkey
Turkish ice cream, also known as “Dondurma,” has a unique and chewy texture and is usually sold by street vendors in traditional Turkish attire who churn the ice cream with long-handled paddles; for lack of a better description, I refer to this as “ice cream slapping”
Sipping a Turkish coffee for brunch; this is the darkest I have ever been, being 2 summer months into my Euro trip and having just spent a week afloat on the Adriatic Sea
The Old City
The Old City of Istanbul, formerly known as Constantinople, sits on a peninsula surrounded by water on 3 sides—the Golden Horn, Bosphorus, and Sea of Marmara.
The Greeks first settled in Istanbul, then known as Byzantium, in 667 BC, although recent discoveries during the construction of a new metro line dates Istanbul’s first settlements back 8000 years, making the city one of the oldest still-inhabited cities in the world.
Many of Istanbul’s most well-known sights and attractions are in the Old City, from the Grand Bazaar to the Blue Mosque. In 1985, UNESCO declared the entire peninsula a World Heritage Site.
Mısır Çarşısı (The Spice Bazaar) has been bustling for over 350 years, when it first started as a marketplace for goods brought from Egypt
A well-recognized sight: Turkish mosaic lamps at the Grand Bazaar
Dikilitaş (the Obelisk of Theodosius) is the ancient Egyptian obelisk of Pharaoh Thutmose III circa 1400 BC re-erected in the Hippodrome of Constantinople (known today as Sultanahmet Meydanı or Sultanahmet Square) by Roman emperor Theodosius I in the 4th century AD
Sultan Ahmet Camii (Sultan Ahmed Mosque) was built in the 17th century AD during the reign of Sultan Ahmet I; it is commonly known as the Blue Mosque for the blue ceramic tiles decorating its interior walls
The Blue Mosque is still used as an active mosque; prayers occur in this room 5 times a day and is broadcast via loudspeaker across Sultanahmet Square
Hagia Sophia (meaning “Holy Wisdom” in Latin; known as “Ayasofya” in Turkish) was constructed in the 6th century AD and used as a cathedral for the first 1000 years, after which it was converted into a mosque; today it stands as a museum
Hagia Sophia was under renovation during my visit; the large circular disks on the walls are inscribed with the names of Allah, and the prophet Mohammed, his companions, and his grandchildren
Topkapı Sarayı (Topkapi Palace) was one of the major residences of Ottoman Sultans for almost 400 years and is today a museum
The Mustafa Pasha Pavilion at Topkapi Palace is known as the first example in history of the architectural style known as “Turkish Rococo”
Sitting on the steps of the Imperial Council Hall at Topkapi Palace
View of Boğaziçi Köprüsü (Bosphorus Bridge) that connects the Europe and the Asia sides of Istanbul along the Bosphorus strait
Standing in Europe overlooking Asia
This cool şerbet, made from fruits and flower petals, is possibly the single most interesting and delicious drink I have ever tasted
Yerebatan Sarayı (The Basilica Cistern) is located underneath Istanbul and was featured in the James Bond film “From Russia with Love”
I always love these signboards pointing the distance to major cities around the world; I’m pretty sure Baki, Tehran, and Lyon are pointing the wrong direction though…
The City of Istanbul sits partly in Europe and partly in Asia, separated by the strait of Bosphorus and connected by two bridges and public ferries. Approximately 1/3rd of the population of Istanbul lives on the Asia side, which is mostly residential, and commute to the Europe side for work.
On my last day in Istanbul, I decide to take a joy ride to the Asia side of Istanbul. That morning, I said to my Facebook network, “Impromptu decision to go to Asia today!”
The update was met with replies like: “Where in Asia are you going?!” “Come visit me in Hong Kong!” and “Come party in Singapore!”
I took a bus across the Bosphorus Bridge, then informed my Facebook network that, “After 4 long years, I’ve made it back to Asia!”
Riding a public ferry across the Bosphorus Strait from Asia back to Europe, where I was greeted with fireworks