Exploring Istanbul in Two Days

Everyone has stereotypes and their ideas of what a place and its people will be like.

Europeans think American girls are all in a sorority and that we sue everyone.

Just like them, I had my own idea of what Istanbul would be like.

We were in Istanbul during Ramadan so honestly I thought people would just be praying all over the streets. I figured the prayer call would sound and everyone would run into the streets with carpets and begin praying together.

It was like New York City up in those streets. Not a single person was praying. They looked more annoyed by the prayer call. It was not at all what I expected.

I also expected every woman to be covered up. Lots of websites said Istanbul fashion was the same as New York except of course inside the mosques but I just thought this couldn’t be true.

But it was. Women wore shorts, tank tops, tight dresses, etc. Chelsea and I were still called and gawked at, but I suspect it was more because of our white skin than our conservative clothing. The women who were fully covered in burkas or hijabs were mostly tourists themselves.

We wore maxi skirts and scarves to view the famous Blue Mosque. Everyone warned us not to go during prayer because we wouldn’t be able to get in but of course we arrived just as it was starting.

I was very curious about the female culture in Turkey so I think I was overly observant and probably making things up in my head. However, I wore a t shirt and scarf to the mosque and the man outside checking everyone’s attire made me pull the scarf off my shoulders and hang down to also cover my arms. After going inside, I saw there were dozens of women whose arms weren’t covered at all. Was this because of my white American skin? Or was I really just overreacting? Probably the latter.

Either way, the mosque was breathtaking.

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We also saw Hagia Sophia and the Basilica Cistern.

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We headed to the Grand Bazaar but when we arrived, everything was boarded up. I’m not sure if this was because it was Sunday or because it was Ramadan. A lot of restaurants around the mosques were open, I’m assuming primarily for tourists, but pretty much everything around the Bazaar was closed.

So we headed toward the Spice Bazaar to see if we could find a kebab shop an employee at our hostel recommended. Of course, it was closed, but we did walk through the madness that is the Spice Bazaar.

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Public transportation is incredibly easy in Istanbul. The trams and metro are easy to navigate and make actual sense unlike New York City’s crazy system!

We really messed up with our hostel in Istanbul which I think is the primary reason I wasn’t that fond of the city. We were staying just off of Taksim Square which is already not the safest place to be as a tourist. But our hostel was in the legitamate ghetto. Several people from outside our hostel told us this. Everything around us had bars on the windows and it was just really rundown. It was a little scary to walk through during the day and very scary to walk through at night. One wrong turn and you were in the middle of it all.

We stayed in a 10 bed mixed dorm and it was like the freaking UN in there. You had Chels and I, a German girl, a Pakistani guy, a Turkish man, Korean girl and then two guys speaking Spanish (we never found out where they were from). No matter how many hostels we stay in, it’s still difficult to get used to sleeping with random people in the room every night. Not to mention Pakistan’s snoring! Chels woke him up in the middle of the night to tell him he needed to stop.

The staff at our hostel was very nice. The first night one guy took us out for Turkish food at a cheap place and beers at his favorite bar. He desperately wanted to show Chelsea and I around the city the next day but we really just wanted to do it on our own.

Another one of my random asides…Istanbul is pretty dirty and dusty. Check out Chelsea’s feet after walking around for just a day!

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After checking out the mosques, we went to one of the islands at the recommendation of people at our hostel. The ferry ride on the Bosphorus was really pretty. We saw the back of the palaces and mosques and got a closer look at the Asian side of Istanbul. The island was very breezy which was a very welcome change.

During lunch on the water, a little boy, probably 8-years-old tried to sell me a wire halo thing with fake roses wrapped to it.

“Five Lira,” he said. This roughly $2.50.

“What’s your name?” I asked.

“OK, three Lira.”

“You are such a cutie! Look at that smile!” I said.

He then got very shy. The waiters at the restaurant started teasing him in what I assume was Turkish. He got really flush and was even more adorable. I fell absolutely in love with him.

One of the waiters said he was from Syria and was causing them a lot of problems because he would bother their customers. The waiter said the little boy was a war refugee and that there were so many in Turkey and they were causing a big problem for the country. I couldn’t believe this. How could you say that about this little boy!? He needed a home. He needed help. At least he was trying to make a living instead of stealing or begging. I wanted to bring him home with me on the spot.

Random aside – we told everyone in Istanbul we were from Canada. I’ve felt during this trip that the moment I say I’m American, everyone’s opinion of me changes. It makes me a target. It makes me automatically have a bullseye on my head. A person with a specific character. But when I say I’m Canadian, people couldn’t really care less. Canada, cool. What do you want to drink?

That reminds me! NO ONE speaks English in Istanbul. In most of the countries we’ve visited, the majority of people have conversational English. It was not this way at all in Istanbul. Our last night we went out for pizza (we have cravings, OK!?) and we asked for pizza sauce to dip our breadsticks in. Pizza sauce at a pizza restaurant. Not that uncommon right? The waiters could not figure out what we were asking. I think the entire three days we only met about four people outside our hostel who spoke English. Which is fine of course. But with a city that size that has everything from Shake Shack to Top Shop, I was surprised more people didn’t speak English.

I’m curious what Istanbul is like not during Ramadan. The streets really do come alive at night with people ready to break the fast and celebrate. But the seemingly non-stop prayer was difficult to get used to.

Every morning at 3 a.m., the prayer call would go off for 30 minutes to wake people up for their morning prayer and to eat before sunrise. There was a mosque right next to our hostel so the call was incredibly loud.

But also, ordinary people would drum and chant really loudly in the streets before that (around 2:30 a.m.) to wake people up. The idea is you wake people up before prayer so they have enough time to make a big breakfast that can last you through the day.

I did not get a moment of sleep in Istanbul. From the prayer calls and drums, to the all night parties, it was impossible to fall asleep. And the majority of people we met didn’t even seem to keep Ramadan!

It was our first batch of culture shock on this trip so I think it was a good experience. I think had we chosen a better hostel where we could’ve maybe had some sleep (and air conditioning or at least a fan!) I probably would have liked it better.

After Istanbul, we flew on Turkish Airlines to Kayseri where we then went to Cappadocia, a more rural part of Turkey where we plan to do some hiking and take a hot air balloon ride.

At the Istanbul airport, we went through security twice. Before even entering the airport you have to go through security. You can’t get to the check in desks before your bags have been sent through a scanner. There is also a desk where you can turn in your weapons. Do people seriously have enough weapons that they need to staff a desk for them to be turned in!?

You then go security again after checking your bag and before heading to your gate. Security is not the same in Europe as it is in the states. It takes about two seconds. You don’t take off your shoes and no one really cares about your liquids. It usually takes us a total of 10 minutes to check in, check our bags and get through security. Depending on lines of course!

Turkey is definitely worth the trip. I felt it gave me a taste of the Middle Eastern culture without being too overwhelming. I’d like to explore more but I think I would like it more with a local as a guide. It’s always good to travel with someone who knows the area and customs and Turkey is no different!

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