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Istanbul and I’ve had a long lasting love affair – thinking about it, the longest I’ve had with any city in the world! Ever since I went to Istanbul for the first time, all the way back in 1998, I’ve been in love with this city that is unlike any other city in the world.‘Where the East meets the West’, they say about Istanbul, and while it might sound like such a cliche, there’s no saying that describes Istanbul better than this. The complex, cosmopolitan city, divided by the Bosporus, sits partially on the European continent and partially on the Asian continent and offers such a rich and at the same time diverse cultural experience, so many historic sights and hidden gems that you could easily spend a month here without getting bored. That’s what I always wanted to do, by the way, spend an entire month in Istanbul to soak up all the history, culture, art, food and vibrant energy the city has to offer, but I still haven’t managed to do it.
I did, however, managed to fit in a short visit to Turkey last year, which only reaffirmed my love for this magnificent city. If you are apprehensive about visiting Turkey at the moment because of the recent political turmoil, I say: don’t be afraid! Istanbul is much safer than the media makes us believe, and you’ll miss out on a very special and unique travel experience if you let fear hold you back from traveling to Turkey now. Turkey is still the sixth most visited country in the world – who would’ve thought, right?If you need more convincing, here are my top reasons to visit Istanbul now:
The history and architecture
Istanbul’s mosques alone are worth spending hours in, with its graceful minarets and imposing domes, and of course the impressive interiors, especially the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia need to be seen from the inside, not just from the outside. Another architecturally remarkable structure? The Topkapi Palace, dating back to the Ottoman era. If you want to do yourself a favor – don’t limit yourself to the major tourist sights. Seek out a few of Istanbul’s off-the-beaten-track monuments as well, for example the small Beylerbeyi Palace, which is located on the Asian side and gives you a perfect excuse to head over there.But Istanbul’s architecture goes so much further with its many remnants from Byzantine, ottoman and Roman times. This fascinating and eclectic mix of cultures combined with the modern, contemporary Istanbul makes it a remarkable playground of cultures, of new and old, of different religious groups.
Thanks to its hilly layout, there are plenty of viewpoints from where breathtaking vistas over the Bosphorus can be enjoyed, and its geographic location, with several neighborhoods surrounded /divided by water, already makes it a stunningly beautiful city. Add to that the striking mosques, the Old City (UNESCO World Heritage) and captivating sights such as the massive underground vault of the Basilica Cistern, and you realize that this truly is one of the most intriguing cities in the world.
The fusion of Asian, Middle Eastern and European cuisines makes for a one-of-a-kind culinary experience that is unrivaled. The food in Istanbul is one of the things that makes me come back, especially the expensive mezze spreads which consist of hot and cold salads and various dips and sauces to dunk the delicious bread in.
For one you have a vast street scene with pomegranate juice and chestnuts on seemingly every corner, the tea guys who charge pennies for a small glass of the beloved Turkish tea. Then there are the baked goods, simit, comparable to a sesame bagel, but slimmer, and baklava, the sticky pastries, always oozing with honey, and highly addictive.Kebabs, pide, borek and falafel are cheap street foods that you find in little hole-in-the-wall cafes all over the city, and even though they don’t look like much, their tastiness will stick with you for a long time.
And in addition to its street food scene, Istanbul has a thriving culinary scene with a growing number of upscale restaurants that put a modern twist on traditional dishes.
To get the full scope of Istanbul’s culinary diversity, i highly recommend taking a culinary tour. To combine great views with tasty food, I recommend 7 Oceans for example, located in the Old City and with unbeatable vistas over the Bosporus.
One aspect that makes Istanbul so interesting are the contrasts you find here: contrasts between modern and traditional Turkey, in which hipster coffee shops coexist with fishermen who go walk down to the Galata Bridge morning after morning where they set up their fishing rods for the day. The contrast between the ancient mosques and the new bright skyscrapers, the women in their traditional burkas and young girls in skinny jeans and high heels.The contrasts do not end here – the Asian side differs dramatically from the European side, and all of the city’s neighborhoods have their own character: there’s bohemian Cihangir for example, posh Besiktas, and fancy Nisantasi with its distinct European flair.
The hospitality of the Turks
This is something I have to include because the more I travel, the more I realize that this isn’t something you can take for granted. If you’ve been to other big cities in the world, say London, Rome or New York, you’ll know what I mean when I say it is exceptional to be made felt welcome, always greeted with a smiling face, an invite for a glass of apple tea, and helpfulness that is earnest. In Istanbul you won’t find taxi drivers that rip you off like in Bangkok or people who avoid eye contact just so they don’t have to talk to you like in Berlin. Here, people are incredibly proud to show you their city, their country, their culture.