The beautiful mosaic that is Istanbul

I arrived in Istanbul not knowing what I was going to find. I was curious about how the feel of this city was going to be like. A city that I had been hearing about for a long time. What was the culture of this place going to be like? How would it feel? And so, I spent the first day walking around and trying to categorise the people and all that I was seeing. Is it European or Arabic? With over 300 mosques in the city, it definitely felt Arabic, but the people didn’t speak Arabic, and Turkish definitely doesn’t sound like Arabic! This is a city in Europe, but are the people European? Does this feel European? That was a summary of my first evening in Istanbul.

Then came the next day, and we started going deeper in the city. We, like most of the tourists, went to visit Hagia Sophia, and here I finally found the answer that I was looking for. But before I tell you what that is, let me tell you a bit about this museum. In a very short overview, this started off as a Greek Orthodox cathedral, which was later converted into an Ottoman mosque, and now it stands as a museum, with an impressive dome and impressive architecture for the time it was built, which was around 537 AD.

And so, back to my confusion and dilemma about Istanbul, Hagia Sophia is a mix of Christianity and Islam. You can see this by looking at fresco paintings of Jesus and the Holy Mary, standing next to Arabic inscriptions. And let me tell you this, I have never seen a church/mosque so beautiful in my life. The intertwining of different cultures and religions has resulted in this beautiful piece of art, admired by millions of people everyday. And that’s what Istanbul is. It’s a city with a wonderful mix of different cultures, making it one of the most unique places that I have ever been in. This can also be said for Turkey in general, as no place you go has the same vibe as the other. But I will speak more about that in my next post.

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The blend of religious icons in the Hagia Sophia

We have been to the three main regions in Istanbul. So here is my take on the three faces of this fascinating city:

Sultanahmet

This is the traditional district. The place where most tourists stay. It is the place where the Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmet) and Hagia Sophia are situated. It is the old part of Istanbul, and this feels generally Arabic, with a lot of street vendors, shoe shiners, mosques. Here you can also find the grand bazaar and the spice bazaar, which is a must visit if you love markets. If you love books, you can find a small book market close to the Grand Bazaar – all books are in Turkish but it’s good just to stroll around.

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Sultanahmet square with the majestic Hagia Sophia stealing the show
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Everyday life in the Grand Bazaar
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Even just strolling around…
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… you will feel like you’re in some enchanted land

This area can feel a bit like the ‘tourist trap’ area, and you will definitely be overcharged for stuff. But at the end of the day, it is still cheaper than most of the other European cities, so it’s not that bad 🙂 Don’t let this stop you from trying street food or buying items from the bazaars. It is an experience on its own! Also, watch out for men going round with trays of teas, and sometimes, also food. These are for the shop owners. It is incredible how much tea these people consume. But I wouldn’t blame them as we did have a lot of tea ourselves.

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Street food sellers in between the two grand mosques – Sultan Ahmet and Hagia Sophia (not pictured)

One thing that I would advise you not to miss, is dining on a rooftop terrace. You get to see the beautiful panorama of the city, and if you’re close to the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia, then it’s magical. Most of the hotels open up their terrace for evening dinner and drinks, so it’s not hard to find somewhere to do this.

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The view from the rooftop terrace of our hotel. Amazing, I know! (That’s the Sultan Ahmet – Blue Mosque 🙂 )

Beyoglu

Across the bridge from Sultanahmet is the modern side of Istanbul – with the boho vibe of the younger generation. Cool hostels, clubs, high end shops. This is the European face of Istanbul. This area also reminded me of Rio de Janeiro, with a lot of steep hills, very cosmopolitan in some places, colourful buildings. Here you will find multinational fast food chain restaurants next to the traditional cafes full of baklava. High end clothes shops next to a Turkish ice cream shop, with the vendor flipping the ice cream with a stick, teasing the people who are trying to buy the said ice cream. Yes, that is a thing in Turkey apparently. The traditional ice cream, called Dondurma, is made from mastic, a kind of resin which makes it chewy and requires the vendors to churn it regularly with a stick. So if you’re in the mood for an ice cream, prepare yourself for a unique experience 🙂

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Taksim Square – one of the busiest squares in Istanbul
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Istiklal avenue, with an old tram going up and down the road, children chasing it from behind
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The famous Dondurma (Turkish ice cream). We opted for a plated one with a side of baklava and pistachio 🙂

Uskudar

This is a district on the Asian side of Istanbul. Stepping on this side felt like stepping back into reality. You don’t find a lot of tourists here. Thus, there isn’t much to do except for wandering around in the streets, strolling through the street market and see the locals buy their daily needs. You will definitely not be overcharged here, because you will get the same price as the locals.

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At the food market
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The hustle and bustle of the local market

While you’re in Uskudar, make sure that you stay until sunset. Having a long promenade by the sea, it is the perfect place to watch the sun go down with the city skyline in the background. Go next to the Maiden’s tower, which is literally a tower in the middle of the sea, a bit far off from the shore. There you can find a cafe and the steps are adorned with comfy cushions. Find a good spot, sit down and enjoy the show. A multitude of vendors will go by, making sure that you don’t go hungry and that you have enough tea to make it through. This was one of our best evenings in Istanbul. Goes on to confirm that you don’t need much for a good night out, just the perfect company with the most amazing view, and you’re all set!

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Get comfy 😉
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This sunset, with the Maiden Tower and that city skyline – you can’t ask for a better end to your day!

Going round Istanbul, you can see and feel the variety of cultures and beliefs. For those of us who try to standardise this world with stereotypes, such as being Muslim means being an Arab, or being a European means not being a Muslim, Istanbul gives us a reason to believe otherwise. That a human can be whatever she or he wants to be, and everyone around will accept that, with no complaints whatsoever. Because that is what makes us unique in every way, and that is the true meaning of beauty.

‘We become not a melting pot but a beautiful mosaic. Different people, different beliefs, different yearnings, different hopes, different dreams.’ – Jimmy Carter

Have you been to Istanbul? What are your thoughts about this city? Let me know in the comments! 🙂

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