Istanbul, oh my. What a stunning marvel of civilization.
To be frank, I was rather skeptical about visiting Turkey in general, perhaps due to the extremely negative views of Turkey that we get from Western mainstream media — the regressive Islamic government led by Erdoğan, terrorist attacks on Turkish soil, etc. But like they say, don’t bash it until you try it, and boy was I glad I visited Turkey, and especially Istanbul.
Istanbul – The City
Strategically straddling the European and Asian continents at the narrow Bosphorus Strait, coupled with its mild climate and distinct four seasons, Istanbul is perhaps the most perfectly located city in the entire world. If I was playing a game of Sid Meier’s Civilization and started with a blank map of Earth, I would settle my city exactly where Istanbul is — that’s how perfect I think this location is. Credit to the ancient Greeks for picking this excellent location to create a settlement, and to the Romans, Byzantines, and Ottomans for turning it into a major hub of civilization.
Istanbul, or Constantinople as it was known up until 1924, is a sprawling city that is blessed with hilly terrain, the sea, as well as ample greenery. Architecture in the city reflects its rich history and diverse influences. A walk up the narrow cobblestone alleys of the Karaköy hill will take you back in time to the Middle Ages, whereas visiting the mosques at Sultanahmet brings you the Ottoman Empire in all its glory. On every street and around every corner is something unique, whether it’s a building, a shop, or a stray animal!
The stray animals of Istanbul, and much of Turkey in general, is a fantastic phenomenon. Many stray dogs are found lazily roaming the streets of Istanbul, and nearly all of these dogs are tagged by the ear. Citizens of Istanbul regularly put food down in front of their shops or houses to feed these stray dogs, and the animals and humans simply co-exist in a state of harmony. The stray dogs all appear well-fed, with thick coats, that they even manage to live comfortably through Istanbul’s mild winters.
For the nomadic entrepreneur types like me who love the coffee shop lifestyle, Istanbul is heaven but somewhat hell at the same time. It is absolutely heaven in its love for coffee and tea, and the omnipresence of coffee shops around every corner in the city. For coffee-obsessed Millennials like myself, finding a place to sit down and relax with a Turkish coffee (or Americano, if you wish) is perhaps one of the easiest things to do in Istanbul. On the flip side though, Turkey generally has very poor WiFi speeds (along with government censorship of websites), so it is a bit of hell in the sense that it can be quite a struggle to find half-decent WiFi at the coffee shops.
Regardless of your success with finding functional WiFi, do sit down and enjoy a Turkish coffee, always served with a small cube of Turkish Delight. I recommend having your coffee with a baklava instead to make it pure oral heaven (not a fan of Turkish Delight myself). And if you are not a coffee person, then do enjoy a Turkish tea — the default is the Turkish black tea (Rize çayı) served in a small glass, but you can also try the variety of other mainstays like apple tea (elma çayı) or winter tea (kış çayı).
What really surprised me the most was Istanbul’s mass transit system — it is impressively modern, clean, efficient, and relatively easy to navigate. Call me ignorant, but this was not something I expected from a city that belongs in a country frequently labeled for being “backwards” and economically struggling. I bought an Istanbulkart right after I arrived at the airport, and I tried all models of public transportation in Istanbul with it. I rode the Metro (subway), the tram, the bus, and the ferry — overall experience 10/10. I would say that Istanbul’s public transportation system was one of the best I have experienced in any city around the world, better than even the likes of Tokyo, Seoul, Hong Kong, Shanghai, and London. Even crossing the Bosphorus between Europe and Asia was much simpler than it looks on the map, as there are frequent ferries from all ferry terminals on each side that traverse the Strait in 30 minutes or less.
Compared to many other cities, public transit in Istanbul was comfortable and enjoyable, rather than crowded and torture. But, if you prefer to always have peace and maximum comfort, you can hail yellow cabs from the street easily, and the fare is very cheap by Western standards – a 15-minute ride in the city should cost no more than 20 Lira (less than $4 USD at the time of writing).
Leisure & Activities
If you are a culture-phile or a history-phile, then you will not run out of places to see in Istanbul. The city is full of museums, mosques, churches, places of interest, history and stories hidden in nooks and crannies, and more. The standard tourist must-go’s like Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, Galata Kulesi, Dolmabahçe Palace, etc., are just scratching the surface.
Turkish hammams are a must-try, and you can find many options in Istanbul. Most of the English-speaking options are on the European side and are geared towards tourists, but some are very reasonably priced. You can find a few of these in the Beyoğlu area. Typically you will be required to book in advance.
Nightlife in Istanbul is a bit weak for an international metropolis, but I’ve heard that the bar scene was also dialled back a bit since the current government took over. However, Istanbul is still fantastic for barhopping and having a few casual drinks, as you can find street patio bars all over the places in neighbourhoods like Beşiktaş and Taksim on the European side, and Kadıköy on the Asian side. What’s lacking in my opinion is the clubbing nightlife, as these bars are mostly concentrated around Istiklal Street in Taksim, but are mostly small and bare-boned establishments. In terms of style, decor, and vibe, they are sort of like smaller versions of Budapest’s ruin bars. You will struggle to find the array of emphatic multi-room, multi-floor nightclubs that you can find in cities like Tokyo, Moscow, Shanghai, or Barcelona. A few upscale clubs used to congregate around the bridge in Ortaköy, but since the mass shooting at Club Reina in 2017, that area has been more tame.
Like any major city, Istanbul is a heaven for a foodie. You can find kebab shops every 20m, as well as an array of other options, from Turkish cuisine to American burger joints to British pubs to other variations of Middle Eastern cuisine. I’m not going to write much about gastronomy as this subject is best experienced with on the ground action. But, I do highly recommend a place called Roof Mezze 360, and their Turkish Mezze platter!
I am thoroughly in love with Istanbul for its immense beauty, rich history, and the irreversible marks of civilization left by generations of conflict, peace, and revelation. Every day I strolled around in this beautiful city, it was a feast for my senses and emotions.
From a pragmatic approach, though, I would only give it 3.5/5 as a destination for digital nomads to set up shop, due to the struggles with internet speeds and censorship. Oh, and, Wikipedia is blocked in Turkey. VPN required.
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