While being originally from Turkey, in the last few years I’ve extended the duration between my visits to my homeland to explore different parts of the world from my home base in New York. This year, I decided to pay a long visit to Turkey during the Xmas-NYE break and ended up spending close to 4 weeks in 3 different cities. Seeing friends, family, and especially my 94 year old champion grandmother and introducing my boyfriend to them was a perfect cause to go to Turkey.
Istanbul has always impressed me with its chaotic environment, its people who are always in a rush to get to somewhere, splendid cuisine, and amazing panorama of the Bosphorus bridging the Asia with Europe both physically and culturally. Things were mostly the same as I left the city 15 years ago but what stood out most was the increased number of street beggars that were mostly the refugee families who fled from Syria and Iraq in the last couple of years.
The traits of the Gezi movement that started in 2013 to protest the Islamist government’s attack on the freedom of press, of expression, of assembly, and Turkey’s secularism could be felt in every conversation and seen in the graffitis decorating the narrow streets of Beyoglu. When I heard from friends and family about the changes the AKP government had been making on daily lives to sneakily transition Turkey to an Islamic Republic, I felt deeply saddened and panicked. How can they want to take such a young and progressive country back to the dark ages?
I’ve decided to focus on positive things during this trip and here is what caught my eye:
There are thousands of sites to visit in Istanbul as it’s been a house to many civilizations for thousands of years, but my top historical places are:
- Blue Mosque (Sultanahmet)- http://www.bluemosque.co/
- Yerebatan Saray/ Basilica Cistern: http://www.letsgoistanbul.com/basilica.htm
- Grand Bazaar/Covered Bazaar – http://www.letsgoistanbul.com/covered.htm
- Hagia Sophia- http://www.letsgoistanbul.com/ayasofya.htm
- Spice Bazaar (see pic below)- http://www.lonelyplanet.com/turkey/istanbul/sights/markets-bazaars/spice-bazaar
- Galata Tower- climb to the top http://www.letsgoistanbul.com/hippodrome.htm#galata
Streets to walk around and explore: Galata area, Istiklal Caddesi, Beyoglu, Taksim, Karakoy. It’s fun to discover the side streets where you can find vintage stores, hip bars and cafes in old buildings, bakeries, and infamous hammams (baths)!
Here are my recommendations for sightseeing around Istanbul:
- Take the boat from the European to Asian side, the view is spectacular and you can drink tea and feed the seagulls.
- Walk across the Galata Bridge to see the historical sites above. They are all close to each other or take a taxi.
- Go to the islands! Especially Buyukada (Grand Island) – take a horse carriage tour around the island (~1.5 hrs), walk/climb up to the old church and make a wish!
- Cafes/Restaurants: Sit and watch the amazing Bosphorus view whenever you can. On the European side there’s a huge coastline with a ton of restaurants, cafes, promenades, etc. The Asian side has this too but I am not very familiar with that side 🙂
- For people who want modern Istanbul, there are several malls in each hood and ultra chic cafes/restaurants especially in Nisantasi, Istinye, Etiler, Bebek, Ulus.. but the prices will be higher than NY and why waste time with Modern?
After Istanbul, we headed to beautiful Izmir and Bodrum on the Aegean coast of Turkey to visit my family. Life is much easier on this side of the country and our time we spent by the peaceful Aegean sea definitely helped us relax a bit after the fast pace of Istanbul.
After hearing the news about the snow storm approaching to Istanbul, we hopped in my brother’s car and decided to do a road trip to Bodrum, which is a beautiful coastal town also happened to be within a 4 hr driving distance from Izmir! Bodrum is a fascinating place as it has a pleasing contrast between the Ancient city (and a castle!), rich Turks and foreign visitors. Its bars, restaurants and beach clubs bustle in the summer months with visitors and paparazzi. In other words, Bodrum is like St Tropez of Turkey and it was so special to see her beauty in such peace during this time.