The ezan, known in English as the call to prayer, is proudly and loudly broadcast five times a day from multiple loudspeakers located on tall minarets at mosques throughout Istanbul, Turkey. The first one starts in the morning, before dawn sets in, sometimes as early as 4am and the last one falls a couple hours after the sun sets. For a visitor unfamiliar with the Muslim culture, it may initially startle you out of your jet lagged sleep, but by the end of your trip it will become a soothing familiarity that you anticipate and sometimes even look forward to. Regardless of your personal religious or spiritual beliefs, there is something calming and inspiring about the selfless prayers and the togetherness that they inspire throughout such a huge city on a daily basis. There are over 2700 mosques in Istanbul that cater to the 99% of the population that is Muslim. There are also over 50 churches and 20 synagogues which accommodate the Christian and Jewish faiths.
Two of the most iconic religious buildings in Istanbul are The Sultan Ahmed Mosque, also known as the Blue Mosque and The Hagia Sophia. The Blue Mosque is commonly referred to as that because of the beautifully hand painted azure tiles that embellish the interior walls, as well as the blue lights that illuminate the outside of the mosque’s five main domes, eight secondary domes and six minarets at night. The history and architecture can easily be found online, in articles, photos and books, but nothing compares with the in person emotions that are evoked when you remove your shoes, wrap your head in a flowing scarf and enter a sacred house of worship that was completed in 1616, during Sultan Ahmed I’s rule, and is still a functioning mosque today, over 400 years later! It has also become a popular tourist destination due to its incredible tilework, intricate stained glass windows, beautiful courtyards and its distinct architectural style combining two centuries of Ottoman mosque development with the traditional facets of Islamic buildings and the Byzantine Christian elements of the neighboring Hagia Sophia. The Hagia Sophia has an incredulously long history dating back to its origins in 537 during which time Istanbul was known as Constantinople. It was initially constructed as a Christian Church Cathedral. Over 500 years later it was converted to a Greek Orthodox Cathedral, then to a Roman Catholic Cathedral, back to a Greek Orthodox Cathedral, then to an Imperial Mosque for almost 500 years and now it is a museum. Hagia Sophia comes from the Greek words for Holy Wisdom. It is known for its massive dome with astonishingly high ceilings which changed the history of architecture and gave it the coveted title of world’s largest cathedral for almost 1000 years in a row. No one thing stands out because they all do! It’s a must see if not for the marble surfaces, mosaics, lighting fixtures, urns and columns, but also to reflect on an array of religions all being housed under one roof at different points throughout history. It’s an amazing architectural and spiritual feat.
Istanbul is more than just historical landmarks and museums. It is a modern metropolis spread over two continents, Europe and Asia, which is deeply rooted in tradition, faith and history but is also a high tech business hub with international retailers, luxury hotels, fashion districts and eclectic dining and nightlife options. The east meets west, young meets old, conservative meets liberal clichés all apply for this majestic city set under the glory of the Middle Eastern sun. A sunset boat ride on the Bosphorus, an international waterway located in Northwestern Turkey that forms part of the boundary between Europe and Asia, is a must do on any visitor’s itinerary. Public or private ferry, chartered yacht, tourist boat tour or a catamaran seabus are some of the eclectic water options available. Choose champagne and caviar while cruising in luxury or start the evening off on a party style boat with Efes Pilsen, the local’s brewskie of choice and some tunes and dancing or take a mellow, guided tour and have some of the significant sights such as the Topkapi Palace pointed out along the way by an enthusiastic and friendly expert.
In the midst of the cosmopolitan mecca lies The Grand Bazaar. The rich aromas of spices, teas, and exotic fruits mingle with lingering fragrances from oils and perfumes making it an impossible place to avoid. The city is full of amazing photo ops but especially here, one of the world’s oldest and largest covered markets. It will take you to a simpler time where items were bartered for, clothing was hand stitched and tailored, food was homemade and everything you needed was in one culturally diverse sensory overload. I have found many great souvenirs, or tokens of remembrance from this tantalizing place. I have 2 glass and mosaic tile nightstand lamps from here, as well as a silk scarf with Arabic writing which I don’t travel without. Its silky, delicate fabric is ideal to wrap my hair in for a conservative destination or to cover my neck in chilly weather and to use on my bag as an adornment. I’ve also picked up numerous gifts such as aromatic oils, jewelry, spices, Turkish Delight candies and traditional Turkish tea sets, which are beautiful to put on display even if you are a non-tea drinker. You must barter, negotiate, on everything here. The vendors are good natured; most speak some English and love to entertain you while you haggle over prices. It is not an insult; it is their custom and is a rush of adrenaline when you negotiate a deal for that sparkly gold bangle you had been eyeing since you walked in.
Outside the marketplace are plenty of eateries, often offering café style outdoor seating, as well as indoor dining. Al fresco is ideal for people watching and sitting back in amazement and really taking in all the sights, sounds and smells of this magical land. Kebaps (Kebabs) are made up of a variety of protein choices including lamb, beef, chicken or fish, but never pork, and are an excellent choice and will be the freshest, juiciest tasting kebabs with just the right amount of spices and herbs. They are often served with pide pieces (pita bread) as well as yogurt dip, tomato sauces and green salads with fresh olives, tomatoes and cucumbers. Follow it up with a strong Turkish coffee (strong being the only authentic type) and a slice of rich, flaky baklava. If you prefer a libation, try sipping on Turkey’s national alcoholic beverage of choice, Raki. It has an anise (licorice flavor) and you mix it with water to turn the clear liquid white. It is most commonly served with meze (appetizers). Turkey is a foodie’s heavenly tasting ground with a wide variety of options for eclectic palettes and budgets. Challenge yourself daily to sample at least one food or beverage you haven’t tried before.
One more stop on my must see places to meander to are Princes’ Islands. Several ferry companies provide transportation from both the European and the Asian sides of Istanbul to these whimsical islands, which lie across the Sea of Marmara. Once you disembark, you will leave behind the noise and chaos of the city and immediately feel the breezes of serenity on this small chain of islands. No vehicles are allowed, so the modes of transportation are walking, biking or my absolute favorite: horse and carriage. Being an avid equestrian, any chance to be around these magnificent creatures, is a treat but especially when they are so ingrained in the culture here. Take a trip around one of the islands and look at the beautiful houses, mostly used as vacation or second homes. Trees provide partial shade and there are local shops, restaurants and small, but beautiful beaches with incredible water and city views. The islands are often cut off from the mainland during harsh winters but visit during the spring or the fall and it will be ideal temperatures for exploring, relaxing and basking in the glow of the sun.
It is fascinating to see how people around the world live and what their homes look like, how much do they cost, the designs and styles etc and then compare them to your own dwellings and way of life. You learn about a whole different culture that has its distinctions but has a lot of deep rooted similarities too. Every person wants somewhere comfortable and safe to call home and I try to highlight what these might look like in each place that I visit. Some Istanbulites enjoy the luxury of having a condo in the city and a summer home on the islands. Although Istanbul is considered a large city, with over 14 million people living there, the cost of living is 50% below that of living in NYC, USA. An above average 3 bedroom apartment in the city centre rents for about $1400/month in USD. Typical features in this sector would be hardwood floors, exposed brick accent walls, 1 bathroom with Turkish tiles and a ceramic sink, a small kitchen (compared to the USA) with a sink, cabinets, wooden counter space, a compact fridge and stove and only very high end places have dishwashers and washers and dryers in the units. The apartments often feature unique, ornate details throughout such as wood beams, carvings, built in shelves and mosaic designs. Many places have some type of outdoor space, such as a balcony or small roof deck with views of the city which make living in the city worth the higher prices than living on the outskirts of town.
Istanbul is one of my favorite cities because of the sociable, welcoming and captivating people that love to chat about their country, your travels and will be more than willing to show you around as a sign of hospitality. The amazing mix of cultures, the spirituality and the natural beauty add to its allure. Come to Istanbul and leave with a heavier suitcase, a few new friends, hundreds of photos, memories that will last a lifetime and most importantly a different view on the world, whatever that may be. Every time I take a journey, I realize there is so much more I want to see and experience and traveling sparks an interest in other cultures, acceptance of our differences and often surprise at our similarities.