Europe

Istanbul: The City That Took Me By Complete Surprise

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Posted on / by Alex Berger

Istanbul City Bench

When I chose Turkey as the destination for my holiday trip, one key factor was weather.  While I still didn’t expect it to be terribly warm, I was hopeful that the weather would be notably warmer than what I had grown accustomed to in Copenhagen, Denmark.  Little did I know what I was in for: the coldest weather Turkey has experienced in over 25 years.  After diving into my bags and layering on just about every piece of warm clothing I had, I quickly set out to explore the historic district of Sultanahmet which immediately surrounds the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, more commonly known as the Blue Mosque. I have to confess that I was more than a little frustrated by the cold and snow flurries which made visibility difficult.  Still, I decided to take stock of my situation and make the absolute best of it – after all, when was the last time you saw photos of Istanbul covered in snow?  Eager to take care of this rare occurrence, I began to explore the neighborhood..

Blue Mosque in the Snow

The trip was my first to a Muslim country.  It was also my first to an arab-influenced country.  I say arab-influenced country because I know that many Turks don’t consider themselves to be arabs and are regularly frustrated by the mis-association.  As I crunched out into the snow the first time I honestly had no idea what to expect.  I had heard that Turkey was much more liberal, western and progressive than many of the more traditionalist/conservative Muslim countries, but I had no idea just where the boundaries between the two might fall.  Would I see lots of women covered from head to toe in traditional garb? Would beer and alcohol be available – or even legal?   What about pork?  Would people pause during prayer periods to pray in the streets?   Some of these unknowns no doubt seem silly to some of you, especially some of my Turkish friends who have known me for years.  For others, I imagine you likely share the uncertainty I did before my arrival in Turkey.

Sultan Ahmed Mosque in the Snow

What I found was a city full of surprises. While there were some women in full-body traditional conservative outfits, most wore a headscarf, or nothing particularly unusual – choosing instead to dress as one would find and expect anywhere else in the world.  In truth, there are probably more women dressed traditionally in the heavily-Arab district of Norrebro back in Copenhagen than there are in the Sultanahmet district of Istanbul.  In part, that’s due to the tourist-centric nature of that part of town.  Mostly, however, it is indicative of exactly what you would expect in any major metropolitan area.  Similarly, despite the loud sing-song of the Muslim call to prayer echoing through the city several times a day, I never saw anyone pause to pray in public. In truth, few Turks even paused as they went about their business. Should I be surprised? Probably not.  Was I?  Most definitely.

Hagia Sofia in the Snow

As my time in Istanbul quickly raced by I came to realize just how far off most of my perceptions about Turkey had been.   During our visits to the Taksim area, which is a shopping sector and bar district within Istanbul, I quickly learned that Istanbul has a thriving bar and nightlife scene.  While drinks are relatively expensive, they’re easily on hand in most parts of the city (though perhaps slightly more difficult to find than some other major cities). Perhaps most surprising was that there even seemed to be unofficial open container laws, as long as you were careful and remained within Taksim.  The city was not at all what I expected or what many of the westernized portrayals of Turkey depicted.  Heck, to our total surprise (and dismay) several fellow hostelers and I actually stumbled into (and right out of) what we thought was a bar which ended up being a brothel – located right in the heart of Taksim.

Blue Mosque in the Snow

Now, all of this isn’t to say that Istanbul doesn’t have its conservative districts and idiosyncrasies.  It does, but it’s also nothing like the city I was expecting.  Another aspect that took me by complete surprise was the city’s size.  A review of online literature about Istanbul in preparation for my trip left me expecting a mid-sized capital city with a hearty population in the 10-12 million range.  What I found was a city that locals claim has at least 19 million residents and, given the population density and size of the city, I believe it.  This, and other experiences during the trip led me to realize that  Istanbul is one of the world’s great cities and it is not discussed as such as often as it should be.

Blue Mosque Area and Obelisk

More than that, it possesses a charm that few cities of its size and scale are able to nurture or retain.   Istanbul is a city of empire.  A city of history.  Of wonder. With its well-manicured boulevards and crumbling historic districts, Istanbul befits a city that straddles two continents – two worlds – that has served as the sentry of the Bosphorus for thousands of years.  Despite spending more than a week in Istanbul, I feel as though I’ve only just scratched the surface.  There are still so many historical buildings, museums, and remnants of the past to explore.  But, it goes far beyond that.  The foods, music, cafes, and cultures of Istanbul are also intoxicating, rich, and complex. I’ll find my way back to Istanbul as soon as the chance permits and as someone who isn’t generally a fan of mega-cities, that is a take away from the city that I found extremely surprising.   If you find yourself considering a visit to Istanbul – don’t be mislead by headlines, silly stereotypes and hear-say.  If you haven’t considered Istanbul and Turkey as a destination in the past – I hope my series on the country will help inspire you to add it to your list and to consider it seriously.   After all, Istanbul is the city of Byzantium and Constantinople – a city that demands every traveler’s attention!

Alex Berger

I am a travel blogger and photographer. I also am involved in academic research into the study abroad and backpacker communities.

16 Comments

  • ehalvey
    March 19, 2012

    LOVE the photos of Hagia Sophia and the Theodosian obelisk in the snow! I was in Istanbul in September, and it was the first time in a Muslim and Arab-influenced country for me as well. I absolutely loved it there and was fascinated by tourists from more conservative countries walking side by side with tourists from much more liberal countries. It was just amazing to people watch.

    I’m thinking of a trip to Copenhagen in July, any insider tips?

    Reply
    • Alex Berger
      March 20, 2012

      Thanks! It’s definitely a very cool mixture of things between the Obelisk, Mosque, and Mosque/Cathedral/Museum hybrid. So many worlds and layers of human history piled on top of each other! That’s a great point about the different types of tourists as well.

      Unfortunately, I’ll be in Africa in July – but happy to give you a list of places to see/stay/etc. – just drop me an e-mail!

      Reply
  • Kristina
    March 19, 2012

    Beautiful photos of Istanbul in the snow. I’m headed there for the first time at the end of the month and I can’t wait! I DO hope it’s a little warmer by then though.

    Reply
    • Alex Berger
      March 20, 2012

      Thanks Kristina! Indeed, it should be far better weather wise, but every bit as charming and captivating! I think you’ll really enjoy it – let me know what your experience is and your take-away!

      Reply
  • Joy (My Turkish Joys)
    March 19, 2012

    Happy to hear you had such a great time exploring Istanbul where I’ve lived almost 2 years now. I’m always trying to change people’s perceptions about Turkey, especially my American friends back in the Midwest, USA. It’s an amazing country full of so much history that’s just waiting to be explored if you give it a chance! =-)

    Reply
    • Alex Berger
      March 20, 2012

      I can see how that would be a challenge based on what general perceptions are back home vs. the reality of what Turkey is and has to offer. Keep up the good work, they’re missing out until they make it over for a visit!

      Reply
  • Emily in Chile
    March 25, 2012

    Even with the snow and the cold, I’m jealous! My husband’s headed there in a couple weeks, and I’m practically green with envy that I don’t get to go with him.

    Reply
    • Alex Berger
      March 26, 2012

      He’ll definitely be returning with some fantastic photos and stories! It’s alright, you’ll just have to chock it up to a scouting trip and force him to take you with him next time.

      Reply
  • Mary @ Green Global Travel
    May 22, 2012

    Very informative post! Sorry you weren’t able to go on your trip when the weather was nicer. Istanbul sounds like a great place full of history and culture. Great photos too!

    Reply
    • Alex Berger
      May 23, 2012

      Thanks Mary! It was definitely a bummer, but the rare nature of the experience more than made up for it! Amazing amount of history there!

      Reply
  • vanitha
    July 31, 2012

    My daughter and I visited turkey in 2009.we didnt get to
    see snow,but the whole trip was awesome. Some spectacular
    locations,great food,good people,we had a wonderful group
    of co-travellers. Fantastic shopping.wish to go there again.
    Gule gule.

    Reply
    • Alex Berger
      July 31, 2012

      Sounds like you had a wonderful visit! It’s one of those destinations you feel like you could return to easily, don’t you think?

      Reply
  • Travel and Escape Community
    July 31, 2012

    Istanbul is a fantastic city. Looks like you had a great time there. Very informative post. Thank you for sharing.

    Reply
  • Marysia @ My Travel Affairs
    November 26, 2013

    Ha ha ha, I get you. Istanbul is a great place to be, I go every year for past 5 years, sometimes more than once, seems like I’m addicted to this city! Great pictures, love the mosques covered in snow, beautiful view!

    Reply
  • steive@green lotus trekking
    September 14, 2014

    Istanbull is my dream place to visit ! Very nice and lovely place Great Great Great

    Reply

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