Walking down a rainy Istiklal in December with the old school streetcars passing seeming to flow through the crowded avenue made me feel like I was in a film noir. Dark, yet alive. Bustling street, yet alone. A real and very present air of mystery and not something made up by being in a new place. I’ve never been more hyper-aware of my surroundings while at the same time feeling compelled to explore than in Istanbul.
With 15 million inhabitants, Istanbul is the world’s fourth largest city proper (within city limits). It is both old and new. Cosmopolitan and conservative. Occidental and European. Definitively Muslim but with strong elements of Christian roots. It is the one place I can recommend to visit to see the most dichotomies in at one time.
Building began on the Hagia Sophia in 532, a cathedral that would house the Patriarch archbishop of Constantinople. It was one of the largest structures in the world at the time. The church measures almost a football field long and nearly as wide with a main dome over 100 feet across. After the fall of Constantinople, it became a Mosque in 1453 under Sultan Mehmet II. IN 1934, the Turkish government secularized the mosque and turned it into a museum of culture which now millions visit annually.
The Galata Bridge which connects two peninsulas on the European side of the Bosphorus Straits is one of those truly experiential places. Taxis lined up, Street Cars passing. Fishermen shoulder-to-shoulder throwing lines in the water while women pass holding grocery bags.
Istanbul is one of those places you can really get a sense of on a 10-hour layover (yes, there are many of those when connecting through there between various hard-to-get-to spots). 25 min tram ride from the airport, 6 hours walking and a ride back will leave you plenty of time for check in and gathering backs from a storage locker. But if you have a few days to really explore, you’ll be surprised at the discoveries you can make in the city. Find a local restaurant that you didn’t look up on an app. You’ll be glad you did. Make sure to see the Grand Bazaar, the site of the largest covered market in the world. And go ahead, get lost in it. You’ll be fine. Someone will help you find your way out.