It’s New Year’s Eve and I’m sitting around a makeshift table in a hidden little fourth story bar on a backstreet in the Tarlabaşı neighborhood of Istanbul. I’ve just proven to my skeptical table mates that you can in fact do two shots at the same time. The beer is flowing and the music is loud. The entire scene is painted a traffic light crimson. To my right a guy from Libya who’s moved to Istanbul to get away from a civil war, his drugs kicking in a bit too hard, is having trouble following the threads of conversation. To his right a cool looking dude from Jordan that I liked a lot. Two groups of Indians. A couple of local girls. A couple from Mongolia. Two players from Spain who are quite charming. A thick Russian with a scar on his forehead keeps buying shots, way too many shots, for the table. And some Croatians just out of my hearing range. And on and on. The people at the far end of the table I hardly got to know. We drank, we laughed, we told stories of our travels. An hour later we’re all on a rooftop bar packed with revelers, the bartop covered in three foot flames, fireworks filling the air, as we countdown the new year to thumping club music. Strangers but friends.
My experiences all across eastern Europe have been filled with kind and friendly people. And Istanbul is no exception. It’s metropolitan mix of old world and new world, east and west, is the most international city I’ve been to so far. And I’m loving my time in this city. Having a hot tea at a low table in the Grand Bazaar surrounded by the haunting call to prayer as it rings from all sides in a cacophonous symphony of voice. There’s nothing like it. You know you’re somewhere else in the world. But in many ways I feel right at home.
As an American, we’re trained to be a little afraid of Turkey, well, afraid of everywhere really, but Islamic countries in particular. I have to admit that even I was a little nervous given the Kurdish situation on the border and stories of quelling unrest in the city. It’s drummed into your head with every headline and clickbait. But my time here has been nothing but great experiences with generous people. I’m glad I came for myself to see what I was misinformed about.
A short history: In 330AD Roman Emperor Constantine relocated the Roman Empire capital to what was the city of Byzantium and renamed it New Rome (what is sometimes referred to as the Byzantine Empire). Everyone called it Constantinople and that’s the name that stuck until 1930 when the new state of Turkey renamed it Istanbul after WWI.
Honestly in the nearly two weeks I spent in Istanbul, I’ve amassed way too much content for a single blog post. I usually like to provide a single succinct overview of a single place, but Istanbul is too giant, too expansive to do that reasonably. So I’ll be breaking it up into four parts. The first, this post, is just an overview, a teaser of things to come and a good place to capture my thoughts generally on the area. The posts to follow will take you on a tour from Taksim Square to Hagia Sophia in the Sultanahmet neighborhood as a walking tour of the city center (part 2), take you into the top sites of the city (part 3), and dive deep into the street food and cuisine of Istantbul (part 4).
Taksim Square and Tarlabaşı
Taksim Square, the central shopping and tourist district of Istanbul.
Moving downhill from Tarlabaşı you move through Galata, a slightly more quirky and intimate tourist neighborhood.
The Galata and Atatürk bridges
Spanning the Golden Horn and connecting the Karaköy neighborhood with the Eminönü are two large bridges, the Galata and Atatürk.
Eminönü and Sultanahmet
Eminönü and Sultanahmet are where many of the main tourist attractions are.
Perhaps the most famous building in Istanbul.
Right next door to the Hagia Sophia is the Blue Mosque or the Sultan Ahmed Mosque.
In the center of Eminönü is one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world.
This underground cistern was created by Emperor Justinian in 532 to provide water to the palace.
Built for Constantine to house chariot racing.
The palace or the sultan from 1453 through the 19th century.
Istanbul Archaeology Museums
Essentially a celebration of grave robbery.
As you cross the Galata bridge, immediately to your right you’ll see a large mosque on the hill above you.
Galata Mevlevihanesi Müzesi and the whirling Dervishes
The Dervish are a sect of the Suni Muslims mystics who followed the 13th century Persian poet, Islamic theologian, and Sufi mystic Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī (or Mevlânâ).
Chora Church / Kariye Museum
A late Byzantine church with outstanding mosaics.
The street food and cuisine of Istanbul are next level.
Katy’s birthday and New Year’s
Katy’s birthday is New Year’s Eve so we decided to book a pub crawl for the night which turned out to be perfect. We made a bunch of new friends and Katy got to bring in the New Year right, mainly dancing it up on a rooftop dancefloor with a flaming birthday cake and adoring fans. We jumped ship sometime just before 2am while we were changing bars.
A note on the police in Turkey
I’ve been in Turkey for going on 3 weeks now and I haven’t had any problem with the police or experienced any sort of draconian restrictions on my freedom. I didn’t know what to expect. But it was interesting to see the police presence build up in Taksim for New Year’s and the general stance of the city police throughout my time.
The police are everywhere. And unlike your average beat cops in the US, these guys carry machine guns with their finger at the ready at all times. Cop cars would speed through crowded streets with frightening abandon. I’m actually surprised I didn’t see some unattentive tourist fold under the wheels. But it never happened. The police also have a battalion of heavily armored vehicles that look ready for full on combat at any moment. And even these enormous trucks with what look like snow plows on the front, I assume to mow down or through crowds whenever needed. Interesting to see for sure. All I’m saying is I don’t have any plans for stepping out of line any time soon. So at least on me it works just fine.
Note: I don’t advise taking photos of the police wherever you are when travelling. Why invite that hassle?
More Istanbul to come!