Straddling both Asia and Europe, the largest city in Turkey is full of history and a diversity in cultures I have not yet seen. (I ought have paid more attention during AP European History.)
Following a day of travel—including a stopover in Doha where Sarah and I rejoined—good food and wandering European streets comprised a delightful first evening. Our trip has become an attempt to eat our way through each day, tasting and seeking what each place offers. Every morning, pastries from street vendors filled our stomachs for the affordable cost of a single Turkish lira (about $0.50). Lunches included the same but added boreks filled with meat or potatoes, plus whatever snacks we could find nearby as we wandered about. Döner kebabs and hummus were our dinners, simple and delicious. Of course, baklava and Turkish delight made great desserts; the countless varieties are staggering yet each piece seemingly more delicious than the last. And of course, enjoying spiced tea or strong Turkish coffee along cobblestone streets made for perfect evenings.
Wandering the Old City had me in awe. Our hostel was a nearby to Çemberlitaş, a column brought from the Temple of Apollo in Greece some 1,500 years prior. The Hippodrome and its many relics were a short walk further, including an Egyptian obelisk, the Temple of Apollo’s Serpentine Column, the Million Stone (measuring distances to all places in the Byzantine Empire) and more. I immediately admired the stunning architecture of Sultan Ahmet Mosque, known also as the Blue Mosque. Across the plaza stands Ayasofya (Hagia Sofya), one of Europe’s most famous churches until the Ottomans arrived and declared it an Islamic mosque. Unparalleled architecture, incredible attention to detail, intricate tiles and geometric shapes come together and craft beautiful, immense spaces of worship. (And while Ayasofya is no longer a religious institution, mosques exist everywhere in the city, five reminders each day with the call to prayers.) Standing at the spot where emperors were coronated gave goosebumps, a reminder of the annals of history from Romans to Byzantine and Ottomans. Exploring Topkopi Palace reminded me the grandeur and spectacle of the sultans, their riches and influences. Walking through the surrounding park, I tried to imagine the world some hundreds of years ago. We made visits to both the Grand Bazaar and Spice Bazaar, full of everything I might desire and shopkeepers kindly inviting us to sample their goods. Simply wandering the narrow streets by foot, enjoying paths along the waterfront, even sitting on a bench in the midst of the city—Istanbul was an incredible city in which to find ourselves.
I am reminded that travel is just as much about the people you meet as the places you visit. From our hostel, lovely conversations and kindred spirits shared the excitement of exploring new cities and new delights. And our new friend, Ali, shared a memorable afternoon following a happenstance meeting in a café. Climbing the stairs of a somewhat random apartment building, we reached the rooftop view looking out across Istanbul’s Golden Horn. The city is incredible. Directly in front of me, Europe; across the water, Asia. Beautiful mosques dot the skyline. The smell of saltwater is present permeates. Drinks, good food and sharing stories of life and travel made such a short stay bittersweet; I am eager to return again soon.