Istanbul First Thoughts & FAQs
The first stop on our itinerary was Istanbul and we planned to stay three days in Sultanahmet, the charming, walkable Old City, just steps from the Aya Sofia, Blue Mosque and Topkapi Palace.
We could not wait to explore this ancient, venerable city that had thrived since antiquity and the times of Roman Emperors. Our feet would touch some of the same stones as Justinian’s and Constantine’s, we would marvel at the jewels of Sultans, see Asia and Europe at the same time from the same rooftop restaurant, and walk through the palace where Ataturk, founder of the modern Republic of Turkey took his last breath. Sounds amazing, and oh it was, but before our arrival we both still had lingering anxiety about our time there.
This was our first trip to a predominantly Muslim country; how would they treat us as Americans? And a blonde, talkative American woman at that? Had the protests in Taksim Square calmed down? And Turkish!? We don’t know three words!
Plus I’d heard about Turkish men and their “friendliness” towards the backsides of foreign women, carpet salesmen who wouldn’t take ‘No’ for an answer, and "Insto-friends" who would stick you with a huge tab, which you were expected to pay or risk getting a solid, backroom beating.
The unanswered questions blew into preposterous scenarios and the lack of any solid information on the subjects from fellow travelers only increased our uneasiness.
Had we been able to find some insight to these situations you can bet we would have realized how out of proportion and primarily unfounded all our worries were. In hopes of helping other travelers pacify their own fears (and that of their parents) I will try to answer some of the main questions here.
Our quick glance at Istanbul
Istanbul is where Eastern and Western cultures collide in an explosion of color, styles, languages and customs. Half in Europe, Half in Asia the city has its roots in the Muslim culture and calls to prayer ring out five times per day over loud speakers. Some pray every time, but most don’t. Some women wear headscarves, some wear shorts. The churches have paintings of the Mother and Child and niches pointing the way to Mecca on the same wall. There are posh rooftop restaurants and a 500-year-old Turkish bath on the same street. Food, beer, Turkish wine and Raki (Pastis-like liquor) flow in Istanbul, even during Ramadan when most of the local population is fasting from sunrise to sunset.
It is a city that is rooted in religion and tradition but realizes that it’s being thrust, specifically because of that tradition, onto the world stage. A contender for the 2020 Olympics, this thousand-year-old city is in the midst of a makeover and abuzz with renovation, repair, landscaping, and excitement. And the Turkish people seem ready for it, excited even. Their adaptability and enthusiasm for change humbled us.
Modern Istanbul seemed to us like a woman who has always been naturally beautiful, but realized that with a quick coat of a mascara and swipe of lip-gloss she can be absolutely stunning and have anything she wants.
Now onto the FAQs:
How are Women treated? Americans?
Let me preface my answer by quoting a nice Turkish man. He astutely quipped “Istanbul is not Turkey; the real Turkey is outside the city.” We were only in Istanbul and in a pretty touristy, clean part of the city at that. We cannot vouch for anything but our situation, which as you will read, was awesome!
We were there for four days and while I was with Jeff, a tall, strong man (you’re welcome honey), I never felt uncomfortable. The men were incredibly helpful, friendly, addressed both Jeff and I and were virtually uninterested in me as a woman. I wore shorts, tank-tops and even a dress and was never accosted, physically or verbally, never jeered at for showing skin and only had to cover my head, shoulders and legs inside mosques, which everyone, men included, have to do.
As for being American; once again we had no problems. Istanbul is a cosmopolitan, tourist mecca which welcomes, and makes money from, visitors the world over. The usual response we got when we said we were from California in America was “Oh! California - nice and sunny!” We met one other American from Utah, but most travelers we met were French, German, English or Indian.
Again, this is in Istanbul and I understand that the farther East you go the less Western influence you will find which I'm sure makes a difference.
Are the people nice? Do they speak English?
Yes! The people are incredibly nice, funny, helpful, and always smiling. Of course, most of the time they are trying to sell you something, but even the waiters, hotel staff and boat crew, whom we had already paid, were all of the above. The optimism, good-natured joking and gesturing, smiling and generally happy attitudes of the local people was one of the best surprises for me.
And yes, most people speak some English. But not everyone does and they might not know all the words they or you are looking for. You just have to work these sentences out with gestures. We spokeNO Turkish whatsoever and got along fine. Do learn a few key words though: Please, Thank You, Hello, Goodbye, No, Yes, Fork and Bathroom. And speak clear and simple English if you want or do not want something. For instance, I said I would share Jeff’s beer and ended up with one of my own. Not necessarily a problem, but not what I meant to communicate.
What didn’t you like?
The constant hassling of the street vendors! It’s intense and consistent. This one guy met us outside the Blue Mosque, told us all this cool history ("Did you know that's the tower where they measured world distances from in ancient times!?), walked us to the tourist entrance and coincidentally met us at the exit, showed us photo ops and more cool history (Did you know that this used to be a Roman chariot race track and that's a 2000 year old Egyptian obelisk?!) All this, just to conveniently lead us to the front door of his carpet shop where his family had tea waiting for us.
Even after I told him I didn’t need a carpet, he memorably said, “In seven years, no one has ever said they needed a carpet; just come see them, have a look.” Great right?! I kind of want to hire him! As a sales person he was great and I’m sure his carpets were lovely, but we weren’t there to buy and this happened everywhere we went which got really old.
Main piece of advice: If you do not want to buy, then do not be nice. Say no, look straight ahead and keep walking. I know, it feels mean, but they take any other response as a positive. Remember in Dumb and Dumber after Lloyd gets totally shot down and he says “So you’re saying there’s a chance?” It’s like that.
During Ramadan, are restaurants and bars still open? Can I get alcohol?
Yes, yes and yes! The locals may not eat or partake in an adult beverage, but it is still business as usual for visitors. Everyone at the restaurants was incredibly welcoming, hospitable and made every effort to make us feel comfortable, full and buzzed. Frankly, they were a lot nicer than I would be if I couldn’t eat from sunrise to sunset!
Where should I stay to feel safe?
Sultanahmet! The Old City as it’s called is adorable, clean, full of restaurants, English-speaking hotels, and bars and is gloriously within walking distance from the Aya Sofia, Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, and the Grand Bazaar. We felt very safe, both during the day and walking home around midnight.
To be specific, stay at Hotel Safire (Sapphire). It was one of the most amazing, budget hotel experiences we have had. The staff was phenomenal-they all spoke English, were spot on with their recommendations (Turkish Bath & Bosphorous Cruise), answered all our questions, carried our bags, served us welcome drinks, and arranged airport transfer all free of charge. The rooms were beautiful, with great AC, TV and clean bathrooms with great showers
What do I HAVE to do?
Aya Sofia, Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace. You can do these in the same day.
Bosphorous Cruise (Ask your hotel to schedule it; do not buy a cruise from a guy on the street. And make sure to choose one that stops on the Asian side too! More on this later…)
Turkish Bath: A-mazing! Go to Suleymaniye Hamam. The bath was built in the 1500s by Sinan, a renowned Turkish architect and was one of the best things we’ve done. Ever.
Eat at a rooftop restaurant (Seven Hills Restaurant in Sultanahmet has fair prices, delicious food and the best view you will see in Istanbul: Asia, Europe, and an incredible close-up of the Blue Mosque and Aya Sofia)
Is the food good? How about the water?
The food is delicious, especially the vegetables, humus and eggplant variations. It is all healthy, fresh and simple. Try the Turkish Breakfast, coffee, Turkish Tea, mixed appetizer plate, Moussaka, Lamb kebabs, and fresh fish.
Do not drink the water. I don’t know why, but there was a sign on our bathroom that said not to and all the restaurants serve bottles. Better safe that sharty!
Are the protests still affecting the city? Is it dangerous?
Nope! We saw no signs of the protests at all and everyone we asked seemed really nonchalant about it. We still avoided the area, which was fine since there isn’t much to see there. Frankly, I think the media once again blew things out of proportion…
Do the calls to prayer wake people up at night? Disrupt the day? Make you feel awkward?
The calls to prayer can definitely wake you up, especially early in the morning and when you’re not used to hearing them, but they’re short and actually kind of nice. By the end of our time there, we hardly noticed them.
We never felt weird or had to stop what we were doing during prayer time. The only thing to be aware of is that you are not allowed to go into certain areas of the mosques where people are praying or take pictures of someone praying. Common courtesy, but worth a mention…
Of course, this doesn't cover everything, but we hope this answers some of the main questions, and emphasizes the fact that anyone can have a wonderful, safe, fun and incredibly eye-opening trip in Istanbul. We are happy to answer any questions we missed, and would love comments from other travelers or locals!