Every time I told someone that I was going to be touring Istanbul, their first reaction was to ask if it was safe. We often read articles about Muslim countries that detail instability and radicalism, and it seems that it is easy to forget that such countries also have rich histories and vibrant cultures. That they are not solely defined by their tragedies.
Despite all of my friends’ safety concerns, I found Istanbul full of unique foods and sights, and hospitable people. It is a travel destination that any traveller worth their salt should experience and yet, it is so easily overlooked by those who assume it to be unstable. So, here’s a short list of Istanbul must-sees that should (hopefully) make Istanbul one of your next travel destinations.
1) The Blue Mosque
According to folklore, the building of this mosque with six minarets faced heavy criticism because the mosque of the Ka’aba in Mecca had previously been the only one to have that many minarets. So, Sultan Ahmed I financed the building of a seventh minaret in the Mecca mosque to insure it always had the most minarets.
As a visitor to the Blue Mosque, entrance is only allowed if you are dressed according to mosque regulations. That means no shoulders showing. For women, no exposed hair, and no form fitting pants (if you don’t have a head scarf/long skirt, worry not: they will provide you with super fashionable blue skirts and scarves).
2) The Galata Tower
The Galata Tower is the tallest tower in Istanbul and is just off the Bosphorus. It was built in 1348 and was used by the Ottoman empire to lookout for fires. The tower’s initial purpose makes it the best way to get full view of Istanbul at sunset. The entry fee is slightly expensive, but the Instagram photo will certainly be worth it.
3) Sticky Ice Cream
Known in Turkey as “Dondurma,” Turkish sticky ice cream is one of the most famous parts of Turkish cuisine. Its taste is fairly similar to regular ice cream, though its consistency is much thicker and stickier (hence the name). While sticky ice cream can be found in upscale bakeries and dessert places, it takes true form when being sold by street vendors.
Street vendors will be known to use the sticky consistency of the treat to tease their customers. Vendors will steal the ice cream back, almost drop it and then catch it again with a long metal paddle. Selling ice cream becomes a performance and buying ice cream becomes the event of the day.
4) The Grand Bazaar
The Grand Bazaar (my personal favourite place in Istanbul) is a marketplace that sells everything from spices to scarves. Turkish tea, Baklava and Turkish Delight are found in piles at every vendor’s stand. The vibrancy of the colours and the strength of the aromas in the Bazaar are hypnotic. But, don’t let the grandeur take over your senses.
Every vendor in the Bazaar intentionally hikes up their prices far above what they would reasonably sell for. They expect you to barter. Don’t take the prices as they are initially set. Barter down. Walk away. They will lower their prices. If they don’t, another vendor will be selling the same stuff around the corner. That being said, don’t be a dick. You’re more likely to get good prices if you’re friendly.
5) Istanbul Modern
The Modern Art Museum in Istanbul is a bit of a trek from the city centre, and has a fairly high entry fee, but the art it contains is worth jumping all of those barriers. Not only does Istanbul Modern contain pieces from all over the globe and from various time periods, but it also contains incredible locally created pieces. Reflective of the political and social uproar in the region, each art piece is emotionally evocative. Each piece is a call to action.
Two days after I left this culturally rich country, the centre of Istanbul experienced a bombing. My heart broke to hear that such a welcoming country had experienced such terror. I thought of the chef at a small restaurant who came out to take a selfie with the Canadian tourists he had cooked for. I thought of the Grand Bazaar vendor who left his stand to guide us through the market and refused our offer to pay him for his time.
The country is a beautiful place filled with eager people, who deserve more than to be gawked at in times of terror. Istanbul deserves our interest, our attention, and our travel. So, take this list and use it to dig deeper. Travel to Istanbul. Learn about Istanbul. Know that Istanbul is more than its tragedy.