First impressions of Istanbul

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The sky darkened as evening turned to night.

I clutched a kebab, the smell of the dürüm-wrapped meat wafting deliciously around me.  It had been a long day, and I was hungry, but it wasn’t time to eat.  Not yet.

Like hundreds of others around me, I waited.  It was the final day of Ramadan, and if millions of Muslims around the world could abstain for a month, waiting a few minutes for dinner seemed the least I could do.

A cannon shot rang out nearby.  Muezzins called from minarets.  Picnic hampers were flung open and with a collective sigh, the fast was broken.  The nearby fountain erupted in coloured light as voices buzzed around the square.  The sights and smells of this great city enveloped me in the warm breeze.

With a smile I turned to Lauren.

“This place is incredible.”

We had only arrived a few hours earlier from Bulgaria and were thrown headlong into the chaos of Istanbul’s main bus station, Büyük Otogar.  A sprawling mass of horn blasts, shouted instructions and milling passengers, it made the nearby metro system seem like a blessed relief.

Our unwieldy backpacks failing to endear us to other passengers, half an hour later we struggled off the crowded tram at Sultanahment and into a postcard.  Past the Hagia Sophia, down the Hippodrome and alongside the Blue Mosque we walked, iconic images of Istanbul unfolding around us.

Blue Mosque at dusk

Our hotel was five minutes away, yet a world apart.  For such a tourist-heavy area, the streets were quiet.  Small children sat in doorways while we sweated past, quietly observing us before returning to their games.  Narrow streets obstructed heavy traffic, leaving only the taxis to slip and slide along the cobblestones honking at indifferent pedestrians.

Stray cats were everywhere – the city is famous for them.  Seen as a communal responsibility by local restaurant staff, they yawned and stretched on roofs, walls, street corners – pretty much any flat space they could find.  Well-fed and content, they were an inescapable part of the city.

Small cat in Istanbul

The sweet smell of roasting corn filled the air, a smoky haze obscuring the street vendor responsible.  Nothing could hide his sales pitch, however – a well-practiced patter in Turkish and English followed locals and tourists alike as they wandered past.

If one believes the stories, the city is full of con-men and carpet sellers lying in wait to part unsuspecting tourists from their money.  Maybe my grungy backpacker odeur put them off, but I couldn’t see what the fuss was about.  I’ve had more grief from touts in New York than I ever received in Istanbul, on that first night or any other.

The place charmed me instantly.  A (literally) Byzantine warren of alleyways and back streets, snarled traffic and crowded footpaths, the city really shouldn’t work at all.  Somehow it does, and I have no idea why.  Depending on where you stop counting, up to twenty million people live within the city limits, from the luxurious enclaves around the Bosphorus to the immigrant neighbourhoods on the outskirts.  While Istanbul unquestionably has issues – pollution, minority rights, population growth – as a visitor I was greeted with nothing but kindness and hospitality.


Even before I set foot inside a mosque, I knew.

Before I had my first taste of sour ayran or deliciously sweet salep, before I learned how to play okey in a shadowy cafe, before my first meal of freshly cooked flat bread and tangy olives, one thing was already clear.

I loved this city.

More than that, even.

I wanted to live here.

And one day soon, I will.

38 Responses to “First impressions of Istanbul

  • Well Dave – it was always on the cards that you would fill in love with the city. Never known one person not to.

    • Yeah I guess I’m not the first … every person I’ve talked to before or since says pretty much the same thing!

  • Great post. If ever anyone was nervous about going off to Istanbul for the first time, I think this post is going to be the one to convince them to take the plunge and get themselves up there. We’re addicted to the city and it looks like it’s grabbed another ‘victim’ in you. 😉

    • It definitely has. We’re flying out of Istanbul in a few days, and I’m looking forward to cramming in a few last minute experiences before we leave!

  • Hoşgeldin to our city, Dave! Happy to read that you’ve fallen under her spell as quickly as so many of us have. Do let us know when you move here!

    • I’m trying to work out a way to spend a few months in Istanbul at some stage, so I definitely will!

  • geraldine gregory
    11 years ago

    I was in istanbul in April of this year your post made me miss it
    even more , at present i am looking to move there permantely !
    The sooner the better ! Thank you .

  • Istanbul is also on our ‘live in’ list. I found it utterly, and completely, charming. Great post.

  • I’ve always wanted to go to Turkey, mainly for the food. The more I hear and read about Turkey in general, and Istanbul in particular, the more I start to feel that the food might get me there, but everything else will probably play a large role in keeping me there for a while.

    • A very good way of putting it. The food is amazing, but it pales into insignificance compared to all the other things to love about the city.

  • i have visited istanbul 6 times in the last 5 years, and am planning to do so for the rest of my life 🙂 its an incredible city,,i have visited so many countries but nothing equals gives you a very warm feeling and love to really looking forward to go and live there even if its for a year or two 🙂

  • Dorota Khan
    11 years ago

    Great article. Took me right back to the city. I’m so happy other people see the beauty and extraordinary feel of that place.

    • I’ve honestly never been anywhere quite like it in the world. Incredibly compelling city.

  • Congrats, great article and pictures. We have pinned them. We think you were in Istanbul at the end of Ramadan. We are glad you liked Istanbul, the capital of 3 former empires.

    • Yup, as I mentioned, I arrived on the last day of Ramadan … it was a wonderful welcome to an amazing city.

  • We also loved Istanbul.
    There is a massive couchsurfing community in the city. You should check out the bi-monthly meetups.

  • I went to Istanbul February 2011..and loved it! It rained every day but even that didn’t dampen my enjoyment of exploring this amazing city. Cant wait to return..

    • I think it’s one of those places that is wonderful in (almost) any weather. At least you didn’t have to worry about sunburn, I guess … my tan definitely improved while I was there!

  • I have never been but I have wanted to visit for so long now! Your experience just makes me want to go sooner than planned! Oh I want to see all the kitties and the wander all the mosques. Great story.

  • Chais Meyer
    11 years ago

    Great stuff Dave, we NEED to check it out!

  • Istanbul certainly is awesome, isn’t it?

  • Thanks a lot for inspiring wanderlust cravings, DAVE. Now I’m burdened with the task of trying to find flat bread and tangy olives in Koh Tao (and sour ayran or deliciously sweet salep—what the hell *is* that?) so that I can fill the desperate longing you just created within.

  • Good stuff man, Julia and I are penciling it in for December, looking forward to it even more now.

  • Making my first trip to Istanbul and Turkey within the month. I’m predisposed to falling in love with it and the picture you paint just pushed me further down the path of no return. Can’t wait!

  • If you really like the city, don’t live here. You’ll come to hate it. Seriously, almost every foreigner here that has lived here for more than a few months hates the place. Leave it a mysterious beautiful place that you can visit again. Living here ruins it.

    • Really interested to hear that, to be honest – if you happen to come back and read this comment, I’d love to hear some specifics about why most foreigners end up hating Istanbul after a few months…

  • Michelle Tibbs
    11 years ago

    I returned from Istanbul just last night. We loved Istanbul, everything about it was so different from any other travel I have done. The food was delicious, the people were gracious and even inquisitive, once they realized that you really, truly were not going to join them in their carpet shop, and the tram system is brilliant.

    As for living there? No way. The traffic is brutal, the pedestrian walking conditions are frightening (I was so afraid I was going to fall into one of those “pits” that lead to basement stores), and 12 dollar a gallon gasoline would bankrupt me. My understanding is that the tax on items like televisions is 18% and as high as 35% on automobiles. To this observer’s eye, life in Istanbul does not look easy.

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