Istanbul, Turkey, a city that evoked a lot of unrequested opinions from friends and family when we mentioned we were going. Questions like “Is Istanbul Safe?” or “Are you worried about terrorism when visiting Istanbul?” and maybe my favorite “Do you realize you are going into a war zone”? No review of Istanbul can be complete without mentioning safety, but there is a lot more to Istanbul than what you hear about on the news.
Having survived (more on that later..) the trip I can tell you that many of the threats you hear about in the media seemed overblown. Does this mean that I would automatically answer “yes” to the question “Is Istanbul Safe? Not quite… I almost never felt fearful during my trip, but I did feel uneasy for a number of reasons. I think I had a better chance getting injured due to shoveling pounds of lamb into my mouth than terrorism. That is not to say there were no dangers, they were just not there to the extent we were told/feared..
Overall, I can’t think of a “vacation” I took that was more exhausting and had so many highs and lows as Istanbul. I knew visiting the city would be a unique journey, just not to what extent. Let me touch on some of the best and worst that the city had to offer..
The Great about Istanbul
The food: I ate Mary’s whole damn flock, so I am thinking she is probably pissed at me. Lamb is plentiful in Istanbul and is available in many forms. What is funny is it took us a day or two to get really good food (beware of tourist traps). Once the food flood gates opened, it was a whole new world. On a unrelated note: It is probably not best to not tell your lovely wife “this is the best day of my life” when eating a humongous, filled with the somewhat ambiguous (it was a fucking good sandwich), but I digress.
The History /Architecture: In true European fashion, Istanbul didn’t disappoint in the history and art departments. Just walking past the Blue Mosque and the Hagia (Aya) Sofia is the equivalent to walking past the Eiffel Tower or the Roman Coliseum. You can stroll around without even realizing the building or structure you are next to is hundreds (if not thousands) of years old.
The history is all around you in this city, yet maybe a bit more thrown together. For example, they should let people know in advance that the masterpiece Alexander’s Sarcophagus was being renovated or that the trash heaped at the end of the street is at the base of The Column of Constantine from the 4th century. I guess I can hold on to solace that they actual are taking care of such antiquities, unlike the Mosaic museum where the pieces were left to the elements like a used couch on a college porch. There are actually signs in the museum discussing how the poor care lead to their decline. Still a great museum, but also a shame. One last note: if anyone from the Basilica Cistern is reading this: your missing Medusa head is thrown in with 30 other statues outside the Archeological Museum/Topkapi Palace….
The Price: Istanbul is cheap, it made my tiny T-rex arms enormously happy on numerous occasions. I mean I was getting great meals for two, with multiple drinks for less than $30, I can barely get two meals at Subway for that much. It got to the point where I didn’t know who was screwing whom when we were in the shops. It’s funny to fight over 10 lira in the Grand Bazaar (1461 AD), only to remember it is only $2.70.
The Interesting about Istanbul
It is here in my review of Istanbul that I start touching on the things that were questionable about the city. I wasn’t always skipping down the street eating lamb or fish sandwiches and whistling. There were times I felt annoyed, confused and frustrated. I have been amongst a number of different cultures, I have learned to accept things that may not be the same as in the U.S. Even still in Istanbul there were things beyond what I previously experienced.
The People: This is where I think I was the most confused, because we met some really fantastic people, one man who managed a English bar that was our favorite daily midpoint stopping spot. We had great conversations with him, we discussed Islam, the history of the city, food, and everything under the sun. He was a great host to us throughout our trip.
During our stay we ran into a wide range of people. Many times we would laugh, talk and they would watch us drink. Turkish people can be fun and charming.. So charming that I would end up in ceramics shop at 1:30 am, buying $350 worth of plates. I got the feeling too many times that there was a motive to the kindness. It seemed everyone was trying to take me to their buddies (cousin, best friend’s sister’s college roommate’s) shop or selling me something totally unrelated (nice things, but at times unrequested). Maybe it is the cynical New Yorker in me that had to question the agenda of those I ran into. In addition to salesmen, who were at times overly pushy and bordering on rude. We were followed and questioned by workers if we looked at a menu, but didn’t go into their establishment. The oversell was over the top, more so than I have ever experienced…
One of the worst example of this was in a wine bar. After an hour of chatting, the nice woman who owned the bar was randomly showing my wife a bracelet she made. She proceeded to tell her “just take it”, my wife was insistent we give her something (expecting it to be $25-50). When she said the price was $1100..US Dollars, my hands were sucked into my shoulder sockets. She then charged us heavily for two vegetable platters that she whipped up, without us asking, no menu provided. Mind you the platters were delicious, but it was somewhat of a head turner…
General Safety: Here I will leave out any mention of the biggest threats people perceive about Istanbul, as Turkey is on the cusp of civil war… I was really more worried about being run over by a crazy driver than anything overly politicized/publicized. Drivers regularly go onto the sidewalk or walking areas with blatant disregard. It felt like there were many things could go bad in Turkey, from cars to packs of dogs roaming the streets (who really were always quite friendly).
Me and my wife are night owls, yet walking some streets in Istanbul at night made me a bit uneasy. Most were ok, but there were times when I got nervous, especially in the immediate vicinity of my 5 star hotel. Broken street lights and bars on the windows certainly don’t help or add to your comfort level. I was rarely scared during my trip, but many things made me feel uncomfortable. Most of these fears were more in my head than anything else, but somethings happened that definitely were real.
The Bad about Istanbul
I couldn’t do any review of Istanbul justice if I do not include some of the shady things that happened during our trip. We were there during the referendum vote, a vote that gave Turkey (the go ahead for) a dictator . The vote, combined with the faint possibility of terrorism and an attempted dangerous scam took away from our trip a bit…
Dangerous Scams in Istanbul: There is one incident that happened that I felt I must mention if for no other reason than to serve as a warning. After our first full day, we visit a low key bar near our hotel. It was a typical hipster hang out.. We met some “nice” people, and casually mentioned the hotel we were staying in.. The next day upon waking my wife was told by the front desk someone claiming to be her driver called the hotel. This was an attempt to get her to come outside at 3 AM. Nothing good could possibly have come from this, and it really rattled us. The incident set a cautious tone for the rest of the week.
I have heard of scams in Istanbul, but nothing like this. Combine this with the fact that my wife faced terrible harassment when walking alone, or really at any time when her head was not covered.. The one time she walked alone (in the day no less) she was aggressively approached by five men in 10 minutes. Unfortunately, I can’t say Istanbul, Turkey is 100% safe, especially for women.
Politics: Donald Trump is an asshole; Hilary Clinton is a liar. Without fear of imprisonment I can say these things. This is not the case in Turkey, and it is much worse now.
It is a difficult to say the least, to be in a place that will lock you up for speaking your mind. As an American, I always felt apprehensive about being in Istanbul. Although this was a journey and an adventure it was also (supposed to be) a vacation. Feeling uneasy, seeing uneasy people, the sorrow for the unclear future of the country, and watching a police presence grow around you is not how I like to or wanted, to spend my time off.
Final Review of Istanbul
A wise woman described Istanbul as “a beautiful woman, that later reveals her giant penis”. Really, that sums it up, the city was a mind-phuck (that ‘p’h is for a reason..). We would be having a great time and then something would happen to bring us back into a more harsh reality. Whether it be a small thing like a somewhat dangerous/unorganized boat tour. To a more grave thing like streets lined with tanks and cops with machine guns. Do I miss Istanbul? I would give a cautionary, yes. It is like a guy who is about to get back together with his crazy ex, who beat him and slept with his best friend . He may only remember the excitement and seemed to have blocked out the stress. My wife on the other hand was ready to leave, the first time that this has happened on any excursion..
I will not be going back to Istanbul, Turkey for a long time. It is a big world and there are too many seemingly more relaxing places to go (see you soon Greece!). The situation is only getting worse there, especially for westerners. That is not to say I am not recommending a visit. I think everyone should experience this city; just be cautious. In my next couple of blogs, I will break down in more detail the good and the bad. If you do decide to visit this city, go with your eyes open..