Istanbul: Hosgeldiniz!

Posted on September 14, 2012

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If you want to experience a place where numerous great civilizations have left their mark for thousands of years, go to Istanbul.

If you want to see the only city in the world that straddles both Europe and Asia, go to Istanbul.

If you want to experience the energy and the chaos of a city of almost 20 million people, combined with the intimacy created by its residents, go to Istanbul.

If you want to feel like you have never left home, go someplace else.

Istanbul will seduce you, in the best sense of the word.  It is a seduction that starts with the people who live in a culture that rewards generosity and hospitality. 

Istanbul will seduce your wallet with the thought of scoring that priceless rug for a pittance.  Most of the time, you will lose that game, even as you are seduced by the words of the carpet monger and the Turkish tea that is served.

Istanbul will seduce your taste buds with an array of food that is as good on the street as it is in the restaurants.  Throw your diet out the window. This is real food, fresh and healthy and prepared to perfection.

Follow the advice of the guide book and see the Ayasofya, the Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, the Yerebatan Cistern, the Hippodrome, Dolmabahce Palace, any of the great museums of the city and any of the countless other don’t-miss attractions.  Then walk.  Through Sultanamet, through Taksim, through Beyoglu, through Ortakoy, though Galata.  If you are extremely lucky, you will climb Galata Tower and reach the top at the moment the call to prayer sounds. You will never forget that moment.

Go to The Grand Bazaar, the vast, chaotic, historic market that contains thousands of shops that run the gamut from luxury to laughable that will happily take away both your breath and your money.  The Spice Market, at one end of the sprawling complex is a feast for the eyes and nose.

Go to the Hamam, the Turkish bath.

Take a boat ride on the Bospherus, or simply take a ferry to the Asian side of the city. Not only will you be able to absorb the sights along the way, you will be surrounded by tourists who have come from all over the world and from all over Turkey, with their ethnic dress and their cameras and iPhones.  They will be as wide-eyed as you.

And, if you can, come to Istanbul with a baby or a toddler.  It is then that you will see the nature of the people of Istanbul: their unabashed love of children, their genuine delight in being helpful.  Male waiters will take the baby from you and rock him.  People on the ferry will grab their cameras and take pictures. If the baby or toddler is fussy, people will not complain.  They will ask if they can help. No one will be annoyed. Ever.

Istanbul, like any vast city, has its confusion, its “iffy” neighborhoods, its people who will happily take advantage of you.  Vendors will follow you down the street, continuing their attempt to sell you whatever your eye lingered on for a moment too long. They will know you are an American and they will ask “Where are you from?  I have been to Chicago.” Or New York. Or Kansas. Or Seattle.  And the funny thing is, they probably have.

For over 600 years, from about 1300 to the end of World War I, the Ottomans ruled Turkey. For several hundred years, especially during the 16th and 17th centuries, their empire ruled a vast area of the world.  The jewel in their crown was Constantinople, now called Istanbul.  Before them were Greeks, Romans, and countless others.  Muslims, Jews, Christians have all left their indelible mark on the city.  Soak it all in, this living history of a great city.  Or just stand on a street corner and inhale a kebab, as you watch people walk by.  For that also, I can tell you exactly where to go.

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