Ode to Istanbul

November 26, 2012 by

Best of the Viator Blog, Europe, Suggested Itineraries

Istanbul at sunset

Istanbul at sunset

I have a crystal-clear memory of my very first morning in Istanbul. It was 1996. I was on assignment for Lonely Planet and Fodor’s to update their respective guidebooks to Turkey. My flight arrived late, 10pm or something.

I jumped into a taxi and headed straight to the small hotel I had booked in Istanbul’s Sultanahmet district.

The last thing I remember before collapsing into bed is opening the window of my 4th-floor room. Ahhh, the fresh evening air of Istanbul. So refreshing.

My next memory? It’s a little hard to explain. Try this. Grab a bullhorn and turn the volume to ‘maximum’. Then ask a friend to place that bullhorn –> <– this far from your head. Now, have your friend turn it on and scream ALLAHHHHHHHHHHHHH at the top of their lungs. The whole thing will sound a little like this (click the “hear alarm” link; this is among the best travel shwag I have ever purchased).

Istanbul tours and things to do 2

San Francisco? Nope. Istanbul.

The problem? My bedroom window was literally, and I mean literally, 10 feet away from the loudspeaker atop the neighborhood mosque. It was my first morning in a Muslim country, and by god why didn’t anybody tell me about the ear-bursting call to prayer at 5:40am???

It nearly killed me. The sound was deafening. I bolted half-dressed out of bed into the hallway of the hotel, jumping up and down like a MAD MAN.

Lucky for me, nobody witnessed my half-naked pogo dance. And as the call to prayer faded, I realized my error and slipped back into my room. Lesson learned.

Since then I’ve visited Istanbul 7 or 8 times. I dream of going back again. I’ve also considered living there, except that my tongue and brain are incapable of pronouncing the Turkish language. (Go on, I dare you to pronounce “Afedersiniz! Hala faturamı bekliyorum,” or “Türkiye çok güzel bir ülkedir.”) So while I continue daydreaming about my next visit, let me share a few reasons to cancel your next holiday and instead catch the first flight to Istanbul.

5 Reasons to Love Istanbul

  1. For Western travelers, Istanbul is truly exotic. The dictionary defines exotic as “intriguingly unusual or different; excitingly strange” and that’s a great way to think about Istanbul. The sights, the sounds, the food, the music, the culture — it’s all excitingly strange, intriguingly unusual.
  2. Istanbul is a good introduction to traveling in a Muslim country. I’ve been asked dozens of times, “Is it safe to travel in Muslim countries?” Yes, it is safe. Terrorism, anti-Westernism and anti-Americanism certainly exist in Turkey. But they exist in Canada, too. Istanbul– and Turkey in general — is incredibly safe and, for first-time visitors to the Muslim world, the perfect introduction.
  3. Istanbul is the most beautiful city on the planet. I’m prepared to duke it out with any naysayers. San Francisco and Sydney? Sure they’re nice places, but Istanbul does the whole ‘waterfront coastal’ thing even better. Paris and Rome? OK, yeah, they’re pretty. But Istanbul’s skyline is equally stunning. Prague? You’re getting closer. But Istanbul, too, has a centuries-old historical pedigree (Istanbul was capital of the Roman, Ottoman and Byzantine empires) and has the architecture to prove it.
  4. If you held a contest to find the “World’s Nicest People” the Turks would come in second place, just after the Vietnamese. The Turks are incredibly hospitable, gracious, serious, sincere, you name it. I’ve traveled through 50+ countries in my life, and I’ve found few people as warm and friendly as the Turks.
  5. Turkey! Istanbul is only the tip of the iceberg – Turkey itself has some amazing places to visit, from a  to a .

OK. Enough of the hard-sell job. It’s obvious I love Istanbul. It’s obvious it’s a great place to visit. What’s not obvious is why you haven’t booked a ticket yet?

Resources for Travelers to Istanbul

    • Cool hotel: The Empress Zoe in Sultanahmet. A small boutique hotel with a great rooftop deck overlooking the Golden Horn.
Istanbul tours and things to do 3

Scott at Erenler Nargile Salonu

  • Eat here: any of the restaurants in and around Cicek Pasaji in Beyoglu, just off Istiklal Caddesi. This is a small L-shaped galleria with a long line of rowdy taverna-style restaurants. Eat fish, drink raki, repeat.
  • Do this: Take a half-day Bosphorus Cruise and visit the Egyptian bazaar.
  • Smoke this: apple- and honey-infused tobacco in a Turkish nargile (water pipe). The nargile is one of Turkey’s great gifts to the world. And my favorite place to enjoy one in Istanbul is the Erenler Nargile Salonu, just off Yeniceriler Cadessi, in a madressi tucked off the main street behind a cemetery.
  • More info: You can download or listen to a podcast I made a few years ago about Turkey (including some great sound clips of a call to prayer) or check out some of my favorite Turkish websites: Turkish Daily News, the English-language weekly newspaper; and Istanbul Portal, which does a nice job on history and culture.

Scott McNeely


10 Responses to “Ode to Istanbul”

  1. Paul Says:

    Hey Scott, I’ve been to Istanbul as well, and had a waterpipe at that very same shop. You’re right, it’s a wonderful place to soak up the atmosphere of Istanbul. I didn’t take any of the Istanbul tours you recommend, maybe I’ll do that next time. I also found a great non-touristy Turkish bath over the Golden Horn in Taksim. Cool! Now maybe I’ll go download your podcast about Istanbul. I’m in the mood to relive my Turkey glory days… thanks for the travel inspiration. I really must book a ticket to Istanbul, as you say!

  2. Scott Mc Says:

    I just had a friend come back from Turkey, here’s an excerpt from an email he sent me (which I thought I’d post here):

    “We went to Turkey in October and it was great. Couldn’t get into the Zoe and/but stayed with friends in Beyoglu instead, and traveled with them to Capadocia for a few days. Istanbul was a wonder — and got better as we strayed from the Sultanameht area — and Capadocia was stunning and amazing, both the landscape and the little towns to the south. In Istanbul, poking around on the Asian side and in a messed-up poor neighborhood on the Europe side were highlights.”

    “It was the end of Ramadan when we got there and the over-night prayers/marching bands (I thought it was a dream it was not) were stunning. And you were right, the Turks couldn’t be nicer. Had a gestured conversation and tea and a cigarette with complete strangers in Kumkapi and went home happy.”

    I couldn’t have put it better myself.

  3. SM Thompson Says:

    Ode to Joy
    Sunshine paths leading on
    In Istanbul’s glory

    Heaven reach out touch
    Feel the scent of success

    Ode to Joy
    A Favourite Poetic Play

  4. ali Says:

    Hey Scott,
    thanks for great info and comments. Istanbul is great to visit. For your “San Francisco? Nope. Istanbul.” photo, if you got there, it means you have been to one of the amazing points of Istanbul.

  5. Nedo Says:

    Scot says all right about Istanbul and Turkey. Istanbul offers plenty of sights to see both historically and visually.

  6. Istanbul Says:

    I totally agree with you that Istanbul is the most beautiful city in the world. I’ve even heard people say that it beats Paris.
    One’s life will not be complete if one dies without having visited Istanbul.
    And this is the year to visit Istanbul – 2010 – because Istanbul is cool this year. (Istanbul was nominated as the European Capital of Culture this year.)