Istanbul: What a Dollar Can Buy You

Istanbul today is as exciting as it was in 1987 when I first visited the city with my dad. Then, on a short 2-day tour, we saw the Grand Bazaar, strolled through Topkapı palace, had a scrumptious meal of İskender kebab and went on a scenic Bosphorus cruise. Twenty-six years later, visitors to Istanbul can still enjoy the very same things, only with one notable difference: cost!

Prices here have gone through the roof, and I have to say it doesn’t surprise me. Right now, Istanbul seems to be one of the hottest destinations in Europe, so why not charge $22 for a museum or $100 for a seafood meal? After all, visitor numbers are up. While luxury tourists feel right at home here, backpackers  probably won’t (any longer). Only 20 years ago, they paid $15 for a hotel right in the heart of Sultanahmet; in 2013, they will be hard-pressed to Continue…

Istanbul’s Turkish Delights

When I think of Istanbul, I immediately visualize huge bins of rose-flavored Turkish delight. I see winding cobbled streets with delicate minarets rising in the background and corner cafes with baklava and cups of thick, aromatic Turkish coffee. The call to prayer echoes in the background and tourists and touts collide in a strange dance of humorous, ritualized negotiation. But there’s more.

If you look at most conventional world maps, Istanbul – said to have a population of between 13 and 17 million – is literally the center of the world. To call it a crossroads is a laughable understatement. This is a city of sweet contradictions where women in chains and punk dos stomp past flowing figures in full-body hijabs. You can down a beer to acid rock or sip tea to traditional tanbur music, dance all night in a pulsating Continue…

The Topkapı Palace

The Topkapı Palace is a great example of why you should take in monuments twice. When I first visited in 1992, my short guided tour zoomed through a series of relatively modest, rather scrubby chambers. I was left underwhelmed and somewhat confused as to why the Topkapı was supposed to be one of the greatest surviving palaces in the world. It certainly didn’t feel that way.

When Thomas and I returned to Istanbul in 1993, we skipped the Topkapı and visited the Dolmabahçe Palace instead. On this trip, when we heard entry tickets were now a whopping $22 US – more than Angkor Wat – my first thought was, “NO WAY IN HELL AM I PAYING THAT FOR A BUNCH OF RUN-DOWN ROOMS!” But gut instinct told me to go again.

Honestly, I have no idea what happened on my first visit. Were they restoring 90% of the Topkapı in 1992? This time, we discovered a massive Continue…

Istanbul with Friends

First Paris with my family, then Istanbul with friends. Our latest travels have been especially social – and we’ve been having a blast. Friends and Istanbul experts Özgür and Leonie went way out of their way to make sure we (and the rest of our group) got more than the typical tourist’s view of Istanbul. They showed us as well as friends Armin, Marc, Petra and Uri a few of their favorite local hangouts.

Without Leonie and Özgür, we wouldn’t have found great spots like the local produce market in Beşiktaş and the tea gardens in southern Kadıköy, where we had the pleasure of hanging out with Özgür’s cousins Oz and Bengül. They also introduced us to one of the greatest finds EVER Continue…

Wandering the Markets of Istanbul

We’re not big shoppers, but we love to wander through markets. Street markets, food markets, fish markets, spice markets, animal markets – we love them all. From China to Guatemala, Sweden to Madagascar, we’ve seen the best of the best. So we can say with some authority that Istanbul has some pretty spectacular markets to choose from.

Of course, the two most famous – and visually stunning – are the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Bazaar (also called the Egyptian Bazaar). Halls of carpets, walls of colorful lamps, and shops full of jewels, spices and Turkish delight will fulfill any visitor’s wildest dreams of Ali Baba chic. Turkish friends can stop groaning; people need a little exotic romance in their lives. Plus, they are extremely photogenic.

But Istanbul’s market scene goes way beyond Continue…

Turkish Stained Glass Window

For some reason, I was especially intrigued by the beautiful stained glass windows in Turkish mosques. Many Westerners never really see pictures of Islamic stained glass windows, so I thought I would put one up to let our viewers contemplate an art form that they may not associate with Islam.

Most of the windows in the major mosques were quite high and difficult to photograph, but I got this shot in the Mihrimah Sultan Mosque in Edirnekapı near the city wall. If you are wondering why mosque decorations, stained glass, and Islamic arts in general do not usually depict any people or animals, Wikipedia has a decent article on aniconism in Islam. That may seem a bit too esoteric at first, but it really helps shed light on the heat behind the Muhammed cartoon controversies, which many Westerners find quite hard to understand.

Hagia Sophia

Not so coincidentally, my favorite building in the world is in my favorite city in the world. Hagia Sophia, consecrated in 537 A.D., is one of the architectural greats. Considered simultaneously the greatest construction of late antiquity as well as the Byzantine world, Hagia Sophia reigned supreme as the world’s largest cathedral for nearly a millennium until the construction of the Cathedral of Seville. In reality, there was nothing in the entire world that could compete with it from an architectural standpoint. (And there still isn’t in my mind.)

The Ottomans did their best to out-construct the wonder sitting in their backyard. And if we are talking about exteriors only, many would argue they succeeded. But nothing compares with the cavernous interior of Hagia Sophia. There is something magical Continue…