Istanbul is a study in contrasts. Within moments of arriving, you're assaulted by the hustle and bustle of the city that washes overs you like the heat of a glass of çay, turkish tea. As you approach the city you begin to see how the old aqueducts form the gates through which the traffic, and there's always traffic, enters the city. It's moments such as this where you see Istanbul's challenge. It is a city with so much history that is charging forward into the future. In fact, you'll most likely see more high rises and fancy cars then you would at home. But don't let this distract you from sampling the amazing turkish cuisine prepared by local vendors or small kebab shops.
It's Istanbul's particular brand of hustle that makes this city so amazing. Everyone is trying to secure their share of the economic boom Turkey has been experiencing and they work for it. You'll see all manners of street vendors hawking their wares. Walk up and pick something up, but be prepared to use the Turkish word for “thank you” (Phonetically: Teshekoorler) if you want to get away without buying the shop. Seriously, as my mom will attest, this word is a lifesaver. It can extricate you from any hassling or entreaties to dine, buy, marry, or what-have-you. Teşekkürler: Learn it, use it, and love it!
Don't think you'll be able to experience Istanbul in two or three days. This is a city where you could spend days just walking the streets and taking in the lively atmosphere. Be sure to give yourself a couple days to see all of the sites in the Old City, another day to spend at a hammam, a Turkish bath where you'll be soaped, scrubbed, and then forcefully contorted by a man hairier than your uncle John (But trust me, you'll walk out of there feeling blissful), and enough nights to sample several different local cuisines and the wonderful night life of Taksim.
If you're willing to spend more time in the city and outside of it, there are a plethora of spots that most tourists might not find. For example, sit along the banks of the Bosporus at the best little shisha and tea spot on the Asian side. First, you travel by ferry to Üsküdar, then and walk south along the bank of the Bosporus until you see the maiden's Tower Island. When you come upon a long set of concrete steps covered in cushions and men carrying trays of tea along them you'll know you've found the right spot. I suggest enjoying the sunset at this place as it lights up the city across the strait in a most wonderful way.
When you get to Istanbul be prepared for a cultural experience. If you can walk away from this city without having been awed by a view or having haggled with a vendor, then perhaps you should extend your trip. Learn to love the çay, because it comes after every meal, and in between most hours of the day. If you get lost, just ask someone. I've had experiences where people have called their friends who could speak English and translate for us over the phone. The Turkish people will go out of their way to make your experience in Turkey a wonderful one, and if you're like me, you'll know that you want to go back even though you've just arrived.
Author: Evan Waksler
Photo Credits: Vince Millett, Moyan Brenn