I wasn’t sure what to expect when I headed to Istanbul last week. Sure, there were some things I already knew about the destination, like how it’s where Europe and Asia meet, both figuratively and literally (the Bosphorus Strait, which runs through the centre of the city, is the geographical dividing point between the two continents), and how the only thing North Americans have seen of Turkey over the past few months has been the riots in Taksim Square.
My family was worried. When I told them I was headed to Turkey, their minds flashed to images from CNN and they fretted about police patrolling the streets and clouds of tear gas filling the sky and whether a single, blonde-haired girl would be safe in a Middle Eastern destination. “Don’t go anywhere by yourself,” my mother told me. I agreed and, of course, ignored her the moment I landed.
Because, you see, the Istanbul I saw in person was not the Istanbul I had seen on the news. Here’s why:
Turkish passion is to be admired
It’s easy to say that people are passionate about their culture, but in Turkey, I saw a passion that transcended typical country pride. You can feel it in the air as you move through the streets of Istanbul—a genuine love for what Turkey is, who Turks are and what Turkish culture means. There’s even an organization, Armaggan, strictly dedicated to preserving traditional Turkish cuisine, clothing, art and architecture through a modern-day clothing shop, art gallery and restaurant.
Even the protests, something that has left much of the Western world apprehensive about Turkey, are not something to fear, but to understand. We met people who proudly showed us iPhone photos of themselves dressed in riot gear. They told us how people would leave their offices at the end of the workday to join the community in Taksim Square, to speak out against government decisions.
Coming from Canada, a country where the voting percentage is at a pitiful 61% and people express their disapproval with politics by liking Facebook pages, I saw the beauty in people coming together in protest. Istanbul residents aren’t looting and vandalizing across the city, hiding their faces in shame of doing something wrong. They’re gathering together, expressing their anger and frustration and trying to make a change. It’s something I feel many of us here in Canada, where we’re overly privileged and often ambivalent about policy, could learn from.
Istanbul is European
It sounds silly to say; after all, half of Istanbul officially sits in Europe (it is the only city in the world to live on the dividing line of two continents). But because Turkey is predominantly Muslim and its geography places it into the Middle Eastern group of countries that include Egypt, Iraq, Iran and Saudi Arabia, Turkey is often considered by Westerners to not be European. And to be honest, it’s not traditionally European—and that’s its charm. Take the narrow alleys and café culture of Europe and mix it with 4 a.m. calls to prayer and bustling spice bazaars, and you have the eclectic Euro-Asian charm that is uniquely Istanbul.
A history that has seen Christianity and Islam, Romans and Mongols, sultans and prime ministers has led Turkey to its status as a melting pot of Eastern and Western influences that continues to exist today. No, you won’t need to cover your hair to wander the streets (unless you’re entering a mosque). And no, no one will look at you strangely for ordering a bottle of raki during Ramadan, just as if you are a devout Muslim who opts to wear a hijab or niqab, no one will criticize your choice to be veiled.
Going solo is not scary
I’ve been catcalled on the streets of Havana, New Orleans, Sydney and even in my hometown of Toronto. Female travellers—particularly solo female travellers—are all too used to the looks and comments that come with being a woman alone. Istanbul was one of the few places I’ve travelled to where no one openly ogled me or called out as I walked past (okay, with the exception of the charmingly flirtatious vendors selling street food in Ortaköy). As I wandered the downtown on my own one afternoon with camera in hand, people paused and smiled at me, and ducked out of my way or gestured apologetically if they had wandered into a photo shot.
On my last night in Istanbul, I headed out for Turkish meze and shisha with two female friends, and all three of us commented on how safe we felt in the city, even being out on our own—three females who didn’t speak a word of Turkish—until 3 a.m. Maybe I’m naïve, maybe I simply didn’t find the “bad” neighbourhoods, but I can say that the downtown never left me feeling uncertain for my safety.
The city is more than mosques and monuments
The Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia are arguably the most famous sites in Istanbul. And Turkey’s rich history that spans thousands of years and holds countless tales of sultans and emperors will leave your head spinning (just stepping foot inside Hagia Sophia was enough to make me feel dizzy with historical overload). But Istanbul is also home to some of the best shopping I’ve ever seen (head to the ritzy Nisantasi district for high-end shopping to rival Rodeo Drive or the Champs-Élysées), a spectacular art scene (check out the Istanbul Modern gallery for modern art with a distinctly Turkish twist) and Mediterranean resort-like getaways that are just a ferry ride away (escape to the Princes’ Islands, where cars don’t exist and warm turquoise waters lap at rocky beaches). Sure, the history is incredible and not to be missed, but the city is also very much alive in the here and now.
I’ve been known to fall for destinations the way some people fall for relationships. Sometimes it’s a whirlwind summer fling, sometimes it’s a lasting soul mate and sometimes it’s one who catches me off guard and sweeps me off my feet.
Istanbul, our time together was fleeting, but you surprised me, taught me and utterly charmed me.
I travelled to Istanbul as part of a press trip with Turkish Airlines, Conrad Hilton Istanbul, InS Luxury Tours and Charming Media. My travel companions included Alexander Liang (Kenton Magazine), Jennifer Weatherhead (Elle Canada), Sabrina Maddeaux (Toronto Standard), Marissa A (Chic Darling), Nicole Wilson (Dainty Girl), Valerie Stachurski (Charming Media) and Tay Kanbal (Turkish Airlines Canada).
Follow #TOtoTurkey on Twitter and Instagram for all our updates from the trip!