Just over a week ago, I was fortunate to spend five days in Istanbul, Turkey, courtesy of Turkish Airlines Canada, Conrad Hilton Istanbul and InS Luxury Tours. And at the risk of sounding obnoxiously gushy, it was pretty damn incredible. As I’ve previously written, I didn’t know what to expect from Istanbul, but it didn’t take me long to fall in love with the gorgeous scenery and culture that make up this East-meets-West city.
Here, in no particular order, are five moments that captured my heart.
Staring at the Bosphorus
Rooftop patios will never feel the same again after spending four evenings in a row looking out at the Bosphorus Strait from the lovely patios of the Conrad Hilton, Hilton Istanbul and Hilton Park. For one, it’s geographically fascinating—the Bosphorus is the dividing point between Europe and Asia, so you can literally stand on one side of the strait and stare at another continent just across the water. But secondly, it’s just a beautiful stretch of water that captures the evening light in a way that seems too perfect to be real. As night falls, the Bosphorus Bridge lights up in patterns and the city twinkles and the water turns from turquoise to inky black. I’m fairly certain that, added up over the week, I stared at the Bosphorus literally for hours.
Holding my breath in Hagia Sophia
I once dreamed of being an archaeologist, so exploring a city’s history is one of my favourite things to do when I travel—especially when it’s to a city as old as Istanbul. But even though I knew in my head how far back Istanbul’s existence stretched, my heart still leapt at the in-person sight of Hagia Sophia.
Built in 537 CE, Hagia Sophia was once a church, then a mosque, as Istanbul passed through Byzantine and into Ottoman rule. In 1931, the site was converted into a museum; Christian mosaics that had been plastered over during the Ottoman Empire were revealed once again, and today the artwork that adorns the walls is a gorgeously surreal mix of Islam and Christianity.
Istanbul’s history is rich and complex, and standing in the middle of a building that has stood for close to 1,500 years, that has seen sultans walk its floors and that has witnessed the rise and fall of powerful empires, feels like you’re absorbing all that history into your very pores. Its art and architectures is breathtakingly beautiful, and I found myself constantly holding my breath, unable to even speak.
Experiencing raki and meze
It’s pronounced rak-uh, not rak-ee, and it’s a Turkish tradition. Any evening, head to one of the downtown cafés, and you’ll see groups of friends sharing platters of food and drinking small glasses of a cloudy white liquid. This is raki, similar to sambuca or ouzo in flavour (although everyone in Turkey will tell you it’s better than ouzo). But unlike the flaming shots of sambuca, raki is meant to be sipped, not shot, and it is strictly meant to be consumed slowly and socially (i.e., don’t shoot it at a nightclub unless you want to look like an uncouth tourist). One night, we bought a bottle and ordered meze platters of melon and cheese, and sat drinking and talking for hours while musicians played in the streets. There is nothing more wonderful, in the most simplest of ways, than sitting with new friends, sharing food and drink and music in a new place.
Exploring the Istanbul “Riviera”
If I hadn’t known we were in Turkey, I would have sworn we were on the French Riviera or in the Greek Islands, as our ferry cruised along the Sea of Marmara. We were headed to Istanbul’s Princes’ Islands—specifically, to Büyükada (which translates to “Big Island”)—for an afternoon of beach lounging.
The islands are a popular getaway for Turks looking to escape the city for an afternoon or weekend, and for good reason. We stretched out on white pebbled sand and sipped Efes beers and swam in the perfectly warm, turquoise sea, while across the water, the bustle of Istanbul stretched along the shoreline, spreading out far past where our eyes could see. But on Büyükada, we were tucked into a peaceful pocket, in a place where cars don’t exist (the only transportation is bicycles and horse-drawn carriages) and where the vibe is that of a mellow summer retreat while city life carries on just a boat ride away.
Getting lessons in shisha smoking
On our last night, I headed out for a dinner of meze, then in search of a hookah lounge with two of my travel mates, Marissa and Sabrina. We ended up at Beşiktaş Saray Cafe, where patrons were smoking, drinking Turkish tea and playing board games at outdoor tables.
We ordered up rounds of tea and a pipe of strawberry-melon shisha. After a few passes, the owner, Mehmet, clearly amused by our poor smoking skills, came out to give us a proper demonstration, simultaneously inhaling and exhaling in a cloud of smoke that Marissa said made him look like Puff the Magic Dragon. He didn’t speak much English—just enough to ask us where we were from—and we didn’t speak any Turkish, but no languages were needed as we laughed at his demonstration and he laughed as we coughed and giggled our way through trying to smoke the “proper” way.
I’m a firm believer that the best travel memories come from the tiniest of moments. Often, it’s just a feeling that hits you, or a passing scene that sticks in your mind, or a person who you know you’ll never forget. For me, the gem of travel and exploration has always been those fleeting moments when you feel completely connected to wherever you are. It could be witnessing the grandeur of a place like Hagia Sophia or having a brief exchange with a stranger in a café, but you’ll know you’ve found one of those perfect travel moments when you’re overcome with the feeling that there’s nowhere else you’d rather be.
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!