”Istanbul is the largest city in Turkey, serving as the country’s economic, cultural, and historic hub. Istanbul is the most populous European city and the world’s 15th-largest city. […] The city served as an imperial capital for almost 1600 years […] The city grew in size and influence, eventually becoming a beacon of the Silk Road and one of the most important cities in history.”– from Wikipedia
This is the first passage of the English Wikipedia page about Istanbul. Very promising. With over 15 million residents it will by far have been the biggest city I’ve ever seen. Istanbul was a sure trip for me. So that is we booked a bus and the Airbnb full of excitement. We got ourselves a travel guide, read a few things, and had a vague idea of what we will do. But while being in Istanbul I continuously asked the same questions myself: Why do I want to visit Istanbul? What do I want to take with me? Do I want to be surprised, pleased, confirmed in my expectations, or something else?
Midway through the trip, I felt like I was running from one sight to the other. As if it would only be about checking off a to-do list. I wanted to see so much and ended up not having an eye for the little things. After running with masses of tourists to numerous historical places for a few days, I began to perceive Istanbul as an oversized outdoor museum. I visited the Galata Tower, Ayasofya, Sultan Ahmet Camii, Topkapı Sarayı, Büyük Çarşı, Dolmabahçe Sarayı, Taksim Meydanı etc. All of which are super interesting places you can spend days researching, learning, and marveling at. But stacked up and visited in a short period of time, it’s boring and repetitive. A frustrating experience.
I read in a guidebook that 99% of tourists never see 90% of the city. Which leaves this feeling of not really having a sense for the city. And I also got sold overpriced food in a shady restaurant near the ferry station in Galata. I guess that is part of the Istanbul experience. I would have almost felt like missing something out if it wouldn’t happen.
There is also a lot of what I did enjoy in Istanbul. Every time I could experience something outside of the main touristic pathways and attractions. Every time I could discover a glance at how it must feel to actually live in the city. Memorable for me was when we walked through Kadıköy on a Sunday evening. We sat down with a friend, who we know from Izmir and now studies in Istanbul, in an authentic communist café. We had our dinner next to people who just enjoyed their after-work hours there. After that, we followed the noise which was coming from Fenerbahçe Stadium. Hundreds of people sat around the stadium who didn’t get a ticket sat around in circles staring at their smartphone screens to follow the match. It was derby time between the two city rivals Fenerbahçe and Galatasaray. And when Fenerbahçe scored the first goal we could only imagine how it must have been inside. I liked going to a viewpoint in Üsküdar, walking around there, and accidentally discovering the Büyük Çamlıca Camii on my way. I liked wandering around in SALT Galata, an old banking building that is now used as a café, a library, and an art gallery. One of the best days was when we took the ferry to Büyuk Ada, rented a bike, and discovered the island in the Marmara Sea on our own. I enjoyed talking to the tourist information volunteers in the Süleymaniye Camii who wanted to convince us that Islam is the one true religion.
These were all things that gave me a genuine impression of the city. But one encounter stood out to me. The only time I got the chance to listen to an Istanbul resident talking about his city. It was our Airbnb host who shared his flat in Üsküdar with us for a week. He was a young lawyer and left the apartment at seven in the morning each day. But when we came back late from walking around the city, Altuğ was waiting for us. He would play us a song on his guitar or challenge us to a round of Backgammon. We would exchange opinions about political topics as well as about our favorite football players.
Before coming to Istanbul, I thought I will be blown away by the historic attractions and tourist magnets of the city. But I had to quickly learn that visiting those places is tiring if they become part of a to-do list. When you go to the fifth big mosque because it is a must-see, and you don’t appreciate them anymore. I was relieved that it’s another one crossed of the list. I began to value moments of daily Istanbul life. Just sitting in a normal bus and observing old women carrying their groceries, discovering a street aside from the main roads, or discussing Cristiano Ronaldo’s best days being counted, with a wonderful, young lawyer from Üsküdar.