I started writing this post in 2017, a few months after my trip to Istanbul. A rough, unfinished version sat in my drafts folder for nearly two years. Though I felt like I had so much to say about Istanbul — so much I wanted to say about Istanbul — I just couldn’t get the words out.
So I pushed this post aside. I let it sit in my drafts for months and months. And then today, for whatever reason, I felt like writing about Istanbul. I came back to this post and finally, the words started coming, pouring out faster than my fingers could type.
This final iteration is completely different from the first draft, but highlighting my favourite memories from Istanbul seems more fitting. After all, so many little moments from that trip are firmly etched into my memory: the surreal view of Hagia Sophia from a rooftop cafe; the way the coffee — earthy and bitter and aromatic — lingered after each sip; the sight of Rustem Pasha Mosque from the Galata Bridge at sunset, surrounded by cotton candy skies.
These memories, fleeting and trivial as they seemed at the time, left the biggest mark on me. So here they are, two years in the making: four of my favourite moments from Istanbul.
My first glimpse of Hagia Sophia
I feel Istanbul’s magnitude as soon as I leave the airport. A taxi collects me at the arrivals gate, and the driver speeds down frenetic, four-lane highways as I stare out the window, watching the city unfurl before me. As we get closer to Sultanahmet, the roads become more congested, more serpentine, more chaotic. I hold my breath as the taxi careens down a cobbled street that looks far too narrow for a vehicle this size.
Finally, the taxi driver slows to a stop near my hostel. I grab my bag and start walking toward the entrance, and a flash of pink up ahead catches my eye. I quickly realize what it is and stop dead in my tracks; at the end of the road in front of me is the unmistakable silhouette of Hagia Sophia. I can only make out its expansive dome and a single minaret from where I stand, but it’s utterly magnificent. I veer into the middle of the street dumbfounded, my mouth agape.
“This is one hell of an introduction, Istanbul,” I say out loud to no one in particular.
An epiphany by the Bosphorus
After traversing the city for hours and gorging on everything from simit to borek and manti on a glorious food tour, we arrive at our final stop of the day: an outdoor patio at a cafe next to the Bosphorus. Our tour guide passes slices of syrup-soaked baklava around the table, and I place mine next to a tulip-shaped glass filled with apple tea.
I devour the baklava in seconds, and then grab my camera and wander toward the edge of the Bosphorus. Staring at the city’s skyline through my camera’s viewfinder, I suddenly realize how beautiful Istanbul is. It’s not like Paris or Rome or Budapest, where elegance and grandeur pour out of every side street and sprawling square. Istanbul’s beauty is nuanced and complex, and it reveals itself slowly, day by day, layer by layer.
I get back to my hostel later that evening and write the following entry in my journal: Istanbul is monstrous and chaotic and overwhelming, but it’s also beautiful. The city’s beauty lies in its frenetic streets, teeming with life and energy. Its beauty is embedded in its imposing mosques, adorned with unfathomably intricate details. Its beauty is echoed by reverberating minarets and melodic chants of prayer. Its beauty is found along the Bosphorus, in an endless sea of blue.
A blissfully happy day
On my last day in Istanbul, I have breakfast at a rooftop restaurant sandwiched between the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia with an Australian girl I’d befriended at my hostel. The server leads us to a table on the terrace and I mutter holy shit under my breath. The view is unbelievable; I can’t put my camera down. We order Turkish coffee and creamy, custardy rice pudding topped with crushed pistachios.
Buzzing on caffeine and sugary desserts, we make our way across the city to a Turkish hammam. The lounge area is beautiful and airy, adorned with stone walls, white marble floors, and a spectacular domed ceiling. We sip on a glass of fresh fruit juice until it’s time to get undressed. Then, layer by layer, we strip down until we’re half-naked and ever-so-slightly uncomfortable.
I walk into a steamy room and lay on a heated marble slab until a serious-looking woman summons me to her washing station. After a quick rinse, she slips an exfoliating glove on her hand, scrubs every inch of my body from head-to-toe, and drenches me with soapy water and mountains of bubbles.
There’s more rubbing, scrubbing, and rinsing, and then I’m free to head back to the lounge area. Wrapped in a plush robe with an apple tea in my hand, I feel refreshed and deliriously happy.
And clean. I feel remarkably clean.
An act of kindness and a stunning view
I’m lost in the backstreets of the Spice Bazaar. Emma, a British girl I’d met earlier in the day, tries to help me navigate the offline map on my phone to no avail. We’re looking for Buyuk Valide Han, a former 17th-century Ottoman inn with a rooftop that supposedly offers spectacular panoramic views of the city.
After circling around the same courtyard a few times, a man approaches and delivers some bad news: apparently, the rooftop is in disrepair and access is off-limits.
“I’ll show you a better rooftop,” he says, and motions to a dimly-lit doorway behind him. We follow him into a dilapidated building, down a pitch-black hallway, and around a series of corners.
After a few minutes, I begin to feel uneasy. I have no idea where he’s leading us, and, at this point, I’m not sure we’d be able to find our way back. I continue onward despite the thumping in my chest, clambering through the darkness and up a poorly-lit staircase. Out of nowhere, I see a flash of light. We emerge out of the darkness and onto a rooftop, surrounded by Istanbul’s minaret-studded skyline on all sides. The view is astonishingly beautiful.
Kind Stranger is first to break the silence. “You can see Rustem Pasha Mosque to the right, and just behind is the Galata Tower,” he says, pointing at minarets and monuments in the distance.
He disappears into another doorway at one point, and then reemerges moments later with a kettle in his hands.
“Would you like a cup of tea?” he asks.
“No, thank you,” I say sheepishly. “You’ve already been kind enough to bring us here.”
“It’s my pleasure,” he replies. “I hope you’re enjoying my city.”
We linger for a while, snapping photos and admiring the magical view. I’m elated and endlessly grateful, but I can’t stop thinking about all the people who seemed shocked when I announced I was going to Turkey, all the people who told me not to travel here.
I thank Kind Stranger again and glance back at the Bosphorus one final time.
This is the side of Istanbul you’ll never see on the news, I think to myself.
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