How We Came to Love Istanbul

Previously, on this blog, things were looking pretty bleak for us in Istanbul. It was a rough landing and a huge change from our easy life in Budapest. But don’t despair! We rallied, we adapted and we truly grew to love Istanbul. Here’s how:

1. We ate out more

One of the biggest issues with our Istanbul apartment was the kitchen. It was cramped, didn’t have much work space and was not very well stocked. So, we decided to add a 3rd night per week going out*, and prioritized cooking meals that we could make once and reheat and serve a second time. That way each of us only had to really cook one night per week in the horrible kitchen, plus take charge of heating up leftovers on one additional night.

One thing we had in our favor in Istanbul that made a big difference and certainly made this strategy possible is that Turkey was in the midst of a bit of a currency crisis. When we began planning for Istanbul about 8 months out, the lira-to-dollar exchange rate was at around 4-to-1 (which was already great compared to five years ago when it was 2-to-1). Just a couple weeks before we traveled from Budapest to Istanbul, it suddenly dropped from 5-to-1 to 7-to-1, and through most of our month in Turkey was about a 6-to-1 ratio. This made everything significantly cheaper for us, so it was no strain on our budget at all to eat out more.

We decided to make our 3rd night out a “healthy” night out, which is actually pretty easy to do in Istanbul because it is full of seafood and you can get virtually any ethnic food you want (so it was easy to get sushi or stir-fry). With the drop in lira and smart choices we started making, virtually all three nights out each week were nice, healthy and cheap. It was fun to seek out restaurants that were known for healthy options (though Chad didn’t love it, I highly recommend Journey in Cihinger for quality healthy food).

2. We got out more

Our early excursions were sometimes slightly traumatic between the crowds and the traffic and the terrible sidewalks and the really hot weather, but we made ourselves keep going. Chad wrapped up a work project that freed up some mornings to  help avoid the heat of the day, and we also started going out in the evenings too. Even when we didn’t enjoy going out, we made ourselves, just so we could learn and appreciate the flavor of Istanbul – crooked old streets, the broadcast of the prayer call, friendly people, even the cats. The more we got to know the city, the more we liked it and eventually love it.

3. We embraced the nightlife

We also started going out more after dark, again to avoid the heat of the day. Istanbul is magical at night – bright lights, lots of sounds and smells, still plenty of crowds. Sometimes we went to  a bar and other times we just walked the streets, but it was always a nice time to be out in the city.

4. We connected with football (soccer)

Turkey is another football-mad country, so it made sense that we’d make it a priority to get to a match. We chose Besiktas as our team to see, and had an amazing night at the match. Yes, there was a lot of security (two metal detectors, 3 pat-downs, and this whole Passolig card system) but it was worth it. Besiktas lost but we’ll always remember the loud, angry whistles of the frustrated Besiktas fans. We especially appreciated sitting next to a young Turkish guy who spoke English, who shared translated some of the chants for Chad.

Besiktas match

In addition to our one live event, the English Premier League season started back up soon after we arrived in Istanbul, so we made it a priority to go out to the pub for the matches. We found an Irish pub near Istaklal Street and it became our go-to haunt for Liverpool matches. We also discovered that they serve incredible veggie burgers, so it was also a great dinner spot. We’re normally skeptical of Irish pubs (they tend to feel kind of generic) but we grew very fond of this place.

5. We found some green space

As we got out more, we finally stumbled some decent parks with real trees and nice benches. Our favorite was Gulhane Park outside Topkapi Palace, but we also found nice park space in Kadikoy on the Asian side of Istanbul.

We also took a day trip out to Belgrad Forest, which is just north of Istanbul. We spent a fantastic morning there hiking through the trees. It was really nice to get away from the city. It wasn’t at all hard to reach via metro and bus and if we’d stayed longer in Istanbul, I know we’d have come back here again and again. One important tip – wear bug spray!

6. We saw the sights

We’d intentionally put off the major sights of Istanbul until the first week of September to avoid the heat and crowds, but once we finally visited them, it was easy to see what the fuss was about. We were able to get the four biggies in during a single morning – Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, Basilica Cistern and Suleyman Mosque. All were well worth it, and if you’re trying to see a lot of Istanbul in just a few days it’d be easy enough to include the Grand Bazaar with those two. We went to the Grand Bazaar a couple of times because we absolutely loved it. It feels endless and the architecture is really cool. The crowds certainly lessened in September from our August experience, so it is highly possible that just the passage of time from hot, crowded August to less crowded, more temperate September also made it possible to fall in love with Istanbul.

7. We rode the Bosphorus (and walked along it)

The Bosphorus River is maybe the best thing about Istanbul, and I think they know it, because there are endless boats and ferries to take you out on it. Early on, we took a couple of painful walks to places like Karikoy and Besiktas looking for space to sit and enjoy the Bosphorus. In the center city, it is often blocked off other than the ferry terminals. But once we started riding the ferries (which were generally affordable and could be easily paid for with our Istanbulkart), we were able to truly enjoy the river.

One of our first experiences was taking a sunset cruise (not included on the Istanbulkart) up to the fishing village of Anadolu Kavagi. There wasn’t a lot to do there, but the cruise was nice and we enjoyed a great seafood meal. Another great trip was the ferry out to Buyukada Island. We had a fantastic time there taking a long walk up a huge hill to an old church. While in both cases the destinations were nice, the journey was the best part. We even found places finally to walk along the Bosphorus, our favorite being Arnavutkoy and Ortakoy on the Europe side and Kadikoy on the Asia side. Any city with wonderful water transportation can’t be bad, so it is really know wonder that we ultimately came to love Istanbul.

Summary

I think the key to cultivating our love of Istanbul was perseverance and continuing to try to seek out different ways to engage with the city. There were a lot of sucky moments, especially early on, but there were even more great moments that we would have missed if we hadn’t kept putting ourselves out there in Istanbul. It is not an easy city like Budapest or Prague, but it is a truly great city and the crowning jewel of a country that is now one of my favorite places in the world. More to come about the other places we visited in Turkey.

*Though we live on the road, we don’t eat out a lot because it is too easy to overeat or eat unhealthy foods, it’s more cost-effective to eat in. And we like getting to know the grocery stores and typical local items. In Budapest we established the tradition of having one nice night out per week and one cheap night out and then we cooked the other 5 nights.

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