When I first visited Istanbul in July 2011, everything about the city felt like a magical wonderland. It was the closest I’d ever been to the Middle East, and it was the first Muslim-majority country I’d ever visited. The level of kindness and hospitality I felt everywhere from the hotel where I stayed to the restaurants and sweet shops I visited astounded me. I’d never been inside a mosque, and so visiting historical sites like the Hagia Sophia and the Suleymaniye Mosque felt quite unreal. And the beautiful and colorful Turkish breakfast spreads, the richness and thickness of the Turkish coffee, and the complex sweetness of the endless varieties of baklava and lokum (Turkish delight) had my taste buds in a total whirlwind. At that point in my life, I really hadn’t traveled much, so everything made me feel wide-eyed and amazed. But coming back to this city ten years later made me realize that the amazement and awe I felt of the city was not just because I was then a newbie traveler; it was because Istanbul has a unique charm and beauty all its own.
After an overnight flight and a quick nap at the hotel, we ventured out into the city and didn’t come back until about 9pm that evening, which was surprising because of how exhausted I was. I think the exhaustion was partly because of the heat and humidity, partly because of the lack of sleep, and also since I’m now over 24 weeks pregnant and thus carrying extra weight (and the extra need to pee all the time). Chris and I have always been efficient travelers, traveling light and always adjusting quickly to whatever time zone we’d fly into, but this time was a little different since I’m pregnant. I’d forgotten how steep the hills could get in this city, as well; Istanbul’s steep and winding hills make San Francisco seem like a flat stroll in the park.
A lot about the city has changed, but a lot is also the same. Walking across the Galata Bridge, you can always expect to see men of various ages fishing at all hours of the day and evening, waiting to catch just a handful of small fish or buckets full if they are lucky. Birds are constantly flying over the Bosphorus River, oftentimes highlighted by the bright lights of the bridge at night as well as the mosques. The various bazaars are full of hawkers trying to sell their treats and wares, although one after the other is actually selling the exact same thing, and it’s really just a matter of who is most persuasive to pull you in with sweet meats and teas to guarantee your purchase.
The city was always an eclectic mix of old and new, historical and modern, old and young. When I first visited 10 years ago, I remember the couple of days I wore outfits that revealed my shoulders, I was definitely the minority; both men and women gawked at me in disbelief that I’d dress so scantily in a Muslim environment. Now, though I can’t tell if they are locals or other European tourists, it was more normal to see women bare their shoulders and legs. In 2011 when I visited, the Hagia Sophia was a museum; its status has now changed back to a mosque, which not only means it’s more accessible to everyone given there’s no charge to enter, but as such, it’s more crowded and packed with people. In addition, they no longer allow you to ascend to the higher levels of the mosque for different perspectives, which I was sad about. The Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmet Cami) was mostly under construction, so unfortunately, Chris couldn’t see it in all its full glory. The underground Cistern, which was incredible in 2011, was also closed for construction. While it was good to see that they’re repairing these famous sites, it was just terrible timing for us since Chris couldn’t enjoy them.
Another difference this time around was the sweet shop that I went to a few times my last visit, Hafiz Mustafa. There were always multiple locations of this shop and cafe, but back then, the samples were ample, and the service was always warm and friendly. Attendants would basically stuff you with samples of baklava and lokum to the point that you nearly had a dessert meal just walking through there. Now, Hafiz Mustafa’s branding went through a total overhaul at some point in the last ten years; I didn’t even recognize their logo. And the inside looked like some modern, shiny, high end dessert/pastry shop. The prices are also a lot higher than I remember them being in 2011. Funnily enough, this was the same shop I purchased lokum from and also got a gift box from for Chris then. We still have the box sitting on our dresser now with all of our little display Christmas houses.
Istanbul is one of the only cities in the world that is in both Europe and Asia. It’s no wonder it’s one of the most traveled to cities in the world and one that I continue to love and admire. Who could not appreciate a city full of so much history, culture, and delicious food?