The Museum of Innocence

On our last day in Turkey before we headed back to the U.S., as the last thing we did before heading to the airport, we walked from our hotel to the Museum of Innocence, a quirky museum in the Cukurcuma neighborhood of Beyoglu, Istanbul, that is based on the Orhan Pamuk book also called the Museum of Innocence. In a nutshell, the museum and novel are about a love story between a wealthy businessman named Kemal and a younger, poorer, distant relative of his, Fusun. Kemal is actually engaged to another woman of his same social class and circle, but after meeting Fusun at a shop where he went to purchase a handbag for his fiancee, he immediately becomes entranced with Fusun, and they begin a very quick and intense emotional and physical love affair. The museum documents the entire book in the form of collected pieces of jewelry, cups, glasses, and other random items; vignettes, stories, newspaper articles, and other objects from that period of the late 70s to early 80s in Istanbul. It stands somewhat as a historical piece depicting the culture of the time then in Istanbul and Turkey overall, and also as a more narrow story of Kemal and Fusun. The general themes that are quickly picked up just by visiting the museum and without reading the book are the cultural differences between East and West (they often talk about how those in Europe are “sophisticated, educated, and progressive,” and those in the East, or in Turkey specifically, are old-fashioned and regressive, stuck in a period of time that has passed. The museum also emphasizes the importance of female purity in Turkey and how virginity was of utmost importance until marriage; women who had sexual relations with men prior to wedlock, regardless of whether it was the man they ended up marrying, were seen as scarred and dirty, and ultimately “lesser than.” The museum even depicted newspaper columns that actually showed the FACES of women who purportedly had had sex before marriage, basically warning men, “Hey, these women are impure! Beware!” We spent a couple of hours at the museum, listening to the audio guide by section. I was a bit intrigued, so I decided that when we came home, I’d get the audio book to see how the book was.

I’m about a few hours into the book, and it’s definitely a very intense love affair, narrated by Kemal, who frankly comes off as obsessed, a little narcissistic, narrow-minded, and selfish, and most definitely creepy. I’m not totally sure I want to continue listening, but what the heck, I’ve already started… in total, it’s 20+ hours long! I suppose, though, that’s the general theme of major love stories that have made history, ranging from Lolita to Anna Karenina to Madame Bovary. However, the difference here is that while I’ve actually read Lolita and Madame Bovary, this book veers on the side of Anna Karenina where the guy in question just keeps droning on and on, constantly obsessing, resulting in confirming exactly how creepy, stalker-ish, and selfish he is (well, isn’t that the theme of all men of all time?). It’s kind of amazing how over history, stories of selfish, obsessive, creepy men make history so often, yet as soon as you hear of a selfish woman, all bets are off.

Kemal is truly ridiculous, though, and in many ways, a total loser in my mind. I have very little to no pity for him as a character, as he’s highly unrelatable and pathetic. Even after he breaks off his engagement with Sibel, his fiancee, and finds out Fusun is married, he continues to try to pursue her, and even goes on to INVITE himself over for dinner/coffee/tea at her home 3-4 nights a week for EIGHT YEARS, where she lives with her husband and parents. It’s truly insane and just borderline worthy of sticking this guy into a stray jacket. Honestly, I’m not sure I’d recommend the book to anyone unless they really wanted to read an obsessive man’s account of his ridiculous love for a woman, but hey, to each their own!

Cultural differences in the US vs. Turkey

Whenever we’re traveling, whether it’s out of state or out of the country, I always think about the differences in how people behave and treat each other. One of the biggest differences you notice right away when you go to Turkey when you’re American (or at least, an American from a city like San Francisco or New York) is that when people go to a cafe, it’s actually to enjoy the cafe: they will get a drink, perhaps something big or small to eat, and they will catch up with a loved one, people watch, or just sit there and enjoy their drink and the general ambiance of the place. They actually a culture of people want to live in and enjoy the moment. In most cafes and coffee shops in San Francisco and New York, you will be guaranteed to see a sea of laptops, tablets, and people on their phones squatting at tables and seats at cafes. These people are all obsessed with work, productivity, and getting shit done… or at least, appearing to be obsessed with one or all of the above. A small minority of these tables/seats will be occupied by people actually conversing. And that is SUPER frustrating for people like me, who try to go to cafes to catch up with another person, whether that’s been my mentee, a friend/colleague, or a college interview candidate.

Another difference we noticed when we decided to rent a car in Antalya is best practices around driving. In the U.S., if there are two lanes on a highway, and you think someone in the fast lane is driving too slowly, you will typically just switch to the slow lane, speed up to get ahead of them, and then re-enter the fast lane ahead of them. In Antalya, we noticed that when people thought we were slow, instead of changing lanes, they’d actually start tailgating us, which to me, felt very aggressive. So in other words, that was their way to tell us, “Hey, you’re slow. Get out of the fast lane into the slow lane.” And if you don’t heed their advice, they can get very aggressive. Several of them pulled into the slip lanes alongside us to try to cut us off. Some of them literally got BETWEEN two lanes (and well, two cars — thank God we were all driving tiny compact cars!!) to cut us off. One driver even got out of the car and tried to talk to us at a stop light, which was really unnecessary. But that’s all from my perspective. Maybe from THEIR perspective, we were actually the ones being the jerks and not doing what could be standard in Turkish driving culture.

A last thing that is always noticeable to me when I’m traveling in Europe is how much people smoke, both indoors and out. This is clearly my very American side, but I really cannot stand cigarette smoke. In the U.S., you never really have to worry about this because smoking is pretty much outlawed in any indoor dining establishment, and even with restaurants that have outdoor seating, smoking either isn’t allowed or is done very sparingly. And now being pregnant, I especially want to avoid second hand smoke at all costs. Almost every place we sat at, cafe or restaurant, had people smoking, whether it was indoors or out. I could rarely sit and enjoy a smoke-free experience anywhere we sat, and if I did, that smoke-free period would soon come to an end. But that’s just normal in Europe. Sure, we all know it’s bad for our health, and I’m sure they do, too, but they don’t care because they enjoy it and want to live in the moment. Once in Istanbul, we changed tables because of the smoking from a couple sitting next to us. The server didn’t quite understand why we wanted to switch, and Chris emphasized to him that I was pregnant (he pointed at my belly and motioned his own belly to show a curve shape), and the server finally got it.

But all in all, the cultural differences are what make traveling fun. In retrospect, it makes me sad that we won’t be able to do much international travel for the foreseeable future given the pandemic plus my advancing pregnancy, but now, my main focus is making sure my baby and I are healthy and will have as smooth as a labor and delivery as possible. And then hopefully, assuming all goes well, months will pass, and baby can travel with us and be a little globe trotter.

The Asian side of Istanbul

Today, we ventured out of the European side of Istanbul and took a boat to the Asian side of this multicultural city. Istanbul is one of just a handful of cities in the world that is actually bi-continental: part of it is technically in Europe, while part of it is in Asia. I already loved everything about this city, but knowing this makes me love it even more.

Since I last came ten years ago, a lot has changed. For one thing, the Camlica Camii (mosque) had not been built. It’s now the largest and most modern mosque in all of Turkey, designed by two female architects and recently completed in 2019. This mosque is massive, sitting atop a hill with a stunning panoramic view of all of Istanbul. It has the most extensive public bathroom I have ever seen, complete with an entire massive room just for feet washing (you have to take your shoes off in most mosques), a multi-level underground car park, and architectural touches that were inspired by the Ottoman Empire period. The building and inaugration of this mosque was considered a mega project with the goal to strengthen the Turkish economy, so in some ways, it could be seen as a bit of a tourist push or even a method of propaganda, but hey, I’m all for enjoying these things if I can. In addition to this huge and sparkling mosque, the Kucuk Camlica TV Radio Tower was also inaugurated just a few months ago on the Asian side of Istanbul. When we first arrived and walked across the Galata Bridge, I definitely did not recognize this radio tower, and then immediately learned why.

The last time I came to Istanbul, I really didn’t do much research ahead of time, so when I got whisked off on a boat to the “Asian” side of Istanbul, it felt like a seaside town in the form of a tourist trap, with many annoying souvenir shops filled with junk I’d never consider buying and fresh seafood restaurants. It was a decent afternoon outing, but it wasn’t at all representative of everyday Istanbul life. This time around, we took a regular commuter boat and went to the Kadikoy area, which is a part of the Asian side where real, everyday people actually live. I could immediately feel the difference walking through the streets of Kadikoy, as it felt a lot more local with all of its many restaurants, cafes, bakeries, and markets. I knew this area had to be more local because a lot of the shops had workers and owners who didn’t speak a lick of English. That was totally fine by me since deliciousness speaks for itself, as I found out from a tiny local corner bakery along one of our strolls, where we picked up a beautiful and super scrumptious olive pasted filled bread round. The man who worked there knew zero English, and I don’t know any Turkish outside of hello, thank you, and good morning, so body language and hand motions went a long way!

In addition to stopping by this amazing little bakery by chance, we also spent some time hanging out and enjoying coffee and tea drinks at a local open-air cafe, visiting the Camlica Camii, unexpectedly riding on a mini bus (where someone actually got out of their seat to offer it to me – so sweet!), eating at a fresh seafood restaurant, tasting a local French-Turkish treat called a Kup Griye (essentially a decadent mix of caramel and vanilla ice cream, topped with a nutty crunchy croquant, whipped cream, nuts, caramel sauce, and a tiny little buttery biscuit), and ending our evening at Ciya Sofrasi, a restaurant Chris learned about that was from the Netflix show Chef’s Table. Boy, was this meal memorable. Given we had eaten all these other things during the day, we shared one main and two desserts, along with a plum juice. We had a kebab, which I believe was beef-based, but super tender and meaty with the most luxurious stewed tomatoes and eggplant pieces. We also ordered our first (and last) kunefe, which was not as sweet or immersed in sugar syrup as we were used to. In addition, the cheese layer was extremely thin. I’m so used to kunefe back in the U.S. having a super thick layer of cheese, whether it’s been at Turkish restaurants in Brooklyn or in the Middle Eastern areas of Detroit. But the real star and takeaway for me from this meal was the baklava. In the US and even with other baklava we’d had at the hotels during this trip, I’m used to baklava being extremely sweet, almost too cloyingly sweet, rendering me only able to eat one or two pieces before I have to stop. With this baklava, not only was the sweetness was light, the layers of phyllo themselves were even thinner than paper and far more delicate than what they normally are. In addition, the sweetness was not the first thing that hit me; instead, the first things that hit me were 1) the butteriness of the pastry layers and 2) the savory richness of the generous chopped pistachio filling. The pistachio filling actually seemed more buttery and savory than it was sweet, which was so, so different than what I was used to. I never realized that baklava could be this light and “not too sweet,” but it was truly a revelation!

If we had more time, I would have loved to spend more time exploring the different neighborhoods and cafes and restaurants of the Asian side of Istanbul, or even just spending more time in Kadikoy itself. It seemed a bit more relaxed than the European side, though during the evenings, the area really did come to life with all the restaurant and bar activity. It almost felt as though there really was zero global pandemic.

The endless world of kebap in Turkey

Although it was sad to leave the beauty and seaside of Antalya, we still have the last part of our trip in store to further explore Istanbul. Late this morning, after one last festive and colorful Turkish breakfast overlooking the ocean, we boarded our flight to return back to Istanbul for three last days of food, culture, and sight-seeing.

After we arrived at our boutique hotel and got acquainted with our room, we went to a restaurant that was a short walking distance away from our hotel called Sehzade Cag Kebap. It was originally on my food list and was highly recommended as a long-standing popular restaurant with both tourists and locals alike. Cag kebabi is like the ancestor of doner. The meat, always lamb, is sliced a bit thicker than doner kebap, and it’s cooked horizontally on a big spit over hot charcoal. It is then cut and served on small skewers called cag. As I was watching the food preparation in their open kitchen, I noticed that after slicing off the spit and adding the meat to the cag skewers, another cook actually *further* grilled the meats over more charcoal, likely for a crisper finish. The meat was super juicy and succulent, packed with meaty, gamey flavor; it’s served with super thin lavash bread, raw sliced onions, ezme (spicy tomato and herb salad), along with thick and luscious buffalo yogurt. All these accompaniments were perfect with the meat; I would have been sad and felt as though something were missing if we hadn’t ordered one of these things (the bread and onions come with the kebap, but the salad and yogurt are a little extra).

The cag kebap originated in Erzurum, a city in eastern Turkey, and it’s been said it’s one of the original preparations for meat on a spit in Turkey. I was pretty obsessed. We were tempted to order more, but the amount of food we got was just right.

I also loved the service here. The cooks were all super friendly when I recorded them, and who I assume is the manager/owner was very friendly when he greeted us and got us seated, and when I asked to use the restroom. I love the hospitality here in Turkey.

Breakfast with a view in Antalya, followed by Roman ruins, waterfalls, and doner kebab

At the suggestion of the guest services rep at our Antalya hotel, this morning, we skipped the semi-mediocre buffet breakfast at the Crown Plaza Antalya in favor of breakfast at Robert’s Cafe, large, spacious restaurant with indoor and outdoor dining overlooking the beautiful Mediterranean and lined with mountains. We shared yet another large Turkish style breakfast, fresh juices, coffee, and also some mini pancakes with fresh fruit, honey, and nutella. While enjoying breakfast with the stunning view that made us feel spoiled and extremely lucky, Chris remarked how much the baby growing inside of me must be benefiting from all the extremely fresh food that we’ve been privileged to eat during this trip. I really can’t get enough of the produce here in Turkey. The tomatoes are always extremely juicy, literally bursting in our mouths. The cucumbers are extremely crisp. The strawberries, though teeny tiny in size, beat every single strawberry at Whole Foods in terms of richness of flavor and sweetness.

We went about our day and left the city proper for more ancient Roman ruins at the Aspendos theater, waterfalls (that left something to be desired, honestly, but you can’t win them all, right?), and the quaint little town of Side, where more Roman ruins could be found, along with more restaurants with stunning views and more beach time. Although I truly love urban living, I always wonder how much clearer my lungs would be and how much better my overall health might be if I lived with air this clean, closer to the ocean and the mountains where everything always smells fresher and better.

We ended the day back in the city center, Kaleici, and satiated Chris’s craving for doner kebab. The hospitality here is always hilarious: Chris really wanted beer with his doner, but the place we selected didn’t serve alcohol, so one of the employees accommodated us by seating us elsewhere where there actually was beer to purchase, and then brought over our doner kebab meals to us. He had a plate, and I had a smaller wrap. The meat juices trickled everywhere, and it was a delicious and juicy close to the day.

Cirali Beach and the Turquoise Coast dream

If you told me in January of this year that I’d get to immerse myself in the warm, sparkling clear waters of the Mediterranean Sea this summer, I would have laughed that off as a pipe dream. But alas, it appears that sometimes, yes, dreams do come true.

Given the many sights to see and explore around Antalya and how extremely expensive it is to hire a driver, Chris decided that we would rent a car for more flexibility and to do things as we pleased without being constrained by taxis or tour schedules. Today, we drove outside of Antalya proper and did a short hike up Mount Chimera to see the natural fires up there, and when we came down, we found a local spot for gozleme, which are super flaky and stuffed Turkish flatbreads with many layers and are oftentimes filled with cheese, minced vegetables, or minced meat. It was a short walk from the beach and open-air. The people who worked there seemed like a family, and despite our language barrier, they were super friendly and kind. They made us fresh-squeezed juice, and the older woman painstakingly rolled out gozleme dough and hand stuffed our spinach and minced meat gozlemes, frying them out in the open air work space she had in front of their home. I recorded her rolling out the paper-thin layers of dough; it was definitely an art like most incredibly delicious foods in the world. She seemed amused that I wanted to record her. I’m sure they get a lot tourists, but maybe not a lot who look like us.

After the gozleme lunch, which was far more in quantity and fullness than I’d initially imagined, we spent a couple hours just steps away on Cirali Beach, which is known to be one of the most pristine and beautiful beaches in Turkey. It truly was quite spectacular, with mountains flanking the turquoise clear waters. Although the beach was a mix of pebbles and sand, it was extremely picturesque and stunning. The waves were teeny tiny, so even for someone who has a fear of deep water, it was manageable to stay in the water and not feel like it was going to take you in; in fact, if anything, the water would likely push you further onto the shore. As soon as we got into our bathers and I felt the water on my skin, I couldn’t believe how good it felt to have this warm, clear, clean salt water on me and the sun beaming down on us. It really did feel surreal that we were so lucky to have this experience in the midst of a global pandemic. I almost didn’t want to get out of the water because of how warm and comforting it felt. This definitely felt like living the dream. I couldn’t have felt happier or calmer in this beauty along the Turquoise Coast. And the other funny thought I had in the water was that my little baby, in her little water sac inside me, was in water within water, experiencing the beach for the very first time in one of the most beautiful places on earth.

The beach was lined with beach chairs and umbrellas for lounging, and the American in me immediately wondered how much it would cost to rent these loungers. But as I saw a handful of people claim them, I didn’t see any signs for rental or payment, nor did I see any proprietor confront anyone who sat down.

A friend of ours originally from Turkey told us a long time ago that Turkey has some of the most beautiful beaches in the world. And now, I can say that I know from experience that he was 100 percent accurate.

The Turkish Mediterranean coast

When Chris first booked this Turkey trip, he made sure that we’d be flying in and out of Istanbul with a good amount of time to explore and enjoy this multifaceted city, and at the same time, he also booked us a side trip to visit Antalya, a city in Southern Turkey along the Mediterranean coast that is also known as Turkey’s largest international seaside resort. He had some second thoughts about whether our side trip should have been here or to Cappadocia, a famous region in central Turkey known for its strange rock formations and hot air balloon rides. So he asked me to look up whether I’d prefer to go there instead since the flights and Antalya hotel were fully refundable. But when I read a quick description about Antalya vs. Cappadocia, I didn’t really have much of a decision to make: a seaside town with lots of historical spots and beautiful beaches would be a far more relaxing trip than a place like Cappadocia, where hiking would likely be the bulk of our activities. And while I normally do love hiking and look forward to our hikes on trips, while pregnant and obviously carrying extra weight that has changed my center of gravity, especially at this stage of pregnancy, I would prefer being by the water and having a more relaxing side trip.

And so we flew to Antalya this morning and already got a glimpse from the plane of the gorgeous turquoise waters. This area is also known as the Turkish Riviera, or the “turquoise coast,” and it’s pretty obvious why when you see it. The waters are literally crystal clear. And the mountains along the beaches in Antalya are reminiscent of the mountains that lined the famous beaches of Rio when we visited seven years ago now (hard to believe it was that long ago!).

While the beaches and the Old Town of Kaleici are quite famous in Antalya, the surrounding areas of Antalya are also famous for having a number of historical sites and monuments that have been well preserved, ranging from Perge the Ancient City to the Aspendos theater, and also a cable car “teleferik” that raises you high above the city and water for an aerial view of the Turquoise Coast. We started our day with yet another decadent kahvalti spread, but this was our first one overlooking the Turkish Riviera at a restaurant that had covered outdoor seating with a great view of the beach. And when we sat down and looked over the glistening ocean, I thought, yep, this is the place to be. Although I was initially hesitant about traveling internationally with the current pandemic and the growing concern of the Delta variant, this view itself had to have been worth the travel.

Kahvalti – the beautiful Turkish breakfast

If there is just one thing that I could get behind in terms of taking as a Turkish tradition and bringing to my day to day (or at least, weekend) life, it could be Turkish breakfast, aka kahvalti, aka the most colorful and beautiful breakfast spread that likely exists in the entire world. When I was first exposed to it during morning rise-and-shines during my first Istanbul visit at the cozy family-owned hotel where I stayed, I was immediately hooked. Who could possibly decline a beautiful breakfast spread consisting of a rainbow variety of cheeses, olives, breads, jam, fresh fruits and vegetables, and eggs? Not only is it aesthetically pleasing with its many colors, textures, and shapes, but it’s also tasty and so satisfying, as there’s savory, sweet, umami, fresh — everything! As health experts always say, we really need to eat the rainbow in order to have a balanced diet, so I’m definitely on board with this.

While American children are oftentimes sent off to school with an Eggo waffle, Pop Tart, or a sugary sweet granola bar, Turkish children are told to eat a handful of cheese, olives, fruit, and/or a simit (a deliciously crunchy and soft Turkish version of a bagel, which can be easily found all over Turkey for less than 2 lira, or 25 US cents) before going off on their merry way.

Turkish breakfast spreads greatly vary depending on the day of week and where you are getting it from, but the general categories of foods you can expect to find on the table are: cheeses, olives, breads, fruit and jam spreads, fresh cut vegetables, eggs, and tea. On weekdays, the spreads may just be a handful of little plates, while on weekends when there is more time for preparation (and indulgence), you can expect the spread to overtake the table. And with all the above, there is rarely just one type of anything; there are always at least 2-3 types of cheese, two types of olives, several types of jam (my favorites were the sour cherry, fig, and apricot preserves), and two types of fruits or vegetables. Turks also love their tahini, so we oftentimes had a little dish of this on our table, as well, that would seem to be lightly sweetened, plus a hazelnut spread (mmmm, Nutella). And Chris would get very excited when he’d see a little dish of honeycomb with honey dripping off of it mixed with a bit of clotted cream — this really defined decadence on our breakfast table.

I really could not get enough of the fresh figs. Turkish people love their figs, as do many people in the Middle East, so not only are they plentiful here, but they are also cheap, whether they are fresh or dried. Figs are not only beautiful to look at (it always shows up heavily in my Instagram feed in the autumn), especially when cut in half, but they are just so sweet and delicious. They are a very underrated fruit back home and one I wish I had better and easier (and cheaper) access to in New York. Sometimes, I just wanted to stare at and photograph them without even eating them!

The other crazy thing is that the spreads, when you have them at restaurants, are quite inexpensive. We just had one today that was quite elaborate and complete with fried bagels, and it was only 80 Turkish lira (about $10 USD) for the two of us. That’s plenty for us to enjoy for a small price, plus no dishes for us to wash (and there are SO many dishes with these breakfasts!).

Suleymaniye Camii (Mosque)

The learning of history and art in western countries like the U.S. is sad and pathetic, with an almost complete focus on western countries and a nearly total dismissal of Asian and African countries. However, the area where it can become grey in terms of what is actually covered is for empires such as the Ottoman Empire. Most of us here in the U.S. learned about the Roman and Ottoman Empires in school, and because of this, we got to learn a little bit about Islam as well as some of the famous mosque structures that were built during these grand old times. When I took art history in high school, we also covered these famous mosques, now in modern day Istanbul, and among the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque in terms of fame and admiration was also the Suleymaniye Mosque. This mosque sits on the Third Hill of Istanbul, Turkey, and was originally commissioned by Suleyman the Magnificent, a sultan at the time during the Ottoman Empire in about 1550. Like most mosques of its time, the entrance has a beautiful, grand courtyard with a fountain leading into the mosque itself, and the structure is made up mostly of marble and granite. I’m not even sure what I admire more: the interior of these grand mosques or the courtyards themselves. They all have great symmetry and design, and I can’t get enough of the arches and the elaborate tile details. While a lot of people look back at the Roman Empire and admire the architecture then, I think I get more excited at the Muslim style architecture of this period instead. In retrospect, I actually hated learning about Roman architecture in general, especially all the annoying nude statues that had overemphasized penises. That is NOT a turn-on for me.

What I always admire the most about mosques like these are how well preserved they are. It takes so much time, money, and energy to preserve these great, historical structures, and I always feel so lucky to be able to have the privilege of seeing them in real life with my own eyes.

First time back to Istanbul in 10 years

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?