If you’re not in the mood for hearing a bit of travel whingeing, check out the first part of my trip to Istanbul, Turkey – The Good Parts! Okay, it’s not exactly whingeing, because of course you’re allowed to dislike certain parts of a country or city. So here’s what I was less-than-enchanted with in the Turkish city.
1) The snow
Okay, if you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you know that I hate cold weather. What can I say? I’m a California girl at heart. So I was pretty unhappy when it started snowing on my last day in Turkey. Plus, it made the driving tour my friend had arranged impossible. Why? Problems with the infrastructure meant I wouldn’t have been able to get back to the airport in time for my flight. Hmmph.
2) The crowds
Everywhere I went in Istanbul it was bursting with people, people, people. I stayed in a less touristy area (I was crashing at a Turkish friend’s flat), and it was STILL ridiculously crowded. I hadn’t expected there to be so many people and cars around. I like the buzz of cities, but I found the crowds in Istanbul overwhelming and chaotic. They actually made me feel anxious, and I was very relieved to leave the crowds behind.
3) The hills & steep streets
Walking around Istanbul was hard work. I’m young and fit, but it was still exhausting to walk around the hilly streets. The city is build on seven hills, and the public transportation is not as good as I had expected. On top of that, the streets were often steep and filled with crowds, broken tiles, and potholes. My feet definitely hurt after walking all around Istanbul for four days!
4) The size
You may have guessed it by now, but I found Istanbul too large to deal with. Google says there are about 13.5 million people living there. But it wasn’t the population alone. Physically, the city is enormous – it’s 2,063 square miles (or 5,343 square kilometers, thanks to Google).
For comparison purposes, I find Los Angeles stressful with its roughly 4 million people and 500 square miles (mostly because of the size and traffic). Barcelona is a perfect-sized city for me, and it’s got 1.6 million people in just around 40 square miles.
Istanbul blows both of those places out of the water. It was just too big for me, and I couldn’t get a good mental map of the place down so I was always lost.
However, here’s one word of caution – a lot of the things I thought were bad were made worse in my mind because they were unexpected. I hadn’t expected any of the four things as I had only heard friends say good things about Istanbul. Perhaps had I been a little better prepared, I might not have felt quite so negatively about these things.
And now…onto The Ugly.
1) Scary taxi rides
Like I said, the traffic is crazy. I saw cars nearly hit people, people nearly hit cars, and a giant bus actually hit a car. It was a blur of honking and illegal turns, all done at whiplash speed. One night, I went back to my friend’s apartment in a taxi early because I wasn’t feeling so well. The taxi was the last straw. After whizzing through Istanbul’s traffic, up and down hills at top speed, I spent the next hour, er, re-experiencing my dinner in a less pleasant way. Oh, alright, I was vomiting.
2) The street vendors’ way of trying to sell you stuff
My group was torn on this one. Some people liked it. I will say they did go away if you said you weren’t interested. But I hated being buttered up for five minutes with small talk, then getting the ‘Oh hey, by the way, you wouldn’t want to buy a…’ It’s not my style, and felt very insincere to me.
I found it especially obnoxious when they would talk to us for five minutes, then say ‘So come back in an hour and I’ll say my best friend Jessica wants to come, and I’ll give you a special price.’ We weren’t ‘best friends’; I’d been given what felt like an extended infomercial, with an attempt to disguise it as a fun conversation with obsequious smiles. It really irritated me. But I soon chalked it up to simply a cultural difference, so I gave up on being cross about it pretty quickly.
3) The sound of the call to prayer
Okay, let me be clear on this one – this is absolutely nothing to do with the actual religion; I’m only talking about the sound.
I found the actual noise of the call to prayer really ear-splittingly awful. And it went on forever, multiple times a day. I was jolted awake by it at 6 a.m. by it and thought people were having a screaming match in the street.
For the record, I feel exactly the same way about traditional flamenco singing. Wails just don’t really do it for me in any language.
I also understand that the call to prayer has special meaning to many people, but as an outsider the noise definitely was not my favorite.
4) The Blue Mosque stinks of thousands of years of sweaty tourist feet
Yep, thousands of years of tourists padding about on the carpet without their shoes means that the beautiful Blue Mosque smells like feet once you get inside. My guidebook had nothing to mention about this fact. I bet it’s even worse in the summer.
(Of course, this smelliness is from tourists’ feet, not locals. The locals wash their feet thoroughly before entering. Even though it was the middle of January, they were all outside bathing their feet in freezing cold water.)
So on the whole, what were my impressions of Istanbul? It’s a fascinating city and I did like it. There were lots of positive things about my trip, but it was just too chaotic and overwhelming for it to be my favorite place. But I am glad I went. Hey, how often do you get to see something from the year 537?
If you’ve been to Istanbul, what were some things you liked and didn’t like about the city?