This trip started as an opportunity to get a short break. I logged into Scyscanner and I entered “From: Oslo To: Anywhere” option. 4 cheap destinations appeared: Paris, Barcelona, Istanbul, Warsaw. I have been to the first two more than twice so I was left with Istanbul and Warsaw. I think it took a heartbeat to press “See tickets for Istanbul”.
Istanbul has been a place that I always wanted to visit. I have been fascinated by the History of of this place during my University years. I remember the long conversations with my best friend, who is a history junky, about the different dynasties, crusades, renaissance and Hagia Sophia. And you know what they say, you better see a place once than listen about it a thousand times. Well I have listened, read and talk about it probably thousand times, so now the time has come to see.
“Work, Save, Travel, Repeat”
In a way I did not know what to expect from Istanbul however my expectations were high. I think it was the long years I ‘ve spent dreaming of this place and it’s dynasties that in a way this “far away” place held a special place in my heart. Let’s start with some quick facts:
Istanbul was the capital city of three major Empires: Eastern Roman Empire, Byzantine Empire, and Ottoman Empire. It is one of the biggest cities in the world, with around 15 million population and the only pan-continental city in the world situated on two continents, Europe and Asia. The Grand Bazaar in Istanbul is the biggest old covered bazaar in the world, with over 3.000 shops. They say it takes 3 days to go around it, I found it much quicker. The four bronze horses which are decorating today San Marco Cathedral in Venice, were taken from Istanbul (Constantinople back then) by the Crusaders in the 13th century.
Istanbul and it’s names
Istanbul was not named as Istanbul during the centuries. It had actually different names. According to Pliny the Elder the first name of Byzantium was Lygos. Later on it was named as Byzantion. Byzantion or latinized Byzantium was founded by Greek colonists from Megara in 667 BC. The name is believed to be of Thracian or Illyrian origin. Ancient Greek legend refers to a legendary king of that name as the leader of the Megarean colonists and eponymous founder of the city.
The city was called Augusta Antonina for a brief period in the 3rd century AD. The Roman Emperor Septimius Severus (193–211) conferred the name in honor of his son Antoninus, the later Emperor Caracalla.
Before the Roman emperor Constantine the Great made the city the new eastern capital of the Roman Empire on May 11, 330, he undertook a major construction project, essentially rebuilding the city on a monumental scale, partly modeled after Rome. Names of this period included the New, second Rome, Alma Roma, Roma Constantinopolitana.
Constantinople/Constantinopolis, was the name by which the city became soon more widely known, in honour of Constantine the Great who established it as his capita and the most common name used for it in the West until the early 20th century.
The modern Turkish name İstanbul is attested since the 10th century, at first in Armenian and Arabic and then in Turkish sources. It derives from the Greek phrase “στην Πόλη”, meaning “in the city” or “to the city”, reinterpreted as a single word (a similar case is Stimboli, Cretan dialect). It is thus based on the common Greek usage of referring to Constantinople simply as The City .
The 5 most common misconceptions about Istanbul
1 -You can not drink in public in Istanbul
I’d rather not try to dissect or debate religious doctrine however Istanbul is a very liberal and lenient place. It has a thriving nightlife scene and alcohol is readily available both for men and women. Turkey even produces many beers, wines and liquors, like the anise-flavored raki, also known as “lion’s milk”, which I tried and tastes amazing.
2-You have to go around with Hijab
As I wrote before Istanbul is a liberal and lenient place. So you can wear whatever you want when you visit. Of course you should not go around mosques half naked, but this is more a matter of respect to someones religion and place of prayer rather than a forced choice.
3-Food in Istanbul is spicy
Food in Istanbul is amazing. Let’s start with that. It is not spicy at all and it has definitely nothing to do with what is promoted as Turkish food around Europe. The food there is delicious and the different flavors will amaze your palette. I have literally eaten my way through the city. The food culture here is very rich. Delicious meet, tasty salads, fantastic desserts (there are famous for their baklava and there is a reason for it), great ice-cream. The list of foods you can have here is endless. Istanbul hosts also one of the best steakhouses in the world owned by famous “salt guy” Nousret Gökçe. And I have to admit it is the best steakhouse I have ever had a dinner at!
4-Turkish people are rude
You would be surprised how welcoming and polite Turkish people are if you actually believe they are rude. We tend to confuse cultural differences, like speaking out loud with rudeness. I have to admit that I was pleasantly surprised that in a city of 15 million people I haven’t been bumped at once. I mean go for 2 days in Copenhagen and let’s debate whether Danes or Turks have a more rude social attitude. Here you will always be greeted with a hello and goodbye and people will really try to help you out if you have lost your direction even if they don’t speak good english.
5-Istanbul is a dangerous place
How safe can you be in a city of 15 million population? I think Istanbul is as safe as any city of that size. There are always areas you have to avoid and of course you have to be more aware of your surroundings, however I did not felt unsafe in the city for a minute. I have done my research and knew which areas to avoid, something that I also did last time I traveled to Paris or London.
I had such a great time in Istanbul. It is definitely a city with a lot of vibe, culture and history. I enjoyed long walks into the unknown. I was surprised by it’s modernity and old fashion style. I think Istanbul is one of the few places that one can find such a graceful combination of the chaotic, the old and the modern. I walked through Ottoman Palaces and Hellenic sites. I ate in old fashioned and modern restaurants. I smiled to strangers in narrow streets and played with cats in autumn squares. Istanbul is a city full of contemporary art scenes and is a city that is constantly reinventing itself and a place you should visit at least once in your life.
Fun fact: Agatha Christie wrote her famous novel “Murder on the Orient Express” at Pera Palas Hotel in Istanbul. Hagia Sophia was the largest church in the world for about 900 years.