Why Istanbul might just be my favourite city in the world
Whenever I “sit down” to plan my next trip, there are always a variety of different factors that go into choosing a particular destination. Everybody travels to see and experience different things, and when choosing a destination I always try and look at whether or not that certain place has what I’m looking for in a trip. Of course it also helps when countries have iconic landmarks/monuments that tick off the proverbial “bucket-list,” or hearing recommendations from like-minded friends & travellers.
Which leads me to my recent G Adventures trip in Turkey. Turkey had been on my shortlist of potential destinations for many years and part of that reason was because of what I mentioned above. But unlike most trips, where I’m visiting the country for the first time, I had visited a very important part of Turkey years ago. Istanbul. When I first backpacked Europe years ago, I ended up finding my way down to Istanbul for a short visit and what I found there was probably the most amazing city I’ve ever visited. So when I had the opportunity to visit Turkey and go back to Istanbul, I made my decision without any hesitation.
When I originally came back from Istanbul, I was quick to label it my favourite city in the world. Over time (and as I’ve explored more of the world), there have been other cities that have laid claim to the crown, but upon arriving back into Istanbul, I was quickly reminded why the city held a special place in my heart. I’ve had people ask me for years why Istanbul was my choice city and it’s always hard to answer. There are just so many reasons why Istanbul is such an amazing city, but in the hopes of narrowing it down, here are a few of the reasons why Istanbul might just be the greatest city in the world.
When it comes to history, few cities hold such historical significance as Istanbul does. By virtue of its location and easy access to water passages (among other things), Istanbul has always been a “hotspot” for conquering armies around the world. Strategically, conquering Istanbul has always been important to securing power over the entire region and having the ability to spread out and conquer other areas as well.
As a strategic location, Istanbul has been of the utmost importance going back to the days when it went by Constantinople and even further than that. At different points in time throughout history everyone from the Greeks and then the Romans, to the Ottomans have laid claim to ruling this wonderful city. This rich history has led to Istanbul becoming a melting pot of religions, cuisines, arts & architecture and much more.
Walking through the streets of Istanbul, it’s hard not to get caught up in the rich history that waits for you at every corner you stop at. Take a walk though the Grand Bazaar or Spice Bazaar and you’ll feel like you’ve gone back in time and are now walking through the final stop on the legendary Silk Road. Or head over to Taksim square where you can experience a Turkish cuisine that has been shaped by centuries of change and experimentation.
But nowhere is Istanbul’s rich history more apparent than if you find time to visit the world famous Aya Sofya (and probably my favourite building in Istanbul). Commissioned by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian and originally consecrated as a church in 537, the building was converted to a mosque in 1453 after the city was conquered by the Ottoman Empire. Today it is a museum, and walking through you’re able to see vestiges of different empires & religions all under the same roof. This is Istanbul in a nutshell.
As with many older cities, Istanbul has a unique sense of architecture that has been shaped by past and present societies. While you won’t see as much of an influence from the Byzantine era compared to the more recent Ottoman empire, even the Ottoman inspired buildings have been inspired partly by empires of the past.
Visit Istanbul today and you’ll see that many of the old churches and palaces from the Byzantine era still have their original paintings, mosaics and statues. The same goes for many of the palaces and mosques built during the Ottoman era. In fact, the Ottomans made a special point to build as many mosques and other architectural gems upon conquering Istanbul (many of which still exist today) as possible.
Even in today’s modern society, the Turkish population of Istanbul has made it a priority to honour the past. Everywhere you turn, buildings will showcase Ottoman style architecture and people are very quick to point out the history and beauty of many of the ancient buildings in Istanbul.
I personally found the Sultanahmet (Blue) Mosque and Topkapi Palace to be absolutely stunning architectural gems. The Blue Mosque is probably the most beautiful building in Istanbul, with its colourful domes, arches and minarets making you feel as if you’re staring at something that’s not even real. Even taking a walk inside, you'll be amazed at the detail and intricacies that line the walls and domes of the mosque. No detail (big or small) has been left unnoticed, leaving you with one of the most magnificent buildings in the world.
The palace on the other hand might not inspire such awe from the outside, but a quick step inside the walls and you’ll be amazed at the amount of beauty (and history) lining the walls of the palace. Split up into different areas or courts, every area of the palace was built for a specific use.
Nowhere is the beauty of the Ottoman Empire clearer than in the palace’s Harem complex, which unlike the popular belief that it was the Sultan’s room for “extra-curricular activities,” was more likely a private area for the Sultan and his family. As you walk through the complex’s first floor, you’ll see beautiful mosaics, artwork and intricate sculpting like nowhere else in the world. It’s the perfect place to see both the beauty of Istanbul’s art & architecture in one place.
Istanbul’s cuisine is something that I must admit I did not fully experience during my first go-around in Turkey. My first visit to Istanbul was littered with a lot of what people assume is Turkish “cuisine.” Of course that’s not to say that all of the kebabs, doners, falafels, etc that we ate in Istanbul were not local or absolutely delicious. The combination of fresh meat, perfect blend of spices and cooking/grilling was to die for. As somebody who loves to barbecue in the summer, this style of cooking meat suited me perfectly.
It wasn’t until my more recent trip to Turkey, that I realized how much more the country (and Istanbul) has to offer in terms of culinary delight. Many people (myself included) assume that the above paragraph represents the majority of Turkish cuisine. In reality, over 70% of the cuisine in Turkey is classified as vegetarian and with such fresh produce coming in everyday it’s easy to see why. I’ve probably never had as much eggplant as I did during my two weeks in Turkey and the variety of fresh vegetables available never ceased to amaze me. Coming from a country where breakfast almost never involves fresh fruits, veggies, etc, it was a delight to experience what is known as the "Turkish breakfast" during my time in Turkey.
Even the variety of Turkish desserts available is much more extensive than stereotypes would have you believe. Turkish delight is a dish I’ve never been able to stomach at home, but in Istanbul you’re not getting the mass-produced, sugary sadness (biased opinion) that you get back home. Instead the Turkish delight is made with fresh ingredients, especially fruits and nuts. If I ever move to Istanbul you can be sure that the chance to have real Turkish delight regularly is a big reason why. The same goes for baklava, where there are as many different versions of the famous dessert as you can imagine. And when you’re ready, there’s always a glass of chai, apple tea or Turkish coffee to finish off another delicious meal.
I’ve been to many cities that are fantastic and have some of the most beautiful architecture, delicious foods or memorable experiences around, but many of them are known (and rightfully so) for having rude or disrespectful locals who would sometimes rather go out of their way to make a travellers experience worse than even doing nothing at all.
Well Istanbul is definitely not one of those places. In my travels around the globe I’ve found people in Istanbul (and Turkey) to be some of the nicest, open and welcoming people around. Wherever you go, people are smiling, joking or making conversation with travellers and locals alike. Everyone is always happy to help with directions or give recommendations, to the point where you start to think that everyone has some alternative motive to sending you somewhere (sometimes true but usually not).
When shopping in the Spice Bazaar, every shopkeeper will offer you tea and snacks, even if you don’t buy anything. Even at the Grand Bazaar, part of the haggling process often involves sitting down and haggling over a fresh cup of chai. Turkish people are a group of people who value family & friendships, so it’s no surprise that you’re treated as such by strangers in a place you’ve never visited. My memories of Istanbul would never be as positive if it were not for the people there making my experiences so happy and memorable.
All of the points above are important reasons as to why I love Istanbul so much. But they also all feed into one final reason, which is that Istanbul has a culture that transcends maybe even the city itself. Everything from it’s past history, to its stunning architecture, beautiful art, delicious cuisine and friendly people has come together to create one of the most iconic cultures in the world.
And it’s not just that the culture is so great, but that it is so different as well. Part of being the city where ‘east meets west,’ where empires have ruled for centuries and where two continents are straddled is a culture that has been shaped by being a melting pot of so many different cultures before it. This is true of most cultures in the world, but nowhere is it more evident than in Istanbul.
All explanations aside, there’s just something about that city that you can’t explain without having been there to experience it firsthand. Just being there and exploring Istanbul’s grandeur while navigating through its hustle & bustle is something else. For me, Istanbul was my first foray out of Europe and it’s clear now that experiencing something so unique and different from what I knew has left an impression on my soul. But even if you’ve already experienced exotic cultures all around the world, experience Istanbul and its culture is something unique as there is no place else like it in the world. And that is why Istanbul might just be my favourite city in the world.