Istiklal Caddesi on a Friday afternoon. Located at Galata, Istanbul
For a busy bee who loves to travel, living in a country (UAE) that loves long weekends meant having the opportunity to visit nearby cities/countries. Last 2010, 2 months after embarking on my first taste of my 3rd continent (to be posted soon–hopefully!), I got the chance to see Istanbul.
Istanbul is Turkey’s “most populous” city. It is also the “center of finance and culture”. And most importantly, it is not the capital of Turkey.
Yes, it isn’t. Although I honestly thought it was. I guess it is not the favorite of the Turkish government. They tried to capitalize on the capital (Ankara) and make it more capital-ish, however, Istanbul maintained its capital-ish non-capital ground. And yes, I purposely made the statement sound redundant.
When I went to Istanbul, me and my friend decided that the best option for us is to stay at the Galata side albeit most of the tourist spots are in the Old City (Sultanahmet). It’s like shooting two birds with one stone: purposely visit Sultanahmet because it’s where the must-see places are, and inevitably get back to Galata and see everything else because it’s where the life is (and where we lived for a few days).
The best way to get introduced to this city is through a walk in its heart: Istiklal Caddesi, also known as Istiklal Avenue. Walking in the pedestrian friendly avenue felt like being in the middle of the great migration. Don’t get me wrong. It was,
interesting overwhelming. Like a beautiful chaos. Just being at Istiklal would give you the vibe of the city and its people.
Istiklal Caddesi at night on an Eid holiday
On a typical night, everyone’s just out and about, finding themselves inside a store to shop, a restaurant to eat, a place to party, a bar to lounge, and a perimeter of the street to walk through. And even though everyone’s everywhere, there’s always a place for a few more. When my travel research told me that more than a million pedestrians pass by each day, they weren’t kidding.
At some point while walking alongside everyone, I had managed to grab a 5 TL worth of freshly roasted castanias (chestnuts) while instinctively singing “chestnuts roasting on an open fire”, had a photo taken, and then eventually lost it (the photo, I mean). I feel the need of mentioning this because it was really an exciting moment. It’s a bummer though to lose that photo.
Apart from a variety of stores and restaurants, Istiklal is also home to some galleries, theaters, churches, institutions and hotels. At one end we found the Taksim Square where the Monument of the Republic is located. It is also where public demonstrations are usually held. During our visit, it is where we sat, reflected about our trip, and watched people pass by as we rest in a long and cold night’s walk.
The monument of the Republic, at Taksim Square, Istiklal Caddesi. A good place to stop by and sit to watch people pass by.
It was also during our hangout at Taksim that made us notice this really old tram that is still being loaded with passengers. It came off as surprise that this tram isn’t just a display. Yes, it still is working.
The historical tram that runs along Istiklal from Taksim square to Tunel
Seeing this tram inspired us to get back on our feet and walk some more before heading back to call it a night. And a look around made us notice some good looking policemen. Our feet just couldn’t stop following until we realized we looked funny. 😀
I wish all policemen looked this good. It makes me feel more secured! Hehehe 😀
People may say that it should be the other way around though: cops following “someone” and not getting followed. What we did was instinctive. 😀
Walking around the avenue and getting lost on the different streets surrounding it was the best part of knowing the city life. There was a huge selection of street food, cozy restaurants and coffee shops, unassuming souvenir shops, overrated touristy food place, and very lively–almost crazy street that it could pass as the “red light district”. Or maybe it was?
Something that I feel obliged to mention as well is how almost everyone (say, 95%) of the people around smoked. This isn’t a joke. You’d even be surprised to know that before, it was even allowed inside different establishments. No wonder my hair smelled awful.
At daylight, the busy avenue and the streets around it looked quite different yet the same all at once. Like, it’s quintessentially “Istiklal”. It’s quite astonishing to see this avenue almost empty on an early Friday afternoon.
Istiklal on an early Friday afternoon
Understandable though, because Friday is the “holy day” for Islam which means the day of prayer and devotion. It’s safe to say that they could be found in one of the mosques at this time of the day.
It is no surprise that Istanbul is very popular. Formerly known as Constantinople, it is one of the oldest cities (in the world) that was formerly the capital of the Roman and the Ottoman empires. A city that was once predominantly Christian in belief was later on converted to be the Muslim capital during the Ottoman period. Add to the fact that this is the city where east meets west, geographically and culturally. A city with so much history, a diverse culture, and an upbeat energy, I would probably live here too if given a chance.
It’s a shame that we only got to spend a few days here. All in all, a visit to Istiklal is a great way to get a good introduction on the modern day Istanbul. With other Turkish people migrating to the city, one may say that not everyone is originally from there (Istanbul), albeit it’s still Turkish in general. But aren’t all cities like that anyway? Indeed, a closer look at Istanbul, particularly Istiklal Caddesi would give you the epitome of the Turkish city life: a beautiful chaos. 🙂
A street around Istiklal
A Few Tips:
1. Just like in any other city, beware of pick pockets. For a very crowded avenue, you never know how things could go.
2. There were a lot of people giving out invites to try out their club/bars to party. It pays to be vigilant and not fall on a tourist trap. Quite frankly, partying is not my style (as I prefer just lounging). But if it was my thing, it is better to ask around first of the right places to go to and not just submit to an invitation. Tourist traps are common everywhere in which you may be charged so much more than what you actually get.
3. Although Istanbul is a modern city, it would be better for ladies to dress more conservatively/respectfully to prevent unwanted stares from women and malicious ones from men — especially that this is Muslim dominated (a few reasons could be derived from this alone). Point is, they’re still a bit conservative. Personally, I think this should be applied everywhere, for women to look more respectful and not show too much skin (no pun intended). Just be dressed appropriately.
4. Again, for women out there, some men would try to engage with you through a conversation in which they would assume that if you respond, you will go out with them and do whatever. I’ve read this before as a precaution for Westerners, because the assumption is that they are easy to ask out and you know–engage and do stuff. But from my experience, they will try to engage on a foreigner regardless of race.
5. Visit the streets around Istiklal. You’d be happily confused as to where you should go and hang out. There’s just so many to choose from! **I’ll try to write a handful of my discoveries, the ones we tried and wish we tried.