Turkey is a place everyone should travel to. There’s rich history spanning as far back as the Stone and Bronze Ages in Anatolia; Roman ruins that are relics of the Christian Byzantine period; and Muslim monuments dating from the Ottoman Empire. Istanbul is a city world-renowned for having a multi-faceted persona.
Straddling the Bosphorus river, this city is unique as it has a European and an Asian side. Smack dab in the middle of two continents, Istanbul has had the rare prestige of serving as the capital of two empires.
Funnily enough, Istanbul’s glittering history and unique personality served as the perfect backdrop for three memorable trips I have taken over the years, each at pivotal moments in life. My first visit to the charming city was in 2009, as a young and carefree junior in college. I ventured to Turkey as part of a student delegation headed for an international Model United Nations (MUN) competition. Thrilled to be out of Pakistan on a semi-serious pretext, my cohorts and I were dazzled by the testaments to bygone eras still standing in Istanbul. My memories are punctuated with the melodious call to prayer at the Blue Mosque and the sun sparkling off the sloping domes and towers of the Hagia Sophia. My friends and I were excited by a sense of brotherhood that most Turkish shopkeepers exhibited when they discovered our motley crew was from Pakistan, leading them to exclaim, “Turkey and Pakistan, brothers!” Growing up in a post 9/11 world, a Pakistani abroad was rarely met with the enthusiasm and warmth that we received in Turkey.
Our hotel was extremely European in many regards, chosen no doubt to accommodate our meager student budgets, with a cramped and creaky elevator that had a metal grill we had to manually shut for the lift to operate, tiny rooms that had to be shared by two or three students each, and a no-frills breakfast buffet of croissants, watery scrambled eggs and acrid black coffee. Still, the magic of having an architectural marvel dating back to the Middle Ages, the grand Hagia Sophia standing just a few paces away from our hotel never wore off during our short stay in Istanbul. Nor did the fact that we had access to Burger King and Starbucks, which Pakistan did not offer at that time.
In 2011, I found myself back in Istanbul, this time with my husband, as smitten newlyweds. We found romance in the gilded mosaic murals at Hagia Sophia, enamoured by the beautiful harmony between Christianity and Islam to be found within the building. We quietly hoped for a loving, long and happy future together whilst touching the Wishing Column, and marvelled at the names of Islamic Prophets upon the domes. We visited the grand Dolmabahce and Topkapi Palaces, with their sprawling sitting rooms, crystal chandeliers and gold ceilings, all exquisitely maintained as though still housing royalty, the perfect backdrops for our honeymoon photos.
The lively gastronomic scene in Istanbul was a newfound indulgence for me, this time visiting chic cafes and fine dining restaurants instead of Burger King and Starbucks. We sampled exquisite sushi by the Bosphorus at ZUMA (it has since relocated to the fabulous Istinye Park Mall), took in views of the city at 360, a restaurant with panoramic city views located on the Istiklal street, and danced the night away at Reina, which has since been the site of a terrorist attack on New Years Eve 2017. Lively bars dotted along the side streets of Taksim Square where we were staying, and we spent many evenings browsing the shops at Istiklal Street before ending up at a cute little cafe for dinner.
Returning in the summer of 2019 showed me yet another glimpse of the city. Our hotel was located in the upscale district of Nisantasi, a posh area dotted with fancy apartment buildings, luxury fashion stores, sophisticated eateries, cobbled streets and gorgeous parks. The day we arrived our taxi driver sped through the narrow alleys, every bump and shake magnified by the stone-paved streets and Formula-1 level speed of our car. Leafy trees shaded the glamorous shops that lined the lanes, birds twittered and tweeted up above, and I felt worlds away from the hustle and bustle of tourists that had marked my previous two visits.
Our daughter, who is five, came along for our summer family vacation this summer. Children have a magical way of noticing the finer details us grownups would ordinarily overlook, and Aria noticed the wonderful cat-loving culture of the Turks. Each restaurant or shop had its own cat, cared for lovingly but free to roam the streets as they pleased. Aria made sure to befriend each one. Visiting the Modern Art Museum, she was enamoured by the unusual mediums used therein: a shark image composed of hundreds of tiny clothing tags dyed in various shades of blue as a comment on consumerism, for instance.
Climbing up the tower at Hagia Sophia to get to the upper gallery, Aria was curious as to why there were no stairsand instead upward sloping floors. When we visited Dolmabahce, all she wanted to know was where the princesses stayed. Visiting the Cistern, she wanted to know why Medusa was all alone in the dark. In Grand Bazaar, she was confounded as to why anyone would want to shop in a maze with hundreds of identical shops. All valid questions that I had never stopped to consider on my previous visits.
On this trip we got the chance to visit ‘Salt Bae’s’ famous Nus-ret steakhouses, where we ate no less than three times in our seven days in the city; we also ate the delightful Kunafe, a cheesy baked dessert topped with ice cream and a local speciality, at Hafiz Mustafa, a confectionery shop, around since 1864; and took in the breathtaking views of the city from atop a hill at the Sunset Bar and Grill in the Ulus area. After a particularly exhausting day of visiting the Hagia Sophia, Basilica Cistern and Blue Mosque with a five-year-old, we made our way to the Seven Hills Restaurant, located by the riverside next to the ancient sites with lovely views from the rooftop.
It’s wonderful, all the winding roads that life takes us down on. My recent trip to Istanbul mirrored my own personal transformations, showing me how much I had changed in the span of a decade. There I was on my initial visit, a wide-eyed college student so impressed with the juxtaposition of a vibrant, modern city with ancient testaments to civilisations gone by that every moment was packed with adventure and activity. On my second visit, I was one half of a couple, equally wide-eyed with the beauty of the city but now with a greater appreciation of fine dining and leisurely strolls, taking it all in slowly but surely, no longer with the frantic energy of my college days. On the third visit, so much had changed since my first visit that it was now ‘our visit’ rather than ‘my trip’. Both relaxation and frantic energy had taken on a new meaning, the former rare and much sought after, and the latter, not mine but my precocious child’s.
Istanbul is a rare gem of a city, serving up something for every kind of visitor. The warmth of the Turkish people, the historic architecture, and the limitless options for entertainment and eating ensure that whether you are young and free, or a couple, or with kids, you will come back from Turkey with a desire to return once more in a different season of life, just so you can take it all in once again.