I have visited Istanbul four times in my life and, to be honest, I haven’t lived that long yet. But given an opportunity, I would definitely make a trip to this gorgeous city again. For a Pakistani, travelling isn’t easy. It’s expensive and the planning is cumbersome with most sites catering to foreign bhai behens. So what is the reason for such immense love for a city? Simply put: Istanbul is the complete package. It is beauty in every block, culture reflecting in every building, art and music in the air, and most importantly for every Pakistani, a sense of connection and Halal food. It is, in my humble opinion, one of the very few places in the world where a Pakistani is treated with the utmost respect, to the extent that sometimes you’re taken aback. Well, in a nice way, Ofcourse! We’re not used to foreigners being so nice to us so it’s understandable. Anyway, enough of the rambling, it’s time to see why Istanbul deserves to be your first choice if you’re planning a trip.
1. It’s a great Honeymoon Destination.
There is nothing more romantic than walking down the cobbled streets and winding up at the Sultanahmet Park at night which faces the Blue Mosque on one side and the Hagia Sofia on the other. The gleaming sites at night make you feel like you’re in fairyland. The park has benches to sit and enjoy the view, with dancing fountains as a bonus. However, you’ll see many families and couples just stationed on the lawn of the park, on their little picnic throws having a snack and having a laugh together.
2. You’ll find great Photo-ops.
In every single trip of mine (and remember I’ve been there four times), I have managed to find sights that I have never come across. Which means if you’re someone who loves taking photographs, Istanbul is heaven for you. All you need to do is pick up your gear and stroll down the neighbourhoods. Each block has a little something to inspire you.
3. Turkish Tea or Istanbul’s Ice cream.
Istanbul has a pleasant weather for most part of the year, with fall and winters being a bit chilly. The Turkish tea therefore makes an excellent staple drink to sip on throughout the day, whether you have it after a meal or just casually when you’re taking a break from all the adventuring. The taste is unique and for some people it just doesn’t work no matter how hard they try to appreciate it. If you’re not one to enjoy the warm delicacy, try their ice cream. It’s unlike any other that I’ve ever tried: creamier and somehow elastic which makes it quite fun to play around with. And if you’ve never come across videos of ice cream men from Istanbul doing some really awesome tricks, you’ll understand now how it’s possible. The ice cream not only looks amazing, being elastic and all, but it tastes amazing too. If you’re travelling in the summers, then it’s definitely worth a try.
4. Best lamb and the most Halal food of them all.
I can guarantee you that any lamb that you will have in Istanbul will be the best lamb you’ve ever had in your life. I kid you not. Turkish cuisine is unique and delicious. It’s simple, healthy, elegant and full of flavours that will mesmerise you. You’d find the simple things like their yoghurt which makes a lamb kebab taste like it fell from heaven, right that minute, or the olives and cheese for breakfast that will leave you wanting for more. The best bit about this city, however, is the fact that no matter where you’re eating, you can eat it without any worries. All restaurants and diners are halal, hurray! The food tastes amazing from the cheapest of diners and the city offers something for every occasion. If you’re not in the mood to sit down, no worries, grab a doner kebab in a roll and get movin’. I’ll be sharing a list of food to absolutely try while in Istanbul later for foodies who’d like to know more.
5. It’s pretty cheap.
Well not if you’re going to compare it to let’s say Vietnam or Cambodia, and maybe even Thailand, but if you’re looking for a feel of Europe, then Turkey is the best place to go. The ticket is cheaper than most European countries from Pakistan, and one city alone provides you with enough to see and do that you don’t need to add anything else to your travel itinerary. If you must take a break, the ferries to nearby Islands are very cheap as well, while the islands themselves are a treat on their own. Budgeting is entirely contingent on how you wish to travel. There are options available for backpackers to honeymooners with hotels and hostels falling in every budget and food varieties ranging from cheap yet amazing stalls to posh but pricey hotels. If you’re on a budget, you can still stay and eat pretty well. More on budgeting here.
6. Mosques like you’ve never seen before.
While most of us have only heard of the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, the fact is that Istanbul is a hub of beautiful mosques that you will find in every neighbourhood. Suleymaniye Mosque and the Eminonu Mosque are just two more examples. The mosques’ design and architecture is unique to Turkey and their aestheticism and symmetry is awe inspiring. Blue Mosque itself is an exhilarating experience and no matter how great the hype is, it will not let you down.
7. The Secular Culture.
Secular does not mean that the Turkish have lost all faith in Islam and are going to hell, but simply that the state separates its governance from religion, be it any religion. This leaves a lot of room for all religions to thrive in Turkey without any intolerance on the part of its people. You will come across staunch Muslims as well liberal ones, all living in harmony with one another without any look of judgement upon their faces. It’s a great escape from Pakistan where Muslims have forgotten the meaning of tolerance and really helps one see a lot of things in perspective. If none of the other reasons compel you to visit this city, then just do it for the sake of your own personal growth.
8. The forever alive street life.
Whether you decide to stay near Taksim or SultanAhmet (more on where to stay and recommendations in a later post), rest assured that you will find plenty of life and excitement in each corner. While Istiklaal Avenue stays alive all night with its clubs, Nargile(Turkish version of Sheesha) and tea cafes, restaurants and live street music, Sultanahmet thrives with food and cafe against a backdrop of beautiful Turkish sights like the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sofia. Each place has its own charm that lures you in to a point that soon you’re unwilling to fly back home. Yeah that’s a real side-effect. But jokes aside, be it night or day, the streets are always bursting with energy, an energy that I find to be unique to Istanbul only. The street musicians tempt you to dance with them while they sing, while the cafes entice you to just sit and have another cup of Turkish tea even if you’ve had a gazillion all day.
9. The History that we share.
Turkish affinity and gratitude for Pakistanis comes greatly due to the fact that Indian Muslims (who now live in Pakistan mostly) supported Turkey during and after World War I. Our cultures are intertwined because of our religious heritage and the influence this has had for Pakistan is evident in how similar Urdu is to Turkish. In fact whenever I found myself lost in translation in Turkey, I would trust my gut and chant the Urdu translation of what I was asking for, and Lo and behold, it would actually work most of the times. The real fascination is however the Topkapi Palace Museum. Don’t be fooled to think it is just a palace on display. Topkapi Museum houses some of the most remarkable gems of the Islamic historical heritage such as the Holy Prophet’s (s) beard hair and tooth, the staff of Hazrat Musa, the swords of the four caliphs, etc. Once you’re inside you’re elevated to a different dimension and you come out feeling a different connection with your God, knowing that the tales you’ve heard all your life are not just true, they’re actually real.
10. You’ll fall in love with fluff.
I envy how the Turkish happen to treat even stray animals better than we treat most of the people in our country. It’s sad but also inspiring at the same time, bitter-sweet you could say. Throughout my travel, I have seen stray cats and dogs being fed by local shop owners and residents with proper trays for their food and water kept around every few steps. The animals were clean and healthy and each one tagged which really intrigued me. Most exciting however was how these cats had access to every shop as if it was their own, and shop owners were very careful not to disturb them for their slumber. You would find them dozing off on the beautiful gowns that the mannequins wore, or in between books or paintings, sometimes even on the chairs at the travel agents offices that were actually meant for you. It was amazing to see so much love in a city, not just for people but also for little harmless creatures. And that was the final reason for me to decide once and for all that Istanbul will be my favourite city for all of eternity to come.
For a 3 Day Travel Itinerary of Istanbul, read here.
To read details about the best sites to visit while in Istanbul, read here.
Information on visa application, do’s and don’ts of Istanbul and other useful totkas can be found here.