Like so many before us, we came to Istanbul not by chance, but by necessity.
We knew our trip to Greece was going to be expensive and had been saving accordingly for over a year. At $4000 USD, the yacht excursion through the Dodecanese Islands was, alone, enough to nearly break the budget. So I was working the travel websites overtime to find the cheapest flights from Atlanta, Georgia, to Rhodes, Greece.
As it turns out, the most affordable route for our scheduled dates went through Istanbul, Turkey. I had been to the Ionian coast of Turkey as a kid, but had always wanted to visit Istanbul, that ancient seat of declining Roman dominance. That gateway to conquest for Persians, Turks, Muslims, and Christians alike. That historical terminus of the iconic Orient Express Railway. That fabled and vibrant modern metropolis that bridges the Bosphorus and reaches between worlds to join Asia to Europe.
We wanted to expose the boys to an authentic cultural experience while in Istanbul, so I turned to Airbnb for accommodations. We found a room on the top floor of a villa in Fatih, a conservative and predominately Muslim neighborhood of Istanbul overlooking the southern bank of the Golden Horn. Our hosts, Manwar and Moutasm, are Syrian brothers who recently relocated to Istanbul ahead of the escalating conflict in their home country.
Moutasm met us at the taxi stop and immediately greeted us in perfect English. An affable, good-looking kid of 17, he encouraged us to call him Thomas, his chosen Western name. We divided up the luggage and began the 20-minute walk to the villa, up twisting alleyways too narrow for auto traffic, with Thomas, Zack, and Ben leading the way. By the time we arrived at the Airbnb, the boys had all become fast friends, discussing travel, video games, and, most importantly, girls.
The villa had several rooms to let, with shared bathrooms on each floor. For what it lacked in luxury, it more than made up for in authenticity and hospitality. Whenever possible, we avoid the sterility of a hotel for the genuine experience of a family home. And, in that sense, this accommodation was perfect. The top floor was comprised of one giant bedroom with criss-crossed Persian rugs covering the floor and access to a private balcony. I was looking forward to flying the drone from that balcony, skimming over the rooftops and out over the Golden Horn.
Moutasm’s older brother, Manwar, greeted us after we settled in and provided a welcome snack of hot tea and Ulker Tea Biscuits, which we were encouraged to dip. He then produced a personally-annotated map of the city and provided plenty of advice on restaurants and interesting sites. They had only been in Istanbul for a year but had already formed strong opinions about what to see and how to get there. As it turns out, Istanbul is a very walkable city, and Fatih is perfectly located to access most major points of interest.
Although we were anxious to get out and see the city, Angela and I opted for a nap instead. The afternoon was hot, the room was cool, and our jet lag was unrelenting. Moutasm offered to tour Zack and Ben around the neighborhood while we slept, and our boys were eager to take him up on it.
Let me be very clear on this. We had been in Istanbul for less than two hours. We were staying in arguably the most conservatively Muslim section of the city. We had known our Syrian hosts for just over an hour. And our teenage boys were asking to go exploring without parental supervision.
As parents, there are plenty of mistakes we can rightfully be accused of committing. But being overly cautious and controlling isn’t one of them. The freedom to wander and roam, get lost and find one’s way back home, stand on the edge of cliffs, blaze new trails, and navigate the alleys of foreign cities is precisely what makes travel worthwhile, and we want our boys to live accordingly.
So, not only did we let them go exploring with Moutasm, we encouraged it. And Angela and I slept like champions, waking some time later to animated conversation as Zack, Ben, and Moutasm returned to the villa, sharing their past and present adventures around the world. For dinner that evening, we stayed fairly close to home, finding the quaint and delicious Cibali Balıkçısı Restaurant just down the street. It was a great day.
The next morning we were up early, greeted by Manwar and a lavish breakfast that was a mixture of traditional Syrian and Turkish fare. Flatbread with olive oil and ground sesame seeds, a wide variety of cheeses and jams, a bowl of seasoned olives, and super strong, hot tea.
With Manwar’s map in hand, we walked for an hour along the southern bank of the Golden Horn until it spilled into the Bosphorus Strait. Shrouded in the lush greenery of Gülhane Park and standing atop the promontory to the south, the massive edifice of Topkapi Palace kept watch as it had done for half a millennia. We hiked up the hill through flower gardens and evergreens, passing tour groups and local couples taking an early lunch on the many park benches surrounding the palace.
Close to the palace can be found two of the most iconic buildings in Istanbul: The Hagia Sophia (serving as Orthodox cathedral, mosque, and now museum), and the Sultan Ahmed Mosque (commonly known as the Blue Mosque). The two structures seem to face each other across the green expanse of Sultanahmet Park. Street vendors mix with throngs of herding tourists and thoughtful pilgrims making their way to and from prayer.
Having planned to visit the Blue Mosque that morning, we were already dressed appropriately in long pants. Angela pulled a scarf from the backpack to cover her head, and we stepped into the common prayer room. With an indoor capacity of over 10,000 worshipers, it ranks among the largest mosques in the world. It is beautiful, austere, and old, dating back to the early rule of the Ottoman Turks. As one of Istanbul’s major tourist attractions, it’s also quite crowded. We stayed for just a moment, respectfully silent among the thousands of laughing, posing, selfie-snapping tourists, and exited as quickly and quietly as we could.
Back in the courtyard and eager to find a late lunch, we traced a route through Istanbul’s famed Grand Bazaar. Yes, it’s the one featured in the James Bond film Skyfall, where they race motorcycles over the rooftops. I’ve seen bazaars and souks around the world, but nothing compares to the sheer magnitude of this market. At times I felt like we needed to mark our path with string or breadcrumbs as if we were the first to explore a new labyrinthine cave system. Decadent mercantile temptation lurked around every corner, with dark aromas and unfamiliar sounds enticing us into several stalls. But we held firm, reminding ourselves that we were only at the beginning of this long trip, and that anything purchased now would have to be toted around for the next three weeks.
We had our choice of restaurants for lunch, having unintentionally stumbled into the Kumkapi district of the city. We arrived after the traditional lunchtime, so most establishments were relatively empty. Fresh seafood, traditional Turkish fare, and literally any world cuisine could be found down the numerous side streets. Relatively quiet during our visit, this traditionally Armenian district comes to life after dark. For a more authentic picture of just how packed this place can get at night, take a look at this video.
After a long and lazy lunch, it was time to start walking back to the villa. In typical Ballard fashion, we chose to return by a different route, this time walking along the shore so we could see the Bosphorus. Although the weather was pleasant, the late afternoon sun was brutal where there was no shade, and the path we chose had few opportunities to purchase refreshments. With just over eight miles traversed this day, we slogged our way back to the Airbnb and arrived just before nightfall.
Hungry but too tired to make a decision about where to eat, we happily returned to the Cibali Balıkçısı Restaurant near the villa. The waiter recognized us as we walked in and, noticing how tired we were, brought beers to Angela and me before we could ask for them. We spent the dinner discussing the day’s adventures with Zack and Ben, visiting with the restaurant staff in broken English, Arabic, and Turkish, and watching a muted Raiders of the Lost Ark with Turkish subtitles.
The next morning, footsore but unflappable, we set out on another walking tour of the city. This time we crossed over to the northern shore of the Golden Horn, with aspirations to wind our way to the ferry port near Kabatas Station.
The modern and artistic north shore of the Golden Horn stands in marked contrast to the conservative southern side. Once we exited the footpath on the Golden Horn Metro Bridge, we were suddenly and surprisingly in a metropolitan business district, complete with American restaurants, women in business skirts, and tons of automobile traffic. It was like we had crossed the bridge into downtown Atlanta.
Although we were able to use the medieval Galata Tower as our landmark the entire time, it stood in stark contrast to most of the architecture surrounding it. Metal and glass replaced the stone and plaster buildings of the southern neighborhoods. Mosques gave way to museums and universities. The street art and graffiti grew more avant-garde and irreverent.
That isn’t to say that this portion of the city didn’t still boast its fair share of traditional shops and restaurants, as we enjoyed several along the way. But the whole vibe of this area felt like a city undergoing a quiet and peaceful revolution, moving toward Western culture and ideals. Case-in-point is the powerful but unintentional story of Istanbul’s Rainbow Stairs.
This wonderful piece of guerrilla art was never intended as a political statement, but both the Turkish government and the citizens of the Beyoglu neighborhood in which it can be found had very different opinions about the artwork. More of the fascinating story can be found here, but, as unsuspecting tourists, we simply found that the stairs made us smile.
Once we arrived at the Port of Istanbul, we spent some time negotiating the process for gaining passage across the Bosphorus. With our limited Turkish, it was easy to misread the timetables as many destinations have very similar names. Moreover, there are multiple ferries that cross the Bosphorus, hopping from shore to shore throughout the length of the strait. To complicate matters, different tokens are used for different routes, although they are all dispensed from the same vending machines.
All this to say that I mistakenly purchased tokens for a route that we didn’t want to take, leading to the subsequent realization that tokens are non-refundable. It’s a good thing that a roundtrip token only costs $7 USD. It’s also a good thing that I collect coins and tokens, so I chalked this one up to a semi-expensive investment in the collection.
Angela figured out the system and purchased our tokens, so we were on our way across to Asia. Erp! I have to admit that I was stupid with excitement. This was the first trip to Asia for Ang and the boys, and it was essentially the same route taken by conquerors, pilgrims, and merchants since the dawn of history. Plus, after having crossed the Strait of Gibraltar the previous year, this was now the number one crossing on my list.
I was giddy as we stepped off the boat in Kadikoy. My family made much fun of me. And I didn’t care.
The ferry had an open-air upper deck, so we camped out there for the 30-minute trip and watched the city slip by us on all sides. Zack struck up a conversation with a pretty Turkish girl, no doubt attempting the few compliments and catch phrases learned from Moutasm two days prior.
The Asian side of the Bosphorus was, well, more Asian, in a very New York sort of way. Mosques were few and far between, replaced by Armenian churches, miniskirts, and candy stores. Art galleries, fashion boutiques, and upscale restaurants were also plentiful. Unfortunately, most of the finer dining establishments didn’t open for another hour or two, so we wound up eating an early lunch in a Turkish version of Subway. The meats were mysterious, and the restrooms were coin operated. As much as I had been looking forward to this portion of the trip, our limited experience in Kadikoy was underwhelming.
Even so, the Bosphorus had been crossed! Now, on to the Princes’ Islands.
At just over an hour, this ferry crossing would take a while longer than the first, with stops on the islands of Kinaliada and Heybeliada before arriving at our final destination of Büyükada. The Princes’ Islands, so named because princes and other members of royalty were routinely exiled here during both Byzantine and Ottoman rule, are a peaceful contrast to the congestion and bustle of Istanbul.
Motorized vehicles are forbidden, so tours are accomplished by foot, bicycle, or horse-drawn carriage, and the ensuing quiet was almost jarring after our last couple of days. We ambled about the port for a while, then went for a hike into the forested hills, admiring the secluded palatial summer homes of Istanbul’s wealthiest citizens.
On our way back down to the port, we found a gem of an eatery at Akasya Restaurant Bar. And, although he was still two weeks away from his 18th birthday, Zack convinced us to let him order his first beer. Having ordered my first beer when I was a teenager in Kenya, I couldn’t turn down his request.
The whirlwind pace of the previous two days was catching up to us, so we dozed on the ferry trip back to the Port of Istanbul, attempting to save our energy for the three-mile walk back to the villa.
We crossed Galata Bridge just as the street lights began turning on. The call to prayer welcomed us back to the Fatih district, and our new friends Manwar and Moutasm welcomed us back to the villa.
It is impossible to come to know a city like Istanbul in the expanse of three short days, but I believe it is possible to quickly determine whether or not a city deserves a return visit.
Istanbul, you beautiful city of two continents and three names, I’ll be back.