Merhaba! My journey begins in Istanbul, Turkey. I arrived here on the 11th, and, taking a shuttle through the city from the airport, I was immediately struck by how the various cultural influences on this city blend together so harmoniously. You see, Istanbul is the only city in the world that straddles two different continents- Europe and Asia- and it truly does feel like a European city and a Middle Eastern city all at the same time. Markets and bazaars, lots of traffic, a modern public transit system, kebab restaurants, very old and very beautiful mosques, bright lights, women in hijabs and burqas, and women not in hijabs and burqas all fill the streets.
I disembarked in the district of Taksim, where I would be meeting up with my Couch Surfing host, Tolga. Mind you, this was my first time flying to a foreign country by myself, and here I was- waiting on the side of the street for some guy who I had never met in order to stay at his house. It was quite nerve-racking, yet thrilling at the same time. Tolga arrived, and with him was Vincent, a guy from Germany who was Couch Surfing with him as well. They took me on the metro to the University District, where Tolga lives, and I instantaneously felt comfortable with them. They seemed cool and friendly, and I knew that I had made an excellent decision in how I would be spending my first night in Istanbul.
At his flat, Tolga cooked for us some excellent Turkish food of spicy pasta and grilled vegetables, and he served us traditional Turkish liquor. It was then that I learned my first Turkish word: çakırkeyif, or, in English, tipsy. Thoroughly exhausted, I went to sleep soon after that and awoke at five in the morning from the mosque’s call to prayer.
Katherine, my travel buddy, arrived the next day, and we met up at the hostel at which we would be staying for the rest of the week. Our hostel is in an extremely touristy part of the city called Old Istanbul. It is very close to the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia, and it feels like an isolated village within the city. It has narrow, cobblestone streets, tons of hotels and hostels, overpriced restaurants, and a noticeable lack of Turkish people actually living here. Regardless, that day we did some touristy things- we saw the Blue Mosque, which was very beautiful but quite crowded, and a really cool cistern which is in a cave and dates back to the Roman empire. Afterward, we wandered around the city, which would come to be a theme for our trip. We have a tendency to walk around, say, “Oh, that street looks pretty!”, get lost going down a bunch of winding roads, and subsequently walk… and walk… and walk. Our own hostel is really confusing to try to find, and there has yet to be a time where Katherine and I were able to come back to it without circling around it for thirty minutes.
Later that night, we met up with Tolga and Vincent in Taksim, which turned out to be one of our favorite places in the city. It is a crowded hub of young people, and there is a huge street there that is blocked off to traffic and filled with awesome restaurants, shopping, night clubs, and bars. The four of us went to a liquor store and bought some vodka and wine, and Tolga took us to this amazing park where locals hang out. It was a little off the beaten path like a true secret spot, and once we arrived, Vincent, Katherine, and I were the only tourists there. It has a stunning view of the city, including the Bosphorus Bridge, the water, the lit up mosques, and the Asia side of Istanbul.
Afterward, Katherine, Vincent, and I went to a club that Tolga had recommended to us. It was on the top floor of some random, unmarked building, and I immediately fell in love with it once we went inside. There was a band playing modern Turkish music, which actually was extremely fun to dance to. The club had an amazing view of the city, and we danced and danced until five in the morning.
And this was only my first 36 hours in Istanbul.
P.S. If you have not heard of couchsurfing.org, it is the best website ever. If you are traveling anywhere in the world, via Couch Surfing you can stay at random people’s houses for free. As my post has probably demonstrated, it is an amazing way to meet local people and find out about all the best places to go to.
Tolga, Vincent, and I at the park in Taksim
Katherine and Vincent at the park