Istanbul is a worldly city, with cultural connections to the east and to the west, blended together with the movement of people back and forth across the Bosphorus river between Asia and Europe.
This is an exciting cosmopolitan city, but there are some things you should know before you go?
When we arrived at our hotel in the Sultanahmet neighborhood, the old European part of Istanbul, the reception directed us to the sofa where we waited until, Mustafa, a young go-getter from reception, approached us with a tray of glasses of hot Turkish tea (çay). Inviting you to a relaxing glass of çay is meant to put you at ease. Çay is a time to relax during the busy day.
Mustafa drew the tourist spots in the Sultanahmet neighborhood on a map and then told us that the hotel sold tours to parts of Istanbul that would be harder for us to reach on our own. We thanked him and went for a first look at Istanbul.
The more aggressive salesmen are able to whisk you into their shops and sit you down for a glass of çay. It’s bad manners to refuse. You’re from Venezuela? They have an uncle there, and then tell you a detail or two about Venezuela just in case you doubted them. You live in New York? They have a cousin who lives there, and provide a couple of details to prove that, too. These are salesman who are always two steps ahead of you.
My Private Cooking Class
TripAdvisor reviews lead us to Olive Anatolian Restaurant, a restaurant on the top floor of the Yasmak Sultan hotel, with a view of The Hagia Sofia from one side and the Bosphorus River on the other. Our waiter, Murat, spoke very good English and became our first friend in the city. We still communicate with Murat on Instagram.
We returned to the restaurant the next day for a private cooking class with Chef Hatice, who chose a traditional 4-course Turkish meal for me to prepare.
The menu was:
- gül böreg (rose pastry)
- iç pilaf (garnished rice)
- mahmudiye (Ottoman-style chicken)
- firin sütlaç (rice pudding)
The English names may sound familiar, but the ingredients and preparation are very different.
The preparation lasted about two hours in the hot restaurant kitchen. Then Dan and I returned to the hotel to shower and prepare for dinner, the one I had prepared, to be served to us by Murat. The cost of my cooking class, along with our meal and two tall glasses of Efes (a Turkish beer), was just 75 Euros.
Ferries On The Bosphorus
Dan had read that we could take the ferry to the Asian side of Istanbul. Mustafa at the hotel reception realized he wouldn’t be selling us a tour and gave us the vaguest directions to the ferry. Several ferries cross to different points and, since we didn’t know the difference, we took the first one we could find.
The trip across the river was an exciting ride between continents. We stood at the back of the ferry and watched the domes and minarets of the mosques fade into the distance of Istanbul Europe and then we ran to the front to see modern Istanbul Asia approaching.
Upon disembarking, we noticed that the area was fully under construction. We started looking for a taxi as the wind blew the construction dust over us. The area was busy and we couldn’t even find where to wait for a taxi. Nobody spoke English so we decided to cross back to Europe. Back in Europe, we could take either a taxi or the metro. Asia would be too far, but we could get to a highly-rated restaurant in a more modern section in Europe.
We knew where the restaurant was on our iPhone map, but the problem was guessing which metro stop on the station’s wall map corresponded. We decided that a taxi across the Bosphorus would be simpler. It took us a half hour to find a taxi. The driver, who spoke just a few words of English, quoted us a price of 100 lira ($25 USD) to take us to the restaurant.
We conversed with the driver through our Google Translate app and through his, and he told us about his friend who lives in Miami. Then he pulled over in a tunnel and said we would be getting out here! We could see on our iPhone map that we were nowhere near the restaurant.
The driver complained there was too much traffic because of the mayoral election. News.google.com couldn’t corroborate this election and neither could anyone else we spoke to later on.
We argued for a few minutes but saw that the tunnel had a metro entrance so we paid and left.
The Istanbul Metro
There are machines at the metro stations where you purchase your metro card. Dan tapped the button for English, but the options were still incomprehensible because the names of the choices were still in Turkish. A young English woman who had been in Istanbul for months, took the 200 lira note (approx. $50 USD) out of Dan’s hand, the only cash left in his wallet, and she started pressing buttons on the machine. The machine didn’t give her the change she was expecting and we ended up with a $50 metro card and no more cash. She sincerely apologized and left us.
Still covered with dust from the construction site at the ferry terminal in Asia, very hungry and somewhat fed up, we ate and then stopped into an expensive hotel to ask for directions back.
The metro to the University in the Sultanahmet neighborhood was quick and from there we had to walk two blocks to the tram. It was rush hour and we weren’t able to get onto the first couple of trams, and then had to squeeze onto the third one.
Connecting With The People Of Istanbul
We had a long way to travel and when the tram got less crowded, two women in burkas found seats and then yelled at their children to stand and give their seats to us. I sat but Dan wasn’t comfortable taking the child’s seat, so he remained standing. The two women and I communicated with our eyes. They smiled at me through their burkas and I smiled back.
Several stops later, as more people got off, two children ran for some seats near where Dan was standing. An older man grabbed one of the children by the shoulder. He didn’t know these children, but he told them that the seat was for Dan. Dan thanked the elderly man but then told hm to sit instead.
We got more confident that we could connect with the people of Istanbul, even without language, and we continued to meet people for the remainder of our stay. The Blue Mosque, the basilica cistern, the trips on the Bosphorus, the Grand Bazaar and the spice market make Istanbul a culturally and historically important city, but our best memories are of all the people we met in this international city.
Theistanbulinsider.com lists many cultural differences that are helpful to tourists. Here are just a few of them:
😮 Personal space tends to be quite small and this may be quite disturbing for foreigners.
😮 Sometimes women even put their hands around each other’s waists while they walk or they hold the hand of their female friend while they talk.
😮 Maintain direct eye contact when you can, as this is what is often expected and appreciated. There may be cases when women will avoid having direct eye contact with men.
😮 To decline an offer, people often just put their hand onto their heart.
Last, blogger Zeina wrote some great guides getting around Istanbul! Here is her 1 Day Guide to this fascinating city.