Things I Learned: A Travel Adventure Through Istanbul, Turkey



Merhaba friends!

Given the reality of our short existence, especially nearing 30 years old with roughly 19,000 rotations around the sun left - if we are being specific, god willing - I thought it might be a good idea to consider dedicating my time to tasks I find most fulfilling while slowly phasing out the habits that no longer serve me positively. Since I was a child, writing has been a comfort to me, something I would return to over the years on lonely nights when the world was too overwhelming to bear, so I thought keeping a travel blog as a way to chronicle my memories of the road I've tucked safe away, would nicely pair both my passion for photography and my desire to write. If not for fear of age blurring the sharper details of life's memories, I would continue to procrastinate on blogging, but I've already wasted so much of my time cowering with anxiety over what I perceived to be a big scary world. As a former agoraphobic and socially anxious introvert, life has felt like a small speck gasping for air in a universe so overwhelmingly large I could only ever dream of having the courage to explore a tiny portion of it. Through little steps every day for decades, I've been able to gain the confidence in myself enough to explore beyond my own small experience. First by simply stepping foot out the front door, then within the confines of my own continent adventuring around North America, finally culminating in my very first trip overseas. With this growing trust in myself and the full confidence in the overpowering goodness of humanity, I intend to make each new day a wonderful journey and an opportunity to learn while hopefully sharing that learned experience with all the new friends I meet.

A few years back I discovered a passion for travel and promised to do so by any reasonable means. Working to expand my mind beyond my own limited perspective while opening my heart to the excitement of new cultures and places, is worth more to me than any last dollar I have to my name. When I was offered the opportunity to join a tourism conference in beautiful ancient Istanbul, I immediately jumped at the possibility of setting off on another adventure - though my body went into the standard response of fetal position panic mode. My highly sensitive easily overwhelmed friends among us can sympathize. I was feeling especially stressed with the media harping on how unsafe the country is due to it's proximity to Syria, targeting of westerners, and the heightened threat of terrorist attacks - the same threat really as in any large city of the world and with that same necessity to remain vigilant at all times. There was not one second I felt unsafe and it was something I was quick to learn within minutes of entering the city. The people I met were warm hearted and friendly, the food absolutely spectacular, and to walk in the steps of so much of civilization made for priceless memories worth conquering every fear for.

I've found the best way to combat anxiety is through preparation - so I set out an hour a day for four months to learn as much of the culture, language, and past I could before my first journey overseas - an easy task for someone that enjoys history.  

_MG_3709.jpg

The Republic of Turkey is a marvelous country rich in the history of humanity. In the Taurus mountains of western Turkey the rivers Tigris and Euphrates gave life to the fertile crescent where man learned to farm in the dawning of the agricultural age and where humans ultimately went from wanderers and nomads, to building large extravagant civilizations. Constantinople, of what is now present day Istanbul, was the capital of the Roman Empire from 330AD - 1204AD. Emperor Constantine found the strategic location better for trade and a safer place to defend the empire. He was the first emperor to protect religious freedom, which included the persecution of followers of Christianity. He is considered to have consolidated the religion and his influence helped build the first major thriving Christian city named in his honor. Ruled by the Romans and Ottomans for thousands of years you can still find the history of each civilization woven into the fabric of this magnificient modern metropolis. Istanbul is the largest city in Europe and the cultural, as well as financial, hub of Turkey with over 15 million people residing here. It is also the only city in the world divided on two continents, Europe and Asia, with the shores of the Bosphorus and a short (and inexpensive!) ferry ride in-between. Strategically, Turkey is incredibly important wedged between the Black Sea and Mediterranean Sea of which trade routes helped facilitate it's position of wealth for thousands of years. 

Hagia Sophia built in 537AD is a testament to the ever evolving history of Turkey first built by the Romans as a Christian cathedral before being converted into a mosque after the Ottoman's conquered the city.

Hagia Sophia built in 537AD is a testament to the ever evolving history of Turkey first built by the Romans as a Christian cathedral before being converted into a mosque after the Ottoman's conquered the city.

On my first full day exploring the ancient cobblestone streets of Old City Sultanahmet, I spent the morning wandering alone finding myself lost in a maze of hotels, shops, and museums. Admittedly very trusting and naive, I learned rather slowly that if someone stops you on the street it is 100% a trap and they are trying to take you back to their shop to sell you things while serving you endless amounts of tea. This exceptionally polite vegetarian spent three hours in a fur and leather shop after I agreed to coffee offered by a kind stranger I met near the bazaar. On principle I am against the fur and leather industry, but keeping an open heart and mind, it was interesting to learn about the importance of the export and Turkish traditional craftsmanship. Meeting this man was my first opportunity to speak some of the Turkish I've been learning and I grateful to be able to pick up a few new words. I found a majority of people in Istanbul speak English but they truly seem to appreciate those who try to learn the language. A Turkish word is usually received with a big smile. I had a wonderful conversation with my new friend about following your passions, turkish culture, and the once thriving tourist destination.

Turkey is hurting badly from a declining tourism industry. Talking with the shopkeepers and the event leaders working in the tourism field, there are estimates of the formerly booming industry dropping by 75%, which I would imagine has a lot to do with the majority muslim population and a media with a set narrative of propaganda. Although I always felt very safe with police officers securing every street corner, I found the once crowded streets of Sultanahmet to be empty of many travelers. When asked to explain my reason for visiting, shopkeepers often thanked me for helping to bring awareness to the situation in the hopes of bringing back tourists to visit the beautiful country. 

After the kind stranger coffee experience, I definitely needed a nap to help the jet lag before I had my first meeting with the other influencers, but I was struggling to find my way back to the hotel. Try as I may with two maps and screenshots of directions in hand, I truly have no sense of direction - but sometimes getting lost is quite an adventure itself and an opportunity to find comfort and familiarity in the chaos. I stopped to ask directions from a man on the street and upon realizing how very lost I was, he walked me the mile back to my hotel, in the opposite direction of where I imagined the hotel to be. 

_MG_4020.jpg
_MG_4017.jpg
The Blue Mosque

The Blue Mosque

For my first few days in Istanbul I had a marvelous stay at the Sura Hotel in Sultanahmet on the Amber floor. The room was spectacular with intricate gold detail work, moody ambient lighting, and complete with a balcony to sit and listen in awe (while often weeping) as the call to prayer echoed from the nearby Blue Mosque. The amazing complimentary buffet for breakfast every morning lasted three hours with so much fresh food and Turkish delicacies to keep you fueled for a long day of exploring the historic locale, all of which were within walking distance. Hagia Sophia and the surrounding sites were only a 5 minute walk down the winding streets. The service was spectacular, everyone I met was so kind and accommodating to anything I may have needed. I loved the little touches in the room of fresh fruit, nuts, and Turkish delights that made me feel so welcomed. They even have an airport pickup service that I took full advantage of as I'm easy to get lost, which took the stress completely out of my arrival in Istanbul.

There was a cocktail party with influencer dinner in the lobby of the incredible Sura hotel on my second night where I was able to finally meet with the group organizing the event, Inflow Travel, as well as the other social media influencers flown in from all over the world to experience Turkey. I find these types of trips extremely valuable as they offer a lot of opportunity to not only learn a bit about the culture of the host country, but to learn from the vast amount of worldly knowledge of the other influencers. I was thankful to meet so many new inspiring friends while dining to incredible food and live music!

The next day we ventured out across the city back to Ataturk airport for a group breakfast courtesy of Do&Co - the catering company that provides meals to Turkish Airlines, who sponsored the trip. We also suited up in clean apparel and were taken on a tour of the facilities. It was interesting to see the production lines where the food was being prepared handmade from fresh ingredients, I was certainly given a different perspective while I enjoyed my meal on the plane ride home.

Later that evening, with my new friends Alvin and Henry we parted ways with the group during our down time to make our way to the Grand Bazaar. The intricate avenues of the Grand Bazaar, one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world with roots in 1455AD, is definitely not for the socially anxious, extremely busy with people looking to get in a little shopping in. If you need it, you can find it at the Grand Bazaar. Usually I'm not one for large groups, especially packed elbow to elbow, but with the courage of my new friends and the heavenly smells of coffee and spices, I ventured into the chaos. I truly loved and embraced this new experience. 

For 100 Turkish Lira (only $29 USD!!!) I was able to purchase many souvenirs for friends with tea, coffee, and Turkish delights to last me until my return. I have never seen so many lights and products on display. As you walk along, the shop keepers will yell out phrases in many languages in the hopes people will turn their heads enough to reveal what language to use to lure you in. Shop keepers in the city can be a bit aggressive, but I found myself laughing at the clever tactics they use to bring customers in.

These days the dollar is very strong against the Lira so it's an excellent time to visit for an inexpensive trip. I budgeted 300 Turkish Lira for spending money during my 6 day stay which ended up around $89 USD. I actually had a hard time finding enough things to spend it all on, everything is so inexpensive.

The market even opened up to side streets of endless shopping, sugary goodness, and coffee! If only I had a dozen more suitcases to bring all my treats home. I returned to Maine with two extra bags and 5 extra pounds of turkish treasures.

_MG_4012-2.jpg
_MG_4011.jpg

On our last day in Istanbul, we took a guided tour of Hagia Sophia, courtesy of Fest Travel, before stopping at the Topkapi Palace for lunch. Hagia Sophia, built in 537 AD, is a testament to the ever evolving nature of the region - a structure first built by the Romans as a Christian cathedral before being converted into a mosque after the Ottoman's conquered the city bringing with them the religion of Islam. Inside it was a marvel to crane my neck to witness so many relics from the past colorfully and intricately telling tales from long ago. I even got to pet the famous cat, Gli, who has made a home in the museum and crawls willingly into any open lap that becomes available. 

As an added bonus, here is a sampling of the delicious food I was able to taste while touring the city. Being a vegetarian was a bit of a challenge, visiting the founding country of the kebob, but everyone was so kind and accommodating! The buffets were my favorite with so many varieties of fruits and cheeses and a vast spread of yogurts and breads. Breakfast was always a buffet lasting hours allowing me my fair share of the local flavor. For dessert, the Turks absolutely love their sweets. I'm more of a savory gal myself, but my sweet tooth definitely got it's fill of Turkish delights and baklava.

After our tours and lunch at the palace we packed up our possessions for an afternoon flight west for the second leg of our tour. Although we weren't able to tour a few places I would have wanted, luckily I get to return in April for a fresh perspective and warmer weather!

Stay tuned for Part Two of this Turkish adventure with a stay in the cave hotels of Cappadocia, Turkey!

Thank you so much for reading. Teşekkür ederim!

Interested in the preset used to edit the photos in this post? You can find a complimentary preset here!


Although this event was sponsored and organized by Inflow Travel & Turkish Airlines, all opinions remain entirely my own based upon my own personal experience.