What You’ll Find in This Post
My feelings about the vibes on the Asian side & European side of the city
What self-expression looked like in Istanbul
The basic demographics of the city
My experience with some locals
Bullet points about safety in the city
The rainbow steps near Dolmabahçe Palace
Istanbul is so unique in that it straddles two continents, split in half by the Bosporus strait and sandwiched between the Sea of Marmara & the Black Sea. As a result, it has had a unique history, and that history has influenced a lot of its modern vibe. So, this post is going to be jammed packed with everything I can think of relating to the vibe in Istanbul: The Asian side, the European side, the hipster hotspots, demographics, dress & dispositions, and general safety.
Asian Side vs. European Side
Two images of the Bosporus straight, the first taken from Topkapi Palace and the other from Eyüp Cemetery (although, the photo taken at the latter is more specifically of the Golden Horn, a very significant estuary that connects to the Bosporus)
The European side has the bigger airport, most residences, and most of the tourist attractions: The Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sophia, the Basilica Cistern, the Obelisk of Theodosius, the Grand Bazaar, Topkapi Palace, Dolmabahçe palace, a list of museums, some beautiful parks, and some other things I’m probably forgetting. The thing is, all those attractions is what made the European side feel significantly more expensive. The European side is also where I had all my weird racist encounters, which I think had more to do with the tourist atmosphere than the European side overall, but I figured it was worth mentioning.
A few of the environments I experienced on the European side. Don’t worry, more pictures and detail will come in a later post about things to do in Istanbul
The Asian side, in contrast, I felt was much calmer when it came to everything, including restaurants, shopping malls, sights to see, noise, crowds, and salesmen. I specifically stayed in a part of Istanbul called Kadiköy, which was a choice location (aside from the stress our AirBnB gave us on the last day). Our apartment was close to a metro, a mini grocery store, a good pizza place, and a metropolitan area (which had everything including SIM cards, money exchanges, restaurants, hobby shops, bakeries, and curiosity shops). It was also within walking distance of the harbor, which hosted an array of boat taxis.
I know, these pictures are not the most convincing examples of how nice Kadiköy was, but fear not! I there will be more exciting photos in the post about things to see & do in Istanbul.
One of my favorite times in Kadiköy was exploring this one street that was just chop full of hip stuff. Tattoos, body piercings, night clubs, hobby shops, unique restaurants (which I’ll elaborate on in the post about food), and, naturally, a Starbucks. It reminded me of the area around VCU-Richmond, but x10. I’d never seen a place so cool and I was completely blown away by it.
Me (looking like a bum) in a cool burger place in Kadiköy
This was the first photo of Istanbul I took after settling into the apartment. This is on one side of Kadiköy.
Coming from Richmond, and the USA in general, self-expression came in all shapes and sizes when it came to things like dress, hair, and art. Then I went to Morocco and Qatar, which both had very specific aesthetics and unspoken rules about self-expression. After that, when I was in Greece, the murals and graffiti spoke volumes, but when it came to individual people, things were toned down to feel kind of “neutral”. Istanbul, however, was quite a mixed bag, and reminded me of Richmond in that regard.
When it came to the art, Istanbul had a lot of it, from murals to graffiti, to centuries-old illuminated manuscripts and mysterious underground Medusa columns (but I’ll talk more about all that in my post about art in Istanbul). When it came to the people, I saw edgy haircuts, long beards & man buns, ladies with brightly dyed hair, well-coiffed fellas, and a variety of hijabs (most notably silky square scarves, wrapped in a way that made a perfect triangle halfway down a woman’s back). I saw miniskirts, mom jeans, button-downs with blazers, nose piercings, cool tattoos, vivid colors, black on black—it never ended. All of this surprised me because, having that Turkey was predominantly Muslim, I expected a certain level of homogeneity like the other Muslim countries I’d been to. I also half-expected Istanbul to be similar to Greece because of its geographic proximity (and Greece, mind you, is very homogenous). However, I got the exact opposite and it was awesome.
That said, though, I’m guessing this kind of self-expression and diversity has two major components to it: 1) That’s just how Istanbul developed after 3000 continuously inhabited years with a variety of different cultural influences under its belt and 2) Istanbul is legally a very secular country. The thing is, Turkey’s secularism has been a notable debate for a while now, but I won’t get too deep into that. Instead, I shall leave you with this easy-to-digest link as an entry point: A Wikipedia article about headscarf rights in Turkey.
I do urge you to click the link and learn about the sociopolitical climate in Turkey, but also know that the headscarf debate didn’t affect me as a tourist (for reasons that will become clear if you read some of the article).
Sent Antuan Kilisesi, a Catholic Church (built in 1912) near a variety of art museums and other churches.
About 15 million people live in Istanbul, the most inhabited city in the country (even though the capital is Ankara, which is the second most inhabited city and boasts a population of about 5.4 million). The city is predominantly Turkish, with only about 4% of its inhabits being foreigners (and of those foreigners, most come from neighboring countries, like Georgia and Bulgaria). The men to women ratio is about 50/50 and the median age is about 31, so the city is essentially full of millennials . . . which explains a lot. And, as I mentioned earlier, the country is predominantly Muslim (like 95% kind of “predominantly Muslim”).
Vilayet Mosque, the first beautiful building I photographed in Istanbul. Here’s a fun fact I’ve been pondering: I wonder if the title “Vilayet Mosque” is a proper noun derived from an adjective. What I mean is, you know how the Blue Mosque is now the Blue Mosque because it’s a blue mosque? Well, the Vilayet Mosque may be called that because it was a vilayet mosque, a mosque possibly built by the vilayets, an administration in 19th century Turkey . . . here’s a link)
Also, while we’re on the subject of people, Istanbul didn’t feel crowded, a great surprise. Perhaps it was just a lucky coincidence having to do with the places I went on the days I visited, but it’s still worth mentioning since the city has been one of the most densely populated cities in the word for thousands of years.
There may not have been a lot of people, but there were plenty of stray dogs and a few cats, all of whom were very chill.
Flowers in Gülhane Park
Every country, city, and culture is known for having a certain disposition . . . for better or worse. Think of things like “French people are rude” or “Southern hospitality”, those broad generalizations that lay down your expectations for a certain region or group of people and sometimes dip into dangerous stereotype waters. And, you see, it’s because of that last part that I don’t usually offer broad comments like “The people of _______ were ________”. When I talk about my experiences with people in a country, I always seek to emphasize that my social experience—be it fantastic or terrible—had to do with that particular person or situation, not the entire city, country, or culture they represent.
That said, I’d now like to say this: The people of Istanbul were nice.
It’s one thing to be in a place where the people aren’t mean or dismissive or disrespectful, but it’s another thing to be in a place where people seem to go out of their way to be kind, and that’s what my experience in Istanbul was like when it came to interactions with the locals. Don’t get me wrong, there were moments where I was rubbed the wrong way—like dealing with our AirBnB host the last day or suddenly realizing I was taking a photo with strangers presumably because they liked the rarity of my blackness—but even still, those interactions weren’t aggressive, those people weren’t mean.
Nearing Topkapi Palace that same day I took a photo with strangers
My favorite moments were those that involved sweet old ladies & gents, the kind of people that make you want to transform into a Girl Scout just so you can stop traffic and help them mosey across the street. There was one lady who arrived at the bus stop my partner and I were waiting at and after a while she proceeded to ask us questions in Turkish. We made it clear to her that we neither understood nor spoke Turkish, and she made it clear she understood that we didn’t understand, but she kept talking to us anyway. That’s when the true power of human social interaction began to shine because we actually understood each other. I understood she was asking about the bus and whether me and my partner were married, and she understood that we had no idea where the bus was and that, no, we were definitely not married. There were no hand gestures or charades, and no slowing down of speech, we just . . . understood.
There was also a moment with the couple who ran the pizza place across the street from our apartment that were very sweet & lighthearted. The woman asked where we were from, how we felt about the country, how she felt about the country (summarized with a huge eye roll), and, as always, whether or not we were married. Meanwhile, her husband behind the counter interjected humorously every so often in between taking orders. And, I’d like to say once more, none of us spoke the same language.
These experiences, and others, were just cool. Very, very cool.
I suppose this counts as a Bat-Signal
The quick & dirty answer is that overall, I felt Istanbul was very safe. Despite that, though, I still must list some things to keep in mind when it comes to the topic of safety in Istanbul. Let’s do bullet points:
Political protests sometimes occur, but none happened while we were there. It’s just something to keep your eye on.
Pickpocketing is something to keep in mind in tourist areas and public transport, but I gotta say, I didn’t feel as worried about it in Istanbul as I did in Morocco and Athens. This is likely because Istanbul wasn’t as crowded or confusing as either of those places.
I actually didn’t see any scam artists, unlike the other countries I’d visited. By scam artists, I mean the people who suddenly come out of nowhere to ask for money as though they’d been watching you for a while, oftentimes young children, teenage boys, seemingly pregnant women, taxi drivers, and salesmen. One of the other exchange students who went to Istanbul had her partner get caught up in a shoe shine scam and if you simply Google “Istanbul scam” you’ll see a lot about the “Let’s have a drink!” scam, which I never experienced.
A disclaimer: The word “scam” may not be the right one for some of these examples because it’s quite possible that some of these people may be trying to make an honest buck. However, all these instances do have the unexpected reveal and pushiness associated with scams, so that’s why they’re lumped in together.
Also keep in mind that the people that get targeted for scams are the people who look touristy, naïve, lost, wealthy, and—more often than not—white. That could also be a reason why I didn’t experience or observe any scams, because neither I nor my partner were the target audience.
One reason why Turkey was so affordable in 2018 is because their tourism had gone down in recent months. And you know why it went down? Terrorist attacks. Yeah, I know, genuinely worthy of concern, but the thing is, terrorist attacks are inherently unpredictable. You can’t really prepare for one; all you can do is examine the social, religious, and political situations before you go—to a club, a part of town, or the country in general)—then keep your wits about you if you do choose to go there.
Prostitution in Turkey is legal and regulated. My partner saw a group of women that he thought might be prostitutes walking on the outskirts of our neighborhood, and when I looked at them, I thought it could have gone 50/50. So, whether they were streetwalkers or partygoers, know that you do stand a chance at encountering sex workers or seeing brothels.
Common sense is still your best friend. Don’t walk around alone at night, keep your bag where you can see it, let people know where you are, don’t walk down poorly lit paths, steer clear of parts of town you know are shady, don’t purposefully go where the turmoil is, and so on.
I loved this little tree. It was short, like me!
Istanbul offered a very unique and comfortable vibe in its diversity, a different kind of diversity than the U.S. or Qatar (the most diverse countries I had been to prior to my arrival in Turkey). That “different kind of diversity” had its high points and low points, but mostly high points when it came to my experience in the city. And you know what else? The atmosphere in Istanbul was what I thought Athens would be like, which made the experience doubly special, a very satisfying surprise.