I am staying at the Sultans Royal Hotel, which is situated in the historic Sultanahmet center of Istanbul. I highly recommend the hotel, and Murat, the main manager, has spoken the best English of any Istanbulite I have met. Since I arrived so late, I went to get a drink at a nearby bar. The bar was one of several lining a small road. I noticed the area catered to tourism because I saw several hotels, hostels, 24/7 mini-markets, and dry cleaners. Even after midnight, I asked one dry cleaner a question about his services, but he did not understand my English.
As I suggested in my first Istanbul post, the city is clean and more modern than I would have expected. Nowhere in my travels thus far have I felt unsafe at night, although I understand everyone’s level of apprehension walking in a foreign city alone can vary. The entire Sultanahmet region is extremely safe. You would have as likely a chance as getting mugged in Midtown Manhattan. The bar I patronized was near several hostels, but the best hotel, the Four Seasons (there is another one on the Bosphorus Strait) in the city was right behind it.
When I got my Heineken, I paid 12 Turkish lira for it, equivalent to $5.19. The beer felt light, and I read the label to discover it was 30 centiliters. Adjusted for the 12 ounces that an American would drink, the beer would have cost $6.15, which I thought expensive for a cheap bar. I was stunned enough that I spied a menu to confirm the price. Istanbul is at least 30% cheaper than Roma, but the alcohol prices can be expensive, even by American standards. I paid as much as $15 for a drink during my stay.
Indonesia and Morocco are the only other Muslim countries I have visited, and they had high prices for alcohol too. Istanbul is raucous at night. The nightlife is more vibrant than anything I witnessed during my two-week tour of Italia. Istanbul is officially secularly Muslim, which can be viewed as an oxymoron. There are definitely Middle Eastern influences, but the young people act and dress like normal Europeans. There is plenty of partying here. Alcohol is everywhere.
The bar I went to had only a foursome (three women, one man) from España. They were in their low 30s, but their English was suspect enough that we communicated mostly in español. Oftentimes, when talking to a foreigner, that person will speak English well enough that it would be inconvenient for him or her to struggle with me in his/her native tongue. In this case, the reverse was true. I am always happy to practice non-English languages.
The highlight of the night was when one of the staff wanted to ask one of the Spanish women out on a date. It was hilarious watching the scene unfold, as she did not speak any Turkish, and he did not know any español, so he used Google Translate. He went at it for 30 minutes, but all he got was a picture with her.
Unlike my sightseeing jaunts in Paris, Barcelona, and Italia, I spent only $36 total on tourist attractions. The entire city feels like a museum, being a capital of four distinct Empires: Roman, Byzantine, Latin, and Ottoman. In terms of natural beauty, Istanbul is on the short list for most beautiful city I have ever visited, rivaling only Rio de Janeiro and San Francisco.
There are more than 3000 mosques (“cami” in Turkish) in the province of Istanbul, and I assume they are all free. Turkey calls itself a secular Muslim country, and I don’t know exactly what that means, but I was freely permitted to tour any mosque, despite my not practicing Islam. In Marrakech, I could not visit the mosques unless I intended to pray. The mosques are gorgeous, with the postcard image of minarets piercing the sky with the Bosphorus shimmering below. That sight can be had all over the megalopolis. I visited only three mosques (not counting the Ayasofya), and my favorite was not the famous Blue Mosque but the Suleymaniye Mosque because it offered panoramic views, had grass outside, and was an impeccably white. Istanbul is a hilly city, so much so that I rode several fun funiculars!
I used the public transportation system liberally over the seven days I was in Istanbul, and it amounted to less than $20 total. The Istanbulkart card is a must for anyone visiting, and I traveled using every method except the bus: subway, tram, funicular, and ferry.
The Ayasofya and Blue Mosque are the two most famous attractions of Istanbul, but mosques are much smaller than cathedrals. It is just one open area, and everyone is required to remove their shoes and put them on a shelf or a disposable plastic bag because the prostrating nature of Muslim prayer requires the head to touch the carpet. The standard design of Turkish mosques has flat circular chandeliers hanging from the very top. These chandeliers are hung low, and the lines used obscure the view.
One thing I discovered was that “whirling dervish” comes from Turkey. Until now, I had thought “whirling dervish” to be an inventive term to describe the cartoon Tasmanian Devil and fast-moving basketball players.