We arrived in Istanbul very tired and smelling of smoke. In 1994, you could smoke on the buses in both Greece and Turkey. The Greeks and Turks both lit up with abandon back then as well, so our 24-hour bus from Athens to Istanbul felt a lot like a night in a smoky jazz club, without the jazz or the cocktails.
After a shower and a nap though, it only took us a few hours of wandering the streets of Sultanhamet to decide we were going to settle down here for a while to teach English. It was exotic, it was cheap, and we could tell already that the food was better here than in Greece. I had a writing assignment reviewing hotels, so we explored the rest of Turkey first, but we returned to Istanbul and got jobs teaching in a suburb town out near the airport.
Istanbul From Gray to Gangbusters
My lingering memories of Istanbul then are a jumble of juxtapositions, a lot of highs and lows. We spent every day off sightseeing and never ran out of interesting things to see and places to explore. We seldom saw the sun though because it was winter and most of the buildings then were heated with coal. The people were great fun to be with though: vibrant, social, and living life to the fullest. Financially they lived day to day, however: inflation was so bad in the mid-90s in Turkey that we would pass an exchange booth, go eat lunch, and the rate was worse when we returned. We were also Turkish Lira millionaires every time we got paid; the government has since chopped off all the zeros and issued new banknotes.
When I returned to Istanbul last year, the changes that have happened in just two decades were almost too dramatic to believe. The bargain prices are gone and Istanbul is not much cheaper than Western Europe now. It’s definitely more pricey than Eastern Europe. There’s clearly a much bigger middle class, the rich have gotten richer, and the infrastructure changes are like night and day. My Turkish Airlines flights were some of the best I’ve been on period and they’re now flying to 110 destinations—more than any other airline. The traffic on the roads is also far worse though since twice as many people have cars but there’s no more room for them to move.
There’s a dark, ominous feeling in the air too that’s a strange counterpoint to all the material success from a booming economy. The country has lurched strongly to the right, with the religious prime minister making the nation more Islamic and the laws more restrictive. Whereas before I saw very few head scarves on the women, now they’re all over the place. The fun, freewheeling nightlife scene is all but dead, killed off by laws meant to keep anyone from having a drink outside the home after 10 pm. Press freedom has taken a dive and the government has tried its best to clamp down on social media expression.
For Travelers, One of the World’s Best Cities
Putting politics aside, it’s hard to think of another city that has as much going for it as Istanbul. You’ve got buildings that are 1,200 years old from the days of Byzantium then Constantinople, the world’s most beautiful mosques going back to the height of creativity and wealth in the Ottoman Empire. Topkapi Palace, the Grand Bazaar, the underground Cistern, the Chora Museum full of mosaics in the original church, and on and on it goes. Plus here you’ve got water all around: the Sea of Marmara on one side, which leads to the Mediterranean, and the Bosphorus channel separating Europe from Asia.
And food, glorious food! I’ve seldom eaten as well anywhere in a five-day stretch as I did during my last trip to Istanbul. This is some of the most flavorful food on the planet, often with recipes that have changed little in 400 or 500 years.
This is a terrific place for shopping, as it has been for close to 2,000 years. It was and is a crossroads between “the Orient” and Europe. If nothing else, pick up a few evil eye amulets or bracelets.