I do not like Istanbul. There, I said it. Am I allowed to say that? Surely everyone loves Istanbul, with its ideal seaside setting, the amazing food and beautiful mosques. The mix of European, Middle Eastern and Asian influences. The hospitable Turks. So what is wrong with me? Why can’t I appreciate what everyone else does?
I feel like we have to maintain a ‘front’ with our travels, thinking that every travel experience destination has to be worthy of hashtags – #stunningsunset, #backpackerlife, #fromwhereyoudratherbe…
In my opinion, travelling comes down to expectations. Every person I asked about Istanbul before coming here raved about it, so, naturally, I built up high expectations in my head. I was expecting to be feasting on falafel balls and downing delicious Turkish tea in a cute hookah bar in a hidden alleyway. That is the picture they painted me, so it is fair enough I would expect it, right?
DAY 1: UNCOMFORTABLE
It all started when I arrived here. I walked into a cloud of smoke getting out of the terminal on the way to the bus, where a big argument occurred because one passenger refused to pay. Then I had a kid kicking the back of my seat for the 1 1/2 hour-bus ride into the city, with no reprimand from his father accompanying him.
We arrived to find our Airbnb had no toilet paper, and the power shut off when we put the air conditioning on and turned on the shower at the same time. Then we heard a gunshot outside our window.
OK, Istanbul, it has only been the first night, so of course I will give you another chance. That is only fair.
DAY 2: UNDERWHELMING
The next day I woke up with a fresh outlook, ready to be wowed by the eleventh-most visited city in the world. Surely if 11 million tourists came here last year (up from 2 million in the year 2000), then I would revel in the joys of the ‘City of the World’s Desire‘.
First stop: the Galata Tower. Ten-minute wait, €5 entry – seemed reasonable. Got to the top. Views of the city, the sprawling city, the heat, the smog. Underwhelming.
Second stop: the Egyptian and Grand Bazaars. My travel companion Britta had to get some money out of an ATM, blocked by a man sitting in front of it smoking. She attempted with universal body language to ask to use the machine; he refused to move. Personal space, anyone? Just outside the Egyptian Bazaar, which TripAdvisor describes as a ‘fragrant trove of spices and fruits‘, we could not get away from street stand after street stand of Viagra pills and dodgy electronics. What a beautiful 560-year-old market.
Third stop: Blue Mosque. This was the first mosque I had ever walked into and, admittedly, it was beautiful.
DAY 3: DIRTY
Right, maybe Istanbul’s magnificence is best appreciated from afar, so Britta and I decided to take a ferry out to Burgazada, one of the Prince’s Islands in the Mamara Sea. We arrived – no map, no English, no street signs.
We walked around, in search of grass to lay a towel down on, maybe a pop in the ocean to cool down. Online reviews had promised a ‘perfect, car-free retreat from Istanbul’ where we would go on a ‘peaceful stroll to enjoy the nature’.
What we got was a crowded, concrete-filled coastline with little space to enjoy at all. I jumped in the water, dipped my head under and was delighted to emerge with slimy moss in my mouth and an old plastic bag on my head. A meter away from me was a jellyfish. What did I do to deserve this punishment?!
Granted, the Turkish family next to us gave us some stuffed vine leaves and cake which were leftover from their lunch. That was the highlight of the day.
The ferry ride back was spiced up with a very vocal argument between two ladies over a seat, which made everyone feel uncomfortable.
DAY 4: PUSHY
I needed a R-E-L-A-X.
An Australian girl I had met at the Dead Sea in Israel last week and her sister decided to come with me to a hamam, a traditional Turkish bath.
This, I would have to say, was the highlight of my trip. For €15 , you get a visit to the sauna, a massage and scrub down from a big, fat Turkish man…and I loved it (minus the guy masturbating whilst looking at me when I was in line for the massage. And, no, this was not a gay sauna!).
What I did not appreciate was being asked about ten times during the massage if the service was ‘super’, being reminded three times what constituted a ‘big tip‘ (€6), and, when paying at the cashier, three men coming forward to get tipped for what was essentially the service provided (slipper rental, the massage and the towels). I felt like a commodity, and it did not feel good.
As I was feeling relaxed, I decided to take the metro back to my Airbnb instead of the 30-minute uphill climb in 30°C heat. Getting out of the metro station, I heard a commotion around the corner and suddenly a young, sweaty man sprinted up my street followed by a mob of about 15 men wielding plastic and metal poles.
I pressed myself up against the wall with a family of four and the mob proceeded to beat the man about five meters away from me. With 15 against 1, my flight or fight mode came into action. I felt sick to the stomach.
So, given I had high expectations and that the majority of these events over the past four days were either disappointing, underwhelming or damn-right scary, is it OK for me to say I do not like Istanbul?
What do I say when the next person asks me for tips on how to make the most of their stay? Obviously they are coming here with a positive outlook and wanting to enjoy the best of the city.
Do I tell them what everyone relayed to me, that Istanbul is awesome/unforgettable/amazing/[insert other superlative]? Is it fair to give them such high expectations?
Or do I tell them my truth, what I really thought of it? Maybe that would lower their expectations, then making them easier to meet, or even surpass.
Some of my favourite places in the world have been the ones which I had the lowest expectations of – Rome, Prague, Argentina – mainly due to me pre-judging them as being too touristy (or in the case of Israel, being misinformed about the political situation).
And some of the biggest disappointments – Brazil, Istanbul, Paris – are the ones with the best reputations, but that just did not click with me, for one reason or another.
So, I guess what I am trying to say is that travel is a personal thing, and each destination will have a different effect on every traveller that visits it. Some people like big, dynamic (read: overwhelming, chaotic) cities; some like beautiful, tranquil nature (boring, uncivilised nothingness); but everyone likes Australia (just kidding!).
This post is not meant to bash Istanbul; it is meant to make it OK to speak negatively about a travel experience.
I think we should feel free to speak honestly when giving our opinions on travel destinations, because not all travel experiences are fun, exciting or eye-opening, but they are all worth it if we can learn from them.
I think I have learnt from my experience here in Istanbul. Sure, I learnt it was not the right fit for me. But the most positive thing that came from it was that it made me excited for my next destination (London), a kind of recharge the batteries experience, and, for that, Istanbul, I am very grateful.