Istanbul: Grime and Glamour at the Crossroads

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Although the city is most famous for spanning for an East-West divide, the boundary between the European and Asian sides of Istanbul is more complex than that. A sprawling metropolis somewhere between Beijing and Los Angeles in extent and between New York and New Delhi in aesthetic, the city formerly known as Constantinople is an eclectic calling card to the rest of the planet.


And they’ve taken notice of it. Of all of the destinations I’ve visited during my world travels, Istanbul is by far the one with the greatest percentage of foreign tourists out and about, as compared to local residents. While I don’t have any specific statistics for you, I can think of only a few spots in the city where I could see people who appeared to be Turkish without leaping as high as I could to overcome the crowds of Western Europeans around me.

Of course, their enthusiasm isn’t unwarranted. Whether we’re talking about historic sites like the Dolmabahce Palace or Hagia Sophia, shopping areas like the medieval Grand Bazaar and the modern Istiklal Street or scenic viewpoints overlooking the city’s so-called “Golden Horn” or the continent-spanning Bosphorus Bridge, Istanbul is a place which absolutely deserves the hype it’s received.


One treasure I was able to come upon, however, thanks to my having explored the city with a local, was a quiet, colorful neighborhood known as Fatih. Home to churches, rambunctious school children and literally miles of row houses that give the most picturesque parts of San Francisco a run for their money, Fatih is what I imagine most of the city must have been like before the rest of my kind discovered it.

Even if traipsing through other peoples’ home turf isn’t your cup of tea–or Turkish coffee, as it were–taking a trek over the Atatürk Bridge is well worth your time, whether you walk all the way to Roman-era aqueduct you can see coming down the hill from Istiklal or stop in Unkoponi or Zeyrek, equally-charming areas of town which are less residential than Fatih. The bridge itself is a feast for the eyes, whether it’s the dizzying panorama a promenade across it affords you or simply a chance to lock eyes with one of the dozens of fishermen standing atop it at any given time.


One morning, my third or fourth in Istanbul, I was having breakfast with my friend Safa and his on-again, off-again girlfriend at a coffee shop and restaurant that seemed stolen directly out of a Friends episode from the late 1990s. Outside, the aforementioned Istiklal was practically bursting with shoppers, foreigners fine with dropping their cash at establishments they have in their own countries and Turks mesmerized at being able to shop at such places without leaving theirs.

The young woman took a break from teasing my poor friend and questioned me matter-of-factly. “You mean you really prefer somewhere like Fatih to Beyoğlu or Cihangir?”

I nodded. “They feel a bit more real.”

The former, in fact, was like some weird hybrid of Seattle and Paris, a hilly section of town with a grungy chicness I could enjoy only when I wasn’t sure someone was following me, a common problem in Istanbul. This is not to say the city isn’t safe: I never felt threatened by anything but my own paranoia.

Indeed, it’s perhaps more accurate to characterize it as seedy. Whether it’s the automotive shops and appliance repair kiosks that sit just steps from from the picturesque Galata Tower and its surrounding cobblestone footpaths, or the cigar smoking, middle-aged men that eye the schoolgirls who scamper past them between puffs, the city once known by names like “Byzantium” and “Constantinople” strikes a strange balance between grime and glamour. It’s even got some legitimate urban beauty, as Helen Simpson details in “Getting Back to Nature in Istanbul,” a post on the BootsNAll travel network.

After the two lovebirds had gotten back to flirting, I licked my plate clean of the egg yolks that had run onto it following a puncture wound from my toast — and I didn’t feel inappropriate for having done so. Even at its most pretentious, Istanbul is still a place where you can be yourself — even if you’re a plate-licking glutton.

“But here is nice, too.”

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