Thousands and thousands of travelers rush by as the muezzin breaks the constant humming of the crowds with his thundering voice, calling Muslims to prayer. You sit there, in what seems to be the center of the Universe, surrounded by voices and faces, smells and colors that you’ve never seen together. Istanbul is noisy and crowded, but it’s also more alive than everything I have ever seen. With its eclectic mix of visitors, tiny streets packed with lamp shops and ice cream stands, rushing peddlers magisterially balancing their tea trays, colorful cats that everyone seems to love…Istanbul gets into your soul and makes you fall in love. Istanbul smells of roasted corn and chestnuts, of fried lamb and a plethora of unknown spices. It seems to speak all the languages of Earth at once and it sounds of Adhan calls and merchants yelling their offers, of cars and trams and ships that create a dizzying scene that is constantly changing and always mesmerizing. Istanbul has culture and nature, it has history and religion, gastronomy and diversity, it descends from great empires and clings over two continents; it is the capital of small commerce and heaven of cats.
To truly understand and experience the soul of Istanbul, you must evade the tourist crowds, you have to get lost on its unknown streets and sip a cup of tea with the locals on the sidewalk. You have to watch the fishermen of Galata Bridge and buy lemonade from the traveling vendor. You should also watch the miniature universe of the Grand Bazaar and imagine its former glory or uncover the many legends that surround this spectacular destination. The city is somewhat like a dream that always keeps you gasping and sighing, a dream that you always wake up from right before the grand finale. It is certainly not for everyone, as some might only scratch the surface and see its faults, and it has plenty. But when you stare deep inside the soul of Istanbul, it is impossible not to lose yourself and fall in love forever.
From the height of the intricate minarets to the depths of the ancient water temple, through the rooms of the opulent sultan palaces and the streets that come alive each day and night, floating along the waves of the Bosporus or riding the little red tramway of Galata, Istanbul offers more experiences than any other destination. This veritable modern Tower of Babel caters to people of all cultures and religions. It has something for history and culture lovers, for gastronomy or adventure seekers, for those in search of the ultimate shopping spree or simply those who wish to pet the world’s friendliest cats. Visitors of this city get entangled in its web of miracles and feel the thread of time unwind as they go through each gate and door that opens in their path. I found Istanbul and its people warm and kind, welcoming travelers with a smile that seems to hide the certainty that you will love their home.
Istanbul is extremely crowded, especially during the tourist season that is longer than other places, probably starting in early March and ending in late October. There are long twisting lines of people from the four corners of the Earth in front of the main attractions, especially around Topkapi Palace, Hagia Sophia or Galata Tower. But if you wish to uncover the authentic charm of this city, take a bus or a long walk towards the less stomped streets and neighborhoods. Istanbul is also noisy and vibrantly colored, but to me this is part of its attire. You go there to open all your senses and take in every sensation and vibe it generates. One moment you are surrounded by thousands of people awed by the different temptations and aromas of the shelves and windows, and the next one you find yourself alone staring at the derelict wooden villas that tell beautiful stories of past glory. You are constantly drawn by an invisible force to keep exploring one more street or one more shop, to enter another mosque or try one more delight.
Unfortunately, there is never enough time to see and do everything Istanbul has to offer. No travel guide seems to capture all the experiences and little gems it hides away. I stayed for a full four days and walked for more than 80 km, but still feel there is so much more to discover and take in. A first visit to Istanbul can only open Pandora’s Box and make you addicted to the unique life of this destination. It will make you wish to plan another visit, feeling there is still a treasure waiting to be uncovered, a new sensation to learn. Istanbul might not be loved by all who get to see it, but those that like it will feel a connection deeper than any other place on Earth. It was certainly the most alive and exciting city I’ve ever visited, the most ethnically and culturally diverse destination, a place of deep contrasts and strong emotions…