Sisters sightsee in Istanbul
When I first told people that I was planning a week-long trip to Istanbul, I got a lot of strange looks. “Why?” was the first thing people usually asked, followed directly by, “Is it safe?”
And I get it: Turkey isn’t at the top of most people’s bucket list of places to visit, and the country has made international news in a bad way plenty of times over the years. Just like any country, some places in Turkey are safer than others, and research is required to figure out which areas are safe for tourists and what areas to avoid. To answer the question: Yes, Istanbul is safe. The only time I felt remotely threatened was when a swarm of seagulls descended on a fishing operation along the Bosporus while we were taking a break nearby. That will forever haunt my dreams.
As for “why,” I cited the usual reasons: The history, the culture, the food. The truth is that I missed the act of traveling and longed to get out of my comfort zone again.
Traveling comes almost as second nature to me: I was lucky enough to travel a lot with my family when I was growing up and my two sisters and we all caught the bug. Our family groupchat is largely used to keep track of each other, since my sisters and I are very rarely in the same timezone.
At 24 years old, I’ve been to 19 countries outside of the U.S. and at least twice as many cities. Admittedly, some of these were only for 12 hours or so (looking at you, England and South Korea), but I did get a chance to venture out and explore. (I have no idea what the number would be if I included places I just stopped in for a connecting flight.)
There are many ways to travel and I’ve tried most of them — but my favorite trips by-far have been alongside my older sister, Megan. We’re about a year-and-a-half apart in age and have been close for as long as I can remember, and of the three of us, she caught the travel bug the hardest.
Megan is an elementary school teacher and spends the majority of the school year planning for one big trip in the summer and leaves an open invitation for me and our younger sister, Abby, to join her. Last year it was Peru; the year before, it was the Philippines. This year, it was Turkey.
I wasn’t able to tag along to Peru last year because I was just starting my job at the Hood River News, but this year, I was able to slip away from the office to join Megan for the first part of her month-long trip: A week in Istanbul. (Abby was just getting back from a school trip to China, so she decided to stay put for a bit).
Just as the seagulls ruled Istanbul’s skies and waters, the streets belonged to the cats (I greatly preferred them over the seagulls). It seemed like every corner we turned, there was another stray cat — clean and well fed, just hanging out like any house cat. Once, sitting down to eat at an outdoor cafe, we pulled out our chairs to sit down only to find they were already occupied by sleeping kittens.
Unbeknownst to me at the time, cats are venerated in Islam, and the cats of Istanbul have been respected and cared for by the city’s people throughout history. The city’s stray dogs are well cared for as well, often seen lounging around in tourist spots.
Walking back to our hostel late one night, as the last call to prayer of the day was being sung, a group of dogs resting beside the Hagia Sophia started howling along.
A lifelong Catholic living in the U.S., this trip was my first real experience with Islam and Islamic culture, and though a lot of it was foreign to me on a surface level, so much of its core was familiar.
The dress code for entering mosques, even some museums housing religious artifacts, did take some getting used to: Everyone was required to remove their shoes and dress modestly, and girls had to cover their heads — but all the religious sites we visited provided scarves and robes for tourists who came unprepared.
The place I was most excited to see in Istanbul was the Hagia Sophia, a building I had studied briefly back in college. Built more than 1,500 years ago as a Greek Orthodox cathedral and converted into a mosque when Constantinople fell, Hagia Sophia now sits as a museum and a testament to the city’s tumultuous history.
The golden Christian mosaics characteristic of Byzantine art, plastered over when the church was converted, have been excavated and now shine alongside the Islamic calligraphy adorning the walls, beneath the dome that revolutionized architecture when it was first built.
Like the Hagia Sophia, Istanbul is where European and Middle Eastern cultures meet, and blend together into something new. There would be times walking the cobblestone streets that I could almost make myself believe I was back in Vienna or Madrid, until we walked past a bustling bazaar or heard one of the day’s five calls to prayer ring out across the vast city.
The food, too, was a blend of east and west in the best possible way. The best meal I had, without a doubt, was the traditional Turkish breakfast — kahvalti: A full spread of breads, jams, cheeses, honey, olives, yogurt, eggs, a variety of dips and as much tea as you can drink, meant to be experienced slowly and shared with people you care about.
Sharing a long meal with my sister, I was reminded, as I am in each new place I visit, that people are pretty much the same everywhere: Everyone likes to share quality time, and food, with the people they love.