You can’t turn a corner in Istanbul without history bursting off its buildings. Because of this it’s also almost impossible not to fall head over heels for this charming city where worlds once collided. From the Greeks, Latin crusaders, and Christians to the Ottomans, Istanbul survived siege after siege, victories which are reflected in its culture today. Most people would write about marvelling at Istanbul’s majestic mosques, reminisce about savouring their succulent kebabs or share stories about bargain hunting in grand bazaar. But, I’m going to tell you all the quirky things that made me appreciate every minute I got to spend there.
1. Two Continents
While most articles and blog posts will mention the fact that this city collides with two continents, Asia and Europe, it’s impossible not to mention when discussing Istanbul’s quirks as it is the main reason for the cities palpable diversity. Istanbul is the worlds only city to straddle two continents and it’s not until you’re there that you realise how bizarre it is. One minute you’re having lunch in Europe looking towards Asia, and the next you’re having lunch in Asia, facing Europe. Mind blown.
2. Dogs For Days
One thing I noticed is that Istanbul has quite a large amount of stray dogs roaming its streets. What’s great is the local’s attitudes towards these strays as it’s not uncommon to see a dish of water and a bowl of dry food in most apartment building doorways and businesses. What’s particularly brilliant is instead of putting them down, the government has a Trap Tag and Release program where the dogs are captured, vaccinated, fixed and then rereleased. And it’s not just dogs. Throughout Istanbul it’s also common to see cats lying in the middle of the road or lapping up milk left for them by their adopted neighbourhoods.
3. Tournaments Over Tea
While Istanbul’s cuisine is as diverse as its heritage one thing that’s all-embracing is how seriously the locals take tea. Istanbul is crawling with coffee houses (kahvehans) and tea gardens (çay bahçesis) serving traditional Turkish tea which is typically strong and served black. Yet, what’s most bizarre is that they’re normally accompanied by crowds of men with no women in sight. Although women are not forbidden it appears as though these are ‘men only’ hangouts. What’s brilliant about it is that they crowd the cafes playing board games such as backgammon and rummy, (known as ‘okey’) while they socialise over copious cups of tea. Its great to see such a sociable community bonding as ages range across the spectrum.
4. Flags Flying High
If you’re walking the streets of Istanbul one thing that really stands out is the number of Turkish flags scattered around. During my stay, Istanbul was celebrating the anniversary of the failed military coup that occurred in 2016 and there was an abundance of flags because of it. The friend I was staying with at the time said they would most likely stay up. While a lot were put up by the government many were hung proudly from homes and business. It’s clear from the get to the locals are very patriotic and naturally, speak very highly of their country.
5. Digital Detox
With an increasing number of cities offering free Wifi throughout their public spaces and transportation systems, it’s often assumed that we can get online wherever we go. However, while I was in Istanbul I found it challenging to connect to open networks – alarmingly even McDonalds didn’t offer free internet access. While at first, this bothered me as I wanted to use Google Maps and other transportation apps, it allowed me to wander around the city freely and discover things by chance. If you’re on a tight schedule and want to get from one attraction to another as quickly as possible then it might be worth buying a local SIM card and some data. But, if you have time to stroll around and take in what the city has to offer simply by allowing yourself to get lost, then Istanbul’s lack of Wifi is surprisingly welcomed.
Check out this quick video which highlights my short (but sweet) trip to Istanbul.