Keeping an Open Mind Abroad: An Unforgettable Cultural Experience in Istanbul, Turkey

Written by John March 5, 2014

From the record-time it took us to make it through the airport to board our plane as the gate was closing, to the plethora of beautiful mosques and important historical sights scattered throughout the city, to haggling in the Grand Bazaar with stubborn merchants, to traveling between continents in the same day, to some interesting decisions we made; the best way to describe my trip to Istanbul is as an adventure.  Within that context are many more words that come to mind such as unique, different, fascinating, historic, intriguing, and lucky.

Sometimes it’s best to just bite the bullet.  I am speaking about paying the extra money to book a taxi to take you to the airport.  CIMBA reserves travel buses to take us to the airport, but the bus was scheduled to leave campus at 5:30 pm and our flight was at 7:00pm.  Paderno del Grappa is slightly over an hour from the airport, so taxi rides cost about 80 euro.  Therefore, when taxi rides are necessary, a group of 8 or so students book a group taxi to save some money.  In this case, Seamus (my travel companion for the weekend) and I opted to wait until 4:45pm to take an 8 person taxi and save some money.  Oh, and when I said our flight was at 7:00pm, I meant that the plane departure time was at 7:00pm!  We did not realize this until about halfway through the cab ride and knew that we had booked an uncomfortably short time window.  It did not help that the taxi driver decided to drive the speed limit (for the first time) so we did not arrive at the airport until 6:10pm!  We sprinted from the taxi to the check-in counter and were greeted by bewildered flight staff for Turkish Airlines who began to frantically make phone calls because the flight was full.  We then sprinted to the longest security line I have experienced in Europe and knew there was no way we were making the flight…unless we jumped to the front.  A short awkward conversation and a couple upset Italian travelers later, we were through security and running towards passport check-in. By now, it was 6:36pm (I still remember the exact time) and we were worried the gate was going to be closed.  Through passport control, we continued to rush to the gate. I am no runner and was holding my carry-on bag so by now I was feeling the exertion.  We arrived just as the flight attendants were closing the gate, promptly found our seats, and fist-bumped to celebrate our achievement.  Our trip to Istanbul was officially underway!

Our plane ticket said that we were to arrive in Istanbul at 10:25pm, but when we touched down at the airport my watch claimed it to only be 9:25pm. After an embarrassing 15 minutes of confusion, I realized it was because Turkey’s time zone is 1 hour ahead of Italy’s time zone,  meaning Turkish time is 7 hours ahead of U.S. time.  We had to purchase Visa’s in the airport because we were outside the EU and exchange Euro for Turkish Lira.  It is almost 3 TL per 1 Euro so the exchange rate was in our favor.  A cab drove us to our hostel which was located near Istiklal Street, the nightlife hub of the city that leads to Taksim Square and is a short distance from the historic center.  We walked around for a bit and called it an early night to be well rested for Thursday.

Thursday we arose early, bought an Istanbul card (a must!) for the public transportation system, and headed to the historical area.  First stop on our list was the Topkapi Palace.  Topkapi Palace is like going to the Louvre in Paris.  While many people associate Paris to the Eiffel Tower, they know they are missing out if they do not see the Louvre as well.  The Topkapi Palace operated during the times of the Ottoman Empire and houses invaluable relics from the Muslim world.   Among the highlights that we saw were Moses’ staff, King David’s sword, Muhammed’s cloak, sword, and even beard hair!  There were also many exhibits displaying the riches acquired by the Ottoman Empire as well as traditional clothes worn by the kings.  The Kings’ robes were enormous so I feel it is safe to say that one of the requirements to be an Ottoman king was to be spatially gifted!  The palace also housed the Imperial Harem where the Sultan (what the Turks called their kings) could visit his many wives and concubines.  I noticed that the interior decoration consisted of intricate tiles covering every inch of the walls.  I overheard a tour guide tell his group that the cost for a single tile during the time the palace was built is slightly over $10,000 today!  Talk about excessive wealth!

From the palace, we enjoyed the ridiculously inexpensive Turkish cuisine.  For only 4TL, we were able to purchase chicken kebabs that were tasty and filling.  We then toured the archeology museum which I found added to the experience of being in Istanbul because it illustrated the East meets West history of the city and gave historical context.  Next we went to the world famous Sultan Ahmed Mosque. Does not ring a bell?  How about the Blue Mosque?  The Sultan Ahmed Mosque is the Turkish name for the mosque.  Only travelers call it the Blue Mosque because of the blue tinge of its architecture.  The mosque is still an active worship center and we were required to take our shoes off before entering.  Those wishing to worship in the mosque must bathe their feet, hands, neck, face, and hair in the public fountains before entering.  Cleanliness for prayer is a core belief in the Islam faith.  The Blue Mosque was breathtaking and unlike Catholic churches, it was carpeted.  Outside the Blue Mosque, we snapped some pictures and I snapped one picture of Seamus walking on his hands to which a Muslim Turkish man immediately identified us as Americans.  Looking back, it was quite a stereotypical American thing to do… Anyway, the Muslim man, Omar, was friendly and gave us a brief history lesson about the Blue Mosque!  He informed us that we were fortunate to have visited on a Thursday, because Friday is the Muslim day of prayer and access to the mosque is severely limited due to worshippers.  Keep this in mind if you plan to travel to a predominantly Muslim nation!

Interior of the beautiful Blue Mosque!

Spectacular interior of the Blue Mosque!

Seamus and I outside the Blue Mosque

Bro pic with the Blue Mosque in the background

Next, we walked a short distance to visit the Hagia Sophia.  The Hagia Sophia is another well-known international attraction.  It was originally a Greek orthodox basilica that was transformed into a mosque and is now the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  I found the history of the Hagia Sophia to be much more exciting than the actual building.  The name, Hagia Sophia, literally translates to “Holy Wisdom”.  It was first built in 360 AD during the Roman Empire, but was converted into a mosque in the 1400s following the defeat of the Roman forces holding the city.  Both the Sultan Ahmed Mosque and the Hagia Sophia tower over the landscape of historic Istanbul offering quite the exceptional view.

From the Hagia Sophia, we headed to the Grand Bazaar determined to fit the entire Old City into 1 day.  The Grand Bazaar is a famous market in Istanbul with hundreds of shops and vendors selling all kinds of local goods.  Seriously, it seemed to be never ending rows of brightly colored stalls and pastry shops.  A key tip for the Grand Bazaar is to haggle, haggle, and haggle some more!  We witnessed countless tourists accepting the first prices they were offered which were much more than they should have paid.  Seamus and I purchased two shirts for half the price after some intense haggling.  The language barrier made it even more fun…. at least I thought it did!

Grand Bazaar!

One of the millions of shopping streets in the Grand Bazaar!

This is where we made our first interesting decision.  On our way back to the hostel from the Grand Bazaar, we stopped in a travel agency just to see if there were any day trips we could take on Saturday.  Instead, we saw a flyer for a “traditional Turkish Night” cruise on the Bosphorus River for that night.  It was a reasonable cost and featured traditional Turkish dances as well as an open buffet (and open bar 🙂 )so we signed up!  The cruise was what I expected and more.  We were welcomed onto the boat and handed Raki drinks.  Raki is a strong Turkish alcohol that is served in a tall glass with water that makes it appear murky.  It is not the most pleasant taste, but we are always on a quest to taste as many local dishes as possible so we dutifully consumed our beverages.  When we seated at our assigned seats, we discovered that we were sitting next to the only other two Americans on board: a couple of army guys stationed in Germany.  It was comfortable having other Americans on board and throughout the night we chatted.  Before the boat even left the dock, they opened the buffet line and the smorgasbord began!  During the feast, we were served Turkish wine and beer.  In my opinion, their wine paled in comparison to Italy’s delicious vineyard selections, but the Turkish beer was surprisingly delicious! It was a light beer, but tasted very rich.  Finally, the shows began!  We were treated to a lineup of traditional Turkish dances ranging from gypsy dances to belly dancing to a strange skit where they dress up in costumes and engage with the audience.  The cruise also hosted a magic show and live music.  The magician liked to incorporate the Americans in his skit and I was chosen for some of the more embarrassing parts.  No complaints though because it allowed for some sweet pictures and made the night even more entertaining!  The boat pulled back into dock at midnight.  We and the army guys decided to walk around Isiklal Street for a bit before turning in for the night.  It had been a fantastic Thursday and we were so happy that we decided to sign up for the night cruise at the spur of the moment.

Raki drinks on the cruise!

A round of Raki to start the Turkish cruise!

Traditional Turkish skit with the full-body bags!

One of the full-body costumes from the traditional Turkish skit!

Friday we journeyed to another continent: Asia.  Turkey is a unique country in that it spans two continents: Europe and Asia.  Istanbul is an even more unique city because it also spans those two continents!  For an unbelievably small amount, less than 1 euro, we hopped on a ferry that brought us to the Asian side.  Although the Asian side of Istanbul does not have the impressive sights as does the European side, we found that it still possessed a few hidden gems.  We walked into town and stumbled upon a large open market.  The market contained all sorts of knock off products for pennies on the dollar as well as even more delicious pastry shops and fresh food stalls.  We stopped a few times in these stalls to taste their Baklava (the typical Turkish dessert) and honey pastries.  It appeared to me that every Turkish pastry incorporated honey in some way…good thing I like honey!  For lunch, we chose to have another cultural experience and eat a fresh fish that  we had never eaten previously.  As we were deciding what to eat, we saw a slimy thing hanging from a fish stall and identified it as an octopus.  Immediately, we knew we had to taste it.  We stopped at a fish restaurant next to the fish markets and pointed to the octopus (because they had no idea what we were saying, language barrier problems).  I witnessed them pick out a fresh octopus, clean it, cut it up, and cook it.  Fresh seafood for sure! It was served in a salad and was much tastier than I expected.  Its texture was similar to that of grilled calamari, but I felt the octopus had a nicer flavor  The coolest part was that this delicacy only cost us about $5 U.S. each!   For the rest of the day, we shopped, ate some more Turkish pastries, drank the Turkish tea, and searched for a fruit juicer. Yep, a fruit juicer.  In Istanbul, there were many street vendors selling chestnuts, corn, sweets, and juice.  The juice was the best and was fresh squeezed in front of the customer from fruit on the cart.  The vendor used a manual juicer that perfectly squeezed the fruit every time so we decided we wanted one as well for back home in the States!  After searching for hours, we finally found one at a small store.  Unfortunately, as we were about to purchase it, the store owner noticed it was broken so we did not buy it.  Still, I am glad we searched for it because our search led us into the less traveled streets of the Asian side of Turkey and brought us past many pastry shops where we had to take a break and taste of course!

Octopus Salad on the Asian side of Istanbul

My new favorite seafood appetizer: Octopus Salad!

Friday evening we made it a goal to meet our hostel mates and explore Istanbul’s nightlife. We met some really interesting guys from Germany, England, Spain, and Argentina as well as some cool girls from France and Switzerland.  The best part about traveling in a small group is that it forces you to meet new people.  A neat part about traveling to Turkey was that the European students were tourists just like us!  We were outside the EU so they also had to adjust to a completely new environment.  A Turkish guide from our hostel took us all out to Isiklal street and we had a great time dancing the night away to Turkish pop (it’s a music genre…youtube it!) and songs from all over the world.  At one point in the night, the club we were at even played “The Twist” by Chubby Checker, much to the Turkish crowd’s delight!  I really enjoyed the place we were at because there were people from all over the world dancing together and having a good time.  We met some girls from Romania, I met a cool dude from Argentina who taught me how to dance, we met Brazilians, Bulgarians, Turks, etc. You name a country and most likely at some point in the night someone was at the club from that country.

Isiklal Street at Night!

Nightlife on Isiklal Street!

Saturday we chose to do a day trip to see some local spots off the tourist path. We spoke with our hostel owner and he informed us of a beautiful neighborhood named Bebek.  He gave us general directions to reach the neighborhood and we set out.  As we were about to board the bus to take us to the neighborhood, we met South Korean travelers and saw that they planned to visit an interesting looking Ottoman castle.  We decided to tag along.  Unfortunately, our tourist friends knew about as much as we did about what bus stop to get off of so we did not get off the bus until the final stop.  We were near a university and asked a student where to go and he pointed us in two directions.  That was the first sign we might not make it there.  After an hour of walking down towards the coast, the South Koreans lost hope and went to Starbucks. Seamus and I continued to walk down the coast until we came upon an outdoor gym.  We decided to cut our losses and fit in a short outdoor workout then get something to eat. Hands down it was the most exotic place I have exercised in my life.  Following the short workout, we ventured back into the town and realized that we were in Bebek!  The neighborhood where we had wanted to go originally!  The neighborhood was pure wealth.  We saw more BMWs, Mercedes, and Audis than any other vehicle as well as a slew of Porsches, Ferrari’s, and customized vehicles.  All the houses were walled off, had their own security personnel, and had amazing views of the beautiful Bosphorus River.  The only trouble occurred when we had to return home and did not know which bus to take and no one spoke English!  We ended up jumping on a random bus and fortunately it took us to the correct stop!

Outdoor gym on the Bosphorus coast in Bebek

Our outdoor workout area on the Bosphorus Coast!

Saturday evening we still had a lot of Turkish Lira to spend so we went to eat at a restaurant that a local claimed to be the best local eatery in Istanbul.  The restaurant style was such that we were able to see all the food behind the counter and then choose which food we wanted to eat.  As we were ordering our food, my eyes came upon a plate that had a peculiar yet recognizable object on it.  Further justification with the server confirmed my suspicion…it was a brain!  To be exact, it was a lamb brain, but still not something you see everyday in America.  As different and non-appetizing as it appeared, we knew we had to taste it.  Without thinking, I ordered a piece and we brought it back to our table.  Ordering it was much easier than actually putting it in my mouth.  Just as I was about to back out of the challenge to taste it, Seamus popped half in his mouth and my pride made me pop the other half in my mouth.  I know, gross right?  Well, it actually was not THAT bad.  If I did not know what I was eating it may have been even better.  It was DEFINITELY a cultural experience and probably the first that I do not see myself repeating!  Later that night, we met up with our hostel friends and went to a popular Erasmus hangout.  Erasmus is a European student exchange program and I believe going to popular Erasmus places at night is the most fun because you meet Europeans from all over.  Once again, we danced the night away having the time of our lives meeting students from every country and picking up a few tips and tricks for each country.

We slept in on Sunday, bought some souvenirs, and made sure to be at the airport well ahead of time.  It had been another unforgettable weekend and I will miss the friends we made in the hostel.  I really enjoyed Istanbul because it taught me that everyone is alike in some way, regardless of their religious, cultural, or political background.  I discovered that, as long as you keep an open-mind and are willing to embrace the culture, traveling to a different country, such as Turkey, can be the greatest travel experience you will have while studying abroad.  I am not saying eat a brain by any means, but I am advocating meeting the people in your hostel, talking to locals to find out the best places to stray off the beaten path, and tasting new foods that you may not have in your own country.

Wow!  It seems that I  wrote a book, but still feel that I left so much out.  Istanbul is one of those places that you have to experience first-hand to really get the full effect.  Time to wrap up this blog post.  Check back next week for updates from my second coaching session, our second formal dinner, and a weekend trip to the historic Italian cities of Padova and Bologna!