With an 11-day break from classes (apparently Easter warrants nearly two weeks of celebrations, me encanta España) I finally had a chance to check the two top cities off of my Most-Want-to-Visit list: London and Istanbul. These two titans of European travel topped my list for nearly polar opposite reasons. London seemed to be an obligatory stop. I’ve swirled Chiantis in Rome, savored croissants in Paris, devoured tapas in Madrid and danced the day away in Barcelona. It was about time I paid homage to the most visited city in the world and got my fish ‘n chips on in London.
Istanbul, on the other hand, was the slow-burning obsession of my travel bug. The city represented everything I crave about international travel: utter newness, total uniqueness, vast history and, of course, fantastic food. Not to mention in my unscientific poll of travel-lovers (aka asking everyone I met), more people raved about Istanbul than any other city. To say I was stoked would be a slight understatement.
My 10-day Easter adventure was split almost exactly in half: four and a half days in England, followed by four and a half days in Turkey. In hindsight, I had booked the perfect cultural comparison. First I would explore the birthplace of Protestantism and modern Western culture, then the epicenter of ancient power and Islamic conquest. And after strolling each massive metropolis, tasting it’s flavors, touring it’s treasures and talking to it’s people, there is no question that if I was booking a return trip, Istanbul would be at the top of my ticket. Here’s why:
1. Flower beds? Try flower murals.
As far as flowers go, London doesn’t do too shabby. St. James Park near Buckingham Palace features immaculately maintained beds of bright yellow buds and rosy red petals. But from the moment I boarded my bus from the Sabiha Gökçen airport on Istanbul’s Asian side, I was greeted with the most magnificent display of flower landscaping I’ve ever witnessed. Huge swirls of bright pink and purple flowers decorated the hills lining the highway. Abstract murals of shrubs and buds flowed past the bus window all the way into Istanbul.
Inside the city the flowers were even more impressive. At Topkapi Palace a thick blanket of purple flowers enveloped one courtyard in the sweet perfume of spring. Intertwining circles of forget-me-nots turned Gulhane Park into a living work of art. And outside the Hagia Sophia, vibrant rows of tulips filled geometric designs to create the multi-leveled adornments of a cascading fountain. The moto of Istanbul’s seriously skilled landscapers seemed to be “why build beds, when you can create murals?!?”
2. Tea Time, Aladdin-Style
The English may have cornered the market on traditional tea time, but the Turkish have taken tea to the next level. Clear glass vases of piping-hot Turkish tea are confined to no specified time, no organized location and no particular occasion. Tea makers are constantly scurrying throughout Istanbuls cramped and winding streets delivering trays of tea and lumps of sugar to shopkeepers, bazaar-stand workers and tiny stool-sitting customers. In Istanbul, tea (or çay, pronounced ‘chai’) comes in two flavors: Turkish and Apple. The former is an amber brown, bitter tea while the latter is light yellow and, as a friend described it to me, “sweeter than a jolly rancher.” Both are fabulous as are the perfectly palm-shaped glasses they are served in.
3. Treasure Hunting
In London, the treasures of the city are prominently displayed, whether it’s historical heirlooms in the British Museum, adorable and affordable styles in Primark or the queen’s crown jewels in the Tower of London. But in the chaos of Istanbul, the marvels of the city take a bit more searching to discover. For me, the treasure hunting began in the Grand Bazaar, a nearly 600-year old labyrinth of 60 streets-worth of shops, stands and stalls selling everything from Genie-style oil lamps to handwoven cashmere scarves.
The true treasure, in my flavor-obsessed opinion, is two stops down the tram line at the Spice Bazaar, or as I have re-named it, Heaven. Picture this: a web of arched streets packed with people and overflowing with every color of spice, every type of Turkish delight, every scent of dried tea leaves and every variety of dried fruit. Istanbul sampled it’s way into my heart as I tasted my way down the streets of the Spice Bazaar. Two days of treasure hunting yielded two more items to add to my list of favorite foods: walnut-stuffed dried Turkish figs and roasted pistachio and pomegranate-honey Turkish delight.
4. Energizing (Not Incapacitating) Breakfasts
English breakfasts — with their sausage, ham, bacon, fried eggs, baked beans and buttery toast — may sound good on paper, but after polishing off that heaping pile of goodness, the only thing I want on my day’s agenda is a nice long nap. Delish? Absolutely. Conducive to exploring a new city? No way.
On the contrary, the typical Turkish breakfast — tomato, cucumber, tangy yogurt, feta-like cheese and bread — made for an unexpectedly invigorating start to a long day of mosque-ogling and treasure hunting. While it’s a far cry from what I typically think of as breakfast food, the fresh and flavorful vegetables paired with the salty cheese and flaky rolls were satisfyingly filling, yet delightfully light.
5. Street Food
I now have a whole new appreciation for street food. While Spain’s street-side roasted chestnuts are tasty, they don’t hold a candle to Istanbul’s sesame-covered simit (picture a thin, breadier bagel) or perfectly charred lamb kebaps.
6. The Thames Ain’t Got Nothin on the Bosphorus
When it comes to city-dividing bodies of water, the Bosphorus Strait can’t be beat. Not only does it hold the trump card on the awesomeness scale of separating two continents, the Bosphorus is also magnificently teal-blue, is spanned by breathtaking bridges (especially when they are lit up at night) and bordered by an elaborate Sultan’s palace and stunning modern mansions. My day-long cruise up the Bosphorus to the Black Sea was easily one of the highlights of my trip.
7. Top-of-the-World Views
Just steps away from the Blue Mosque’s walls there is a unassuming doorway with an understated sign reading “teras” in neon letters. Four flights above that is the top of the world. Moments before the dusk call to prayer rang out over Istanbul, I stepped out onto the rooftop terrace of Mimar Sinan Cafe. What greeted me was easily the most spectacular view I saw on my entire trip. Stretching out in all directions wast the behemoth city of Istanbul. Directly in front of me the newly-built skyscrapers on the Asian side disappeared into the clouds . To the right the spires of Istanbul’s most famous mosques encircled the ancient city. On the left sparkling bridges held the city, and with it two continents, together. Behind me the intimidating domes of the Blue Mosque lit up as the light faded from the sky. In that moment, I was on top of the world.