Istanbul is one of those cities where, if you don’t understand the history behind it, you’re left scratching your head. Architecturally, it’s a huge mash-up that tells the story of the city’s past. Back when I was in university, we had a project in architecture studio where we made architecture collages. The first person got a blank board and a name of a building, and they built a model of that building. They passed the board to the next person who got another random building, and they had to find a way to integrate that into what had already been built. The board was passed again, and the last person had to add in another architectural component. The final result was weird and interesting because each collage was a confusing mix of different architectural styles, and if you didn’t understand the project, you would have stood there wondering what crazy person put the models together. Similarly, if you don’t understand the story behind Istanbul’s growth and development, the architecture of the city doesn’t seem to make much sense.

Let’s start from the beginning… If you look at a map, it’s obvious why Istanbul is located where it is. To the north is the Black Sea, to the south the Sea of Marmara, and right through the middle is the Bosphorus Strait, connecting the Caucasus and southeastern Europe to northern Africa and the Middle East. It’s like a trader’s dream.

The Bosphorous!

The first inhabitants of the area may have arrived as early as 3000BC, but a true city wasn’t established until the 600s BC when Greek colonists settled there because of its location. They were led by King Byzas, and in typical, modest-king fashion, he gave the city its first name, Byzantium, after himself.

Rome conquered Greece in 149BC and moved into Byzantium soon after. The Romans started to build it up into a Roman city, complete with city walls, a Roman layout, a hippodrome, and monuments to various Roman battle victories. The Roman Empire was divided in two with Rome as the western capital and the newly named “Augusta Antonina” (really rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it?) as the eastern capital.

Constantine came to power in 324AD, officially moved the capital of the Roman Empire to the city, and renamed it “Nova Roma”. He wanted to rebuild the city and fill it with epic monuments like those in Rome. After Constantine’s death in 337AD, the city was renamed Constantinople in honor of him. (The people in that city must have had a serious identity crisis from all of the name changes.)

Examples of random things you can find around the city because of its complicated past: columns, probably from Roman times, half buried in the middle of a random park in the city.

In 395, the Empire was split into Eastern and Western halves, and after the Western Empire fell, Constantinople and the Eastern Empire were still going strong. Between the time of Constantine’s rule and the eventual conquest of the city by the Crusaders in 1204, there was a lot of action. The walls were expanded, aqueducts and churches were built, and the city resisted multiple attacks by Arab conquerors. There were various revolts in the city, buildings were destroyed and rebuilt, and the emperors continued to build ever more impressive and ridiculous buildings.

In 1204, Catholic Crusaders from Italy broke through the city’s sea walls and took control. During their brief period of control and in typical Crusader fashion, they stole all sorts of items from the palaces and churches and sent them back to Rome, where many of them remain to this day.

The Romans managed to push the Crusaders out in 1261 and reclaim control of Constantinople. They never reached the strength of their former occupation and were weakened further by the repeated attacks of the Ottomans. Finally, in 1453, Sultan Mehmed II was successful in conquering the city, and Constantinople became part of the Ottoman Empire.


View overlooking the city

Over the next almost 500 years, the Ottoman Empire expanded its control across the region. The sultan was determined to rejuvenate Constantinople. He created the Grand Bazaar (a huge covered market), built palaces, mosques, bathhouses, and other public buildings, brought people from various religious backgrounds into the city to have a diverse population, and started the movement of the city towards its later status as a major cultural, political, and commercial center.


This is the Hagia Sofya. It started as a church and was converted into a mosque later. Can you see how the towers were clearly built at a different time from the rest of the building?

Following its defeat in WWI, the Ottoman Empire ceased to exist, and in 1923, the Republic of Turkey was born in its place. Within the new republic, the capital was moved to Ankara, and Constantinople started to decline. The population decreased, and parts of the city fell into disrepair.

Eventually, things started to turn around. In 1930, the city of many names became Istanbul. In the 1940s and 50s, the city’s structure was updated with the construction of new public squares and boulevards. Finally, in the 1970s, people were drawn back to Istanbul because of the many new factory jobs available on the outskirts. This led to the rapid growth of the city, turning it into a sprawling metropolitan area.

The city looks like it goes on forever…

Currently, it is the largest city in Turkey with a population of approximately 13.5 million people, and it enjoys the exclusive status of being the world’s only metropolitan area that exists on two continents (Europe and Asia).

Its complicated history makes it an even more interesting place to visit, and I had a lot of head-scratching moments as I explored and tried to figure out how everything fit together. I’ll do my best to spare you the same struggle!

Welcome to Istanbul!! I know, you were probably wondering if we were ever going to manage to leave Georgia, but we did it!

View over Istanbul

My flight landed in Istanbul after a solid 3 hours in the air… during which I was completely comatose, but it apparently didn’t make a difference because I was still exhausted when we landed. I hate feeling groggy while going through immigration and customs, but sometimes there’s only so much you can control. Before leaving the airport and attempting to navigate the long journey to my hostel, I tried to smack myself awake and pull it together the best I could (never underestimate the power of a quick face washing/tooth brushing in the airport bathroom).

From the airport, I had to take three modes of transportation. This trek was completely the result of my trying to spend as little money as possible. There are two airports in Istanbul, one on the Asia side of the city and one on the Europe side. I was staying on the Europe side, but I flew into Asia because it was way cheaper. Then, I could have gotten a pick up or a taxi from the airport, but I’m not made of money! And the less I spend, the longer I can take coming home… hehe just kidding (Mom, I’m just kidding. I promise!). Anyway, all of this led to three modes of transport: shuttle bus, funicular, and tram.

The shuttle was the longest leg of the journey, about 45 minutes, and I slept from the moment I sat down. That’s great, except then when we got to the end stop, I was completely disoriented and had no idea which way I needed to go. And it was raining, of course. I marched off confidently in some random direction until I could get oriented… at which point I turned around and marched off in the exact opposite direction. My approach to walking around strange cities: Always look like you know exactly where you’re going and what you’re doing, even if you haven’t a clue.

Long story short, I figured out where I needed to go, how to buy a transit card, etc. with my eyes at least 50% closed, and when I got to the hostel, they showed me where to drop my bags (since I was there about 6 hours before check-in) and told me to help myself to breakfast. Ah, those words were like music to my ears after spending the night eating crackers, gummies, and a variety of other travel snacks that I love but that will also lead to my slow death-by-vitamin-deficiency.

Don’t worry, I won’t bore you with the details of my breakfast (but bread and chocolate spread were obviously involved because gotta get those essential vitamins!). Instead, here are my first impressions of Istanbul (admittedly collected in more than just the hour and a half journey from the airport):

  1. Mosques – There are SO many, and they’re everywhere. And they’re seemingly always under construction, but I’ll talk about that later. I’ve been to other countries with a lot of mosques, but the ones in Istanbul are generally very welcoming to visitors which was a huge difference from places like Dubai, for example.

    The Blue Mosque, one of many, many mosques in the city
  2. Public transportation – It’s so good! And there are more modes of public transit than anywhere I’ve been. There are trams and funiculars and ferries and metros and trains and buses and probably spaceships too if you know where to look. And they’re all nice and clean and on-schedule and easy to navigate.
  3. Food – This has to be one of my favorite places, food-wise. I think I said that about Lebanon too, though, so it’s definitely a Middle-Eastern-food thing. This is the most similar to the type of food I grew up with which made me feel at home. Kind of funny because I used to hate practically all of those foods, but hey, times change. I could eat kebab and lahmajoon for every meal for the rest of my life.
    Kebab platter

    Soft serve. Yummmm
  4. Dessert – Yes, this gets its own number, separate from food. If you don’t understand already, it’s not worth my trying to explain it. Three words. Baklava. Icecream. Turkishdelights. (Okay, I should have said five words.) I usually don’t like baklava but there were a few fantastic baklava moments that happened. It’s very hard to disappoint me with ice cream, so the fact that it even exists puts it on the list. Turkish delights aren’t my personal favorite to eat, but they’re high on the list of my favorite desserts to look at.
  5. Nuts – This deserves its own number too. So much love for nuts. They’re everywhere and in EVERYTHING. Chocolate, Turkish delights, every other dessert whose names I don’t know. It’s almost impressive how many different ways they manage to use the same ingredient.
  6. Flags – There. Are. Turkish. Flags. EVERYWHERE. Honestly, it’s a little weird. Someone tried to tell me that there are a lot of flags around in the States, but this is like the U.S. on Independence Day x 100000.

    Flags. Everywhere.
  7. Flowers – I’m sure this is partly just a spring thing, but also landscaping. I have never seen SO many flowers and so many impeccably landscaped parks. I was completely obsessed because what’s better than flowers and parks? But it definitely takes a huge amount of work and maintenance for them to look like that. It’s amazing!
    Check out this park…
    They’re winning the landscape game
    This just looks so magical

    Apple tea, my new true love. There’s even a cinnamon stick in the bottom of this one!
  8. Tea – In general, I hate tea. I think it tastes like something that could maybe be good if it wasn’t so watered-down. Also, most typical flavors are kind of eh. In Istanbul, tea is a big thing, and I LOVED it. This is a significant statement coming from me. Apple tea is like <3 <3 <3. There are no words. It’s like drinking warm apple juice but better. And there’s definitely a pile of sugar in it, so that doesn’t hurt. I had some delicious pomegranate tea too, and I don’t even like pomegranates! Summary: they know what they’re doing when it comes to tea.
  9. Water – There’s nothing better than a city with a nice river… except for a city with an estuary and a strait AND a sea. You can take ferries like buses!
    On the water! On a boat!

    The estuary is coming in from the right, the Bosphorus Strait is on the left, and the Sea of Marmara is out in the distance
  10. History – Istanbul is an old and complicated place, and you can see it. There are old churches that were turned into mosques, palaces, the ruins of Roman aqueducts and city walls… the city oozes history.

I also quickly noticed that my chameleon suit worked very well there (that’s how I’ve started to think of my somewhat ethnically ambiguous appearance… often, it’s like I’m a chameleon that can kind of blend in, or at the very least can keep from standing out). I got a lot of, “You’re Turkish, right?” Thank you, chameleon suit. Which brings us to #11…

I got some Turkish ice cream which is very similar to Arabic ice cream (which I had when I was in Lebanon). It uses mastic (a resin) which helps to keep it from melting.
Also note my fake engagement ring. Hehe.
  1. Men – Aside from Ghana, this is probably the place where men have been the most forward on the street. In Armenia, other people had issues with this, but I walked around ignoring everyone, so I was generally left alone. I tried to apply my ignore strategy in Istanbul, and that just led to follow up questions about why I was ignoring them and promises that they were of good character (claims which, I would argue, were negated by the fact that they were disregarding my clear disinterest in talking to them). UGH. After about two days of it, I got so annoyed that I went and bought a fake engagement ring to wear when walking around alone. I don’t know if it made a difference, but at least it gave me a very easy “out” if someone tried talking to me, “Oh sorry, I have to go. I’m on my way to meet my husband.” I HATE having to use the “other man” shield because it’s a lie and saying “leave me alone” should be enough, but for sanity’s sake, there are some battles not worth fighting.

Okay, that’s enough for now. Get yourself excited for some history because next time, we’re going to learn alllll about just how much history Istanbul has.