Cats, palaces and sweet tea in Istanbul


I’m moving away from my usual “huge photo dump and day-by-day recap” type of travel posts, because A) no one wants to read about someone else’s trips with that much detail, and B) they are also pretty tiring to write — not to mention the fact that it also takes a lot of time to copy/paste the URL of each image from my Flickr album.

So from now on, my travel blogs are going to be mostly about feels, observations and memories, along with reviews of specific hotels, tour operators, and other travel experiences.

At the end of June, I went to Istanbul with my family for four days. As mentioned, most of us got Covid in the immediate aftermath of that trip. Fortunately, during the time that we were in Istanbul, we were healthy and hungry. It was honestly a great time.

Some things that surprised me about Istanbul

Although I had previously spent two very long layovers at Istanbul airport, this was my first time actually visiting the country, which recently changed its official English name to Türkiye. This was also only my second trip to the Middle East, after visiting Israel and Palestine in 2019.

The first surprise for me was that Istanbul itself was not super English-friendly. Vendors and restaurant staff in the most touristy areas can usually communicate in English, of course. It was mostly that signs, store displays, mostly everything that I saw in public was in Turkish only. I tried three times to navigate the machines for buying public transportation tickets, and even though there was an English option, the words on the menu didn’t make any sense. There was one day where we had to walk 2 hours back to our hotel because we couldn’t figure out how to buy tickets for the boat or the tram, and when we tried to ask the staff or people around us for help, we couldn’t manage to communicate with anyone — major fail on our part.

The second surprise was how male the public sphere seemed to be. After I came back from Istanbul, I was talking to a colleague who is Turkish. She asked which neighborhood I’d stayed in; I said Fatih. Then she said, “Did you notice how most of the women there wear the hijab? It’s a very conservative area.” This surprised me, because as a matter of fact, I had barely noticed any women in Fatih at all. The majority of women I saw there were clearly tourists. Everywhere I went, hotels, restaurants, tourist sites, shops, etc — more than 90% of the employees were men.

The third surprise was that I experienced no harassment or leering of any kind. When I travel solo, regardless of whether I’m in Europe or the United States, I mentally prepare myself for catcalling, especially the type that is racially tinged. Aside from hosts outside restaurants inviting me to dine in, I found absolutely no unwanted attention in Istanbul. Of course, I was with my family, which might have made a significant difference. But I also want to note that no one found it noteworthy that we were a family of Asians; there was no jeering, no ching chong and the like. People on the street didn’t look at us twice, which was refreshing.

What I loved

First of all, I loved how much Turkish people love tea. Everywhere we went, we were served the same type of black tea in a tulip-shaped glass, with a sugar cube on the side. People didn’t even ask if we wanted tea; they just brought it out automatically, and it was on the house. Before I left, I went to a local supermarket and bought a big bag of tea leaves to take home.


The street cats of Istanbul (kedi) are also well-known around the world. Sure enough, I saw cats everywhere — mostly a bit skinny and scraggly, but clearly fed by the locals and not at all afraid of humans.

Cat near the Blue Mosque.
Cat near the Grand Bazaar.
Cats in Balat.
Cats near a Chinese restaurant.
Cat outside Topkapi Palace.
Cat outside the Hagia Sophia.

I found people in Istanbul to be really hospitable and friendly, especially at the hotel we stayed at (unfortunately I can’t disclose the name of the hotel; it’ll make sense in a sec). After we checked in, the hotel manager — who was very handsome and bore a remarkable resemblance to Oscar Isaac — brought us tea. Then he just started chatting with us. He warned us about a common street scam, in which a charismatic stranger starts a conversation with you and then invites you to accompany them to a specific restaurant or cafe, at which the prices will be greatly inflated, and thugs will suddenly emerge if you refuse to pay. He asked us about American politics. “Here in Turkey,” he told us, “people really liked Trump, because they thought he was totally crazy!” I had to laugh because I’ve heard the exact same thing from people from multiple other countries.

The next morning, the guy who was working the breakfast shift wandered over to shoot the shit with us. He mentioned that he was from a north African country, and I asked him if he spoke French. “I speak very good French,” he replied. We began chatting in French, and the guy — who looked to be no older than mid-20s — told me that he was fluent in six languages, and could also understand Turkish. He had left his home country due to the lack of opportunities and jobs there for young people, had come to Turkey on a tourist visa, and was now technically working at the hotel illegally. “And now, are you happy?” I asked. “Well, I wouldn’t say I’m happy,” he said. “But it’s better than before. One must always have hope.”

Thoughts on popular tourist attractions

The Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque are on opposite sides of the same square, so they can be visited at the same time. Both require visitors to be dressed conservatively and to remove shoes upon entering. At the Blue Mosque, there’s a booth that will loan you a free headscarf and skirt (apparently the guy thought my knee-length skirt wasn’t long enough). At the Hagia Sophia, they will charge for the rental. I bought a beautiful pashmina scarf from a nearby vendor for 200 liras, or around 12 USD — I know I could have haggled, but honestly I just didn’t care to. As a tourist coming from a place of privilege, I don’t think it’s unfair for me to pay a bit of a “tourist tax,” as long as it’s not exorbitant by the standards of where I live.

The ceiling of the Blue Mosque was under renovation.
The Hagia Sophia was large and impressive.

There was a museum nearby called the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts. It had amazing reviews on Google, but in reality it was a total bust — most of the exhibits were closed, and what was on display was very limited.

We also visited the nearby Topkapi Palace, where the Ottoman sultans used to live. This was a big, sprawling compound of gardens and royal apartments and very nice views of the Bosphorus. I would recommend getting a ticket that includes the harem; even though most of the rooms are now empty, the rooms that belonged to the sultan were very luxurious.

The sultan’s hookah room or whatever? I forget. This was not one of the “nice” rooms, as the top-tier rooms did not allow photography.

Aesthetically, I prefer the Alhambra in Granada, Spain to Topkapi Palace. Still, it’s a nice place to chill and people-watch on a summer day.


At my mother’s insistence, we went to an Instagram-famous neighborhood called Balat. It’s sort of the old Jewish quarter of Istanbul, though on Instagram it’s more known for a set of vibrant rainbow-colored steps in front of which influencers like to pose.

Here’s what the place looks like online:


And here’s what it looks like in reality:


Balat is built on a steep hill. Half of it is hipster cafes, souvenir shops and Instagram murals. The other half is run-down, sometimes even abandoned buildings and heaps of garbage. The difference was jarring. I don’t really understand the desire to stand in line to get a photo “for the Gram,” but clearly many people feel differently.


Along the banks of the river, we found many people and families relaxing and enjoying their Sunday afternoon.



Prior to this trip, I wasn’t that excited about Turkish food. I had flown Turkish Airlines previously for work and also eaten at the business class lounge at Istanbul airport, and I hadn’t loved the meals. Even though it was eclectic, it also felt — a bit bland, I think? It seemed that everything was either deep-fried or super sweet.

I did like the food in Istanbul much more. There’s one particular restaurant that I think is definitely worth the hype. It’s called Old House Restaurant Terrace (Google Maps), and my father had found it while doing some research on our itinerary. It’s just a few minutes’ walk from the Blue Mosque, and the rooftop has fantastic views. The food was excellent as well, though I wouldn’t strongly recommend that specialty cuisine where the meat is cooked in a clay jar — I tried a bit, and the taste was pretty bland.

Amazing view. Hagia Sophia on one side, the sea on the other.

Needless to say, I’ll be coming back to Türkiye.

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