Wow. In most of my travels recently, I’ve gotten to a new country and needed a day to adjust and transition. I’m usually feeling sad about leaving the last place and saying goodbye to new friends while I try to adjust to the good and bad differences of my new “home.” Sometimes I don’t have a great first impression, then I scratch beneath the surface, meet the people, and usually ended up liking each place after all.
But I fell in love with Istanbul the moment my taxi dropped me off in the old town. On my first night, I went out, had a beer, ate with brand new friends, and even spoke with some expats about finding a job here. I always know if I like a city if I still drag my ass out at night even after a long, jet-lag-inducing day on a plane. I did the same thing in Hong Kong—another city I really liked. Istanbul had cast its spell on me in about thirty minutes.
The old quarter is quintessentially just that—it has that old European vibe with narrow medieval, cobblestone streets full of bars and cafes that spill out onto the sidewalk. The night air swells with the sounds of clinking glasses, romantic whispers, and laughter. Plus, the high summer season has not really hit yet so the small crowds are just my style. I find it so much easier meeting people as a solo traveler when there are not hordes of backpackers and other travelers mobbing through the streets at full volume.
Turkey is one place where “East meets West,” literally. It’s especially true here in Turkey’s largest city, Istanbul, because this is where the continents of Europe and Asia actually come together, separated only by the Bosporus Strait, which flows 18 miles from the Black Sea in the north to the Sea of Marmara in the south. And, in the less literal sense–on the vibrant streets of this city of 12 million people, miniskirts and trendy boots mingle with Muslim head scarves and prayer beads. Turkey is a secular country, and although the population is 99% Muslim, you might not notice.
For sixteen centuries Istanbul, originally known as Byzantium, played a major part in world politics: first as the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, when it was known as Constantinople, then as capital of the Ottoman Empire–the most powerful Islamic empire in the world–when it was renamed Istanbul.
Today, Turkey is no little chick. It is roughly 815,000 square kilometers – 3% of which are on the European continent and 97% of which is in Asia. This diverse country of 70 million people shares its borders with Greece, Bulgaria, Armenia, Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Georgia. With 7,000 kilometers of coastline, snow-capped mountains, volcanoes, and natural wonders, Turkey seems to have it all.
The bad news? Turkey sits directly on at least three active earthquake faults. Thirteen major quakes have rocked Turkey since 1939—the latest was a 7.4 magnitude whopper in 1999 which killed more than 18,000 people. I’ll try not to think about that part…