Turkey: 7 Things That Surprised Me About Istanbul

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Before I was lucky enough to travel to Turkey, I’d dreamed for years about visiting Istanbul, the great city that has straddled the boundary between Europe and Asia for thousands of years, albeit in many incarnations. My dream finally came true late one night after an entire day of traveling, so I was initially unable to process how I felt about the city.

I love Istanbul, but I was admittedly taken aback by some aspects of Turkey’s largest city — and not always in a good way. If you visit Istanbul the next time you travel in Turkey, keep these surprising characteristics of the city in mind.

1. Istanbul is exceedingly European

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Istanbul’s Istiklal pedestrian street could be just about anywhere in Europe

Istanbul bridges the gap between Europe and Asia, but I wouldn’t characterize the city as somewhere that’s “east-meets-west” as I would Hong Kong or Shanghai. From pedestrian street Istiklal, which is lined with big-name, high-street shopping to the decidedly modern style of architecture you find throughout much of the city, Istanbul isn’t just a gateway to Europe — it is Europe.

2. It’s huge

Most people who know anything about Turkey know that Istanbul is Turkey’s largest city, but I don’t think they know just how large it is. Population-wise, the greater Istanbul area is home to more than 13 million people and the city occupies more than 2,000 square miles. I think you’ll be just as shocked as I was upon arriving how massive the city is.

3. It isn’t cheap

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Those skyscrapers off in the distance comprise just one of Istanbul’s financial districts

Well, not compared to most of the rest of the Middle East, anyway. Broadly, I would say prices in Istanbul are about on par with those you’d find in cheaper European countries like Greece and Spain. You should expect to spend no less than $40 per day if you frugal when you travel in Istanbul.

4. It’s overflowing with tourists

I knew I wasn’t the only one who’d been dreaming of travel to Istanbul my whole life, so I fully expected that Istanbul would have a sizable number of tourists. Unfortunately, “sizable” doesn’t even begin to describe the number of tourists in Istanbul: There were so many tourists in Istanbul that I could barely move.

5. It will remind you of other cities

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Istanbul isn’t always what I would call picturesque

Istanbul has long been a patchwork of culture and history, spanning Europe, Asia and thousands of years of civilization. Today’s Istanbul, too, has a piecemeal quality to it. Cosmopolitan Beyoglu reminds me very much of New York, while Cihangir evokes San Francisco with its long columns of row houses spread out over gently rolling seaside hills.

6. It’s is often rough

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Istanbul isn’t perfect, but it sure is magical

When I say “rough,” I don’t mean “not smooth”; I mean dirty, dingy and even scary at times. Istanbul is picturesque and beautiful, but there are many parts of the city that are downright grimy. Of course, these parts also tend to be the most interesting, especially when if you find Istanbul’s aforementioned European-ness as boring as I did.

7. It is too complex to judge completely after one visit

I present a lot of first impressions of Istanbul here. But Istanbul is a city you can’t get to know completely after just five days there, in spite of the fact that I very much advocate traveling at a quick pace. I definitely want to return Istanbul someday. If you aren’t planning to travel to Turkey anytime soon, I hope you change your mind.