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Istanbul, a city between cultures, continents and crazies

published on 2014-05-21 by Sara
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Everyone’s praising our multicultural Berlin for its eclectic mix of people. But no community has left a bigger imprint on life in Berlin than the Turkish. The famous Döner, beautiful mosques and the public discourse of integration/multiculturalism have coined the cityscape and culture. The influences of the Turkish population are far reaching within Germany, but its especially in Berlin that they come to life in all their beauty.

Unfortunately, those bits and pieces of Turkey are isolated items without context. I know from my own background: although communities abroad bring many necessary elements and structures from their respective homes, they’re usually only fragments of the “real thing”. So my friend Dagmar (video editor and coolest person alive) and I decided to pack up things and leave for a spontaneous short trip to Istanbul. Since so many Turkish people in the past had probably made the leap and wondered what it would be like to visit or even live in the German capital, I wanted to experience the exact opposite for myself and raise the question: what is it like for a Berliner to visit Istanbul?

View from the Marmara Pera Hotel
Istiklal Street, the artery of “European” district Beyoglu

Istanbul is up and coming, not in spite, but because of the political mood being currently agitated. Conflicts like 2013s Gezi Park are merely put on hold (and this could change anytime, especially after the recent protests) – society is undergoing rapid change and modernization. Whatever happens in Istanbul is what happens in Turkey and ultimately what could happen in the Middle East. I expected the spirit to be like back when I visited Athens during the height of the EU crisis: restless and flustered.

But the streets around Taksim were quiet during our visit, and people were generally in a good mood. Friendly, with twisted and prankful humor, there were only welcome signs to be seen. But as if I was to expect grave danger, people kept warning me about Istanbul. “It’s dangerous by night”, “people are super strict about clothes and alcohol and nightlife”, “there are many political restrictions”, but none of that I noticed. I felt safe most of the time; if it hadn’t been for the news broadcasts, I wouldn’t have known there were any conflicts in Istanbul at all. Only very small, very assessable cultural contradictions, mostly between East and West.

If you’re looking for our advice on where to go, check out our 5 cool places in Istanbul article over here.

A symbol of uprising? These stairs were painted in protest by residents.
The Galata Tower in Beyoglu

What I did notice: Istanbul has about 15 million more people living in its metro area than Berlin. Dodging people on the street like machine gun bullets, I pretty much threw away all my intentions of comparing Istanbul to Berlin. It’s impossible to see even just a little part of Istanbul on a short, five day trip. So I dumped my “Finding” spirit and did what every other sane person would have done: I went sightseeing.

The Aya Sofia, mosque turned church turned museum.
The Aya Sofia from the inside; it’s still part construction site.
Sultanahmet looks like something taken out of a Star Wars backdrop

I don’t regret it. It’s stressful and I hate waiting in line, sure. But sightseeing in Istanbul is not like sightseeing in Berlin. Istanbul is a living, breathing museum of landmarks. The panoramic view of the minarettes, the sun going down over the Black Sea, the Bosphorus parting Europe and Asia, making Istanbul not just mentally but physically as well a very ambivalent place to be right now. The modern people – “white Turks”, as they’re being called – obviously live on the European side of the city. The European side, that’s Beyoğlu mostly. This is the district where things happen (as opposed to Sultanahmet, the district with all the stately and mesmerizing mosques). It’s buzzing. I kept asking myself how someone who grew up here could not get dangerously bored in Berlin. Compared to that hustle, even acoustics on Hermannstraße are as dreamingly gentle as a soft piano melody.

Most of the relevant and international clubs are in Beyoğlu. We ended up visiting Wake Up Call! off Istiklal street (think Ku’Damm in way more crowded, leading up to Taksim Square) on a Wednesday (Tropicana Party, anyone?). It felt no different than being at Farbfernseher, except the line up is serious Panorama Bar techno and house. This is where things suddenly confuse you: between all the mosques and churches and sights, there’s an exciting nightlife and queer scene, but that’s not what people usually associate with Turkey, right? Most of the tourist can be seen in the typical Nargileh (hookah) bars or, like us when we felt lazy, on the sightseeing bus. Our visit to the club was just a little nibble from the platter of amazing opportunities: bars, cafés, clubs are apparently growing out of every nook and cranny and trust me, Istanbul has many of them. There are curfews and booze isn’t cheap, but if there’s a will, there’s a way.

The political and cultural infrastructure won’t make Istanbul another Berlin. Nobody would want that, either. Being being in Istanbul is a 24/7 rush, I couldn’t imagine living here without the constant fear of tinnitus. But it’s a feast for the senses, from the landmarks to the people to the shopping miles. Oh and, the food? Forget whatever crappy sandwich it is you had here. If you haven’t eaten at a nice Lokanta or Mehayne, haven’t slurped mussles from the sideway stands, drunk sahlep with cinammon or dove into a mixed plate of mezzeh you know nothing about the variety of the Turkish cuisine. Künefe, Turkish coffee, Lahmacun, Kumpir, Köfte, and yes, the classic Döner, too – there’s an abundance of street food. In Berlin, it seems like everyone is always looking for the “next big thing” while in Istanbul, you won’t even have enough years in your life to try all of the latest little things.

Turkish coffee & Künefe

As mentioned before, four days are not even remotely enough to experience Istanbul. According to my friend Lev and his girlfriend Deniz, who moved from Berlin to Istanbul last year, you could spend your lifetime discovering the energetic urban space that is the economic and cultural capital of Turkey. Many things are left on my to do list: hang out in Cihangir, stride through Gezi Park, visit Princess Islands, check out MiniMuzikhol, go shopping for fake products, eat out in fine and upper class restaurants, see the Western Districts and most importantly: finally hike over to the Asian side to see the supposedly calmer parts of Istanbul.

I’m not stressing though. I’m coming back. Now that all of the exasperating sightseeing has been done (it’s really difficult to be in Istanbul and not pay a visit to the Grand Bazaar, the Blue Mosque or the Aya Sofia – you just try!), I can finally plan my first “real” voyage to Istanbul. Maybe ten days in September? We’ll see.

Not just a museum of landmarks, but of graffiti, too
We never figured out what this was. The guy wasn’t breakdancing, he only did this one move and the random people behind him had to clap.
Between the markets you’ll have to dodge people like bullets
The Bosphorus tour (nice view from the water which should only be considered in sunshine) yielded new friends.
Traffic is insane during rush hour, but infrastructure is good: trams, metros, taxis, busses, minibusses, ferries are available.
A wonderful view can be caught from anywhere.
Fists of Berlin, Istanbul version

See also our five top spot recommendations in Istanbul.

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