In Love with Istanbul

Cruising along the Bosphorous

Sometimes when I travel I feel as if I’ve just lived an entirely different life. Of course, we travel for new experiences and to immerse ourselves in other cultures.

But I mean there are a few instances where I sink into the new place so deeply it feels as if it’s become my whole reality. An inexplicable feeling grabs hold; I’m full with the sense that some part of me belongs even as everything is also foreign and unknown.

Ceiling of the Blue Mosque

On rare occasions – Paris was such a case – this feeling does presage a new life.

It’s been awhile, though, since I’ve felt thus transported.

Well, add Istanbul to the list. I can’t believe I was only there for a week; it felt like its own small lifetime. It helped, I’m sure, that 1) I was with my family so I truly was with people from my “real” life and 2) we had an extraordinary homebase that made us feel like we already had family there.

I don’t usually stay in hotels when I travel. I couchsurf, stay with friends, do apartment swaps – these feel like they put me in closer connection to the true city.

For our reunion, though, I wanted to join my family where they were comfortable and we chose a modest hotel in Sultanahmet in the Old City. We couldn’t have chosen better.

View from Hotel Peninsula

It’s no luxury experience. No. It’s a basic hotel but it has Ruhat at reception who by the end of the week was part of our clan. When I had to move for the final day, in fact (I stayed an extra day alone and the hotel was full), I still used Hotel Peninsula as my base and felt as welcomed as if I lived there. The man who served breakfast each morning literally told me I was family now. He looked as if he was going to give me a hug when I left.

And that’s sort of how the whole week felt: like an intimate, familial gathering – no matter that we were strangers.

We stayed mainly in our area, which, yes, is very touristy. We barely scratched the surface of the big, sprawling city. But when the Blue Mosque, Aya Sofya, Topkapi Palace, and the Grand Bazaar are all a stone’s throw from your hotel, it’s hard to get further out at first – so much to see on every corner!

None of those sites are what did it for me, though. (To tell the truth, I had to flee the Grand Bazaar and felt a bit let down by Topkapi). No, it was the vibe of Istanbul that drew me in. Laid-back, friendly, international, intriguing.

We hopped on a ferry to Asia one day in what has to be the easiest inter-continental commute in the world (and only 1.75 lira to boot). Cats roamed everywhere – over ancient ruins, rooftops, cobblestone streets. The Muslim call to prayer rang out 5 times daily, punctuating time with a strangely beautiful soundtrack.

Business, socializing, wooing were all conducted over tea – I can’t count the number of complimentary cups I was offered.

A grungy, cosy nightclub with a view played French, Spanish, American, Turkish, and gypsy music and a relaxed international crowd (no dress code) got down. Bustling crowds at Taksim Square bristled with energy. This might be the easiest way to say it then: Istanbul is alive.

These were things I knew on paper before going – a city on two continents, an East/West mix, the rich history – but I couldn’t have matched this knowledge to the actual feeling. It’s one of the reasons I try not to have any expectations when I travel. I discover what I discover.

I also know I really like a place even when the weather doesn’t smile on us and I still think it’s great. The last week in April, we had assumed we’d be taking full advantage of the many outdoor terraces and rooftops, sunning ourselves in warm temperatures. Instead, we were bundled up in winter coats for most of the week, though rain kept itself mainly to the hours we were sleeping.

Blue Mosque

When the sun did come out, though, it was glorious. The fact that I liked Istanbul even while wearing long johns under my jeans, though, is a high compliment indeed.

This trip feels like an experience to process and I’ve only just gotten back. So here are a few photos instead as sometimes a photo is worth a thousand words.

Aya Sofya

Graffiti on the Asian side

Lanterns in the Grand Bazaar

Art gallery

Bustling Taksim Square on Friday night

Cat with hookah

Tile wall

The flowers were beautiful. The Tulip Festival had just ended.

Old and new/ruins and renovation

Vintage cars by Aya Sofya

As we drove along the sea to go back to the airport, I had to put my sunglasses on. Yes, the sun had come out and it was lovely. Bright and warm. But it was because my eyes were filling with tears.

This, too, I feel on my most important of travels. If I feel I’ve lived a different life, it also means it’s one I’m not actually living. It’s like getting a small window into other possibilities, opening the door again to wonder. This is what I mean when I say bittersweet. Leaving a new home that is not my home. A touch of sadness, but oh, so much gratitude for the beauty.

Tesekkur ederim, Istanbul. Thank you.

Me in the Blue Mosque

Hotel Peninsula
Adliye Sokak no:6
34400 Sultanahmet, Istanbul

Araf (nightclub)
Istiklal Cadesi balo sokak no: 32
Beyoglu, Istanbul

Istanbul Eats
(I bought this book at the Topkapi Museum shop – lots of nice addresses of good local restaurants)

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43 Responses to “In Love with Istanbul”


  1. 1 Kristin Bair O'Keeffe May 3, 2011 at 1:00 pm

    Beautiful pics! I’m now in love with Istanbul, too.

  2. 3 Paris Karin (an alien parisienne) May 3, 2011 at 1:06 pm

    Wow! Like you tweeted, it’s hard to come up with vocab other than single words to describe what seems positively terrific place, based on your experiences. You really communicated the vibrancy of Istanbul: it seems very, very dynamic. I am so glad you had this enriching journey, and thank you for allowing us a peek into what looks & sounds like a fascinating place!

    So glad you got back safely, too. :)

  3. 5 Stephanie May 3, 2011 at 1:19 pm

    Awesome photos. I would love to go travelling again – but I have a farm full of animals now!

  4. 7 Shannon May 3, 2011 at 1:30 pm

    Lovely post, I was just there not long ago and felt the same way! Glad you loved it as much as I did :)
    xx S

  5. 9 Barbara May 3, 2011 at 1:44 pm

    Beautifully put, Sion. I love your last paragraph. I know exactly how you feel. Thank you for sharing your insights and photos.

  6. 11 Anastasia May 3, 2011 at 1:50 pm

    I like the pic of vintage cars outside the Aya Sofya. Glad you had a great time, Sion!

  7. 13 forest May 3, 2011 at 1:57 pm

    i’m with both you and Shannon. i returned last year after first visiting nearly 10 years ago…and still loved the city! Glad you enjoyed yourself and immersed yourself in a diffrent place – it’s always a good thing to do to give us perspective.

  8. 15 ram0ram May 3, 2011 at 2:20 pm

    dear and divine….. it is very nice….good pictures and text…love all.

  9. 17 Lindsey May 3, 2011 at 3:17 pm

    Beautiful Sion! You’ve got me revved for my trip!!

    • 18 paris (im)perfect May 3, 2011 at 6:08 pm

      Oh, you’re so lucky! And end of May should *really* be beautiful. I’m sure it will be warm by then. I bet it’s even more awesome when it’s full on sun all the time! Can’t wait to compare notes!

  10. 19 Lisa | LLWorldTour May 3, 2011 at 3:48 pm

    Yes!! I am so glad you “felt” Istanbul! It IS amazing!! I was supposed to stay for a couple weeks and that turned into 3 months. It is so warm, so friendly.

    AND btw, I first stayed at the Alp Hotel which is RIGHT across from your Hotel Peninsula! And since it’s so friendly, I am sure at the time I chatted with the guys who worked at your hotel.

    It’s always a small world when you are in Istanbul.
    So happy you loved it.

    Your post reminds me I must go back.

    • 20 paris (im)perfect May 3, 2011 at 6:10 pm

      Oh Lisa. I thought about you a bunch while I was there. I can totally understand how you ended up extending your stay there for 3 months! I was tempted to set down roots there myself!

      You hit the nail on the head. It *does* feel like a small world in Istanbul. So warm and friendly. I must go back, too.

  11. 21 Linda May 3, 2011 at 4:12 pm

    I’m sitting here at a desk in NY, sighing – a bittersweet cocktail of happiness and envy. Your writing, your photos all let me go walkabout in your pocket, Sion. I think you nailed how a place can absolutely seduce me with its energy – sort of like love at first sight, with an almost gravitational pull of attraction. Sounds like you’ll be going back sometime.:-)

    • 22 paris (im)perfect May 3, 2011 at 6:11 pm

      Hi Linda. I completely understand that bittersweet cocktail. I’m glad you felt you were walking about Istanbul with me. The gravitational pull of attraction is a great way to describe how I feel about certain cities. You’re right – I really want to go back!

  12. 23 Linds May 3, 2011 at 5:38 pm

    I’m planning a trip to Turkey next October and your photos got me incredibly excited! I loved how you described the city as being alive–seems like a perfect fit for the place based on everything you saw and how you were treated like family. Thanks for sharing!

    • 24 paris (im)perfect May 3, 2011 at 6:12 pm

      Hi Linds. Wow. Hope you have a fabulous trip. I am very curious to visit the rest of Turkey now. I feel like I barely got a taste of Istanbul in a week, not to even mention the rest of the country! I’ll look forward to your insights.

  13. 25 Madame Marielle May 3, 2011 at 11:13 pm

    I recently put Turkey on my wishlist, but this post has just pushed it higher up the priority list.

    Your experience sounds so romantic, even if you didn’t go with a significant other.

  14. 27 Oneika May 4, 2011 at 3:04 am

    I’m glad that Istanbul swept you off your feet- I had the EXACT same experience when I went for three days at the end of last year! The weather was also pretty yucky, but despite the rain and the cold my boyfriend and I had a fabulous time. The city just has a majestic feel to it, no?

    I was so amped about the place that actually made a video of my trip there… Check it out, might make a tear spring to your eye again!!!

    http://oneika-the-traveller.blogspot.com/2011/04/my-trip-to-istanbul-in-moving-pictures.html

    • 28 paris (im)perfect May 4, 2011 at 4:58 pm

      Hey Oneika! Yes, I actually watched your video when you first posted it. Now it obviously means even more to me! What a fabulous city, really. I guess it works its magic on many :)

  15. 29 Carolyn Solares May 4, 2011 at 6:15 pm

    I’m adding Istanbul to my list of places to visit. Thanks painting such a vivid picture.

  16. 31 Paris Karin (an alien parisienne) May 5, 2011 at 7:17 pm

    I swear I left a comment here, straight after the first comment, right after you posted it (as I got the alert in my Yahoo Mail, saw your Tweet about it & scurried over… But maybe I’m wrong?!? (Just mostly baffled at the moment since I know I was here and commented, but then I was just checking in on my global WP comments as my comment did not post on another blogger’s WP-based blog and I have been checking this out. Maybe I am getting sent to people’s spam folders or something???).

    Anyway, I remember writing lovely things about your Istanbul trip, and was glad to read about what an amazing time it was for you. I’m also glad you are safely back, changed for the better by your experiences! :)

    • 32 paris (im)perfect May 5, 2011 at 7:23 pm

      Oh weird. I just checked and you *were* in my spam folder! (I mean not you – but your comment :)) I said NOT SPAM, but it hasn’t reappeared here yet. That’s especially strange since you’ve commented here a million times!

      Anyway, thanks for coming back and checking it out. It was a wonderful experience and I’m glad that shone through.

      • 33 Paris Karin (an alien parisienne) May 5, 2011 at 7:51 pm

        Oh yay! There it is! :) Yeah, something has been going weird with my comments. One reason might be is that I changed my name in my WP profile so that it is the longer version that you see now (it had just been “pariskarin”). Andi, of Misadventures With Andi wound up in my spam folder one time, too! Weird. Anyway, all’s well that ends well. :) And you made me laugh with writing “I just checked and you *were* in my spam folder!”

        Yeah, it was quite the party in there! ;-)

      • 34 Paris Karin (an alien parisienne) May 5, 2011 at 7:54 pm

        And boy, I had some parenthetical weirdness going on up there in that second comment, too. I guess I was flustered, hahaha. :D

        I was also going to say, “No problem” on coming back (see: your response up there)! I love the photos you got, and enjoyed them very much once more.

        Be well!

  17. 35 Sweet Freak May 8, 2011 at 9:30 pm

    Wow, sounds amazing! I’m so glad you had such a transporting, deeply moving experience. The photos made me feel your love – another city for the must-visit list! A bientot, mon amie! xo

  18. 37 Anja Mutic May 9, 2011 at 5:47 am

    Istanbul has been on my dream list for so long now! Your post made me want to go, now. As always, beautiful writing!

    • 38 paris (im)perfect May 9, 2011 at 11:02 am

      Thanks so much, Anja. I thought for sure you must have been there as a travel writer! You should definitely try to swing an assignment in Istanbul. But it’s worth a trip even if you can’t! Truly amazing.

  19. 39 Opal May 15, 2011 at 3:50 pm

    Yeah, like Amy said, I feel transported. A little teaser for when O do visit, already added to list of places and that’s a long one! Thanks for sharing your bonheur!

  20. 40 Istanbul Travel Guide May 24, 2011 at 11:33 am

    Thanks Sion,
    I read the post and fell in love with Istanbul again.. such a sincere lovely post.

  21. 41 rrrachellewilson February 17, 2012 at 4:05 pm

    I will be moving there for two years in a few months, and although I’ve never been before I feel that a part of me knows Istanbul. Before ever reading a word about “her” I knew her… I cant put words to it, but reading your post, and the many others like it I know that the feeling that moves me to calm happy tears is right. Every time I think about Istanbul I hear the word whispered in my head, pleading with me to come home, come home to a place I’ve never been, to a place I might not be able to leave… I dont expect life there to be all bliss, I do however expect a love affair. With all the highs and pit falls that come with such an affair. I think that I can safely say that as with any great love affair this one will leave me forever changed.
    Thank you for posting your beautiful writing, it brought tears to my eyes.

    • 42 paris (im)perfect February 17, 2012 at 9:30 pm

      Wow, what an adventure. I believe there are just some places that resonate with us more deeply, for whatever mysterious reason. Sounds like Istanbul is that place for you. It definitely worked its magic on me. I wish you much luck in your new life there!


  1. 1 From Picturesque Streets to Pickpockets – A Long Weekend in Prague « paris (im)perfect Trackback on March 15, 2012 at 10:26 pm

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paris (im)perfect?

Sion Dayson is paris (im)perfect. Writer, dreamer, I moved to France on – no exaggerating – a romantic whim. As you can imagine, a lot can go wrong (and very right!) with such a (non)plan. These are the (im)perfect stories that result.

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