The enigmatic Navin Waqar sure is cultured! As a certified globetrotter, she visited the best places to visit in Istanbul; as well as detailed us on the local foods, and her fun experiences! Let’s transport to the beautiful land of Istanbul with Navin!
- Why did you select Istanbul for your holiday destination?
I always pick destinations that are rich in history and culture but also offer a certain level of excitement. The last time I went to Istanbul, I made a promise to visit again because I barely had time to explore. I believe it’s the perfect blend of the East and the West. There’s ample history, the food is delectable and the night life is great. But what makes it special is the people; they are amazing. They are the most kind, generous and helpful human beings I’ve ever come across and I’ve traveled a lot. I never once felt like an outsider. I will definitely visit it again and hopefully with more Turkish vocabulary.
- First impressions of the city?
At first, it seems like every European city. But then you start to notice once you’re on the road how breathtakingly gorgeous it really is. Everything is crystal clear, vibrant. The sea is silent but beautiful. I walked for hours absorbing the sights and sounds of the city night and day and not once did I find myself tired or losing interest. It’s overwhelming how they’ve preserved their old architecture and the way they celebrate their heritage. I went to Istanbul about 9 years ago and it has progressed a lot since then. Yet, everywhere you look there’s old architecture standing tall along with the new. Some people even told me how they love the old buildings than the new ones and had no care for it. The people are well versed in their history. I learned more about Istanbul through conversation with locals than museums. They love telling stories and any questions you have will be answered with amazing details.
- Which are the must-see places in Istanbul?
If you are a history buff, then the Dolmabahce Palace, Topkapi Museum, Galata Tower, Aya Sophia and the Blue Mosque are a must see. Then there’s the Grand Bazaar where you can easily get lost and the Spice Bazaar where I realized a single day to explore is not enough. Once you park yourself at the beach with a cup of coffee, time will fly by. I personally enjoyed the trip to the Prince’s Islands. I chose to go to Buyukada because it’s the biggest one. You can rent a bicycle or a horse carriage to take a tour of the island. Then there’s the ferry that takes you around the Bosphorous. Istanbul at night is very different from Istanbul in the day. I was there for 2 weeks but I still couldn’t see as much as I wanted to. You definitely need more time.
- People travel to Dubai for shopping or to Nepal for a peaceful getaway. What is the specialty of Istanbul? It’s differentiating feature?
There’s something very spiritual about Istanbul. A sense of sheer positivity in the air and the people make it even more special. They love Pakistan and I thoroughly enjoyed how they said Pakistan and Turkey are “kardesim”, which translates to brother. Almost everyone I met told me how they love Pakistan and made sure I was comfortable in my stay. For me, people made this trip even more memorable. From the vendors on the streets to the people walking their dogs, they always have a smile and a hello to offer. They are humble and proud of being who they are at the same time. From the moment I stepped in the city, it embraced me with open arms and it actually felt it.
- Which tasty street foods and cuisines did you try?
I’m a foodie so I tried almost everything. From their Dolma and Doner kebabs to the roasted chestnuts that seems to be everywhere. I tried Simit, roasted eggplants, different lamb recipes, koftas and the different ways they spice the chicken. The fish is a must try, i highly recommend it. The turkish coffee has a very different flavor and kick to it. So does the kahve. But I gorged on baklava! That’s something I absolutely love, so a cup of kahve and a plate of delicious, mouthwatering hot baklava was a must after every meal for me.
- What did you enjoy most about the city?
The positive vibes, honestly. There is no fear. Instead you get a sense of joy. You’re never lonely even when you travel there alone. That’s the charm of it. It’s warm and welcoming. There’s music all around you and people are helpful even when you haven’t asked for help. I was staying in an area that was particularly animal friendly and that was great because I love animals. It was unbelievable because the cats would wander into a cafe to seek warmth and no one would usher them out. They just sat in a corner and slept while people ate and drank. I literally saw a guy who was looking for a place to sit but didn’t disturb the sleeping cat and waited for a chair to be vacated instead. That moment I realized what they say is true: it’s the people who truly make a city, not the sites.
- Any funny incident that took place on your trip?
One night my friend and I ordered a cab to come get us because it was almost 2 degrees and raining with nasty wind. We ended up chasing the cab all around the place in that rain, shrieking in our high heels, and almost got into someone else cab by mistake. It took 20 minutes for the cabbie and us to locate each other. Google map wasn’t particularly helpful that night! To top it off the guy couldn’t speak a word of English. I can understand a little bit of Turkish, basic words so explaining the way to him through a fit if sneezes and hysterical laughter was a task and half. I am quite certain he thought we were insane. The entire trip we were pretty much running in their rain everywhere because we chose to walk off the baklava and ended up shrieking our way back to the hotel.
- The architecture of the mosques is especially famous. Did you visit any of them?
I visited the Blue Mosque and Aya Sophia the second time around. It’s majestic. There is so much history involved. From its blue tiles and marbled floors to the calligraphy on the dome. How it was made and how they preserved everything. They were renovating a little bit of Hagia Sophia when I visited, which was initially a church and it was to my knowledge converted to a mosque and is now a museum. Also, all the mosques on Istanbul are similar in structure and color. They are almost identical.
- Istanbul is also renowned for its rich culture and heritage. Detail us on your experience.
Turks are clearly people who are proud of their culture and traditions. I found no two people alike. There is so much diversity and it’s welcoming. You find the perfect blend of old and new, east and west. Despite the modernization they’ve held onto their values and religion as well. The Turks are quite spiritual too. I spoke to a few people and was amazed at how they infuse religion and spirituality into their daily lives. When I was at the palace, their history was told through their art; sculptures and paintings. They are big on Literature and music too. I honestly found myself singing to some of the local tunes I picked up in cafes and stores. I think I Shazam-ed every song I heard. I also saw some of the local DJs perform and they were brilliant. There was always someone singing on the streets I walked daily. I also met a few people who had visited Pakistan; a DJ and a journalist in particular and what really surprising was that he understood Urdu rather well, which also meant he pretty much heard everything I was saying to my friend at the time; we just hoped he didn’t get all of what we said! I don’t know if people are aware of this but the Urdu and Turkish language have quite a few similar words. I guess it’s the Farsi mingled in both languages.
- Is there anything one should be prepared for when visiting Istanbul? (Excluding common factors like language barrier)
There are “thrifters” there so one has to be careful while shopping or even when you’re taking a cab. You have to know how to bargain. The area you choose to stay also makes a huge difference. Luckily I was staying at a location that was very close to Taksim Square and Istiklal Street and everything including the subway station was at a walking distance. For girls traveling alone, the first priority is always safety and I was never afraid once. Everyone is friendly and it’s a safe place to travel. I would be out walking for long walks after dinner without any fear of being harassed or mugged. You will not run out of things to do. The weather on the other hand I wasn’t entirely prepared for! I knew it was going to be cold but had no idea just how fast the temperature would drop. I was walking down the street one night and realized the rain was actually snow and had to once again race to the hotel after the wind broke my umbrella.
- Did you bring any souvenirs with you?
Turkish delights! I’ve got a bit of a sweet tooth and since it finished within a day of my arrival, I wish I had bought a lot more than I did. I got a few spices from the Spice Bazaar and some Turkish coffee and tea. If it were up to me i would’ve packed up the entire Istanbul and brought it back with me. Although that would’ve definitely required a much bigger suitcase.