On Not Falling in Love with Istanbul

people walking through Istanbul in the rain

In order to fall in love, the timing must be right. Conditions must be perfect. Love is a fickle, volatile thing.

I came to Istanbul expecting to fall in love with this city. Alas, it didn’t work out.

Make no mistake: Istanbul is a magical place, with minarets stabbing at the sky from every hill, romantic cobble-stone streets and ubiquitous stalls serving up kebabs from vertical spits. Muslim women in colorful head scarves mingle with ladies in modern dress and designer jeans. Men play dominoes in street cafes while puffing on nargiles. Grand buildings and cats are everywhere. There is no shortage of charm in this megalopolis.

Like most all the girls I dated back in my single days, Istanbul was not ready for love, not ready to love me. Hitherto our arrival, it had been summer in Istanbul. I checked (and lusted) over the weather forecast daily, the way one might look at the online profile of a girl on match.com, and saw nothing but 80 degree days and sunshine. Upon arrival, we were greeted by the first cold front of autumn, and we’ve had moody skies, blustery wind and unrelenting, icy rain during our entire stay. Istanbul did not live up to its online profile.

Before the trip I fantasized about taking sunset photos from atop the Galata bridge, watching the sun slip behind needle-sharp minarets. I never imagined trying to enjoy the view amid gale force winds, stinging rain and a sky so thoroughly bruised that no sun could penetrate it.

I should have known better, but I didn’t realize how popular Istanbul was going to be, that I’d be vying for her attention with so many others. I got a cheap flight when I booked back in June during the riots and protests at Taksim Square. Evidently, no one was deterred. If this is the shoulder season, I don’t want to see this place in summer. The only riots now are formed by the rugby scrum of tourists jostling to get into the famous sites.

According to Wikipedia, Turkey is the 6th most touristed country in the world, and everything on Wikepedia is 100% accurate, so it must be true. I can see why. Luxor and Rome are the only two places I have been with tourist throngs this thick.

At the crossroads of two continents, Istanbul has one foot in Europe and one foot in Asia. All the cliches are true: it is a meeting point of East and West, ancient and modern. This is a country that borders Iran, Iraq, Greece and Bulgaria; it is a bridge connecting the Middle East, Western Europe and Eastern Europe. Maybe that is why I couldn’t quite fall in love. Perhaps I needed Istanbul to make up its mind and be either European or Asian. Maybe I just needed the rain to stop.

In the end, I enjoyed my time in Istanbul, despite the rain, the ATM card fiasco of 2013, and the snafu with my hotel reservations -something that will be funny in time, but not yet. Too soon. I can see why others would love Istanbul. I can see why this place is so incredibly popular.

I just can’t see myself ever falling in love.
_______________________

Have you ever been somewhere magical but didn’t quite fall in love?

Ever date anyone popular in high school to realize they weren’t that cool?

Have you ever gone on vacation and been assaulted by high winds, pouring rain and freezing temps?

Let’s talk about it in the comments section below. It can be group therapy. It will make us feel better.

_______________________

18 Comments on “On Not Falling in Love with Istanbul

  1. I felt that way in Venice. I was there in July- so peak travel season- and there were so many tourists that I just wasn’t attached to it like I feel many others are. Maybe, like you said, the timing was simply off.

    • Maybe in a different life you and Venice would have been a better match. I’ve seen photos of Venice at high season and I can imagine that it would be hard to love.

      Thomas Mann has a famous quote about Venice. He called it “half-fairy tale, half tourist trap.” Does that seem apt?

  2. Pouring rain describes nearly all our tenting trips when we were first married. Everywhere we went, we unhappily solved drought problems.

    Too bad about not falling in love with Istanbul. It’s those pesky expectations that seem to make the difference. And who expects rain, well other me when I go to the mountains now. But my theory is that we form our opinions on holidays by focusing on a few key factors or events that may not be significant or take a lot of time. A couple of great wildlife sightings makes the rain go away that day – at least for me.

    • Unhappily solved drought problems – so funny. I agree that a couple of magical moments can make the rain go away. That happens often for me in Alaska. We haven’t experienced much rain or cold while traveling overseas so it was a bit of a shock.

  3. I felt that away about the Taj Mahal. The detail work was incredible but overall it wasn’t like (glorious music) “THE TAJ MAHAL”!!! It was more like wow okay cool I saw the Taj – check- don’t need to do that again. My expectations were maybe the reason for my let down but I also had lived in India for 3 months before I finally made the trip to Agra. Lets just say it was not love. Lodhi Gardens in Delhi though are ah-mah-zing! The ruins there are older than our entire country and it was not until recently that they even started to preserve them!

    • I will have to check out the Lodhi Gardens next time I’m in Delhi.

      I have to say that I was wowed by the Taj Mahal. I thought it was perfect, but I’d only been in India about 5 days when I saw it. Again, the timing must be right for love.

  4. Pingback: A Photo Tour of Istanbul, or Expect More Negative Posts in the Future | Planet Bell

  5. Say it isn’t so!!!! After being on my ‘list’ for decades, it hurts to see my ideal image of Turkey tarnished a bit.

    I felt the same about Rio de Janeiro. It’s so romanticized in the press that people don’t know that for the most part, it’s mostly just a loud, dirty, dangerous, hot city. The beaches are OK (but great beaches can be found all over the world), and while the tram ride is nice, it’s not exactly worth flying all the way there for…

  6. At the top of a short list, I would say Papeete, Tahiti and Addis Ababa, Ethiopia were both underwhelming. Preconceived notions and/or unfortunate circumstances are usually to blame. I will say that during our two year RTW trip, there weren’t many places that made that short list. I’ve always had the opinion that I’m in charge of having a good time, and if I’m not, well, try looking in the mirror.

    It must have been the luck of the draw (or my fantastic planning 🙂 ) that we never ran into really bad weather. Sure, there was some rain, snow or a scorching sun, but nothing a relaxing “hunker down” for a few days didn’t solve. It’s also nice to be a slow traveler with no particular schedule. We sat out some rain while trekking on the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal, and watched “vacationers” slog by through the mud and rain because they had a schedule to keep or miss their flight home.

    On the “fall in love” list, I’d put Ubud, Bali; Udaipur and Agra (TheTaj), India; Cairo, Egypt and Chiang Mai and Ko Samui, Thailand. Actually, it’s not fair because I experienced these places 25 years ago. Returning to Chiang Mai and Ubud a couple years ago was a real eye-opener as to how things can change over time! However, I didn’t see these places 50 years ago either. You can only do what you can do in your place in time! Tourists march on and there’s no going back.

    Happy Trails, in whatever parallel universe you occupy at the moment.

    • Those are some very interesting insights. I agree that we are in charge or our own experiences and we can be happy or not.

      I didn’t like Chaing Mai but I’d just come from Luang Prabang, which is what I think Chaing Mai was like 25 years ago. Timing is important when it comes to loving a place.

      • Jeff, yer right, Luang Prabang today is exactly what Chiang Mai was 25 years ago. Most of the town was within the moat. Any roads outside the moat were dirt!
        And, Timing certainly is important as it’s not a very good time to go to Damascus. Twenty-five years ago was not a good time to go to Cambodia but was a couple years ago. At any time, there are always places to avoid. Forty years ago was not a good time to visit Vietnam either. But, as I was given a free one year tour, who could turn that down? 🙂

      • SO true. I missed out on Damascus a few years ago when I went to the Middle East, now it may be 5, 10 or 25 years until I can go back. Some places, like national parks and huge cities, are either well maintained or can absorb travelers so timing doesn’t matter as much.

  7. It’s been 20 years since we were in Istanbul, Jeff, and at that time it hadn’t been discovered. The sesame pretzel vendors were friendly, the traffic was manic, and there was not a lick of English to be heard anywhere. It was magical. But I can see how the crush of people, etc. would tarnish the shine. We just revisited Budapest for the first time in 20 years and it was like someone had flipped a switch, and it too is inundated with tourists. But it’s still a great city. Looking forward to the rest of your journey. ~Terri

    • Mass tourism has a way of spoiling places, unfortunately. I think large cities can absorb it better than small towns on the whole. Having a huge number of tourists, especially tour groups and cruise ship passengers, really does change everything. Maybe Istanbul and Budapest will grow into their newfound stardom.

  8. Pingback: Photo Essay: The Mosques of Istanbul | Planet Bell

  9. Hi Jeff,
    i am from Izmir and lived in Istanbul for 5 years before moving to SF. You have valid observations. I wish it was not raining when you visit. Hope you will visit again this time consider bebek, nisantasi, uskudar, and definetly a tour by ferry.

    Best,
    Ismet

    • Hi Ismet, thanks for the comments and advice. I really want to go back to Turkey someday. You are from a stunning country. I really want to visit the southern and eastern areas, like lake Van.

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