travel / Turkey

Istanbul: The Bad & the Ugly Parts (or, the Blue Mosque Smells Like Feet)

Blue-Mosque-Istanbul-Turkey-travel

If you’re not in the mood for hearing a bit of travel whingeing, check out the first part of my trip to Istanbul, Turkey – The Good Parts!  Okay, it’s not exactly whingeing, because of course you’re allowed to dislike certain parts of a country or city. So here’s what I was less-than-enchanted with in the Turkish city.

The Bad

1) The snow

Okay, if you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you know that I hate cold weather. What can I say? I’m a California girl at heart. So I was pretty unhappy when it started snowing on my last day in Turkey. Plus, it made the driving tour my friend had arranged impossible. Why? Problems with the infrastructure meant I wouldn’t have been able to get back to the airport in time for my flight. Hmmph.

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Snow!

2) The crowds

Everywhere I went in Istanbul it was bursting with people, people, people. I stayed in a less touristy area (I was crashing at a Turkish friend’s flat), and it was STILL ridiculously crowded. I hadn’t expected there to be so many people and cars around. I like the buzz of cities, but I found the crowds in Istanbul overwhelming and chaotic. They actually made me feel anxious, and I was very relieved to leave the crowds behind.

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Crowds at the Spice Bazaar

3) The hills & steep streets

Walking around Istanbul was hard work. I’m young and fit, but it was still exhausting to walk around the hilly streets. The city is build on seven hills, and the public transportation is not as good as I had expected. On top of that, the streets were often steep and filled with crowds, broken tiles,  and potholes. My feet definitely hurt after walking all around Istanbul for four days!

4) The size

You may have guessed it by now, but I found Istanbul too large to deal with. Google says there are about 13.5 million people living there.  But it wasn’t the population alone. Physically, the city is enormous – it’s 2,063 square miles (or 5,343 square kilometers, thanks to Google).

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Crowds in the city center

For comparison purposes, I find Los Angeles stressful with its roughly 4 million people and 500 square miles (mostly because of the size and traffic). Barcelona is a perfect-sized city for me, and it’s got 1.6 million people in just around 40 square miles. 

Istanbul blows both of those places out of the water. It was just too big for me, and I couldn’t get a good mental map of the place down so I was always lost.

However, here’s one word of caution – a lot of the things I thought were bad were made worse in my mind because they were unexpected. I hadn’t expected any of the four things as I had only heard friends say good things about Istanbul. Perhaps had I been a little better prepared, I might not have felt quite so negatively about these things.

And now…onto The Ugly. 

1) Scary taxi rides

Like I said, the traffic is crazy. I saw cars nearly hit people, people nearly hit cars, and a giant bus actually hit a car. It was a blur of honking and illegal turns, all done at whiplash speed. One night, I went back to my friend’s apartment in a taxi early because I wasn’t feeling so well. The taxi was the last straw. After whizzing through Istanbul’s traffic, up and down hills at top speed, I spent the next hour, er, re-experiencing my dinner in a less pleasant way. Oh, alright, I was vomiting.

2) The street vendors’ way of trying to sell you stuff

My group was torn on this one. Some people liked it. I will say they did go away if you said you weren’t interested. But I hated being buttered up for five minutes with small talk, then getting the ‘Oh hey, by the way, you wouldn’t want to buy a…’ It’s not my style, and felt very insincere to me.

I found it especially obnoxious when they would talk to us for five minutes, then say ‘So come back in an hour and I’ll say my best friend Jessica wants to come, and I’ll give you a special price.’ We weren’t ‘best friends’; I’d been given what felt like an extended infomercial, with an attempt to disguise it as a fun conversation with obsequious smiles. It really irritated me. But I soon chalked it up to simply a cultural difference, so I gave up on being cross about it pretty quickly.

3) The sound of the call to prayer

Okay, let me be clear on this one – this is absolutely nothing to do with the actual religion; I’m only talking about the sound.

I found the actual noise of the call to prayer really ear-splittingly awful. And it went on forever, multiple times a day. I was jolted awake by it at 6 a.m. by it and thought people were having a terrible screaming match in the street.

Istanbul-Turkey-Hagia-Sophia

These are really pretty, but have big megaphones that blast out the prayer at top volume.

For the record, I feel exactly the same way about traditional flamenco singing. Wails just don’t really do it for me in any language.

4) The Blue Mosque stinks of thousands of years of sweaty feet 

Yep, thousands of years of people padding about on the carpet without their shoes means that the beautiful Blue Mosque smells like feet once you get inside. My guidebook had nothing to mention about this fact. I bet it’s even worse in the summer.

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Contributing my own personal foot stench to the Blue Mosque!

So on the whole, what were my impressions of Istanbul? It’s a fascinating city and I did like it. There were lots of positive things about my trip, but it was just too chaotic and overwhelming for it to be my favorite place. But I am glad I went. Hey, how often do you get to see something from the year 537?

If you’ve been to Istanbul, what were some things you liked and didn’t like about the city?

Besos!

-Jess

26 thoughts on “Istanbul: The Bad & the Ugly Parts (or, the Blue Mosque Smells Like Feet)

  1. I liked nearly everything about Istanbul – we had great weather, luck with tours and apartments (had personal recs from an old coworker and another friend), and we ate well. For being Holy Week, I didn’t notice tons of crowds – just loads of Spaniards! But, yes – huge and those hills up to Taksimmmm!

    • Haha yes, I can tell you right now that I would’ve liked it a lot better if I’d gotten better weather!

      Also, I think staying in the center might’ve made it more manageable. It was nice to stay with a friend, but it meant I wasn’t near the touristy stuff.

  2. Wow, the inside of the Blue Mosque is so beautiful (I’m assuming the first photo is the Blue Mosque). hahaha and never thought about the smell inside… but of course it makes sense!

    Snow in Istanbul? I thought it never snows there… I guess I was wrong. Wow, that yes, it’s such a big city!!! Ginormous! I didn’t know about that either! (I’m realizing I don’t know much about Istambul…;))

  3. I agree with u in everything except call of prayer (i love it) and snow (i havent any problem with snow) 🙂 From my point of view the worst thing is traffic and the lack of respect of the drivers, taxi drivers are especially troublesome I really hate them.

    On ther other hand, the question of smell in Blue Mosque is because of tourism in general, muslim people who enter in the mosque for the prayer, made a ritual in which u need to clean your feet (and more things), tourists never clean their feet and this is the source of the bad smell.

    • Yes, the taxi drivers were absolutely insane there. They’re pretty bad everywhere I’ve been, but these were a whole new level of crazy.

      It makes sense that the Blue Mosque is because of tourists, not Muslims. I saw loads of them washing their feet outside before they went in – and this was in the snow!

  4. I agree with your point re traffic. It’s mad at best and vomit-inducing at worst:)
    But the chant of the mosque? Eerie and haunting, perhaps, but deeply moving and beautiful.

  5. I’m glad you’re honest! It’s refreshing to hear the other side of the coin, when so many blogs just go on about how they loved seemingly everywhere. I loved Istanbul (although it was cold when I was there too, didn’t expect that!) but the part I didn’t like was the food! I’d done my research but I just kept getting disappointed, the meat was always so dry! Better luck next time I hope 🙂

  6. Like Caitlyn up there, I’m glad you showed both sides of the coin for this city! I was cringing at the description of the taxi rides; I can’t imagine seeing that smash-up during your trip and feeling any more at ease about the pedestrian-traffic tango 😦

    Ps. Super-catchy title!

  7. Pingback: Ugly blue woman | thisrosylife

  8. I’ve never been to Istanbul (it’s #1 on my list), but when I was in Morocco the house I stayed in shared an alleyway with the local mosque….like my room was right below the minaret. Every morning around 5 am that sound would jolt me awake, TERRIFIED! After a little while there, however, I started to find the call soothing for some reason. Maybe it was hearing the family I stayed with softly shuffling out to pray, or that no matter what kind of chaos I was surrounded by in the markets, the call would bring a sort of calm about. Then again, I was in a town much smaller than Istanbul…I’m imagining Times Square (the only place on earth I’ve come to hate haha) from your description, and I don’t think anything could put me at ease with hordes of tourists and psychotic traffic around me!

    • Yes, it scared me so much the first time! I can definitely see how it would be more soothing if the whole place calmed down during and afterwards. I didn’t notice that in Istanbul, though I’m sure it happens in the more residential areas (and maybe I was too busy dodging rogue taxis to notice!).

  9. HAHA. Yes, stinky feet for sure!
    I enjoyed visiting other mosques that weren’t so heavily visited and smelled a lot better!
    You got snow! That’s cool.
    I’m a CA girl at heart too but am actually enjoying being in a place where it snows solely because it’s novelty.

    Yes, bargaining tactics are always interesting and though it’s not my favorite I just roll my eyes, nod my head and laugh when they talk about “special price” and “best friend.”

    I’ll admit Istanbul didn’t win me over. Iiked it but I don’t understand what all the fuss is about for the city…

    • Yeah, the other mosques were actually nicer because they weren’t stinky haha.

      I hate the bargaining tactics. The worst is my friends would actually start conversations with them, and I was so irritated. I felt the same way you do about Istanbul!

  10. Haha this made me smile! Your title intrigued me because I always tell people Istanbul was my absolutely favorite place I’ve visited so far – was interesting to see it from a different perspective. I think the weather played a large part in my having a good time – I had gone in March and it was 15C and sunny (being from Canada, ANY sun in March is something to marvel at!) I found the call the prayer such an interesting tradition to witness but that’s probably because I don’t remember experience it at 6am. At least you found some good in the city, and maybe you can go back in the summertime 🙂

    • Haha thanks. I would have liked it a lot more if it had been warmer, so that’s a good point! I guess it’s not too surprising for them to have snow in January, but I wasn’t happy about it.

      I did like parts of Istanbul, but it didn’t connect with me like it does for lots of people. I’m glad you enjoyed it so much! 🙂

  11. I’m living in Istanbul and the call to prayer I find so scary to hear. Five times a day it is very loudly blasted out into the streets, the worst being the call before sunrise. I appreciate it is just the culture but it really doesn’t need to be so loud.

  12. i can’t believe you are describing a mosque smelling like “feet” and saying that the holy prayer call “noice” and “earsplittingly” it meens more than that to people who believe in this religion and they love it which you would notice if you was not that negative about it , i think you have no respect at all .

    • I think you entirely misunderstood. Let me see if I can help you with that, because you seem to been offended by something that was clearly not meant to cause offense.

      In regards to the Blue Mosque, yes, it does smell like feet. But as you can see I say in the comments above, this has to do with tourists‘ dirty feet (I saw the locals going to pray thoroughly wash their feet before entering the mosque, even though it was snowing outside). This was the only mosque that smelled this way (as I also said in the comments), and I believe that’s due to the heavy tourist traffic, rather than anything at all to do with the religion.

      As far as the call to prayer, yep, it sounds like noise to me. I say right there in the paragraph that it’s nothing to do with the religion, and also that non-religious things like flamenco music also sound equally jarring to me. Obviously, both mean something different to people who participate in those practices (whether it be prayer or singing). I understand the call to prayer probably means something special to you, but to me it’s just sound.

      In neither case did I comment on, let alone criticize, the actual religion or the religious practices. I absolutely have nothing against that. It’s simply my experiences of smell and sound, and I’m not sure how you can take that as an insult against the religion. It certainly isn’t intended that way.

      And finally, I’ll direct you to my first post about Istanbul – the good parts! I very much enjoyed Turkish culture, and specifically talked about how kind and generous the people are: http://holayessica.com/2013/02/19/turkey-the-good-parts/

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