Istanbul sights and sounds, Taksim Square, the Bosphorus, Oud Music

mosque and turkish flag
mosque and turkish flag | Source


Istanbul is a huge metropolis of thirteen million people, and not somewhere you can get to know in four days, especially when three and a half of them are spent working. Nevertheless, I did manage to fit in one decent daytime walk and a couple of evening rambles too, and have brought back a few photos and impressions to share. I hope you enjoy the tour.

Istanbul is not the capital of Turkey (that would be Ankara) but it is by far the most important city culturally, financially and historically. As Constantinople, it was the 4th Century capital of the Roman Empire, then, as Byzantium, it was at the head of the Byzantine Empire for around one thousand years. But all of this is easily found on Google and Wiki. I'm going to focus instead only on what I saw, heard and felt in my very brief visit.

The Turkish Oud (lute)

The 'video' on the right is sound only, no pictures. This duo were performing in a small bar where it was too dark for my phone to get pictures. It was also too loud to get a decent recording. But it's enough to get the flavour of the music. The oud player was exceptional. I suggest letting it run as a background to the photographs below. It all adds to the Turkish ambience. His oud has six strings arranged as three courses (double strings), and is fretless. He was playing with a combination of plectrum and fingers. The scale is not Western and contains intervals not heard in Western music. It is not 'out of tune'!

A walk in Istanbul

from my hotel window, looking out to the bosphorus
from my hotel window, looking out to the bosphorus | Source
from the taxi, going to work
from the taxi, going to work | Source
istanbul city football stadium
istanbul city football stadium | Source
my route, starting and finishing in taksim square (red circle)
my route, starting and finishing in taksim square (red circle) | Source
the bosphorus, looking south
the bosphorus, looking south | Source
the bosphorus, looking north towards bosphorus bridge (just visible)
the bosphorus, looking north towards bosphorus bridge (just visible) | Source
istanbul, a mix of new and old
istanbul, a mix of new and old | Source
the old clock tower
the old clock tower | Source
one of many great mosques
one of many great mosques | Source
just another seascape - a very busy shipping lane
just another seascape - a very busy shipping lane | Source
many streets are staircases as the hills are so steep
many streets are staircases as the hills are so steep | Source
the memorial in taksim square
the memorial in taksim square | Source
a few local shops
a few local shops | Source
ancient round tower
ancient round tower | Source
fishing from the bridge
fishing from the bridge | Source
floating shops and restaurants, from the bridge
floating shops and restaurants, from the bridge | Source
another great mosque
another great mosque | Source

OK, here goes...

I flew in overnight, a four-hour sleepless flight from 02:00 to 06:00, about as antisocial as you can get. Then, by taxi (spelled taksi here) to my hotel in Taksim Square. This was all in darkness, so it was a surprise, when the sun came up, to find that my 3rd floor room commanded a view over rooftops and all the way to the Bosphorus. That was something to check out later, but now it was straight to work. Another taksi.

The first couple of pictures are from the taxi. For the whole of my stay, the weather was cold, wet and windy, with a mist that never fully lifted. Only the seagulls seemed to be happy about this. As I had no idea where we were going, I was pleased when the taxi turned down towards the coast. That would have been my choice too, especially when the sea in question is one of the greatest shipping routes of the Old World. Our route took us past one of the old mosques, with impossibly slender twin minarets.

We also passed the National football stadium which reminded me of the old Cardiff Arms Park (home of Welsh rugby) in being built in a hollow and almost invisible until you're right beside it.

My walking route, on my last afternoon, is on the Google Earth view. Starting at Taksim Square, down the steep lanes to the Bosphorus Corniche, the hard climb back to the Square, then the gentler long descent through the old city and across the lift bridge at the mouth of the harbour, and of course the long climb back. The whole thing took about five hours, but this included lunch and a couple of beers along the way, occasioned by heavy rain showers, as if any excuse were necessary.

The Bosphorus is the sea strait that connects the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara (and ultimately to the Aegean and Mediterranean). I'm standing at the edge of Europe looking across the water to Asia. Istanbul is literally where East meets West. I've known this from early schooldays but being here brings it alive. Today, the water is grey and choppy, with a fine mist hanging low. It's easy to imagine the sea battles through the centuries, for control of this vital strip of water. But the modern suspension bridge, just visible through the mist, is a symbol of trust and cooperation between nations. The new Istanbul, Europe's Capital of Culture, 2010, is all about bringing people and cultures together in a spirit of trust and harmony.

Istanbul Ambience

Istanbul feels safe to walk about. This is because everyone is on the streets. The traffic is terrible, with jams all day long, but much of the old city is simply not accessible by car. The streets are narrow and sometimes so steep that they become staircases in places. The Turkish people clearly enjoy their city. They meet outdoors, walk and talk together, sit outside the cafes and bars, eating and drinking, under canopies. Even in these cold, wet February days, they just wear more clothes and carry on with their outdoors customs.

You'd have to work hard to go hungry in Istanbul. Street vendors are everywhere, selling roast chestnuts, kebabs, olives, hot beans, even fresh mussels as you get closer to the harbour.

Most of the cafes and bars employ one or two 'runners' whose job it is to accost potential custom in the street and persuade them that theirs is the best place in town. As an obvious non-local, I get a lot of attention. If you stop, they won't stop talking, so the trick is to smile and keep walking, as they don't like to venture into the next cafe's catchment area.

Istanbul and Islam

From the number, size and grandeur of Istanbul's mosques, it is obvious that Islam is the predominant religion. But the country is strictly secular. Religion is a personal matter and not in any way enshrined in law. This is no Islamic republic. The people on the street look almost like a Mediterranean populace. Men and women in more or less equal numbers, mixing freely together. Some of the women choose to cover their hair with a headscarf, but most don't. The dress code on the street is largely Western, and if anything slightly more colourful. There is an official Islamic opposition party, but that is just part of the balance of the political scene. It is impossible to imagine this place succumbing to clerical government. The people wouldn't have it.


Spoiled for choice, I eventually selected Istanbul Art Cafe, a small establishment with seating for about six inside and twelve outside, under an awning. In spite of the weather, I was reasonably warm from walking, so outside was good. Occasional beggars asked for change and a small family of cats milled around my feet taking turns to make me feel guilty by staring soulfully at my food. A river of rainwater flowed down the central gutter of the narrow cobbled lane. Just another Thursday. Chicken, flash fried, diced and served in a cream sauce with some unidentifiable aromatic herbs, and a mixed green salad enlivened with fresh mint and balsamic vinegar. Freshly baked crusty bread. Enough, with a local Efes beer for the final touch of authenticity.

Apart from Efes beer which comes in varieties from a light pilsner right through to a black stout, Turkey produces some excellent wine, especially the rich reds, and a local spirit called Yeni Raki similar to an absinthe in style taste and effect. But that's not one to try at lunchtime.

Taksim Square is the centre of this old part of Istanbul. It is more of a clearing in the dense buildings around than an architecturally designed square in its own right. It is dominated by the Independence Monument, celebrating the life, generalship and statesmanship of Ataturk, the founder of the modern Turkish Republic.

If thinking of visiting Istanbul, I would recommend choosing a hotel on Taksim Square for easy walking access to everything I've described in this hub. It is also a place known to every taxi driver in the city, so there's no risk of getting lost among the thirteen million!

Music in Istanbul

My walk down towards the harbour took me through a narrow street where every second shop was a music shop, by which I mean a shop selling instruments for people to play, not CDs to put on a machine. There must have been at least twenty such shops, including a few instrument makers and repair services. This to me is the height of civilisation. And in the spirit of cultural diversity that is Istanbul, the range extended from Western orchestral, jazz and rock instruments to traditional Turkish ouds, schaums, tabors and many more that I have no names for. There was even a shop selling Chinese bowed instruments and Japanese kotos.

It was shortly after leaving this music quarter that I first saw the harbour in the distance. I hadn't intended to walk so far, but any distant bridge, once seen, has to be crossed. There's really no alternative. It's the story of my life as a wanderer.

The harbour bridge is a lift bridge, like London's Tower Bridge. The central section can be winched up to allow high vessels to pass from the Bosphorus into Istanbul's great natural harbour. Unfortunately I didn't see it in action as no large ships were queuing for access. People were fishing along the whole length of the bridge and bringing in large numbers of small pilchard-like fish. There seemed to be no shortage.

On the far bank there was, unsurprisingly, another great mosque and an even greater one high on the hill above the town, but I was running out of time and if I'm honest, maybe a little tired. I wandered around the floating market for a time, seeing plenty but buying nothing, simply enjoying the privilege of being here, before the long climb back to Taksim Square to collect my bag and grab a taxi to the airport.

I hope I've shown you something to enjoy in this brief tour of a great historical capital. My memories will be of a lively, diverse, friendly city, much loved by its people and visitors for its wealth of culture. freedoms and opportunities. 

Thank you for reading!

same bar, different musicians


I'll leave you with another bad recording of good musicians. This duo comprised one singer and oud player and one percussionist, playing a variety of traditional drums. The rhythms are very similar to flamenco (which is no surprise, given the common roots of both genres). The bar was so small that the musicians had to sit inside the stone fireplace. Enjoy the performance, and have a virtual Yeni Raki on me!

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Comments 35 comments

quicksand profile image

quicksand 5 years ago

Intereseting article, Paraglider. Do the locals speak English? If not how did you communicate with them? :)

Paraglider profile image

Paraglider 5 years ago from Kyle, Scotland Author

Some speak English, especially the younger folk and the bar and restaurant staff, who have to talk to tourists. But it's not widely spoken. So there's always body language, sign language and pointing ;)

Trish_M profile image

Trish_M 5 years ago from The English Midlands

Istanbul has always struck me as a wonderful place to visit. I enjoyed my 'virtual' tour. Thank you! :)

VioletSun profile image

VioletSun 5 years ago from Oregon/ Name: Marie

I enjoy your hubs on travel as I get to experience places, I probably will never visit. The tour with the background music was very well done. Off to look at the photos again!

Rated up!

always exploring profile image

always exploring 5 years ago from Southern Illinois

I enjoyed the tour. The music is interesting. The pictures are beautiful. Thank you.

attemptedhumour profile image

attemptedhumour 5 years ago from Australia

Hi Paraglider, My wife and one of my daughters were talking about our planned trip back to the UK in Nov' for my dad's ninetieth birthday. We wanted to add a couple of other short stops too and Istanbul was top of our list. Your brief stay sounded memorable and you painted a nice picture of what we might expect. Thanks mate i'll fill you in if it comes to fruition.

Paraglider profile image

Paraglider 5 years ago from Kyle, Scotland Author

Hi Trish - It is an unforgettable place. However, from choice, I'd avoid both the winter and the summer which are fierce in opposite ways, and maybe choose May or September. I hope you have the chance some day.

Paraglider profile image

Paraglider 5 years ago from Kyle, Scotland Author

Thanks VioletSun. These working visits are always too short, but I'm still grateful for the opportunity as I'd be very unlikely to take holidays here if I wasn't working. Glad you liked the music :)

Paraglider profile image

Paraglider 5 years ago from Kyle, Scotland Author

always exploring - live music, especially local music, is something to celebrate, as the true expression of who a people are. Down with MTV ;)

Paraglider profile image

Paraglider 5 years ago from Kyle, Scotland Author

attemptedhumour - there's certainly plenty to see and do for a short stop-over. Choose a Taksim Square hotel (I was in the Metropark and it was fine) for a good central location near most facilities. Congratulations on your dad's ninetieth!

tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 5 years ago from South Africa

This is simply stunning, Dave. Thanks for sharing and for the music! I have a friend here in Pretoria who is of Greek-Egyptian extraction and is a wonderful oud player. Love oud music. Have sevearl CDs of other oud players.

Love and peace


Paraglider profile image

Paraglider 5 years ago from Kyle, Scotland Author

Hi Tony - it's amazing the range of sounds a good oud player can get out of what is in some ways a very limited instrument. But that's often the way with art - it's all about working within limits and transcending them.

Riviera Rose profile image

Riviera Rose 5 years ago from South of France

Loved this hub - I'm going to Istanbul this May so really enjoyed reading this, thanks!

Paraglider profile image

Paraglider 5 years ago from Kyle, Scotland Author

May is probably the ideal time to visit. Have a great time :)

crystolite profile image

crystolite 5 years ago from Houston TX

Superb,this article is a real documentary on istabul sights and sounds.nice hub

Paraglider profile image

Paraglider 5 years ago from Kyle, Scotland Author

Thanks crystolite. I always enjoy visits to new places, however brief.

marwan asmar profile image

marwan asmar 5 years ago from Amman, Jordan

A very beautiful area, its a place you never want to leave. After I visited, I kept woundering why call it the "sick man of Europe"; there is nothing sick about Istabul. Nice article!

Paraglider profile image

Paraglider 5 years ago from Kyle, Scotland Author

Thanks Marwan. I'd been to Turkey before, but never Istanbul. I thought it was a fantastic city. Now I'm hoping to go back, ideally in the springtime. Thanks for the visit.

Micky Dee profile image

Micky Dee 5 years ago

Nicely done Paraglider! I love seeing the world and this is a pretty good National Geo. issue. Thank you bud!

Paraglider profile image

Paraglider 5 years ago from Kyle, Scotland Author

Cheers Micky. Some of these staircase streets might challenge you on the bike though ;)

prettydarkhorse profile image

prettydarkhorse 5 years ago from US

Traffic, smiles. Thanks for the walk Dave, it is nice to visit places. I didn't know Istanbul is not the capital city. Maita

Paraglider profile image

Paraglider 5 years ago from Kyle, Scotland Author

Hi Maita - Istanbul is the great city in every way, but Ankara was chosen as the political capital partly because it is much more central. Thanks for the read :)

thomoturk profile image

thomoturk 5 years ago from Turkey

Well done Glider, another great hub.

Everyone should come to Turkey, but try to see what else is here away from ?stanbul.

Oh & by the away, FOOTBALL is the national religion of Turkey not Islam.

Paraglider profile image

Paraglider 5 years ago from Kyle, Scotland Author

Hi thomoturk - I'd like to go back to the area around Dalyan to see what's changed in the last 25 years. Maybe someday.

jreuter profile image

jreuter 5 years ago from Portland, Oregon

Great Hub Paraglider.

This makes me a bit sad however, as even though my experience in Istanbul was defined by people trying to scam me, I did really enjoy my walks there. It's also a reminder of how little I really saw while there. I'm currently reworking all my travel hubs into one chronological series, and Turkey should be published in a day or two. I'd love your input, so if so inclined, give it a look over.

Excellent work!

Paraglider profile image

Paraglider 5 years ago from Kyle, Scotland Author

Hi jr - thanks for the visit. I've found that if you're in Turkey as a non Turk you get a lot of unwanted attention, from con guys, sure, but also from bona fide restaurant and bar promoters and from genuinely friendly locals. But it can get a bit wearing, after a while!

James A Watkins profile image

James A Watkins 5 years ago from Chicago

I loved this journey. The music is beautiful and haunting and mysterious (to my ears). Your photographs are great and your story is captivating.

Oddly enough, I had dinner last night with two ethnic Greeks. One told me that his grandfather lived in Istanbul until 1920, when he was thrown out of the country because he was Greek. Luckily, the Greek government gave him a small plot of farmland in northern Greece (what was once Macedonia but he was adamant that this has nothing to do with the Slavic nation of Macedonia that we see on our maps today).

Anyway, excellent work. I enjoyed this.

Paraglider profile image

Paraglider 5 years ago from Kyle, Scotland Author

Yes, Greece and Turkey haven't always been the best of friends! Cyprus is of course divided between Greek and Turkish sectors as a result. The whole region has a hugely convoluted history, as you well know.

Thanks for the read, always welcome :)

Micky Dee profile image

Micky Dee 3 years ago

Nicely done. I love travel and/or getting samplings of other cultures. Thank you P.

Paraglider profile image

Paraglider 3 years ago from Kyle, Scotland Author

Hi Micky - Istanbul was a good trip to get, even if too short.

gypsumgirl profile image

gypsumgirl 3 years ago from Vail Valley, Colorado

Thank you so much for sharing! I will be visiting Istanbul in July and look forward to it. Reading your hub has gotten me even more excited about my upcoming visit.

Paraglider profile image

Paraglider 3 years ago from Kyle, Scotland Author

gypsumgirl - I'm sure you'll enjoy your visit!

FlourishAnyway profile image

FlourishAnyway 3 years ago from USA

Great hub. My husband and I have recently talked about making Turkey our next trip. Relatives think we're crazy. Your description and the videos make me want to venture there. Voted up and more.

Paraglider profile image

Paraglider 3 years ago from Kyle, Scotland Author

Hi FlourishAnyway. Turkey is a fine holiday destination. I'd say go for it, though not necessarily Istanbul, unless big busy cities are your thing. Plenty of great smaller towns and villages, with beaches, rivers, nature reserves, and more ancient Roman amphitheatres than Italy itself!

Letras Flamenco 2 years ago


I wanted to let you know about

I think you might just like it! ;)

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