I once had the good fortune to spend a 20-hour layover in Istanbul, and I’ve been intrigued by this massive, multifaceted city ever since. While I caught only a glimpse of Istanbul, the city and its inhabitants come to life in Lisa Morrow’s book Inside Out In Istanbul.
As an Australian expat and longtime resident of Turkey, Lisa describes life in Istanbul with both the authority of a local and the keen observation of an outsider. This collection took me inside places I couldn’t have gone, within private homes and to a funeral ceremony. It invites you into the intricacies of the local spice shop and the contradictions of bra shopping.
Morrow is always asking questions. In one of my favorite stories, her metrobus ride is imbued with that sense of whimsy that propels travel lovers. She wonders about the history at each stop along the route as the changing city slips past her window.
Lisa was kind enough to share her insights on living abroad and tips for traveling to Istanbul.
How did you come to live in Turkey?
I’ve traveled extensively since I was in my early 20s, and Turkey is the one country that keeps calling me back. The people, culture, religion and history fascinated me on my first visit here as a backpacker in 1990 and continue to do so. Over the years I’ve repeatedly returned, staying longer and longer each time, until it finally made more sense just to stay.
What still surprises you about Istanbul?
Two things continue to surprise me about Istanbul. The first is that even though it’s a huge city, with a population of around 15 million people, it still has a neighborhood feel. I regularly, unexpectedly bump into people I know who live on the opposite side of the city from me, because Istanbul is a series of little interconnected villages rather than an alienating metropolis.
The second thing I love is the cultural diversity of the city. When people think of Istanbul they usually talk about Islam and the Ottoman Empire. However there’s so much more here, such as Armenian, Jewish and Greek communities, and even descendants of the White Russians who fled the Bolshevik Revolution at the beginning of the 20th century.
“Istanbul is a series of little interconnected villages rather than an alienating metropolis.”
What’s a common misconception about Turkish culture?
I meet a lot of people, particularly Americans, who immediately connect Turkey with the Middle East. Although the two countries share a religion, no Turk would ever call themselves an Arab. Not only is the language different, Turkey has more similarities with Mediterranean cultures, as well as European aspirations, which work together to produce a culture rich in music, dance, food and traditions that are uniquely Turkish. It’s not until you come here and experience the welcoming nature of the people that you can begin to understand Turkish culture.
If a visitor only had one day in Istanbul (as I did) what should they do?
With only one day to see Istanbul, I’d recommend you go to Sultanahmet. You won’t be able to see everything, but what you do see will be unforgettable. If you’re a fan of the Ottoman Sultans, head straight to Topkapı Palace to see the famous 86 carat Spoonmaker’s Diamond and the spectacular and infamous harem. You’ll need at least three hours to do the Palace justice.
Have lunch back on the main street called Divan Yolu and then go to the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, or one of these and the Yerebatan Sarayı, or Underground Cistern. Alternatively, see the last three sights and after a late lunch enter the bustling streets of the Grand Bazaar, bargaining for treasures while wending your way down to the shores of the Golden Horn in Eminonu to try some Turkish Delight in the Egyptian Bazaar.
In the evening, head to a rooftop restaurant in the old town for dinner and enjoy a glass of the national drink, rakı, and a selection of fresh Turkish mezze, followed by grilled chicken or lamb. After the day’s excitement you’ll sleep like a sultan or sultana.
Do you have any message for travelers who are avoiding Turkey due to recent events?
To a certain extent traveling is about taking risks, so it’s important to know your own comfort levels. What one person thinks of as dangerous can easily appeal to another, therefore it’s essential to check with your travel agent and your consulate before planning a trip to Turkey, rather than go on what you’ve heard from another traveler. Most people who do come have a wonderful time, but it helps to be flexible and able to change your plans at short notice should the situation change.
Rather than a checklist of places to visit, Inside Out In Istanbul is a collection of moments, a fingerprint of memories that convey Istanbul’s identity. I thought this book was beautifully written and wonderfully informative. Lisa captures both the feeling of the city and her personal process of learning about it in print. There is no one Istanbul, and this fine work of travel writing will leave you wanting to know them all.