I learned many things about Turkish culture during my vacation, but here are a few outstanding lessons and observations about the country’s most important city:
Istanbul is a city torn between two cultures: European and Islamic. This makes sense both geographically and historically: half the city is on the easternmost edge of Europe, and the other half is in Asia Minor. For more than 1,000 years it was part of the Western-born Byzantine Empire, and for nearly 500 years it was part of the Islamic Ottoman Empire.
While Istanbul is often described by its European-like qualities, the fact that Turkey is a predominantly Muslim country still made me believe the culture would be very conservative- i.e. as in Egypt, I would be required to dress and act very conservatively. This may be true in other, more remote areas of Turkey, but in Istanbul I was very surprised at the freedom women had. I did not feel out of place at all in shorts and a tank top, and as a white woman I never drew unwanted attention (which happened frequently in Egypt).
However, like many countries around the world, the Turkish elected government has become increasingly conservative in recent years. While Istanbul’s population has primarily a carefree and liberal attitude, translating into its very active nightlife scene, there are still some issues to be aware of. The biggest downer to going out in Istanbul is that alcohol is very, very expensive. Typical prices were $10 for a small cup of beer, and nearly $20 for any cup of hard liquor. This is because the Turkish conservative government, disapproving of alcohol consumption, has enacted numerous heavy consumption taxes on alcoholic beverages.
If you plan on partying in Istanbul, you should take that as a warning either to save more money than you planned or to budget your alcohol consumption there a little more wisely.
Fortunately these restrictions have done little to damper Istanbul’s nightlife, which continues to rival Europe in its good music and all-night club parties. Which brings me to a third major cultural difference I noticed in Istanbul: I don’t think people go to sleep there.
New York is often called “the city that never sleeps.” But if you think New York is crazy busy, you will not believe the crowds you see in Istanbul.
In the new city, aka the neighborhoods north of the Golden Horn on the European side, there is a single main drag known as the Istiklal Caddesi. Lined with shops and restaurants, this long and bustling street is something akin to New York’s Fifth Avenue.
But even Fifth Avenue and New York’s most popular neighborhoods quiet down at a certain point every night. The Istiklal Caddesi does not. All night long- Midnight, two, three, four, five in the morning- this street is packed to capacity with people out clubbing or just walking around with friends. It’s not just young people either- older people and whole families with young children are out as well, strolling around like it’s noon. Even if they tried to sleep they probably couldn’t, because the lack of noise laws allows nightclubs to blast music heard blocks away.
The city that never sleeps indeed.