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9 Popular (Mis)Conceptions About Istanbul

05/22/2013 12:57 pm 12:57:39 | Updated Jul 22, 2013
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You can love it or hate it but Istanbul probably won't leave you indifferent.

It's one of the most visited cities on earth and there are nearly as many opinions about it as there are visitors. It has been called everything: exotic, historic, unsafe (a claim buttressed by the death of photographer Sarai Sierra), food heaven, fundamentalist, a developing country, a mess, erotic or downright scary, all of them adjectives that stick to unexpected like glue.

I carried many of these preconceptions with me on a recent visit and tested them against reality. Some were terribly accurate while others, instantly dismissable.

Istanbul is crazy and disorganized.
Yes and no. Try to cross a street and you'll feel like you're rushing across a noisy minefield with a blindfold. Traffic has rules only drivers understand and pedestrians require courage and daredevilry in equal proportions as they dart among cars which miss them by an inch or two. In many other ways Istanbul is supremely organized. Ride an escalator and pedestrians will stand obediently to the right, leaving the left lane free for those in a hurry. Ride the tram or subway and watch as commuters stand willingly aside while passengers get off. There's less pushing and shoving than on public transport in orderly Geneva...

Everyone eats meat on skewers.
Um, no. First of all kebabs are not from Istanbul but from the Balkans or the Caucasus. You'll find at least as many kebabs in London as you will on these streets. Most food is not skewered. You'll recognize some Turkish food if you like Greek or Lebanese, things like hummus or dolma (dolmades in Greece). Turkey has an unsuspected wealth of regional cuisines, ranging from Caucasus and Black Sea cooking to Mediterranean or Middle Eastern. The city doesn't have many foreign restaurants (American fast food excepted). They don't need to: regional cuisines are varied enough to satisfy even the most jaded palate.

Istanbul is dusty and poor.
Perhaps a few years ago you could have said that and gotten away with it. No more. The dusty streets below Galata Bridge are slowly becoming gentrified, (and local inhabitants are being pushed out by rising rents). The goats that once trotted along the roads have been edged, along with their owners, out of town. There are poor Istanbullus -- but there are poor New Yorkers and Londoners as well. Rural Turkey is far poorer but Istanbul is a thriving, cosmopolitan city with its rich, its poor and its middle classes, just like other world-class city its size.

Istanbul is a hotbed of Muslim fundamentalism.
There has definitely been an increase in religiosity and conservatism since the Islamic-leaning AK Party was elected in 2002. Many women wear headscarves now, almost unheard of a decade ago, but don't be fooled. They're not all suddenly devout. A headscarf also has political uses and plenty of women wear them to get ahead professionally. In an Islamic administration it goes without saying that playing the part will win a few brownie points.

The city is full of rabid dogs.
In some neighborhoods, especially those less less frequented by tourists, you will indeed find dozens of dogs -- and cats -- on the streets. Literally. They lie around in the middle of the road, somehow escaping grievous bodily harm as cars and buses weave around them. They are not rabid in the least, on the contrary. It seems the government pays for them to be spayed or castrated to prevent additional unwanted births. And the kind citizens of Istanbul do love their pets, leaving water and food out for them every night. In my neighborhood, nearly every doorway had a bowl of water and leftover food for the uninvited visitor.

Istanbul is confusing and you'll never find your way around.
Yes, it is most definitely confusing. Not only is it a collection of villages, but getting from A to B usually involves a detour through C and D. The city lies over two continents, which can add to the confusion. However, public authorities have invested heavily in public transit, not least because the city is bidding for the 2020 Olympics and won't have a chance unless it gets its transport together. It does seem to be working although there are gaps when you try to cross the entire city. To get downtown from my northern suburb involved taking a bus, a subway, a funicular and a tram. Complex, developing, but well-marked all the way and a single transport card makes paying a cinch.

It's dangerous, especially for women.
The most cited example is the recent murder of Serai Sierra, the New York photographer found dead along the city's ancient walls. Yes, she was brutally slain while traveling in the city. And she wasn't the only one. A few other females have found death in Istanbul. But most haven't. Domestic violence is sadly rising but non-domestic violence against foreign women is extremely rare. When it comes to general crime, Istanbul doesn't even make it into the top 100 most dangerous cities in the world, nestled statistically between Victoria, Canada and Santiago de Chile. So yes, Istanbul can be dangerous. It is sad when tragedy happens but Istanbul isn't more prone to violent crime than other large cities. In fact, far less so.

The Grand Bazaar is a den of thieves and you could "almost" lose your life there.
Urban legends abound about this 500-year old warren of merchant streets stuffed with an impossible array of goods from all corners of the Orient. Stories of muggings and robbery and even kidnappings have long titillated visitors who yearn to feel the shivers of ancient and exotic mysteries. Nothing could be further from the truth. The dim alleys have given way to brightly lit pedestrian walkways that would look at home in a suburban mall, if it weren't for their unusual wares and open storefronts.

Istanbul is dirt cheap.
Not for everything, unfortunately. Some things are cheaper than in Western Europe, for example street food. But step into a patisserie or restaurant and you'll easily spend what you would in any other southern European country. Public transport is definitely cheaper, as are leather goods and clothes. But cheaper does not mean you can blindly stuff your suitcases full of bargain-basement goods for resale back home.

Istanbul left me wide-eyed with wonder, exhaustion, history and enchantment. Mostly it surprised me. I arrived with a set of expectations and left with most of them demolished. And that, to me, is exactly how travel is supposed to be.