Since I was here with my family for the first time 50 years ago riding around in 1956 Chevy taxis, one I remember that used a built in 45 disc record player for a sound system, Istanbul has become an international hub more like New York City. Distinctive neighborhoods each with their own unique character and appeal worth exploring remain, each full of music venues with late night diners and neon lights, but with relics of ancient civilizations, mosques and minarets beautifully lit up against the night skyline, and the echoes of call to prayer that remind us this city once was Byzantium, then Constantinople and now Istanbul, has remained at the center of civilization. Indeed, Istanbul's cosmopolitan landscape is the business epicenter and playground of the greatest concentration of the world's billionaires after New York, London and Moscow.
As a matter of fact, Istanbul is breaking records for tourists of all kinds, with cruise ships, conventions, international music festivals, religious tourists, Arabs seeking vacation in an open society, European fun-in-the-sun beach tourists as well as Turks seeking refuge at the coast from Istanbul, all of whom are filling up hotels and restaurants creating such a demand that prices continue rising steadily from year to year.
Those of us who arrived a day early had the definite advantage of an extra 24 hours to adjust to the new time zone which really helped us absorb our first full day just strolling through the Sultanahmet historic district to see the main sites of the Blue Mosque, Aya Sofia, Topkapi Palace, and the Hippodrome. We concluded our first night together at the famous Hamdi restaurant overlooking the lights of the Golden Horn, Galata Tower, and looking up the Bosphorus at the bridge connecting Europe and Asia Minor lit up with a glow. On our first extra day Alper took us to his favorite café where they prepare the best Turkish coffee with a hint of cardamom, then led us walking through the Istanbul University campus, back streets of Sultanahmet, and the chance to walk through the beautiful Sulimanye Mosque.
In his memoir, "Istanbul: Memories and the City", Turkey's native son and famous author, Orhan Pamuck identifies his native birthplace not where east meets west, but rather according to the division between the old (ala local and Islamic) and the new (considered Western and secular). As foreign visitors we come to experience Istanbul for this complexity of old and new. Turks on the other hand, and many Arabs from throughout the Middle East, come here to enjoy all that is new, modern and high tech; Alper pointed out to us a group of young women walking along the Istiklal Cadessi pedestrian promenade who came to Turkey where they could shed their jalaba and head cover to wear jeans, designer tops and walk in public holding hands in a place that allows them the freedom to be themselves, something not allowed home.