How an unexpected 24 hours in Istanbul, in the midst of the city’s infamous riots, rid me of my fears as a solo female traveller.
I’d never planned on going to Istanbul.
Back in the summer of 2013, on a solo trip tour around Europe, I was a little more fearful than I am now. I stuck to ‘safe’ places – my home in southern Spain, Belgium, Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic. Just being on my own was scary enough – having to negotiate trains stations and airports, drag heavy luggage up stairs, find my way back to hostels in the dark.
In one, terrifying incident, I was assaulted by a creepy dude as I boarded a train in Vienna. Travelling solo as a female can be really, really scary.
Turkey had always been on my list, but, at the height of the riots over Taksim Square, I’d always thought to put it off until later.
That is, until, I unexpectedly ended up with 24 hours in Istanbul.
Still in a cloudy-brained stupor from a woeful bout of gastro, I stumbled into a Santorini travel agent, handed over my credit card, and instructed the man behind the counter to find me the cheapest way to Zagreb. It wasn’t until the next day, on a flight out of Athens, that I realised I was headed to one of the heavily-televised riot zones in all of continental Europe.
What I first though to be a curse, however, ended up a blessing. Despite the past month of travels, there was still a part of me that held back; a part that wouldn’t venture into a crowded market for fear of being pick-pocketed, a part that would rather read a book in the hostel common room than break the ice with people I didn’t know.
They say that solo travel helps you get over your fears – but I was travelling solo like my fears were out to get me.
And then, there was Istanbul.
Looking back on my 24 hours in Istanbul, I’m a little embarrassed of my former self. After more than a month alone travelling around Europe, and six months before that living in a new city, I liked to think of myself as a brave, solo female.
How wrong I was. In Istanbul, I even considered staying in the hotel all day. I was convinced that the riots were everywhere, and my obviously foreign self would stick out like a sore thumb.
Little did I realise that Istanbul is one of the most fascinating, gorgeous cities in Europe (and Asia, if we’re getting technical – the city straddles either side of the Bosphorus Strait between the two continents).
Here’s how those 24 hours in Istanbul rid me of my travel fears:
9 p.m. Getting from Ataturk airport to the Istanbul city centre
Touchdown in Turkey. The airport is about a half-hour drive out of the city, and the local government has implemented estimated taxi fare signs to ward off dodgy drivers. My car careered down the multi-lane freeway, the driver slamming on the breaks every few kilometres where he knew there was a speed camera. It was already dark when we pulled into a lane way, I handed over my lira and he motioned me down a street.
The hotel was way too fancy for what I’d paid – the riots had scared off the usual mass of tourists to the city (in 2015, over 12 million people visited Istanbul). Still too afraid to venture outside, however, I nibbled on a couple of sandwiches packed from Athens and headed to bed before 10.30.
9 a.m. My first friendly face of the day
Over a Turkish breakfast of cold meats and cheeses in the hotel bar, I closely studied the city map. There was Taksim square (I’d heard the name on the news), so I drew a big read circle around it and the letters ‘A-V-O-I-D’. I figured that the quickest and safest route into the old centre was on the tram, a charming little red-painted trolley reminiscent of those in San Francisco, or Melbourne.
On the way to the stop I entered a local convenience store to get a bottle of water (in Istanbul, tap water is a no-go, and gastro was a mistake I wasn’t going to make twice), where the vendor, in broken English, asked me where I was from.
“Australia”, I said, to which he flashed me a huge grin.
Making reference to a World War I battle fought between our two countries, he gave me a one lira discount on the water.
10 a.m. The Sultan Ahmed or Blue Mosque
Imagining myself as a bad-ass Carry Matheson in Homeland, I navigated the inner-city streets to arrive at the famous Blue Mosque. The thing is impressive – there’s absolutely no doubt – with its six 65-metre tall minarets, and pale blue hue that gives it its more common name.
Despite the June heat, I’d dressed accordingly – in long pants, my shoulders covered, and a light scarf to wrap over my head. Turn up to the blue mosque in shorts and a singlet, and you’ll be make to wear a long, zip-up, surgical style tunic and something that resembles a tea-towel on your head.
Inside, there’s an omnipresent sense of calm, like an oasis in the steamy, crowded city. Worshippers silently carried out their daily prayers in the huge, colourful room, draped with low hanging lights. It’s a thousands times more opulent than any Catholic church you’ll visit in Europe.
11 a.m. The Hippodrome
Once the site of Byzantine chariot races, the Hippodrome is a long, tree-lined boulevard between the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia. Now it’s filled with weekend markets, selling silver jewellery and boxes of Turkish delight. While I’m not the hugest fan of the sugary treat, I figured that I couldn’t go to Turkey without eating Turkish delight.
As if locked in an eternal face off to prove who is the more extravagant, the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia sit at either end of the hundreds-metre long Hippodrome.
11:30 a.m. The Hagia Sophia
The only thing I knew about the Hagia Sophia is that I once saw it on an episode of The Amazing Race. However, nothing you ever see on T.V, or read in a book, could ever prepare you for the sheer, breathtaking size of the thing.
Once a Christian Basilica, then a mosque, and now a museum, the 1,500-year-old structure is a mixture of both Muslim and Catholic iconography. Even the restoration inside at the time could not put a blight on its magnificence.
You could gaze for hours up at the rooftop domes above you, dizzy from vertigo and and the intricate tiling covering the entire ceiling.
One of the greatest surviving examples of Byzantine architecture, the Hagia Sophia played host the the start of the Great Schism in Europe. For 1,000 years, it was the world’s biggest cathedral (until the cathedral here in my home of Seville was built, and stole all of Istanbul’s glory. Sorry ’bout it.).
1 p.m. The Grand Bazaar
On a sight-seeing high I forgot my fears for a moment, and took the plunge into Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar; one of the biggest covered marketplaces in the world.
Like the Hagia Sophia, it’s lined with grand, domed rooftops and semi-circle archways, vendors selling copious amounts of coloured lanterns and gold jewellery. In the crazy-crowded marketplace, I still stood out as obviously non-Turkish. That’s when my fears began to return; convinced that every person that so much as gave me a sideways glance was out to steal my wallet.
Down the far, quieter end of the market, I stopped to lunch on hummus, flat bread and Turkish tea with cinnamon… finding comfort in the familiar place mats:
3:30 p.m. The Basilica Cistern
Heading back onto ‘safe’ territory: the Hippodrome and its two giant mosques that I’d come to know so well in my morning in Istanbul, I found the entrance to the famous Basilica Cistern.
The giant underground chamber is over a hundred metres long, and was built by 7,000 slaves in the sixth century to provide water to the great palaces that once stood above it. The ceiling is supported by 336 nine-metre high columns, two of which bear the famous Medusa heads.
Legend has it that they were brought from another ancient Roman structure and placed in the cistern, one head on its side and the other upside down, to prevent the Gorgon sister’s gaze from turning anyone to stone.
6:30 p.m. The Bosphorus Strait
As the call to prayer echoed out across the city, I avoided the crowd of incoming worshippers and headed down the hill to the port, looking out across the Bosphorus Strait.
On my side, Europe, on the other, Asia: Istanbul seems to embody the cultural fusion with a pinch of old-world charm and a lot of Middle Eastern bite. My feet sore from a full eight hours of walking, I strolled along the promenade; the afternoon breeze whipping off the water was a respite at the end of a sticky day.
Cruise and cargo ships entered the wide bay to the city. Fisherman sat patiently on the water’s edge. The sun slowly began to slip behind the skyline as the Asian side of the city lit up.
I was one of only a handful of tourists in the city; the rest deterred by the riots. But, there was not a rioter in sight during my 24 hours in Istanbul. I never felt unsafe, in fact; I felt comfortable, interested, and excited to see what was around each corner.
I hate to talk about this kind of stuff, because it’s a little bit lame and I can feel myself cringe as I write it, but, on my red-eye to Zagreb that night, it was as if a weight had been lifted. I suddenly felt bold – not held back by my solo female traveller fears, but rather, inspired by them.
I’d spent a very non-eventful (but extraordinarily fascinating) 24 hours in a city that I was convinced would resemble a war zone, with any feeling of insecurity just a figment of my over-thinking brain.
The world really isn’t that scary.
In the words of the brilliant Liz Carlson from Young Adventuress:
Women underestimate their own abilities, over and over again. Why? Because that’s how most girls are raised. We grow up in a world where powerful, independent, and ambitious women are frowned upon. Does anyone else find that incredibly sad?
Women need to step up to the plate, and travel happens to be one of the easiest arenas to make that happen. Whether you are going on a day trip from your hometown or backpacking around the world for a year, I encourage each and every girl to travel alone at some point in their lives. I’m not saying that every girl should be a solo female traveller forever, but personally I think everyone should try it once.
Have you ever had a travel experience that’s killed your travel fears? How would you spend 24 hours in Istanbul? Let me know in the comments below, or connect with me on social media: