This past spring I had the pleasure of exploring the Byzantine empire - a part of history I've been fascinated with since I was young - on a week long trip to Turkey with my constant friend and travel companion Joe (you'll remember him from my first time in Berlin and subsequent adventures in Scotland and Ireland). In the time leading up to takeoff I was constantly singing the appropriate They Might Be Giants cover to myself:

Because of the exchange rate we were able to live like kings and eschewed our normal hostels for five star hotels. We checked into the Divan in Istanbul, conveniently located on the northern end of the hip Taksim Square neighborhood. This is where a lot of the best Istanbul nightlife happens and we purposefully stayed there based on multiple recommendations. Thank you friends, you were not wrong, it was a great neighborhood to stay in and I would do it again in a heartbeat.

Istanbul from 360 Restaurant

My first view of Istanbul from above at the restaurant 360. (Note that I did not have my camera with me the first night, so these are all cell phone pictures.)

Wandering down the main pedestrian thoroughfare of Istiklal street we were surrounded by the smells of food on carts and in stalls: macaroons, pretzels, and kebabs dominated. We were arriving right at the end of the work day and the beginning of dinner time and the crowds were nearly unnavigable. It was as dense or worse than any popular street in London or New York. So if you have claustrophobia when it comes to crowds it's best avoided. More surprising was that all the men seemed to adhere to a single dress code: black leather jackets, dark jeans, and identical haircuts among the locals made us even more conscious of our tourist status. Amid the thronged chaos I was struck by how clean the cement and cobblestone streets were.

Istiklal Street

Istiklal street with tons of people and lit up nicely.

We eventually found the address for another repeated recommendation: dinner at 360, a posh restaurant known for panoramic views of the city. But the building looked like it was just another normal apartment building, easily inconspicuous and unremarkable from the outside. This would become a common theme in Istanbul: addresses were unreliable, and even if correct often failed to denote a floor or suite. We gambled and walked inside despite our misgivings, and were paid off by an elevator ride to a barren looking staircase with a cloth barrier. Passing through the threshold we were immediately bombarded by the sounds of dinner guests eating and clinking drinks. We were in the right place - and they had English menus.

360 Restaurant

360 Restaurant: expensive, but worth the food and views.

Dinner at 360 included some light entertainment - a few songs sung and danced to by a couple of young women in silver dresses and white wigs, with makeup I can only describe as Egyptian. One decided to dance only a few inches from me, so snapping a picture would've been extremely awkward. We drank raki cocktails - it's a local licorice-flavored liquor comparable to ouzo - and ate beef samosas with fig jam, cheese stuffed calamari, and pizza with Turkish cheese and pepperoni. It was delicious by any measure.

Aslan Lion Drink Menu

In this drink menu at 360 I was shocked to learn that "aslan" simply means "lion" in Turkish. C.S. Lewis named the lion in his Narnia series Aslan - that's the lion of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe fame. I thought it was a cool name he made up, but it's just a literal translation. Childhood: shattered.

After dinner we went back in the direction of the hotel, but stopped at the Istanbul Intercontinental for drinks. Their top-floor bar is called City Lights, and it delivers precisely that at night. We enjoyed the local beer, Efes, in several different varieties. It's named after the shortened form of the famous ancient city Ephesus, which we would visit later.

Istanbul from City Lights Bar

The Asian side Istanbul across the river as seen from the Intercontinental's City Lights bar.

It was a great evening to start the trip, and we had big plans for exploring more of the city on the morrow.