Inside the Aya Sofya: originally built by Justinian and then captured for the Ottomans by Mehmet the Conqueror, and now a museum.

Istanbul is a destination that we had planned to visit during our sabbatical year. The children had a week off from school for Settimana Bianca, or “White Week.” This is a winter holiday when Italian families head to the ski slopes. Since we don’t ski, we headed off to Turkey.

Our much-anticipated vacation started with a few stressors. On the flight from Rome we found lice in Nell’s hair and when we arrived at our hotel, Eli started running a fever. But thanks to what we like to think of as good parental intuitions, we had packed all of the appropriate pharmaceuticals and 24 hours later, everyone was fixed, feeling good, and ready to explore.

This trip was also a big developmental milestone for our family. For the first time, the kids had their own hotel room—not connected to ours, but down the hall. So at the end of a day we were able to say goodnight and make a plan to have everyone meet in the hotel restaurant for breakfast at an appointed hour the next day (the kids always beat us there!). It was definitely a bittersweet transition for the parents, but a singularly positive one for the kids that left them feeling very independent and excited about their own hotel room!

Domes of the Blue Mosque.

Istanbul exceeded our high expectations. But explaining why is a challenge because the city defies easy categorization.

The Turks are known for their hospitality—and every person we met lived up to that reputation. The country’s rich history—so intertwined with Rome’s that in addition to Constantinople and Byzantium, Istanbul was also called “New Rome”—was captivating. The culinary culture left us planning entire days around our meals. Aspects of westernization made parts of the city feel very familiar and comfortable. At the same time, the country has a nasty government, increasing religious fundamentalism, human rights abuses, and laws that allow journalists to be imprisoned for writing things critical of the government.

In part, we were won over by the people, who were warm and funny, and may have even outdone the Italians with their overt affection for children. On numerous occasions strangers came up to the children to tell them how beautiful they were and hug them; as we waited for subway cars to empty, disembarking passengers would stop—one by one—to pinch the children’s cheeks and tousle their hair. People hurrying off to work would stop when they saw us consulting a map to ask if we needed any help or direction.

Tea overlooking the Bosphorus, on the grounds of the Topkapi Palace.

But it wasn’t just the people. The skylines of domes and minarets, the decorative tiles both inside and outside of the buildings, the smells of the food wafting from restaurants, the view of the gorgeous Bosphorus river winding through the city, the activity of the bazaars, and even the musical calls to prayer from the mosques ringing through the city. . . this all felt magical.

In some ways the city felt European, in other ways Asian. Sometimes it seemed Western, sometimes Eastern. It was Islamic but also secular. There were high-end cocktail lounges and avant-garde architecture, with most women wearing head coverings. The city felt both very old and very contemporary. Turkey has a grand and rich history from even before the Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman empires, but not the grand modern history, literature, and art of other western European countries. So it’s a bit too eastern for the tastes of the other NATO allies and a bit too western to be in the fold of its Arab neighbors. And that seems to leave it in a marvelous place of its own, where traditional values clash with modernization, and secularism attempts to balance alongside political Islam.

Asia lies on the other side of the Bosphorus, a 10 minute ferry ride away. The kids are enjoying fresh-pressed orange-pompegranate juice on the Asian side.

One thing that really captured our attention was the city’s cleanliness. The streets and sidewalks were always tidy and whenever we purchased museum tickets, we were also presented with a packet of hand wipes (with the design of the particular museum imprinted on them). It was also striking to us how happy people seemed, which was surprising because it is certainly not a wealthy city. One guide told us that Istanbulers give a great deal of respect to people who do their jobs well, regardless of whether you run a huge business or shine shoes. These shows of overt respect for each other seemed to result in a collective sense of high self-esteem and satisfaction. We felt that instantly and a bit of it rubbed off.

Some of the things we noticed were funny. In Istanbul, you go to particular places to buy specific items. We first noticed this when we entered the street where you can buy burlap sacks. If you need a sack, you don’t go to a general hardware store or run around town trying to find which general store has what you need. There is one street where all of the merchants selling burlap sacks can be found. And each merchant sells a different kind of sack, so the merchants don’t compete with each other. Later that afternoon, we walked down the street where all of the shops selling scales could be found. The street where one goes to buy sink faucets looked really cool, and the street where shop after shop sold only SCUBA equipment was hysterical.

On our drive to the airport for our flight back to Rome, our conversation was all about when we could next return, where in the city we want to stay next time, and what we wanted to do on our subsequent visits. Eli wants us to find a weekend when we can get back there  immediately, even this spring. Nell wants to experience it in a different season. Jenny wants to stay in a neighborhood just beyond the city center. Seth wants to spend a day at the Archeology Museum. And we all have specific food items that we are already longing for.

With all of the places in the world that we still want to visit, we feel certain that we’ll be returning to Istanbul.

View of the Golden Horn, with the Topkapi Palace and Aya Sofya in the distance.