For full-throttle, in your face, legit, authentic and memorable cultural experiences, this is your post. It is about more than seeing, visiting, picture-taking and observing; it is about doing. Don’t just watch the movie, be the movie (or at least be in it). Here is our special ISTANBUL CULTURE: TOP 5 EXPERIENCES
Much more than a haircut
Hair is almost an after thought at a Turkish barber (or ‘berber’). It is the excuse that brings you to the barber, but not the real, or at least not the only, reason that you go. I compare it to attending a baseball game – we all know that baseball games are boring, but we go for the tailgating, hot dog eating, beer drinking fun that baseball games offer. At a baseball game you experience much more than the action on the field, just as at a Turkish barber you experience much more than a haircut. There are a few packages offered – I say just go ahead and get the full deal and most expensive one (still only about $7). First they get the whole cutting your hair thing out of the way, then they bring out the single blad razor – which I’ve been told is conducive to beard growing so I’ve been getting this done quite frequently. After two shaves they apply a sort of paste to your face and massage your neck, upper back and arms while it soaks in. Tea is offered (obviously a big part of istanbul culture) and the experience is topped-off with a rather threatening, but for that exact reason incredibly awesome, ear-hair singeing process. A spoon like tool is set on fire and then rapidly moved in and out of your ear – the idea being that the flames burn all of the hair during the process. When it’s all said and done your face will be smoother than Ryan Gosling (the person who to talk to about istanbul culture) and you can be proud of yourself for having gone where few tourists have gone before.
HAMAM (turkish bath: a must in istanbul culture)
Get cleaned, get groomed, get rubbed, get naked (before all of that)
Part of the beauty of the Hammam and the Turkish Barber is the fact that you have no idea what you are being told to do. The mystery of it all, the unexpectedness of what is about to happen, that is half of the fun. As anybody who has been to a Turkish bath will tell you, if you desire to get a real feel for the culture, if you want to do instead of only see, then this is a must. The bath may not be loved by everybody, but it is appreciated by everybody (this conclusion is based on first-hand narratives from The Other Tour participants). A centuries-old Roman tradition inherited by the Ottomans, the Turkish bath once served as the only cleansing mechanism in society. People would go weekly to soak, relax, detox, de-skin (exfoliate) and socialize. It is not used with such frequency anymore, but it does have its regulars. The experience can take anywhere from 30 minutes to a couple of hours depending on how long you want it to last. The process begins with a steam room, reaches its climactic moments with the lufa scrub down (you will be blown away at how much dead skin comes off of your body) and bubble massage, and comes to a relaxing conclusion with a cool, refreshing dip in the pool.
An important part of any culture
Local street flavors get your taste buds bristling and invigorate your cultural enthusiasm. In some countries you might hear street food associated with the warning, “not for the faint of heart”. That’s not how we roll here in Turkey. The street food and street vendors can be trusted for the quality and the safety of their products. Meatball sandwiches in Sultanahmet, roasted walnuts all over the place and kumpir in Ortakoy are just a few tasty treats we recommend trying. Check our quick eats post for some more fast, easy and delicious street food around the city.
TURKISH MUSIC – FASIL
Act like you know how to dance and sing
What karaoke is to the Japanese and folk music is to Americans, fasil is to the Turks. It gets people out of their seats and on the dance floor, singing, twirling and clapping their way into joyous oblivion (of course, Raki usually plays some minor, or major, role in this). Most fasil groups boast an impressive combination of musicians with violin, lyre, the Turkish harp and clarinet as well as a singer accompanied by, well, his voice (though by the end of the night the crowd has all but stolen his role). If you plan on sitting back and watching the whole thing, you’d serve well to change your plans. Odds are you’ll find yourself on the dance floor before the night is over (be it willingly or not). Most fasil is played in traditional Turkish meyhanes – or taverns – and is accompanied by food and drink. They are great places to meet locals and very much tourist cold spots, if that makes any sense. Galata Meyhanesi is our favorite place for some fasil music and a fun night out that also offers a glimpse into this beautiful Istanbul culture eating and dancing.