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Turning My Lens on Istanbul

By Rick Steves
Rick's TV crew, Istanbul, Turkey
Rick's camera crew gets ready to shoot from a rooftop in Istanbul with the Bosphorus in the background. (photo: Rick Steves)

Until European travel becomes fully open to Americans, here's a reminder of the fun that awaits us in Europe.

Staring into a TV camera, I say, "Istanbul is one of the world's great cities, period. For thousands of years, this point, where East meets West, has been the crossroads of civilizations. Few places on earth have seen more history than this sprawling metropolis on the Bosphorus."

It's the last day of a week devoted to producing a TV show on Istanbul, and we need a grand spot for the show's opening. We had a reasonable vista from the Galata Bridge, but it just showed charming old fishermen and tour boats. I want to somehow capture both the historic cultural confluence and contemporary might of this giant city.

So far, the site selection has just led to frustrations. Mentally scanning all possible angles, it hits me — we need what filmmakers call a "high-wide," a wide-angle, almost aerial shot. I want to show the freighter-filled Bosphorus and its Golden Horn inlet, the teeming Galata Bridge with lumbering commuter ferries churning up the port, and a huge mosque in the foreground.

We go to the spot I envision (above the "New Mosque," near the famous Spice Market) and survey the zone. A restaurant has a shaded roof terrace — we go there and it is perfect…except no necessary sun is shining on me.

Next door, a toy company has offices with a small rooftop terrace in the sun. It's perfect. They welcome our crew onto their roof, bring us tea, and — grabbing a calm moment between the gusts — I deliver my lines.

Then we taxi to Ortaköy, a trendy café district that's too far from the historic center for most tourists. It sits in the shadow of a Baroque mosque and the mighty modern bridge that crosses the Bosphorus.

I want to get more interaction between Turks and me, and this is perfect — a gang of four charming young Turkish men join me to pass around a big nargile (water pipe), sip tea, and play backgammon. Whether you're filming a TV show or not, backgammon is the perfect way to create conviviality with new friends. At the neighboring table we film two sisters — one in Western dress and the other wearing a colorful but conservative head scarf — chatting as they pass the mouthpiece of their nargile. (I admit this was part of my agenda: to make both a big water pipe and a scarved Muslim woman less menacing to the more insular of my viewers.)

When the sun is low and the chop of the Bosphorus carbonates the scene, I step out onto the ferry landing. Behind me, the frilly mosque softens the harsh lines created by the mighty bridge reaching between Asia and Europe. Just as a ship enters the frame, I look into the lens and close the show: "Like its bridge, Istanbul brings East and West together. With a complex weave of modern affluence, Western secularism, and traditional Muslim faith, it's a dynamic and stimulating city, well worth a visit."

The next day, I'm scanning the Bosphorus again, this time from a taxi that's heading for the airport. A hundred freighters fill the coastal waters — a commotion of ships as big as the photos I've seen of the D-Day landings. Each is filled with cargo for thriving economies. One by one, they enter Istanbul's maritime bottleneck.

In the middle of the strait there's a construction site — an industrial-strength pontoon island with heavy machinery digging the first road tunnel under the Bosphorus, a complex engineering project that promised to make Istanbul a less congested, quieter, and cleaner city. (The tunnel, which opened in 2016, did end up doing just that.) I trace the city's horizon with its misty minarets spiking up from the old town to the distant modern skyline, a wannabe-Shanghai forest of skyscrapers that tourists never visit.

Reaching the airport, I tip the taxi driver, selfishly holding back just enough change for a coffee. Enjoying a rare break with my headphones, I find I can better appreciate the human drama of a crowded public scene like this airport's if I've got pumping music obliterating the natural sound. An old woman weeps as the security line slowly swallows up her son, who's holding a reaching grandson in his arms. With a thump, my passport is stamped and shortly I'm out of Istanbul.