Istanbul: Dispatch from a Frequent Traveler

Owen Freeman

Istanbul is as vibrant as ever, but recent events have caused residents and visitors to consider its safety. 

I have long loved Istanbul for its layers of history and melding of cultures, but for the past several years I have also felt that it is one of the most vibrant cities in Europe. When Soho House expanded in Europe, the new outposts chosen were Berlin and Istanbul for their cool factors. And when the owners of London’s hot spot Zuma grew their brand, they too skipped Paris and headed to Istanbul. In the Karaköy and Galata neighborhoods, dilapidated buildings have been reborn as art galleries, fashionable hotels, and eclectic boutiques. Unlike Venice, Rome, and Paris, where residents seem to be ceding their cities to tourists, Istanbul is inspiring local entrepreneurs and innovators, and their energy infuses the atmosphere.

These days, however, the city—and Turkey, in general—is attracting attention for its place in the center of the refugee crisis, proximity to Syria, and the January 12 attack by an ISIS suicide bomber. While in recent summers my travel company, Indagare, has sent as many families to Istanbul and the Turkish Riviera as we have to Paris and the South of France, this year, people are asking, “Is it safe?”

My answer is always to put things in context and to recognize that everybody has different comfort levels. Unfortunately, we live in a world of terrorism, and while there have been attacks in Istanbul and Ankara, they have not been worse than those in Boston, Paris, or California. In my experience, those who have been to Istanbul (or Israel for that matter) tend to panic less at headlines. They have witnessed the bustling life in the city and seen people of different backgrounds exist together.

Turkey itself is massive, with most areas unaffected by the problems. Of course, travelers should avoid political demonstrations and the country’s southeastern part, which borders Syria, Iran, and Iraq. But, as of press time, this is the only region that the United States government has advised avoiding.

“Turkey, being the most secular and modern country in the Muslim world, condemns all acts of terrorism,” points out a Turkish friend. “We think terrorism is an assault on humanity and universal values and that it can only serve to further promote Islamophobia, racism, and intolerance. Islam is a religion of peace.”

American personal-shopper and designer Denise Spencer, who has lived in Istanbul for 20 years, notes that Syrian refugees have replaced Turkish beggars. She participates in the U.S. State Department’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program and gets security notices from the U.S. Consulate. She believes that the risk of danger is small, but has been advising friends to visit when “the mood of the city is better.”

Others, like Istanbul-based House Hotel’s brand marketing director, Antony Doucet, have a different view. “It is more important than ever to continue to travel,” he said the day after the ISIS bombing. Turkish jeweler Sevan Biçakçi, known for his carved stone rings, agrees. “Due to its historical role as a gateway between the East and the West, studying Istanbul has the potential to make us understand the true value of coexistence,” he says. He thinks dialogue with more people from around the world can illuminate “why certain things keep going wrong and how we keep ending up with conflicts.” Istanbul-based Caroline N. Koç, founder of home-textile brand Haremlique, says, “Like residents of many great cities, we live our lives conscious of the possibility of something negative happening, but do not live our lives dictated by that possibility. My life goes on as always: enriched, challenged, and stimulated. I cannot imagine living life without Istanbul.”

See our complete special report, Traveling in Troubled Times »