A lot of people will be asking that question with the revelation that New York tourist Sarai Sierra, a young mother of two boys from Staten Island, was found bludgeoned to death last week in Istanbul. The answer is yes but….
I recently (last October) spent a week in Istanbul so I have more than a passing interest in the story of Sierra, an amateur photographer who was visiting the Turkish city alone. I was there with my wife and stayed in the very tourist-driven section near The Blue Mosque whereas Sierra reportedly stayed in a basement apartment near a much wilder and native area. This reportedly was Sierra’s first trip overseas and her husband says she wanted to visit Istanbul because it was cheaper than other European cities and a photographer’s paradise. In that, she was right on both counts. Everywhere you turn in this Muslim city, there is an interesting shot to be had.
My first impression of Istanbul was that I had never seen a city that had so much street life, far more than even New York. It reminded me most of the street life in Bangkok, another city teeming with people. I was told that Istanbul has a population of around 15 million which is twice that of New York. No wonder it seemed crowded. In my opinion, that is a good thing. I think the more people on the street, the safer a city is. There are an awful lot of eyes who will see what is happening and prevent a lot of it. No thieves, criminals whatever, want witnesses.
Istanbul struck me as a Muslim version of New York — big, crowded, thriving with lots of pedestrians, trams and cars. But there is one big difference in my opinion — Turkish men never tire of approaching tourists no matter how many times they’re turned down. Every morning, I would enter that same square and see the same guys I had seen 2, 3, 5 days in a row and every time, they would approach me to sell me a map or some other trinket. Every time. That does not exist in New York City. People in my hometown keep to themselves. The only similar situation I’ve seen in New York are pedicab drivers who also never tire of approaching tourists asking if they want a ride.
But imagine if that was happening to you constantly. While I enjoyed Istanbul and found it a friendly, easy-to-traverse city with great food, I did find that kind of constant attention annoying. The trick, I found, was to smile, keep walking and not say a word. The one place that really freaked me out was The Grand Bazaar. It was crowded, hard to navigate and every step I took, I was approached by a merchant. I couldn’t get out of the place soon enough. The Spice Market was different — it was not as claustrophobic and actually kind of fun.
But back to Sarai Sierra. She was traveling alone and no doubt was approached constantly by men seeking to sell her a rug, a map, a glass of tea — whatever. Even with all of that, she should have been fine. Istanbul is like New York in many respects. New York is safer than it’s been in decades but bad things still happen. The same is true of Istanbul. It’s a big urban place and, while most people mean you no hard, some do. The trick is to avoid them if you can. Obviously, Sarai could not.
So yes Istanbul is safe for tourists and a lot of fun but don’t go against your natural instincts to protect yourself. Act like you would if you were visiting New York.