I first considered visiting Istanbul sometime in October 2013, after having moved to a dorm with three Turkish girls, two of whom were from Istanbul. They spoke of their city in the same longing tone of voice I heard in myself when I spoke of Montreal, and in most of the people in our student dorm really, and it made me want to see it for myself all the more.
In those early days, I wondered what the hostels were like in Istanbul, and what the transport might be like, and how many of them might speak a language other than Turkish, all the things a prepared potential tourist should be thinking about. By the second time the idea of visiting came to me, and that idea solidified into a travel plan, I was worrying about nothing, knowing that my good friends wouldn't dream of letting me and my travel companion loose in their city, and that their homes would be as readily open to us as mine is to them, anytime they stop by Montreal.
It's difficult to explain to someone who hasn't lived it, but when you're away from home for a year or so, away from your family and your friends and all the people you know and love, and you're surrounded by other people in the same situation, you become incredibly close. My Erasmus friends from my exchange in Vienna were my family for the year that we shared, and it's hard to imagine that that feeling might ever fade with time, the same way that family will always be family. And staying with family is definitely the best way to see a city. When my travel companion Lea and I were in my friend's home, we felt at home. No stress, or nerves involved there. Things were not exactly the same once we left beautiful Istanbul to rainy Amsterdam, where we were set to stay with a man we met on Couchsurfer, who turned out to be lying about his name, a temperamental creeper, and a nudist (We found other accommodations by our second night).
What makes staying with family so good however, is not just the security in the knowledge that you won't wake up to a face full of stranger sausage, but the fact that you get to live the way they live for the duration of your stay, and you become more than just a tourist: you become a temporary native. Of course, Lea and I did a lot of tourist attractions, hitting up the Blue Mosque, the Spice Bazaar, the Grand Bazaar, Topkapi Palace, and other such tourist traps, but we also ate street mussels on our way home at night, and we ate thin meat rolls in a tiny place tucked into the side of a street I doubt any tourist has ever stepped in, and we dove for t-shirts in a tabled mountain for 5 TL. How many tourists can claim that?
It must be said that what made our trip truly spectacular (not counting the free accommodations, the extended time with friends I wouldn't see again for an indeterminate but long time, or the delicious, delicious food) is that our friends/tour guides really knew their city. They knew where to get the best meals, the best views, the best teas, the best baklava, the best Hamam (my experience with which I wrote about on a separate article). Another flaw of our initial Amsterdammer couchsurfing host was that he knew next to nothing about the city he was living in, and what little he knew, he couldn't or wouldn't communicate with us. The biggest flaw of his I think still remains that he was stark naked when my friend and I woke up, however. Long story short? Cherish your friends, especially those who take you happily into their homes, show you the very best of their city with a smile on their faces and who don't threaten to lock you out of their appartment until 2 in the morning when you mention you've found other accommodations.