Lisa Morrow: My Birthday (in Istanbul)

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Photo of me on one birthday after a night out dancing.

I’m a Leo and I love celebrating my birthday. It’s never the presents I remember but the people I was with and what we did. For one of my teenage birthday parties my Dad took me and about six friends to lunch at the revolving restaurant in Australia Square in Sydney. It was pretty expensive and a real treat so we all got dressed up and tried to act like grown-ups. We did really well until one of us, and I really don’t remember who, decided it would be fun to see how fast we could run down the 47 flights of stairs, or possibly more, to the street. We were laughing hysterically in between trying to catch our breath and burst excitedly through the fire door and straight into the arms of a very angry security guard. “What do you think you’re doing?” he shouted at us. “You’ve set off all the fire alarms!”

Me and my teenage gang of stair criminals!

As we stood silently in the lift going back up to the 47th floor I remember feeling my heart beating as if it was going to jump out of my chest. I was terrified when the lift finally stopped. How much chaos had we caused and what was Dad going to say? An eternity seemed to pass before the doors opened to a scene of … perfect calm. Everyone was sitting and eating and drinking exactly as they were when we left.

The security scare didn’t stop me having a ball that birthday. I’ve always been shy around people I don’t know, so I enjoy myself more with small groups of friends rather than at big raucous events. When I celebrated my birthday in Istanbul in 2000 at a local restaurant on Divan Yolu in Sultanahmet with my now husband Kim it was a typical hot and steamy July day and the Istanbul International Jazz Festival had just been on. It’s a festival famous for bringing local and international musicians together, whether of jazz or other styles of music.

Hanging around Sultanahmet, 2000

That year the Buena Vista Social Club had performed but we’d arrived in Turkey too late to see them. Nevertheless I was happy just to be with the person I loved most, in the city I loved best. As I tucked into my lamb and vegetable guveç, I engaged in a spot of people watching. Sitting a few tables away was an older black woman dressed in colourful clothes with an enormous swathe of fabric wrapped around her hair. Back then most tourists coming to Istanbul were white and dressed in camoflague beige, so she really stood out from the crowd. When I pointed her out to him, Kim took a good look and said, “Isn’t she Omara Portuondo? You know, from the Buena Vista Social Club?” I took another look and excitedly realised he was right. I so wanted to go up to her and say hello, but the more Kim encouraged me, the more crippled with shyness I became. I watched hopelessly as she finished her meal and left.

More than 20 years later I’m still sometimes overcome by shyness but I’ve largely learned to manage it. So much so that this year I’m going to tell you the two things I want for my birthday. First, at the risk of sounding like a beauty pageant queen, most of all I want “world peace”. Failing that, more awareness and support of those in need, including displaced people such as those effected by the devastating earthquakes on February 6, 2023. Whether you live in Turkey or are coming over for a holiday, make conscious decisions about where you spend your money when buying gifts and souvenirs. I think gifts that give back are the best type of presents.

The second thing I want is for people to help promote tourism in Turkey and I’ll be honest, me as well. With this in mind, here are my helpful tips for planning your trip to Turkey.

For FLIGHTS I like to use

Don’t pay extra for an E-VISA. Here’s my post on everything to know before you take off.

However E-SIM are the way to go to stay connected with a local phone number and mobile data on the go. Airalo is easy to use and affordable.

Even if I never claim on it, I always take out TRAVEL INSURANCE. I recommend Visitors Coverage.

I’m a big advocate of public transport, but know it’s not suitable for everyone all the time. When I need to be picked up from or get to Istanbul Airport or Sabiha Gokcen Airport, I use one of these GetYourGuide website AIRPORT TRANSFERS.

ACCOMMODATION: When I want to find a place to stay I use

CITY TOURS & DAY TRIPS: Let me guide you around Kadikoy with my audio walking tour Stepping back through Chalcedon or venture further afield with my bespoke guidebook Istanbul 50 Unsung Places. I know you’ll love visiting the lesser-known sites I’ve included. It’s based on using public transport as much as possible so you won’t be adding too much to your carbon footprint. Then read about what you’ve seen and experienced in my three essay collections and memoir about moving to Istanbul permanently.

Browse the GetYourGuide website or Viator to find even more ways to experience Istanbul and Turkey with food tours, visits to the old city, evening Bosphorus cruises and more!

However you travel, stay safe and have fun! Iyi yolculuklar.

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