You Can Still Visit the Original Istanbul Train Station Where the Orient Express Began

This past weekend my husband and I went to go see the new Murder on the Orient Express movie.  It was about what I expected, based on reviews I’d read– the acting was fun, the costumes and scenery were fantastic, the story itself was enjoyable if a bit underwhelming.  It’s more a homage to the glamour of the 1930s than it is a riveting detective movie, even with Kenneth Branagh’s stellar performance as Hercule Poirot.

One thing I did like about it is that it’s perhaps the first movie I’ve seen that takes place in Istanbul (partially, for a brief bit at the beginning of the film) that didn’t make me want to tear my hair out.  Most Western movies use Istanbul through a heavy lens of orientalism— making Istanbul seem exotic just for the sake of being exotic, of attributing various aspects of Arab culture to the city that don’t even exist here (reminder: Turks and Arabs have distinct languages, religious denominations, and cultures), that sort of thing.  There was none of that in this movie, thankfully.

Something I didn’t know until last year is that you can still go to the train station in Istanbul that was one of the endpoints of the Orient Express, and I only found out because we happened to stumble across it while out in the city one day.  It’s a beautiful old building, and we wandered over to get a better look at it before realizing what it is.  It’s situated in the city’s historic peninsula, and is surrounded by bazaars and mosques and monuments that are hundreds and thousands of years old, so it’s kind of easy to miss even though it does have that old-school glamour that the time period is known for.

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The front of Sirkeci Station

Sirkeci Station was built in 1888 by the Ottoman Empire, who decided that Istanbul needed to be connected to Europe after the Crimean War.  The station ran both local and international trains.  The train lines changed frequently over the years, and eventually a restaurant was added that became a popular spot for artists, writers, and journalists in the 1950s and 1960s.  The Orient Express line to Istanbul was shut down in 1977 (later, the other stations were shut down as well in other countries, ending the famous route), and all international lines were shut down from Sirkeci until just this past year.  Now, a few routes are running to cities in the Balkans.

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Inside one of the waiting rooms of the station, looking out to the train platform

When we were at the station last spring, they were doing restoration on the facade of the building, and certain parts of the station were locked/unavailable for tourists.  Still, the architecture is beautiful, and it’s worth wandering into when you’re in the area– and if you’re a tourist in Istanbul, you’ll definitely be in the area, since it’s close to the Grand Bazaar, Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace, and the Blue Mosque.  The restaurant still exists and you can sit down for lunch, or even just for tea and a snack.  The station was decently busy but not overly crowded when we were there, both with tourists and with locals, and at one point a group bike tour pedaled through.

And if you like this kind of architecture and the glamour from that time period, another place to visit is the Pera Palace Hotel and Museum— it’s where Agatha Christie used to hang out and write when she was in Istanbul.  It’s a beautiful building and one of my favorite art museums in Istanbul.  It’s not particularly close to Sirkeci Station– it’s across the Golden Horn, located just off the famous Istiklal Street.  Istiklal sadly has seen better days and is definitely not what it once was– nowadays, it’s mostly construction and empty storefronts– but the Pera Palace is still there and still stunning, and I definitely recommend it if you have a free afternoon.

Istanbul is such a diverse city, and sometimes you can find the most interesting bits of history when you look past the mosques and bazaar.

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Rome: An Ode to Off-Season Travel

I’ve been to Rome twice: once as a 19-year-old study abroad student in 2005, and the other at age 30 in 2015.  The two trips, ten years apart, could not have been more different.

(Yes, this happened two years ago; a friend recently posted pictures of the Trevi fountain and it made me all nostalgic, so I’m finally writing about it.)

My first time, it was a weekend trip.  I was in Italy for the summer, living and studying in the small hilltop town of Orvieto, in Umbria.  (Google it!  It’s beautiful.)  I went to Rome for the weekend with some other girls from my American university who were also doing the summer study abroad program.

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Fountain at the Vatican

My memories of the 2005 trip to Rome are hazy at this point, but I mostly remember it being hot, crowded, and overwhelming.  I’m sure there were things I liked about it, but the most vivid recollections I have are standing in the heat in front of St. Peter’s and trying to find drinkable water, getting lost at night trying to use public transportation, and climbing up the hill to the Vatican Museums only to see a note on the door that it was closed.  And did I mention that it was HOT?

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The Trevi Fountain

And I’m sure a large part of it was me, and my lack of experience; I was young, it was my first trip out of North America, and I wasn’t used to navigating big cities.  My only experience with life at that point was my tiny hometown and my quiet, small college campus.  Rome was a whole different beast.

Yet I hear others report similar experiences there when they go during the summer, at the height of tourist season– that it’s crowded, hot, chaotic, and with really long lines.  When everyone inundates the city for the summer, it turns into a rat race of trying to cram everything you want to see into a few days while fighting millions of other tourists to do it, all with scorching temperatures.

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Piazza Navona

My trip in 2015 was almost the exact opposite experience.  I’m a seasoned traveler by now, and have lived in big cities, and toured many more.  I’m not stressed out by them anymore.

But perhaps the biggest difference is that we went in fall, during the off-season.  And it was absolutely lovely.

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Have I mentioned the food yet? Drool.

My husband and I went for a long weekend (four or five days, I can’t remember) and the city seemed almost empty by comparison to my last trip.  Everything was calm, quiet.  This time my main memories are of wandering side streets and stumbling upon the most amazing architecture, visiting the Trevi Fountain at night, of drinking cheap carafes of wine with lunch, of walking right up to both the Vatican Museums and the Colosseum and buying tickets without any lines, and going right in.  The memories are of beautiful weather and candlelit dinners in restaurants near our hotel.

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Cheap (but good!) wine is 100% my favorite thing about Italy

It was such a nice, relaxing trip, and when I think about Rome now, I only think about how romantic it was, and how I’d love to go back again and again (…. but not in summer).  If you’d asked me before this trip if Rome would ever hold any special place in my heart, I’d probably have said no– before, it seemed mainly like one of those “go once and see everything, and that’s enough” cities.  But now, it feels like I’ve seen an entirely different side of it.

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In St. Peter’s Square– look how empty it is!

I guess the moral of the story is that most places deserve a second chance, because you never know how your experience will change– and that beating the summer crowds (or waiting for them to disappear) is worth more than just a cheaper plan ticket.