Istanbul, Turkey has become quite the fashionable port of call on Aegean cruises, Mediterranean cruises and even Black Sea cruises. The city that “straddles two continents” (Europe and Asia) also seems to straddle two personalities. Istanbul combines ancient religious architecture with a modern financial metropolis, modest Islamic culture with wild, trendy nightlife. An embarkation point on many voyages, travelers should grab the opportunity to arrive at least a day before their cruise ship sails and check out this city of extraordinary contradictions.
Almost any cruise line you can call to mind offers itineraries which include Istanbul. Oceania’s Mediterranean Splendors, for example, starts in Istanbul and sails west to ports in Greece, Italy and Spain before ending in Lisbon, Portugal. Oceania’s Myths & Monuments on the other hand, begins in Istanbul but stays in the Aegean Sea and visits the ancient cities of Turkey and Greece. Regent Seven Seas Cruises’ Pathways of Antiquity heads south to Israel and Egypt, ending in Luxor. For a more intimate small ship experience and a different itinerary, SeaDream Yachts begins and ends in Istanbul but cruises the Black Sea to ports in Russia.
Last summer I sailed on Regent Seven Seas – the Seven Seas Mariner — from Istanbul, around Greece, up the Dalmatian Coast, to Venice. The rest of the cruise was amazing as expected, but Istanbul was mind-boggling.
During the 2 full days I spent in Istanbul, I made sure to visit the city’s highlights, both on my own and with a Regent shore excursion – Highlights of Istanbul. First stop, the Hagia Sophia, built by Emperor Constantine, after whom the city (once known as Constantinople) was named. Seen on websites and postcards as the quintessential picture of Istanbul, this landmark began its life in the 4th century as a Byzantine church, was repurposed as a mosque in the 1400s, and in the 1930s was turned into a museum. Although you will not walk through the original structure, which was destroyed, the building that stands dates from the 6th century – still remarkable. The inside is a gorgeous spectacle of marble and tiled mosaics, Islamic décor on the lower levels and Christian art above. Although some cleaning and restoration was being done at the time I visited, the scaffolding didn’t obstruct my views.
Not to be outdone, in the 1600s Sultan Ahmet I commissioned the Blue Mosque, modeled on the Hagia Sophia and within walking distance, but perhaps even more striking. Instead of the usual four minarets, the Blue Mosque in Istanbul has six. And instead of one big dome, the Blue Mosque has a “cascade of domes” that seem to fall one by one from the central dome. Interestingly, the exterior is NOT blue – the nickname comes from the 20,000 blue tiles that decorate the ceiling inside. Because our Regent cruise ship overnighted in Istanbul, we were able to take a short taxi ride back to catch a lovely nighttime light show outside the Blue Mosque. It’s important to note that this is an actual place of Muslim worship; non-Muslim visitors have to use a side entrance and everyone must be dressed modestly and appropriately. Our experienced Regent Cruises tour guide let us know in advance that we would be removing our shoes inside, and that the other women and I would need to bring a scarf to cover our heads and wear clothing that covered our knees and shoulders.
You can probably spend an entire day touring the grounds and buildings of the magnificent Topkapi Palace in Istanbul. Try to spend at least several hours at Topkapi Palace. There’s a lot to see, despite the fact that much of the interior is closed to the public. Built in the 1400s by Islamic conquerer Sultan Mehmed II, the complex served as the royal palace, seat of government, and home to lesser royals, government elite, as well as concubines and eunuchs. Indeed, the Palace’s harem (parts of which may be visited by tourists) contains over 100 rooms. Don’t miss the Imperial Treasury’s astonishing collection of royal jewels and military weapons.
The architecture of Topkapi Palace is asymmetrical and “un-monumental” by European and Asian standards. Some of the structures were already erected and in use when Mehmed II rode in and took over. Over the next 400-some years, as subsequent rulers made use of the palace, buildings both small and large were added, gardens were replanted, and the look of the complex continually changed.
Visitors to Istanbul should not miss the Grand Bazaar. Whether with a tour group or on your own, whether you purchase something or not, it is a wild, colorful, sensory-overload experience that you’ll be talking about for years to come. More than a mall, it’s like a crazy flea market on steroids! A fellow traveler bemoaned the fact that she didn’t bring bread crumbs to find her way back out. You won’t have time to take in all 5000+ booths, but you can narrow your wanderings; some portions of the Grand Bazaar are grouped based on the type of merchandise sold. It was impossible for me to leave there without a few purchases – a couple of pretty ceramic teapots and some Asian-inspired jewelry. Go ahead and haggle with the vendors, but be prepared to walk away, otherwise you’ll be stuck in one place for too long and will have wasted precious browsing time. Vendors are unscrupulous in their attempts to get you into their booths: “Hello, Americans! I have a cousin in Chicago!” Be strong.
The Spice Market in Istanbul, on the other hand, will overload your senses of smell and taste. Here you can purchase dried fruits, nuts, tea, essential oils, soaps, tasty Turkish delights and… oh yes… spices. Ask to taste before you purchase, and ask the vendor to vacuum seal your purchase if you wish to transport it home in your suitcase. The more reputable vendors will be happy to serve.
A visit to Istanbul is nothing short of an adventure, and there’s so much more to see and do – a cruise on the Bosporus Strait, a concert, the Chora Church, Dolmabahce Palace. It’s truly a place I’m anxious to return to. In the meantime I can give thanks that I’ve been to Turkey.