Istanbul lies at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, and is quite often a beginning or end point of an Eastern Mediterranean cruise. Once the capital of both the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires, it combines the rich heritage of these former worlds with the modern world of today. Whether you are journeying by land or voyaging by sea, Istanbul is a city you should make a point of spending time exploring: enjoying the culture and history, and the sumptuous cuisine.
Here are five of the recommended activities for your visit to this city.
#1 Explore the history in its museums
There are museums and then there are Istanbul’s museums. The Topkapi Palace, once the residence for Ottoman sultans for four centuries, now welcomes the visitor with displays of Ottoman artifacts such as jewelry and weapons. Outside you can stroll the beautiful gardens with views of the Bosphorus strait which separates the two continents, Europe and Asia. Another stunning museum, the Hagia Sophia, is not an opulent palace but was once a cathedral and then, a mosque. As one can imagine this 6th century Byzantine building displays mosaics and frescos as well as both Christian and Islamic art.
Topkapi Palace opulent interior
#2 Shop the bazaars
Istanbul gives you a great excuse to “shop ’til you drop”! Two of its greatest shopping experiences lie in bazaars (markets): the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Bazaar. The Grand Bazaar appears as a labyrinth, covered, and old as time. In fact it is one of the oldest of its type in the world. Shop for carpets, gold jewelry, textiles and more. Or just wander through and marvel at the items for sale. The Spice Bazaar is another famous market and offers perhaps the most colorful if not the tastiest wares. And there are lesser known markets as well but wherever you shop, do try your bargaining skills to participate in this cultural norm.
An “alley” in the Grand Bazaar
Turkish Carpets on display
#3 Turkish Bath anyone?
After you’ve marveled at the museums. and shopped your way through a bazaar, you may wish to relax with a Turkish bath or hamam. Luxuriate in a body massage or body scrub at the historic Cagaloglu Hamam. It is very like the museums you’ve visited with its stunning architecture (large central dome) and lavish décor (marble pools). An older bath house is the Ayasofya Hurrem Sultan Hamam built in the 1500’s. These places offer clients a traditional Turkish towel, the peshternal, to wear when enjoying such treatments as massages, steam baths, and the pools.
#4 The Food
Preparing the sweet but strong Turkish coffee
Many of the Turkish dishes you may have enjoyed before but to indulge in them here – it’s different, delightful, and definitely better! Turkish cuisine embraces Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, and Byzantine influences. Begin your meal with a mezze platter of hummus (spread of chickpeas, olive oil and spices), baba ghanoush (another spread with eggplant the main ingredient), feta cheese and stuffed grape leaves. Next enjoy a donair on pita bread or a lamb kebab grilled over charcoal. Finish your meal with baklava made from phyllo pastry, and honeyed nuts, or sutlac, a creamy rice pudding.
No meal would be complete without strong Turkish coffee. It is brewed in a copper pot called a cerve, and presented in small china cups, often with a piece of Turkish Delight, a small traditional sweet.
A grilled kebab
Baklava – yum!
#5 Explore the City
Istanbul deserves to be explored both by land and by sea. Enjoy a cruise on the Bosphorus and marvel at the historic architecture of mosques and palaces such as the gorgeous Dolmabahce Palace. View the Maiden’s Tower, that iconic landmark that greets all visitors by sea. Perhaps you will sail under the modern suspension bridge than spans the strait.
You can also explore the city by foot while taking the opportunity to experience Istanbul’s great public transportation system of buses, trolleys and ferries. Be sure to visit the historic neighborhoods of Beyoglu, and Sultanahmet where most of the famous landmarks of the city are to be found. There are many guided tours and if you wish to have background and local information on what you are seeing, as well as ensuring you hit all the best sites, this is the way to go. Dress comfortably and seasonally with good walking shoes while remembering that you may not be able to enter mosques with too much skin exposed.
The Maiden’s Tower
Plan Your Visit to Istanbul
There are all levels of accommodation to suit your budget should you wish to visit this city from luxury hotels to guest houses and hostels. Your accommodation may be dictated by your preferred area of stay, whether it be downtown or further out. The best time to visit is in the shoulder seasons of spring and fall. The cheapest time is their winter time of December through March when you may just experience a snowfall or two as the temperature falls drastically from the summer average. Take Euros with you as many tourist spots accept this currency but you may have to exchange your money into the Turkish lira to shop in the bazaars for instance. Before visiting this popular city, it is recommended to employ the services of a real travel expert to either design a custom tour of the area, book you on a guided tour or arrange a pre-or post cruise tour, and travel worry-free!