Istanbul – Where East Meets West

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A cruise to Istanbul is for many travelers their first introduction to a part of the Islamic world. Turkey is officially a secular republic that is closely tied culturally and politically to Europe. This is a country where facets of European and Islamic culture blend together, especially in Istanbul. The city serves as a bridge between the European and Middle Eastern cultural realms. Turkey is a country with a very long and rich history that extends back thousands of years. The Anatolian Plateau in the heart of the country is one of the birthplaces of agricultural society. Much of coastal Turkey was occupied by the ancient Greeks and later by the Romans. When the split in the Roman Empire occurred, the eastern part of the empire ultimately became known as Byzantium with Constantinople becoming the center of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Ultimately the Ottoman Turks invaded and made the city the capital of their empire that began in 1299 and lasted until 1921 when the modern Turkish Republic was created. A visit to Istanbul presents you with multiple layers of history, many great archaeological sites and a richness in history and cultural treasures.

The Golden Horn of Istanbul as seen from the Galeta Tower

All major cruise lines offer itineraries that include multiple ports along the Aegean and/or Mediterranean coastline of Turkey, often combined with ports in Greece, especially the Greek Islands of the Aegean Sea. Quite often cruises will embark and/or terminate in either Athens or Istanbul. Most cruises visiting Turkey operate during the warm summer months, but some cruise lines continue operating well into the autumn.

Istanbul is all about historic architecture, dramatic scenery, fantastic bazaars and outstanding food. What more could any visitor ask for? If you are starting or ending your cruise in Istanbul, you MUST stay a few days. To simply fly in and board your ship or disembark and go right to the airport as many often do, you will have cheated yourself of a cultural experience unlike any other. Istanbul is not a city to be ignored. In this case, how long to stay is a question you must be thinking about. My recommendation would be at least a week, but I know that is not practical for most cruisers. So my fair and honest answer would be no less than three full days if you possibly can spare it.

Skyline view of the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey

The Hagia Sophia Museum in Istanbul, Turkey

I have listed what I consider the major highlights of a visit to Istanbul in order of their importance:

  • Hagia Sophia Mosque – Now a museum, this one time Byzantine cathedral was turned into a mosque to please the conquering sultan. It’s an architectural marvel considering its antiquity and is an absolute must
  • Blue Mosque – across a broad expanse of park filled with sparkling fountains and pools stands the equally massive Blue Mosque. This is an active mosque, but visitors are taken on guided tours. Combining a visit with the Hagia Sophia is the absolute must do activity in Istanbul
  • Suleymaniye Mosque – This is another great mosque in the typical Ottoman style. It is very grand and a tribute to the architectural prowess of the builders of the time
  • Mihrimah Sultan Mosque – Built in the mid 16th century, this mosque has a very open and airy feel, partly the result of its very high central dome. Its construction is much different than the older more heavily built mosques
  • Topkapi Palace – Facing out to the Bosphorus Straits and Sea of Marmara, this was once home to the Ottoman sultans. It is more of a compound of many buildings than a single palace. Both the buildings and the grounds give you a firm understanding of the power of the former Ottoman sultans
  • Dolmabahce Palace – Built in the mid 19th century as a summer residence along the Bosphorus, this elegant and heavily decorated palace copies the styles of Europe. It reflects an attempt by the sultans to emulate the opulence of European monarchs rather than the traditionalism of the Topkapi Palace
  • The Grand Bazaar – This is one of the largest covered bazaars found in the Middle East. Here you will find many hundreds of merchants selling everything from clothing to household items along with spices, candies, brassware and Turkish carpets. Remember that intense bargaining is the rule. Also it is best to have a guide or at least a good sense of direction, as it is very easy to get lost inside this tightly packed emporium
  • The Spice Bazaar – This bazaar located along the Golden Horn in the Old City is devoted to spices. Simply breathing in the multiplicity of aromas and seeing the colors of the exotic and known spices is an experience in itself. You can also buy small amounts of spice that will be placed in plastic bags that you easily pack to take home
  • Galata Tower – This ancient tower built in 500 AD is set north of the Golden Horn, the ancient waterway separating the Old City of Constantinople from the newer post 15th century city. A small elevator takes you up to the round observation platform where you get fantastic views of the Golden Horn and the skyline of minarets of the Old City and across the Bosphorus Straits to Üsküdar in Asia
  • Galata Bridge – Crossing the Golden Horn, this is the most famous old bridge in the city. It is enjoyable to stroll across the bridge one way; watch the heavy ferryboat and local watercraft coming and going and men fishing. After walking one way, you can take the modern tram back either to the new city area of Beyoglu or to the center of the Old City
  • Istiklal Cadessi – This pedestrian street begins at the Galata Tower and runs for over a mile north to Taksim Square. Only a narrow gauge tram is allowed to clang up and down the street, otherwise it is for walking. Here you will find a great variety of shops, dozens of bakeries and candy shops along with many restaurants. It is one of the walking highlights of a visit to Istanbul
  • Taksim Square – This is considered the nerve center of modern central Istanbul. And it is here that demonstrations are often organized to protest various government actions. It is enjoyable to just sit and watch the local people go by
  • Turkish Military Museum – This museum allows you to see the importance of military history in the evolution of Turkey. At one time the Ottoman Empire was a great military power, but it ended up in the disaster of World War I. The modern Turkish military is one of the largest and most powerful in the Middle East today, and is proud to represent itself as an imposing force for NATO in this far eastern region of influence
  • Real Monastery – On Monday and Thursday nights you visit this monastery and witness a ceremonial prayer dance by the Whirling Dervishes. These mystics of the Sufi sect of Islam believe their whirling dance brings them closer to Allah and it is their form of prayer. I consider it a must see event
  • The Walls of Constantinople – It is worth hiring a car and driver or a taxi to drive you all around the great outer walls of the Old City. With a car and driver, you can stop and explore not only the walls, but the various neighborhoods on either side of the wall
  • Balat – A very old neighborhood in the Old City that was once the Jewish quarter. Today it is starting to develop as a trendy residential district, but it is not touristy. You will see many centuries of architecture and be able to appreciate the history of the Old City with a different perspective than seeing the mosques or Topkapi Palace
  • Üsküdar – You can visit this very ancient Asian suburb by taking a ferryboat from the Golden Horn, one of the express busses that will cross the Bosphorus Bridge or the new trans straits Metro line. Only the ferryboat will bring you right into the heart of old Üsküdar. But with a car and driver you can experience the Bosphorus Bridge in a more comfortable manner and then be shown around Üsküdar and many of the other Asian suburbs
  • Istanbul Sapphire – This modern high-rise building set on a low hill in the northern suburb of Besiktas has an observation deck on the 54th floor that gives you dramatic views of the city. You can get there by Metro from Taksim Square to the station at Levent, which is about two blocks from the building. If you do not want to risk venturing out on public transport, you can go by taxi, but it is quite a distance from the inner city
  • Çamlica Hill – This is one of the highest hills on the Asian side of the Bosphorus. You will either need to book a tour, have a car and driver or arrange for a taxi to take you and wait. The park atop this hill is patronized by locals and by many visiting families from other Islamic countries. Plan on having a coffee or snack in the old teahouse where you will truly have a Turkish experience, as few Western tourists venture to visit. But it is the views of the city that make this visit worthwhile
  • Driving along the Bosphorus Straits – You would need to hire a car and driver or taxi to drive you all the way along the Bosphorus Straits, past beautiful suburbs, each with its specific flavor. And if you drive all the way north, you can then view the Black Sea and have lunch in one of the small cafes overlooking the sea. And you will not be mingling with tourists. This will be a Turkish experience.

Istaklal Cadessi (Independence Street) in the heart of Istanbul, Turkey

There are dozens more sights to see in Istanbul. There are many more grand mosques, several Christian churches dating back centuries, the old Jewish synagogue, modern shopping malls and museums, but even if you stay three days, as I recommended, what I have listed here will more than keep you busy. That is why I said the ideal time would be a week for visiting Istanbul. For shopping, which I know is important to many people, I recommend:

  • The Grand Bazaar – But this can be a tiring experience. I really recommend it more for sightseeing than shopping unless you have plenty of time and patience to bargain
  • Istinye Park Mall – One of the largest, most modern and upscale malls in the city with well-known brand name stores. There are also fine restaurants and cafes in the mall. You will need to take a taxi or have a car and driver because this is a suburban mall
  • Akasya Aclbadem – Located on the Asian side in the outer suburbs of Üsküdar. Many locals view this as not only the best and most upscale mall on the Asian side, but in all of Istanbul. It also has many fine restaurants. Although you can reach it by Metro and local bus, it is far easier to take a taxi or have your own car and driver
  • Marmara Forum Alisveris Merkezi – Another grand mall with hundreds of modern shops, but on the European side in the suburb of Bakirkoy. But it is difficult to get here using public transport, so you must be able to have your own private transport or taxi

Looking out over the modern side of Istanbul from the Sapphire Tower

Remember that Istanbul is a friendly city. It has very few neighborhoods that would not be safe for visitors, but these are not areas you would have any reason to visit. Public transport is good, clean and safe. And people are always willing to help even when they do not speak English or other languages from the West. So venture out and enjoy this incredible city, one of the world’s great destinations.

Submitted by, Dr. Lew Deitch