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A geographic and metaphoric melding of East and West, Istanbul is the world's only city covering two continents -- the Bosporus runs through the center, Europe lying to the west, Asia to the east.
For nearly 2,000 years, the ideally situated metropolis has been the keystone of some of the world's great empires, serving as capital city for the Romans (under the name Constantinople, as noted by the informative "They Might Be Giants" tune), Byzantines and Ottomans.
Inside the sprawling city, the secular and the sacred mingle -- minarets with nightclubs and dusty prayer rugs with designer digs. The idea of Istanbul as collision between East and West reveals itself immediately, with monumental churches cum mosques (the Hagia Sophia), Roman ruins (the Hippodrome, where horse and chariot races were held in Roman times) and unadulterated symbols of consumerism (the Grand Bazaar with its thousands of shops).
Exploring Istanbul would take years, and given its size, many cruise lines offer two-day visits. During the Eastern Mediterranean's high season (April through November), there may be up to six ships in port on a given day, making Istanbul one of the region's most popular cruise ports.
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Other Eastern Mediterranean Cruise Ports:
Athens (Piraeus) • Bari • Bodrum • Corfu • Crete (Heraklion) • Dubrovnik • Gythion • Haifa • Istanbul • Izmir • Jerusalem (Ashdod) • Katakolon • Kotor • Kusadasi • Limassol • Mykonos • Rhodes • Santorini • Split • Varna • Venice • Volos • Yalta • Zadar
For traditionalists, the best souvenir has to be a Turkish rug. But Turkey also features a number of internationally regarded craftspeople in the art of contemporary ceramics. Leather goods, handbags, jackets and shoes are also handcrafted and of good quality.
The official language is Turkish. English is generally spoken at major tourist sites and hotels but not necessarily elsewhere.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
Local currency is the Turkish lira. For the latest current currency conversion figures, visit www.xe.com and . ATM's are readily accessible.
Where You're Docked
Cruise ships dock at the Yolcu Salonu ("Passenger Terminal") in Karakoy, which is centrally located.
The port is located where the Golden Horn inlet flows into the Bosporus River. It is a 10-minute stroll to the Grand Bazaar. Taxis and a tram are located nearby.
Metered taxis are plentiful and line up at the pier. You can skip the taxis by taking the convenient tram, located a few hundred yards from the pier. It is four stops on the tram to Sultanahmet and the Old City. Many of the historic sites are located in this area -- including the Topkapi Palace and Blue Mosque. Walking between the major sites, including the Baazar, Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia, is also quite doable.
Watch Out For
In Istanbul's bazaars, and also in many tourist-oriented shops, sellers can be quite brazen and annoyingly persistent. If you're not interested, avoid eye contact and keep walking; sellers will try to engage potential buyers by starting a conversation. When shopping for rugs, know that it's customary for the seller to offer shoppers cups of tea. It's considered good manners to accept, particularly if you are genuinely shopping (as opposed to browsing casually). Also, be aware that pickpockets hang out in crowded areas and in the streets near the Grand Bazaar.
At Istanbul's beautiful mosques, churches and synagogues, it's advisable to wear respectful attire -- long pants or long skirts -- if you want to enter these historic sites. Women may be required to wear head coverings; you can usually buy cheap scarves from vendors outside. If you want to visit a synagogue, you need to write to the synagogue in advance of your trip. Synagogues feature strict security to guard against terrorist attacks.
Drink bottled water and purchase food from street vendors at your own risk.
The Hagia Sophia is one of the world's finest examples of Byzantine architecture. Once a church, then a mosque, it was made into a museum when the secular Turkish Republic was founded. The museum consists of two major parts: the church itself and the gallery of mosaics. (Sultanahmet Meydani No.1; open Tuesday to Sunday 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.)
The Blue Mosque (or Sultan Ahmed Mosque) is another of Turkey's icons. Built in the 17th century as Islam's take on the Hagia Sophia, the mosque today is still a center for religious demonstrations. The vast dome is an incredible spectacle. To visit inside, you will need to remove your shoes and don the provided head covering. (Sultanahmet Cami; daily, 24 hours).
The Imperial Pavilion, which is part of the Blue Mosque, houses a carpet museum with exhibits dating from the 16th to the 19th centuries. (Tuesday - Sunday 9 a.m. - 4 p.m.) Behind the Blue Mosque is another attraction worth catching. The Great Palace Mosaic Museum, nestled into an alleyway of tourist shops, exhibits the flooring of the Bucoleon Palace of the Byzantine era. These mosaics were only (relatively) recently discovered in the 1950's and are believed to date back to between 527 and 565 A.D. (Torun Sokak in the Sultanhmet area; Wednesday - Monday 9:30 a.m. - 4:30 p.m.)
One of the major attractions at Topkapi Palace originally a summer residence in the pre-Christian era, is a display of over-the-top gorgeous jewels, religious artifacts, silk ceremonial robes and a manuscript collection. The entrance fee includes visits to the Imperial Treasury, Royal Garden, Sultan's Kitchens and Sacred Relics (various sections are occasionally closed for renovations). You must purchase a separate ticket to visit the harem section. (Open Wednesday to Monday 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.)
The Turkish and Islamic Art Museum housed in a 16th century palace, features exhibits from the Islamic period of the seventh century to the 1800's. Highlights include illuminated manuscripts, an extensive collection of carpets (check out a series depicting works of famous European masters) and tiles. (Meydani 46, Tuesday - Sunday 9 a.m. - 5:30 p.m.)
James Bond film buffs should check out the Basilica Cistern which "From Russia With Love" used as an extremely atmospheric location. Also known as the "sunken palace," the cistern was at one time a reservoir for the Byzantine Great Palace and dates back to about 500 A.D. The columns that support the cathedral-style ceiling are a neat curiosity; some were taken from pre-Christian temples. (Yerebatan Caddesi, open daily 9 a.m. - 5 p.m., ),
Istanbul's Grand Bazaar . The actual "bazaar quarter," which dates back to the 15th century, is an amazing scene. There are more than 4,000 stores sprawling across 60 streets, selling a breathtaking array of wares, from spices to furs, and from leather to rugs. There are even two mosques wrapped into this vast, sprawling temple-of-mercantile. (Eminonu Harbour, open Monday to Saturday, 7 a.m. - 7 p.m.)
Been There, Done That
Ortakoy is a fabulous, historic neighborhood on the Bosporus. Its claim to fame is that both a synagogue and mosque -- the latter is quite elaborate -- are located within its boundaries. Beyond that, it's a pleasant place for wandering, poking in at various antique shops and art galleries, lunching at a bistro, and sipping coffee at one of the waterfront restaurants. Sunday is an especially good day to go because locals sell all kinds of merchandise at a street market.
Take a day cruise on the Bosporus to Prince's Islands. These islands, south of Istanbul in the Sea of Marmara, were once a haven for exiled royalty (and luminaries like Leon Trotsky, who came here after being expelled from Russia). Today they're a wonderful -- and peaceful -- place to get away from the hustle and bustle of Istanbul. Attractions include horse-drawn carriage tours, churches and monasteries, and quaint old mansions. There are hotels and restaurants on the main islands. Commuter ferries depart several times daily from Kabatas to four of the nine islands.
A resort and spa in the Turkish tradition, Termal has been famous since Roman times. It's located about 24 miles southeast of Istanbul and features a historic hamam (Turkish bath), a swimming pool, and hotels and restaurants. Take a sea-bus from Kabatas to Yalova (it's a 20-minute ride and the sea bus operates around five departures per day), then a quick taxi.
Shoppers who've "done" the Grand Bazaar and want to see where the locals hang out should head over to Beyoglu, the Istanbul equivalent of New York's Fifth and Madison Avenues. It's full of fashionable boutiques and cafes.
Turkish cuisine represents a mixture of many cultures from the diverse regions of the Ottoman Empire. Hors d'oeuvres (meze) such as eggplant salad with yogurt, hummus, spiced lamb meatballs and dolmas (meat and rice rolled in grape leaves) are popular. Main courses, often served with rice or a bulgur pilaf, include grilled lamb, chicken with peppers or eggplant, and grilled fish. For dessert, try the lokum (aka Turkish Delight), a sweet gel rolled in powdered sugar and mixed with hazelnuts or pistachios, or baklava, layers of thin pastry filled with walnuts and drizzled with syrup and muhallebi (milk puddings).
Coffee shops are abundant in the country and serve a very finely ground coffee, finer than espresso. The coffee is cooked in a cylindrical pot with a long handle. Tea is more popular than coffee among Turks and is brewed in boiling water and served in small, clear glasses.
Istanbul's bustling harbor, known as the Golden Horn, rings the waterfront and is a good place for snacking at outdoor markets and food stalls.
The Beyoglu district, in the heart of Istanbul, features numerous cafes -- and offers great people-watching opportunities.
Another good neighborhood for both people watching and noshing is Ortakoy, which has waterfront cafes and wonderful bistros tucked into its narrow streets.
Just opposite the port in Karakoy is the Hamdi Restaurant, which features many varieties of kebabs and yummy baklava. (Rutem Pasa Mh. Kalcin Sok. No. 17)
Close to the Port: The fabulously luxurious Ciragan Palace Hotel is set in a former Sultan palace, right on the Bosporus.
Solid Choices: In the Taksim part of the city, the Marmara Istanbul and the Istanbul Hilton, about a 10-minute taxi ride from the cruise port, offer all the usual amenities.
Totally Atmospheric: The Four Seasons is located in a converted -- and need we say restored -- prison. The hotel is situated in the now-fashionable Sultanahmet district.
Close to Old City Attractions: If you want a hotel within walking distance of the markets, tram line, Topkapi Palace and the Blue Mosque, try Hotel Sultanhan in the Sultanahmet district. Rates include breakfast on the hotel's rooftop terrace. Golden City Hotel is also close to old city attractions and offers a beautiful view from the terrace restaurant.
Staying in Touch
Internet cafes are spread throughout the city, including Taksim Internet Cafe (Tarlabasi Cad, no. 20). Many tourist hotels contain a computer with free Internet access in teh lobby. For those needing to make phone calls, the Istanbul Calling Station is located right at the Karakov cruise ship port.
Best for First-Timers: The all-day "Best of Istanbul" tour takes passengers to visit the city's cultural highlights. Start at the Blue Mosque and its beautiful blue tiles and hundreds of stained glass windows, then walk over to Topkapi Palace to see the collection of art and artifacts housed in the former home of Ottoman sultans and tour the harem. After an included lunch, you'll get a shopping stop at the Grand Bazaar, followed by a visit to Hagia Sophia. Shorter versions of this tour are available (with fewer or different attractions), as are highlights tours with airport transfers for embarking and disembarking passengers.
Best for Repeat Visitors: The all-day "Ottoman Palaces and Dinner on the Bosporus" tour begins with a visit to Dolmabahce Palace for a guided tour of this grand imperial residence built in the 19th century. Next, you'll tour Beylerbeyi Palace, a summer home with two bathing pavilions and 26 rooms. The excursion concludes with a scenic cruise on the Bosporus to view even more impressive mansions, mosques and buildings. A Turkish dinner will be served onboard the motorboat.
Best for Early Risers: A five-hour "Bosporus Breakfast Cruise" tour begins with a cruise on the Bosporus River, past beautiful palaces and castles, with breakfast served onboard. After disembarking, you'll visit the Blue Mosque and the Grand Bazaar, where you'll have time to bargain for souvenirs and watch a carpet demonstration.
For More Information
On the Web: Turkish Culture and Tourism Office
Cruise Critic Message Boards: Other Mediterranean Ports
IndependentTraveler.com/b> Message Boards: Europe Travel Guide
--Updated by Phyllis Steinberg, Cruise Critic contributor