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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 lies 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).
Even if the these iconic attractions are what draw many of its tourists to this vast (second only in size to Shanghai) city of 17 million inhabitants, visitors, dutifully plodding through them, may easily miss what makes this city one of the world's most vibrant right now.
Increasingly prosperous, Istanbul has exciting neighborhoods, upscale shops (not just the usual international brands like Prada but also fashion designs by Turkish clothiers) and a thriving restaurant scene that ranges from classic fare to newer, Mediterranean-infused interpretations of local standards. Its Museum of Modern Art -- handily located pierside, where ships dock -- is new and offers both rotating internationally-minded exhibitions and works from Turkish artists.
Istanbul is increasingly popular as a port of embarkation (or disembarkation) for a range of itineraries, from the Black Sea and Eastern Mediterranean Greek Isles trips to the migration, twice a year, of ships between Europe and Asia. You can find as many as six ships a day docking there. This noisy place, in which the magical call to prayer several times a day manages to overcome the sound of honking cars, is a great place to add a pre- or post-cruise stay.
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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, take home a Turkish rug. Turkey also has a number of internationally regarded craftspeople in the art of contemporary ceramics and other beautiful artisan crafts. (We discovered a great shop called IKSA, with a Caffe Nero next door, in the Pera district.) Foodies might also want to consider a package or two of Turkish delight, a type of candy for which the country is known.
Turkish is spoken there. English is generally spoken at major tourist sites and hotels, but not necessarily otherwise.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
Currency is the Turkish lira. For the latest currency conversion figures, visit www.xe.com. ATMs are readily accessible.
Where You're Docked
Cruise ships dock at the Yolcu Salonu ("Passenger Terminal") in Karakoy, which is centrally located.
There are no facilities inside the port, but just outside there's a collection of cafes, though these are generally oriented to young people enjoying the Turkish tradition of Narjile (which my guide described as "hubble bubble" -- hookah in other countries). Better yet, head over to the cafe and bar at the Museum of Modern Art, which is also within easy walking distance.
By Cab: Metered taxis are plentiful, and they line up right at the pier; credit cards are generally not accepted. Be wary of any taxi driver who doesn't operate on the meter system.
By Tram: There's also a convenient tram, located a few hundred yards from the pier.
On Foot: If you have strong legs, it's possible to walk up one of Istanbul's infamously steep hills to the Beyoglu, the heart of the city's shopping district. Walking between the major sites, including the Bazaar, Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia, is also quite doable.
Watch Out For
In Istanbul's bazaars and many tourist shops, sellers can be quite brazenly and annoyingly persistent. 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, in deference to 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.
Gratuities are expected, even at restaurants that levy surcharges. (Locals tell us to plan to tip 10 percent of the check and to pay in cash; otherwise the waiters don't get the money.) In taxis, just round up.
Istanbul's mosques are iconic, plentiful and beautiful, and each one is different. The best known is, of course, The Blue Mosque (or Sultan Ahmed Mosque, open daily, 24 hours), a Turkish icon. 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. The Imperial Pavilion, which is part of the Blue Mosque, houses a carpet museum (Tuesday to Sunday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.) with exhibits dating from the 16th to the 19th centuries.
But don't limit yourself to just this one. Smaller, less tourist-track mosques, like a pair designed by Sinan (the Christopher Wrenn of Turkey), include the charming and peaceful Sehzade Mosque (Sinan's apprenticeship project) and the tile-covered Rustem Pasha.
In all cases, mosques provide head covering scarves for women to borrow. All are required to leave shoes outside, so wear socks. It's considered appropriate to tip the volunteer who is on hand to make sure all are dressed appropriately and that they act respectfully during services. A lira or two is sufficient.
Behind the Blue Mosque is 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 discovered in the 1950s and are believed to date back to between 527 and 565 A.D. (Arasta Bazaar; open daily, except Tuesdays, 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.)
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. (open daily, except Mondays, 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.)
One of the major attractions at Topkapi Palace, originally a summer residence in the pre-Christian Byzantium era, is a display of simply over-the-top gorgeous jewels, religious artifacts, silk ceremonial robes and a manuscript collection. (open daily, except Tuesdays, 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.)
The Turkish and Islamic Art Museum, housed in a 16th-century palace, features exhibits that range from the Islamic period of the seventh century to the 1800's. Highlights include illuminated manuscripts, an extensive collection of carpets (some from famous European masters) and tiles. (Hippodrome 46; open Tuesday to Sunday, 9 a.m. to 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. A neat curiosity is the columns that support the cathedral-style ceiling; some were taken from pre-Christian temples. (Yerebatan Caddesi; open daily, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.)
At 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 and furs to leather and rugs. There are even two mosques wrapped into this vast, sprawling temple of mercantile. (Eminonu Harbour; open Monday to Saturday, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.)
Been There, Done That
Ortakoy is a fabulous, historic neighborhood that lies on the Bosporus. Its claim to fame is the fact there are both a synagogue and a mosque -- the latter quite elaborate -- 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 there's a street market, where locals sell all kinds of merchandise.
Beyond Ortakoy is another fantastic Bosphorus neighborhood called Bebek, which is also great for shopping and waterfront cafes.
Istanbul Modern has a terrific shop that focuses mostly on high-end Turkish crafts, a cafe with a view out to the Bosporus (when docked ships don't block the view) and a fantastic display of the work of Turkey's best known contemporary artists.
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 went there 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. There are nine islands, though ferries only travel to four.
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 (a 20-minute ride, about five departures per day) and then a quick taxi.
Beyoglu, the once fashionable equivalent of New York's Fifth and Madison Avenues isn't the upscale shopping and dining destination it once was, but it's still the heart of the city's modern life, and it features lots of restaurants and mid-level boutiques. Its center is the pedestrian boulevard called Istiklal. Make sure to look around as you walk through it; at one time, it was a district for foreigners, from Italians to Dutch, and they all built structures in the styles of their own countries. Veer off the main drag onto the narrow side streets that feed into it to see olde-style Turkish shops and retailers, ranging from a button shop to a butcher. The bustling Taksim Square, with a small park and a number of monuments, lies at the center of the Beyoglu neighborhood.
On the edge of Beyoglu, facing the Golden Horn, is the Pera neighborhood, once fashionable and now experiencing a fresh renaissance with restaurants, antique shops and galleries.
For those who want more upscale shops and cafes, head just north of Taksim Square to the neighborhood of Nisanstasi, which feels very European with its international imports (ranging from Louis Vuitton to Marks and Spencer), high-end Turkish boutiques and numerous sidewalk cafes.
Turkish cuisine represents a mixture of many cultures from the diverse regions of the Ottoman Empire. Hors d'oeuvres (meze) like 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 (also known as Turkish delight), a sweet gel rolled in powdered sugar and mixed with hazelnuts or pistachios. There's also tasty baklava, layers of thin pastry filled with walnuts and drizzled with syrup. Or try muhallebi (milk pudding).
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.
In Beyoglu, tru 360 Restaurant, located atop a building quite appropriately located at 360 Istiklal, is a way to get away from the madding crowds.
In scenic Ortakoy, the House Cafe is a local chain restaurant right on the water that not only features a vast international menu but also specializes in contemporary and traditional Turkish dishes. (It also has a hotel in Nisanstasi.) (Salhane Sokak No: 1; open Sunday to Thursday from 8 a.m. to 1 a.m. and Friday and Saturday, 8 a.m. to 2:30 a.m.)
In Pera, a small, rooftop restaurant called X (located in a historic building operated by the Istanbul Culture & Art Foundation) has breathtaking views over the Golden Horn and a Turkish menu, which features grilled prawns with saffron and oven-roasted lamb shank, among other delicacies. (Don't miss the grilled octopus with white cheese or the raw artichoke salad. (Sadi Konuralp Caddesi Deniz Palas 5, Sishane)
Those for whom lunch (or dinner) is an event should head via taxi to the Sunset Grill and Bar, which, despite its rather pedantic name, is one of the city's top restaurants for locals. It's not just the magnificent view that draws, even though the all-glass restaurant and bar, with a DJ, sits on a hilltop overlooking the Bosporus. It's also got a great menu with both Turkish and international classics; try the sea bass wrapped in parchment with lemongrass and ginger. There's also a superb sushi bar. It's the kind of place that invites you to linger. (Kuruçesme Mh., Yol Sk No:2; open Monday to Saturday from noon to 3 p.m. and every day from 7 p.m. to midnight)
Tried and True: Cruise lines that offer air and hotel packages typically house passengers in a handful of lovely chain hotels, such as the Intercontinental and the Grand Hyatt, among others. In this case, these two are across the street from each other and have a fantastically central location, just a few blocks from bustling Taksim Square and Beyoglu on one side, and about a 10-minute stroll to Nisanstasi in the other direction. The Istanbul Hilton is also a solid choice.
Turkish Ambience: The Hotel Pera Palace, which has housed such grand celebrities as Mata Hari, Agatha Christie and even Lawrence of Arabia, is now operated by the luxurious Jumeirah chain. It just oozes history and elegance, much more so than other luxury properties in Istanbul. (Mesrutiyet Caddesi No: 52, 34430 Tepebasi Beyoglu )
Beyond the Pera, there are numerous luxury options, all related to familiar chains, such as Four Seasons (which has two hotels, one of which is housed in a former prison in the Sultanahmet district), Ritz-Carlton and the Ciragan Palace Hotel. All are top-notch but share one odd quality: They're isolated and not really part of neighborhoods where you easily walk to restaurants and attractions, so be prepared for a lot of taxi rides.
Neighborhood Appeal: Ortakoy has several good choices on the waterfront, including the moderately priced Radisson Blu and local chain House Hotel, a chic, boutique-style hotel. In Nisanstasi, try either the beautiful and exoticPark Hyatt or another outpost from the House Hotel company.
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. (Binbirdirek Mh., Piyer Loti Cd No:15)
Staying in Touch
There are Internet cafes spread throughout the city, including Taksim Internet Cafe (Tarlabasi Cad, no. 20). Many cafes, restaurants and hotels offer free or nearly free Wi-Fi for customers. For those needing to make phone calls, the Istanbul Calling Station is located right at the Salipazari 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 before walking 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 is 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: Europe
The Independent Traveler Message Boards: Europe Travel Guide
--Updated by Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor in Chief