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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 • Bari • Bodrum • Corfu • Crete • Dubrovnik • Gythion • Haifa • Istanbul • Izmir • Jerusalem (Ashdod) • Katakolon • Kotor • Kusadasi • Limassol • Mykonos • Rhodes • Santorini • Split • Varna • Venice • Volos • Zadar
Turkish; English is generally spoken at major tourist sites and hotels, but not necessarily otherwise.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
Turkish New Lira. Roughly, the lira conversion is 1.2 to the dollar -- for the latest current currency conversion figures visit www.xe.com. ATM's are readily accessible.
For traditionalists, that has to be a Turkish rug. But Turkey also has a number of internationally regarded craftspeople in the art of contemporary ceramics.
Where You're Docked
Cruise ships dock at the Yolcu Salonu ("Passenger Terminal") in Karakoy, which is centrally located.
There's no reason to! Explore the city instead of wasting time in port.
Metered taxis are plentiful, and line up right at the pier. Skip the taxis all together by taking the convenient tram, located a few hundred yards from the pier. Walking between the major sites, including the Baazar, Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia, 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. 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. Women may be required to wear head coverings -- you can usually buy cheap scarves from vendors outside.
The Hagia Sophia (Tuesday - Sunday 9:30 a.m. - 4:30 p.m.) 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.
One of the major attractions at Topkapi Palace (Wednesday - Monday 9 a.m. - 7 p.m.), 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.
The Blue Mosque (or Sultan Ahmed Mosque, open daily, 24 hours) 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. The Imperial Pavilion, which is part of the Blue Mosque, houses a carpet museum (Tuesday - Sunday 9 a.m. - 4 p.m.) with exhibits dating from the 16th to the 19th centuries. Behind the Blue Mosque is another attraction worth catching. The Great Palace Mosaic Museum (Wednesday - Monday 9:30 a.m. - 4:30 p.m., Arasta Bazaar) 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.
The Turkish and Islamic Art Museum (Tuesday - Sunday 9 a.m. - 5:30 p.m., Hippodrome 46), 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.
James Bond film buffs should check out the Basilica Cistern (daily 9 a.m. - 5 p.m., Yerebatan Caddesi), 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.
Istanbul's Grand Bazaar (Eminonu Harbour, Monday - Saturday 7 a.m. - 7 p.m.). 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. Info: www.grandbazaaristanbul.org.
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 is 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.
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. 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 (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.
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, has numerous cafes -- and offers great people watching.
Another good neighborhood for both people-watching and noshing is Ortakoy; there are waterfront cafes and wonderful bistros tucked into its narrow streets.
Closest to the port itself (and also qualifying for fabulously luxurious) is the Ciragan Palace Hotel. Aside from its locale in a former Sultan palace, it's also right on the Bosporus.
Good 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.
Staying in Touch
There are Internet cafes spread throughout the city, including Taksim Internet Cafe (Tarlabasi Cad, no. 20). For those needing to make phone calls, the Istanbul Calling Station is located right at the Salipazari cruise ship port.
For More Information
Turkish Culture and Tourism Office: U.S. Web site and U.K. Web site
Cruise Critic Message Boards: Europe
The Independent Traveler Message Boards: Turkey
--updated by Dan Askin, Associate Editor