Even experienced cruise travelers can find touring Istanbul to be challenging.
First, there is the traffic. The streets and highways are clogged, at all times of day. Getting between the airport and the cruise ship — or between the cruise ship and the major attractions — takes a vigilant, patient driver, and that’s best left in the hands of someone else, especially when there is so much to see that you would be craning your neck if you were in the driver’s seat. Not that you’d be renting a car here, would you? If you did, you would have to deal with parking. I’m not sure how our driver managed to park during the three days we were touring Istanbul, but somehow he did, rarely, however, in places that were designated for parking.
Next, there is the language. The Turkish alphabet has several letters that are not present in the Roman alphabet. Maybe, however, you feel that you are adept at languages. If that’s the case, try saying, Çekoslovakyal?la?t?ramad?klar?m?zdan m?s?n?z, a Turkish tongue twister that translates to “Are you one of those people whom we could not make to be Czechoslovakian?”
And unlike Northern Europe, not all Turks learn English in schools. At our hotel, the Doubletree by Hilton in Old Town Istanbul, I requested sparkling water from my waiter, who stared at me blankly for a few seconds. I realized that the only words he knew were greetings such as, Good morning. Would you like coffee or tea? Orange juice? And that waiter is working for an international hotel chain. Think about what you will encounter on the streets and in the shops.
Then there are the crowds. Istanbul’s attractions, many on the UNESCO World Heritage List, are extremely popular. You’ll be shoulder-to-shoulder with hundreds, even thousands, of others at times. Don’t let that put you off. Lines of tourists can be long, but the lines moved quickly in most places we visited, and no matter how long the lines, these are all places that you’ll want to tick off your must-see list.
Despite the challenges, Istanbul is a must-see and must-experience destination. To optimize your time in Turkey’s largest city, you need someone who knows the lay of the land in Istanbul — whether you join one of the tours offered by your ship or by booking a private tour.
Following, are a few of my favorite shore excursions in Istanbul.
Our Favorite Shore Excursions In Istanbul
Bosphorus Cruise On A Private Yacht & Asia
Istanbul is the only city in the world that is situated in both Europe and Asia. You can experience the two continents from the water on a private yacht along the Bosphorus, the strait that separates the two continents.
Large boats, carrying up to a couple hundred people, also offer Bosphorus cruises, but the smaller yachts often provide more memorable experiences. For one thing, you’re not jockeying around the other passengers for camera positions. And as a bonus, most private yachts offer Turkish tea, wine and other beverages, along with Turkish snacks, at no additional charge.
While cruising on the European side, you’ll see many palaces, notably, the Cirrigan Palace, where you may want to have dinner if your ship is docked in Istanbul overnight, and the Dolmabahce Palace, a 19th-century Rococo palace turned museum.
You’ll pass under the first intercontinental bridge that connects Europe and Asia, and turn around to cruise along the Asian side, where you’ll see the Beylerbeyi Palace, one of the finest summer palaces of the sultans. The cruise ends with a beautiful approach toward the Golden Horn and Istanbul’s mosque-and-minaret-dotted skyline. The cruises are offered most times of the day and take about 90 minutes.
Mosques, Museums & Markets
Marvel at Istanbul’s dense traffic as you cross the Galata Bridge into the heart of Istanbul and the city once known as Constantinople. Your first stop is the Byzantine Hippodrome, which was the heart of Constantinople’s political life and also the setting for an array of games throughout the history of the Byzantine Empire. Be sure to take note of the Egyptian obelisk, which was taken from the Temple of Karnak in Luxor, Egypt. Also note the Snake Column. It doesn’t look like much, but it’s ancient, a relic from Delphi.
Step around the corner to join the queue for the Blue Mosque, also known as the Sultan Ahmed Mosque. The 17th-century mosque was built to rival and surpass the grandeur and beauty of Hagia Sophia, a church turned museum directly across from the Blue Mosque.
The Blue Mosque’s exterior features picturesque domes and minarets; inside, are more than 20,000 Iznik tiles, shimmering blue in their tulip-like designs, and 200-plus stained glass windows.
Sometimes, the line for the Blue Mosque can be long, but it moves quickly. The choke point comes when you reach the entrance, as footwear must be removed. Make sure you’re wearing clothing that covers your knees (men can wear shorts if they are long enough) and headdress, which can be in the form of scarves, for women. You can photograph inside as long as you refrain from using a flash.
Directly across from the Blue Mosque, and about a five-minute walk away is Hagia Sophia, one of the greatest surviving examples of Byzantine architecture. Hagia Sophia, also known as St. Sophia and the Church of Divine Wisdom, was originally built by Constantine the Great and later rebuilt by Emperor Justinian to be the flagship church of the new Ottoman empire.
Just a few steps away is the Underground Cistern. If the weather is hot, you’ll welcome the cool atmosphere of the subterranean reservoir built by the Romans in the 6th century. The roof is supported by more than 300 columns, many taken from pagan temples.
A few minutes walk from Hagia Sophia is Topkapi Palace, a former Ottoman Palace that is now a museum. Surrounded by defensive walls, the palace commands views over the Bosphorous Strait, the Golden Horn and the Sea of Marmara. The two biggest attractions here are the Harem and the Treasury, which holds the famed Topkapi Diamond, immortalized by James Bond.
Even if you’re not a shopper, you’ll certainly want to see the Grand Bazaar. The covered market boasts more than 4,000 shops. Merchants are friendly and bargaining can be fun if you take it with a sense of good humor. You’ll find everything from souvenirs to saffron in the Grand Bazaar.
Note, however, that the world’s largest covered market is closed on Sundays.
While you’re in market mode, saunter to the Spice Bazaar. It’s smaller than the Grand Bazaar but more fragrant. Here, you can find saffron, sumac, cardamom, turmeric, cinnamon and a lot more. Built in 1663, the second-largest covered market in Turkey offers all the spices of the East. Sample some Turkish delight — the ubiquitous local sweet often offered as a gesture of hospitality.
When you exit the Spice Market in the direction of the Golden Horn, turn left, head across the square to visit the Rustem Pasa Mosque. Unusual in that you climb a twisting flight of interior steps, the mosque was built on a high terrace over a complex of shops. The mosque represents the earliest example of the great Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan who designed the mosque to an octagonal plan. When you enter, you’ll be amazed by the vivid colors and floral or geometrical designs of the valuable Iznik tiles.
You may also want to visit the Chora Museum, which is ranked as the most beautiful Byzantine church in Istanbul after Hagia Sophia. The Chora’s frescoes and mosaics reflect the magnificent heritage of Byzantine Art left by the Romans.
Nightlife: Palatial Dinners, Belly Dancing and Whilring Dervishes
You have many choices for nightlife in Istanbul. Spend an evening having dinner while being entertained by belly dancers, troupes of dancers, whirling dervishes and other entertainers. Or dress for a spectacular dinner at Ciragan Palace Hotel Kempinski, the only Ottoman Imperial Palace & Hotel on the Bosphorus. The former residence of the Sultans reflects the legendary opulence of the Ottoman Empire.
Istanbul is much like its positioning on the Bosporus. Part of the city sits squarely in Europe and feels familiar to Western tourists. The other part sits in Asia, imbuing the city with a sense of the exotic. At times, Westerners may feel like they are a long way from home, yet at other times, they will feel as if they are right at home (there are more than a dozen Starbucks in Istanbul, for example). More than most cities, Istanbul represents a multiplicity of identities, West and East, Europe and Asia, foreign yet familiar. While the population is largely Muslim, Christianity has deep roots here. It is these contrasting cultures and mix of identities that makes Istanbul so fascinating. Yes, it is a busy, bustling and densely populated city, difficult to get around on your own but easily facilitated by a capable tour operator or the shore excursion department on your ship. Prepare to hit the ground running when your ship docks in Istanbul so that you can absorb as much of this great city as you can.