The ancient city that famously sits astride the two continents of Europe and Asia is a port of call on the Eastern Mediterranean itineraries of all seasoned travellers. It’s not hard to see why.
Istanbul, once known as Byzantium and later as Constantinople, is Europe’s largest city by the number of people living within the city limits (as opposed to the sprawling suburbs of other large population centres) and the sixth largest city in the world.
Ships dock right in the heart of the action, at the Yolcu Salonu passenger terminal in Karakoy. This bustling, semi-industrial district is close to the Galata Bridge, which spans the Golden Horn and links the modern and old parts of the city.
While the main historic attractions are in the old city, Karakoy is rapidly developing into a hot spot as stylish restaurants, bars and designer shops spring up between crumbling warehouses. The Istanbul Museum of Modern Art is worth a visit, and baklava lovers are in for a rare treat at Karakoy Gulluoglu, a large teashop that sells a huge range of the deliciously sticky sweet pastries.
Karakoy has a traditional Turkish bath at the Kilic Ali Pasa Hamam. You can spend an hour or two in the beautifully restored, 16th-century bathhouse being soaped, shampooed, scrubbed and massaged for about $65 – a supreme recovery treatment after a bout of intensive sightseeing.
The old city is chock-a-block with cultural and architectural marvels. But where to start? Most cruise lines advise first-timers to take a guided tour.
Despite making a sensible list before we set out on our first day, my cruise companion and I deviate immediately to visit Topkapi Palace. There are queues but we persevere, hiring self-guide audio systems.
We wander spellbound through the palace’s atmospheric pavilions, passageways and harem quarters. My favourite spot is actually not the jewel-filled Treasury museum but the domed kitchens, where 800 staff have prepared food for 8,000 inhabitants of the palace for several centuries.
Hagia Sophia – also known as St Sophia and Ayasofya – is a vast, impressive sixth-century monument to both Islam and Christianity. It is now a secular museum. Your eyes are constantly drawn up to the exquisitely decorated dome, and the upper galleries house some beautiful mosaics. During our visit, scaffolding obscures part of the dome; restoration is a painstaking, continual process.
On the advice of a charming Turkish carpet salesman in a nearby shop we visit the Basilica Cistern and Blue Mosque early the next day to beat the queues, before spending several hours in the Grand Bazaar.
The strange, subterranean Basilica Cistern has starred in several movies and TV shows. Built in the sixth century using columns salvaged from ruined temples, it once provided the main water supply to the Great Palace. It’s a cool spot on a hot day.
The Blue Mosque, adorned by six distinctive minarets, is probably the most photographed monument in Istanbul. But save some camera battery power for the old and modern wonders of the Grand Bazaar and the wildly colourful Spice Bazaar.
There are plenty of metered taxis, a tram service or you can walk across the bridge to reach the old city. Karakoy is itself a bustling area famous for its hamsi (anchovy) street stalls and hardware shops. Now it’s becoming a favourite spot for cool hotels, bars, restaurants and modern art galleries.
The cruise terminal is about 25 kilometres from Ataturk international airport; if private transfers to your ship aren’t included it’s easiest to take a taxi – about 50 Turkish Lira ($25) – and there are hundreds of street stalls, cafes and restaurants where you can sample local treats such as simit (sesame-seed encrusted rolls), kumpir (stuffed baked potatoes) and balık-ekmek (fish sandwiches).
This awesome covered marketplace in the oldest part of Istanbul has some 4,000 shops set on 65 streets. When shopping, be prepared to bargain hard. Diary note: the bazaar is closed on Sundays and public holidays.
Built in 1462, this impressive complex was home to Ottoman sultans and their wives and concubines and is one of the oldest, biggest palaces in the world. Check out the eye-popping display of jewels, paintings, ceremonial robes and ornate weapons.
The 17th-century mosque of Sultan Ahmet is known as the Blue Mosque because of the thousands of flower-decorated ceramic tiles that decorate its graceful interior. Queues of tourists are inevitable, so arrive as early as possible; the mosque is closed to non-worshippers during five daily prayer sessions.
This beautifully preserved Ottoman-era marketplace is a feast for all the senses. Aside from the vividly aromatic spices, stalls sell nuts, dried fruits, teas, tourist trinkets and a range of edible souvenirs including the best Turkish Delight you’ll ever taste. Stallholders here seem to enjoy a chat, so expect some friendly banter along with the haggling.