Istanbul: Pre-cruise Destination Guide

| Thursday, 26 Jul. 2012

Sailing into Istanbul is a sensory explosion. The many minarets, defining the skyline. The calls to prayer, echoing from the city's ancient walls. The coriander, cumin and other strong spices perfuming the air. And then, the history. For gosh sakes, you're in Constantinople and gazing at two continents, Europe and Asia, at once.

Please don't think that if your ship overnights in Istanbul you will absorb the myriad of wonders that wait. Plan on at least two or three days for a jam-packed pre-or-post cruise stay. And don't just take my word; on my recent Crystal Serenity Venice-to-Istanbul sail, many first-time Istanbul visitors who chose to fly home with only 24 hours here were near tears. "If I only knew," they said. "Istanbul is unlike any other city in the world."

True that. Istanbul, with its startling contrasts, offers nonstop intrigue. It's ancient - Istanbul was already 1,000-years-old when Emperor Constantine the Great began rebuilding it as the new capital of the Roman Empire in 326 AD. Think steep hills and narrower-than-supermodel cobblestone streets. It's also modern - in some neighborhoods, skyscraper buildings, swank hotels and fashionista-frenzied shops abound. Often, the old and the new intersect for a rich visual feast.

Not only do disparate continents and architecture meet in Istanbul, so do cultures. Predominately Muslim, this city is also home to Christians and Jews. Streets teem with women wearing everything from black cloaks and headscarves to tank tops and America's trendiest jeans. Throw in tourists from every far-flung corner of the world, and imagine the people-watching.

WHAT TO SEE

With limited pre-or-post cruise time, you can only squeeze in the most major sights. One must-see is the Blue Mosque. Its name comes from the 20,000 bluish-green tiles covering the inside of this multi-domed masterpiece. The 260 stained-glass windows and calligraphy and floral patterns painted on the ceiling are amazing to behold. This magnificent mosque took eight years to build and was completed in 1617.

Modest attire is necessary to enter the Blue Mosque. And any other, although each mosque has its own rules. This usually translates to women covering their heads with scarves and having their arms (at least to the elbows) and legs covered to the knees. Men should wear long pants. Scarves (and sometimes cloaks) are provided to women at tourist entrances, as needed.

Minerets of Suleymaniye Mosque

Aya Sofya (or Hagia Sophia, Church of the Holy Wisdom) is a former church that is now a mosque. It was completed in 537 AD, and was once the world's largest and most significant religious monument. Many experts say that only St. Peter's in Rome can surpass the Aya Sofya in splendor. Look up into the biggest dome - some 18 stories high - to see thousands of glimmering gold tiles. The intricate mosaics, including a 9th century Virgin and Child, are unforgettable.

At night, take a stroll or an "Istanbul by Night" tour to see the floodlit domes and minarets of both the Aya Sofya and the Blue Mosque. And do take a boat ride on the Bosphorus. It's de rigueur for visitors to ply the city's main waterway and see Asia on one side and Europe on the other.

Istanbul at Night

Topkapi Palace, once the residence of sultans and their harems, was the seat of Ottoman rule from the 1460s until the mid-19th century. Built between 1459 and 1465, the palace was added on to in even more elaborate fashion over time. It's impossible to see it all in one day - the Harem alone includes some 400 halls and apartments. There are four courtyards, with the second showcasing exceptional treasures, including priceless porcelain obtained during years of Ottoman rule.

One night, see a Whirling Dervish ceremony. My Crystal Serenity cruise offered this outing on our Istanbul overnight. Hotels set them up, as well. The Whirling Dervishes are a branch of the Sufi tradition of Islam. Its followers focus on love, tolerance and worship of God. The performance is a spiritual act (thus, no applause), inspired by the mystic Rumi (1207-1273). The ceremony includes music, prayers and men in gowns who spin on their right foot. It's beautiful (albeit dizzying) to behold.

Whirling Dervishes

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WHERE TO SHOP

At the Grand Bazaar - an integral trading center since 1461 - I promise you will shop until you drop. I've been to Istanbul four times, and me, über-shopper, has still not seen the entire Bazaar. Why? Because this gargantuan covered market contains some 5,000 shops and 60 streets.

Grand Bazaar

It's only a 15-minute-or-so stroll from the Blue Mosque and Aya Sofya. Enter through one of four main gates and get ready to be overwhelmed by merchants standing at their storefront doorways, attempting to coax you indoors in nearly every language. Their efforts are entertainment in itself. Expect a packed Bazaar; some 250,000 to 400,000 shoppers visit each day (except Sundays, when it is closed.)

Grand Bazaar Caviar

Hand-painted ceramics, dazzling 22-karat gold jewelry, both cheap and pricey rugs, water pipes, buttery leather jackets, cashmere scarves, kitsch trinkets - it's all for the bargaining at the Grand Bazaar. (Do watch your wallets, although I've never had a pickpocket problem here.) Many dismiss the Bazaar as too touristy, but others (including myself) find it a fabulous shopping venue, particularly with limited time and a long list of gifts to bring home.

Some stores have been around for at least a century. Karmen, known for its antique jewelry, was established in 1865 and is on the main "Gold Street." Other shops are far newer and showcase Turkish-made au courant goods. Koç Leather, for instance, is a bustling boutique renowned for its high-fashion jackets for women and men.

Fruit Stand

Plan on several hours at the Bazaar with lunch at Havuzlu Restaurant for authentic Turkish cuisine. Havuzlu is a favorite of shopkeepers and other locals; you'll spot families out for an afternoon on the town. It's also a welcome (and welcoming) respite from the bustling market. There are no menus; walk to a counter and an English-speaking manager will explain each dish. Pick anything and everything with eggplant and ground beef or lamb. Dishes blanketed in béchamel (cream sauce, thickened with flour) are particularly delicious. Have a seat and a server will bring your meal.

Waterfront

The Spice Market is about a 15-minute stroll from the Grand Bazaar. It's crammed with tiny shops and a favorite of locals. Less touristy than the Grand Bazaar, the Spice Market primarily sells freshly roasted and ground spices, Turkish sweets and teas. You can even find Iranian saffron here in various grades; the priciest rivals the best in Spain.

Spice Market

WHAT'S TURKISH CUISINE?

Turkish cuisine possesses Central Asian, Balkan and Middle Eastern elements. Its history is amazing; back in the 11th century, Turkish rulers and lords had kitchens run by master chefs and separate wine houses.

Expect similarities to Greek and other Mediterranean cuisines, with an emphasis on eggplant, lamb, olive oil and tomato-based dishes. Kebabs and seafood (the latter particularly by the Aegean) are extremely popular. Yogurt is used in everything from dips and sauces to cakes. Food isn't so much spicy as it is spiced. Desserts are often made with filo dough and nuts, drenched in honey or sugar syrups.

Not far from the Grand Bazaar, Hamdi Restaurant also serves fine meals. It's a favorite of visitors and locals, for mouthwatering kebabs, including mixed lamb and beef. And the starters (mezze), like stuffed grape leaves and yogurt dips, and nut-and-filo desserts are delicious.

WHERE TO STAY

Cruise lines often offer pre-and-post hotel packages. The prices are generally higher than what you can secure yourself. The sole benefit of going through the cruise line is that you are transported between the airport, ship and hotel.

Table with a View, The Ritz-Carlton, Istanbul

Save money by booking your own hotel and using a reliable car service recommended by the hotel concierge for ship and airport transfers. If you decide to hire a taxi, make sure the meter is on before you drive away. Istanbul's taxi drivers are notorious for attempting to scam visitors. And the traffic is dreadful so fares add up.

Seafood Entree at Cintemani restaurant, The Ritz-Carlton, Istanbul

Istanbul is filled with terrific hotels, from moderate-priced boutiques to famous properties like the two Four Seasons hotels (Four Seasons Hotel Istanbul at Sultanahmet; Four Seasons Hotel Istanbul at the Bosphorus). If you prefer staying near the port, consider The Ritz-Carlton, Istanbul. Located smack-dab on the Bosphorus, the hotel provides stunning views of the Strait and its never-ending parade of water traffic. Rooms are up to The Ritz-Carlton's typical swank snuff, the spa is rejuvenating and Çintemani restaurant has a lavish breakfast buffet of Turkish and American-style delicacies. At dinner, this same restaurant offers excellent seafood and service.

Turkish Breakfast at The Ritz-Carlton, Istanbul

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GETTING THERE

Unless your cruise is roundtrip Istanbul (a rarity; it's often Venice or Athens-Istanbul), you'll have to fly in or out of the city. Consider Turkish Airlines - a carrier with which many of us are not familiar, although it is a Star Alliance (United, Air Canada, Lufthansa) member. Turkish Airlines was just named the "Best Airline Europe" in the 2012 prestigious Skytrax World Airline Awards for the second year running.

One of the fastest-growing airlines, Turkish Airlines recently added daily nonstop Los Angeles-Istanbul flights on new Boeing 777s and has other nonstops from major U.S. cities. You will get to or from Istanbul faster and without the worry of connections. (Most other carriers make you switch planes in New York, London, Frankfurt or Paris.)

Turkish Airlines also won "Best Premium Economy Seats" from Skytrax. Premium economy is a newish service class being integrated into most carriers that is between economy and business. (Good to know, as business class airfares are now as expensive as many cruises.)

Turkish Airlines calls their premium economy "Comfort Class." The pitch (not legroom; it's the space between a point in one seat and the same point in the seat in front of it) is a delightful 46 inches. (Economy is a knee-pinching 30-to-32-inch pitch.) Many other airlines offer about 38 inches in premium economy for a similar price. When you are traveling this far, pitch is critical to comfort.

Also critical to comfort is seat width and recline. Turkish Airlines' premium economy offers a seat width of 19.5 inches (wider than most of its competitors), with an 8.5-inch seat recline.

Turkish Airlines has won awards for its cuisine - even in economy. The airline has introduced a "Flying Chef" in starched whites and a towering toque who greets all boarding passengers at the airplane door. A toque-topped chef from the ground catering company is responsible for all meals served onboard. He/she also completes onboard cooking and garnishes, plates and often serves passengers in business class.

Flying Chef

Coach flyers have gourmet options like olive oil-poached artichokes and delicately spiced meat-stuffed eggplant. Premium economy passengers receive upgraded meals on business class china. Business class passengers, who enjoy lie-flat beds and pampering service, are privy to personally inscribed three-fold menus and food that rivals its top competitors. (There is no first-class on Turkish Airlines. In fact, many carriers are doing away with first class.)

Appetizers

The food tastes better flying from Turkey to the United States rather than the opposite direction. Sadly, I find that the food is always better flying from Europe on all airlines.

Business class meals include delicious starters such as fresh artichoke soup, a silken puree with citrus notes. Turkish mezze (appetizers) and entrees like grilled sea bass on red lentils are great examples of authentic cuisine. And the selection of Turkish wines is exemplary.

Entree

If you are flying business class (or are a Star Alliance Gold Card member), the recently renovated Turkish Airlines international lounge looks like it was sprung from the pages of Architectural Digest. The design, the furniture - every element is eye-catching beautiful. It offers everything from a cozy library, theatre room with cushy chairs, chefs squeezing fresh juices and cooking meals, full bars - one more enticing aspect of ever-enthralling Istanbul.

Has this articles sparked a desire to see exotic Istanbul? Talk about it in the European destinations forum.

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