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Tour description

Istanbul, Turkey

Though it's often remarked that Turkey straddles Europe and Asia, it's really the city of Istanbul that does the straddling. European Istanbul is separated from its Asian suburbs by the Bosphorus, the narrow channel of water that connects the Black Sea, north of the city, to the Sea of Marmara in the south. What will strike you more than the meeting of East and West in Istanbul, though, is the juxtaposition of the old and the new, of tradition and modernity. Office towers creep up behind historic old palaces; women in jeans or designer outfits pass others wearing long skirts and head coverings; donkey-drawn carts vie with shiny BMWs for dominance of the streets; and the Grand Bazaar competes with Western-style boutiques and shopping malls. At dawn, when the muezzin's call to prayer rebounds from ancient minarets, there are inevitably a few hearty revelers still making their way home from nightclubs while other residents kneel in prayer.

Arkeoloji Müzeleri (Istanbul Archaeology Museums). Step into this vast repository of spectacular finds, housed in a three-building complex in a forecourt of Topkapı Palace, to get a head-spinning look at the civilizations that have thrived for thousands of years in and around Turkey. The most stunning pieces are tombs that include the so-called Alexander Sarcophagus, found in Lebanon, carved with scenes from Alexander the Great's battles, and once believed, wrongly, to be his final resting place. Don't miss a visit to the Çinili Köşk (Tiled Pavilion), one of the most visually pleasing sights in all of Istanbul-a bright profusion of colored tiles covers this one-time hunting lodge of Mehmet the Conqueror, built in 1472. The Eski Şark Eserleri Müzesi (Museum of the Ancient Orient) transports visitors to even earlier times: The vast majority of the panels, mosaics, obelisks, and other artifacts here, from Anatolia, Mesopotamia, and elsewhere in the Arab world, date from the pre-Christian centuries. One of the most significant pieces in the collection is a 13th-century BC tablet on which is recorded the Treaty of Kadesh, perhaps the world's earliest known peace treaty, an accord between the Hittite king Hattusili III and the Egyptian pharaoh Ramses II. Gülhane Park, next to Topkapı Sarayı. Admission charged.

Aya Sofya (Hagia Sophia, Church of the Holy Wisdom). This soaring edifice is perhaps the greatest work of Byzantine architecture and for almost a thousand years, starting from its completion in 537, it was the world's largest and most important religious monument. As Justinian may well have intended, the impression that will stay with you longest is the sight of the dome. As you enter, the half domes trick you before the great space opens up with the immense dome, almost 18 stories high and more than 30 meters (100 feet) across, towering above-look up into it and you'll see the spectacle of thousands of gold tiles glittering in the light of 40 windows. Only Saint Peter's in Rome, not completed until the 17th century, surpassed Aya Sofya in size and grandeur. It was the cathedral of Constantinople, the heart of the city's spiritual life, and the scene of imperial coronations. It was also the third church on this site: the second, the foundations of which you can see at the entrance, was burned down in the antigovernment Nika riots of 532.

Mehmet II famously sprinkled dirt on his head before entering the church after the conquest as a sign of humility. His first order was for Aya Sofya to be turned into a mosque and, in keeping with the Islamic proscription against figural images, mosaics were plastered over. Successive sultans added the four minarets, mihrab (prayer niche), and minbar (pulpit for the imam) that visitors see today, as well as the large black medallions inscribed in Arabic with the names of Allah, Muhammad, and the early caliphs. In 1935, Atatürk turned Aya Sofya into a museum and a project of restoration, including the uncovering of mosaics, began. Aya Sofya Sq.. Admission charged.

Blue Mosque (Sultanahmet Camii). Only after you enter the Blue Mosque do you understand the name: the inside's covered with 20,000 shimmering blue-green İznik tiles interspersed with 260 stained-glass windows; calligraphy and intricate floral patterns are painted on the ceiling. After the dark corners and stern faces of the Byzantine mosaics in Aya Sofya, this mosque feels gloriously airy and full of light. Indeed, this favorable comparison was the intention of architect Mehmet Ağa (a former student of the famous Ottoman architect Sinan), whose goal was to surpass Justinian's crowning achievement (Aya Sofya). At the behest of Sultan Ahmet I (ruled 1603-17), he created this masterpiece of Ottoman craftsmanship, starting in 1609 and completing it in just eight years; many believe he succeeded in outdoing the splendor of Aya Sofya. Sultanahmet Sq., Sultanahmet.

Grand Bazaar (Kapalı Çarşı). It's said that this early version of a shopping mall is the largest concentration of stores under one roof anywhere in the world, and that's easy to believe. Yeniçeriler Cad. and Çadırcılar Cad.

Süleymaniye Camii (Mosque of Süleyman). Perched on a hilltop opposite Istanbul University, Süleymaniye Camii is perhaps the most magnificent mosque in Istanbul and is considered one of the architect Sinan's masterpieces. Thanks to a three-year, multimillion-dollar restoration project completed in late 2010, the Süleymaniye can now be seen in its full glory. The tomb of Sinan is just outside the walls, on the northern corner, while those of his patron, Süleyman the Magnificent, and the sultan's wife, Roxelana, are housed in the cemetery adjacent to the mosque. The külliye, or mosque complex, still includes a hospital, library, hamam, several schools, and other charitable institutions that mosques traditionally operate, so take a stroll around the beautiful grounds-and don't miss the wonderful views of the Golden Horn. Süleymaniye Cad., near Istanbul University's north gate.

Topkapı Sarayı (Topkapı Palace). This vast palace on Seraglio Point, above the confluence of the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn, was the residence of sultans and their harems, in addition to being the seat of Ottoman rule from the 1460s until the middle of the 19th century. Few other royal residences match this hilltop compound when it comes to mystery, intrigue, and the lavishly exotic intricacies of court life. Sultan Mehmet II built the original Topkapı Palace, known simply as the New Palace, between 1459 and 1465, shortly after his conquest of Constantinople. Over the centuries, sultan after sultan added ever more elaborate architectural frills and fantasies, until the palace had acquired four courtyards and quarters for some 5,000 full-time residents, including slaves, concubines, and eunuchs.

The main entrance, or Imperial Gate, leads to the Court of the Janissaries, also known as the First Courtyard-it is, and has always been, freely accessible to the general public. Today, the courtyard where these members of the sultan's guard once assembled is a tranquil green park full of tourist groups, and there is little to evoke the splendors and tragedies of the palace's extraordinary history. You will begin to experience the grandeur of the palace when you pass through the Bab-üs Selam (Gate of Salutation). Süleyman the Magnificent built the gate in 1524 and was the only person allowed to pass through it on horseback; others had to dismount and enter on foot. Prisoners were kept in the towers on either side of the gate before they were executed next to the nearby fountain, a handy arrangement that made it easy for executioners to wash the blood off their hands after carrying out their orders.

The Second Courtyard, once the administrative hub of the Ottoman Empire, is planted with rose gardens and ornamental trees, and filled with a series of ornate köşks, pavilions once used for the business of state as well as for more mundane matters, like feeding the hordes of servants. The Harem, a maze of 400 halls, terraces, rooms, wings, and apartments grouped around the sultan's private quarters, evokes all the exoticism and mysterious ways of the Ottoman Empire. Seeing the 40 or so Harem rooms that have been restored and open to the public, though, brings to mind not just luxury but the regimentation, and even barbarity, of life in this enclosed enclave. A separate ticket must be purchased to visit the Harem.

Beyond the Harem is the Third Courtyard, shaded by regal old trees and dotted by some of the most ornate of the palace's pavilions. (From the Harem, you enter to the side of the courtyard, but to see this beautiful space to best advantage, make your way to its main gate, the Bab-üs Saadet, or Gate of Felicity, exit and reenter-and consider yourself privileged to do so, because for centuries only the sultan and grand vizier were allowed to pass through the gate.) Foreign ambassadors once groveled in the Arz Odası (Audience Chamber), but access to the courtyard was highly restricted, in part because it housed the Treasury, four rooms filled with imperial thrones and lavish gifts bestowed upon generations of sultans, and spoils garnered from centuries of war and invasions. The glittering prizes here are the jewels. The most famous pieces are the 86-carat Spoonmaker's Diamond and the emerald-studded Topkapı Dagger.

The Fourth Courtyard, more of an open terrace, was the private realm of the sultan, and the small, elegant pavilions, mosques, fountains, and reflecting pools are scattered amid the gardens that overlook the Golden Horn and Bosphorus. The octagonal Revan Köşkü, built by Murat IV in 1636 to commemorate a military victory in eastern Anatolia and the Caucasus, is often referred to in Ottoman histories as the Turban Room (Sarık Odası) because it is where the sultan used to keep his turbans. In the İftariye (Golden Cage), also known as the Sofa Köşkü, the closest relatives of the reigning sultan lived in strict confinement under what amounted to house arrest-superseding an older practice of murdering all possible rivals to the throne. Just off the open terrace with the wishing well is the lavishly tiled Sünnet Odası (Circumcision Room), where little princes would be taken for ritual circumcision during their ninth or 10th year. Babıhümayun Cad., Gülhane Park, near Sultanahmet Sq.. Admission charged.


Istanbul has been a shopper's town for centuries-the sprawling Grand Bazaar could easily be called the world's oldest shopping mall-but this doesn't mean the city's stuck in the past. Along with its colorful bazaars and outdoor markets, Istanbul also has a wide range of modern options. Whether you're looking for trinkets and souvenirs, kilims and carpets, brass and silverware, leather goods, old books, prints and maps, or furnishings and clothes (Turkish textiles are among the best in the world), you can find them here. Nuruosmaniye Caddesi, one of the major streets leading to the Grand Bazaar, is lined with some of Istanbul's most stylish shops, with an emphasis on fine carpets, jewelry, and antiques.

The Arasta Bazaar. Just behind the Blue Mosque, the Arasta Bazaar is a walkway lined with shops selling items similar to those you'll find at the Grand Bazaar (primarily carpets and ceramics), but often at lower prices. The atmosphere is also considerably calmer and, unlike the Grand Bazaar, the Arasta is open on Sunday. Sultanahmet.

The Egyptian Bazaar. The Egyptian Bazaar is also known as the Spice Market, and has stall after enticing stall filled with mounds of exotic spices and dried fruits. near Yeni Cami Meydanı, Eminönü.

Sahaflar Çarşısı. The Sahaflar Çarşısı, reached through a doorway just outside the western end of the Grand Bazaar, is home to a bustling book market, with both old and new editions. Most are in Turkish, but English and other languages are also represented. The market is open daily, though Sunday has the most vendors. Grand Bazaar.


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