It’s often said that Istanbul is a city where Europe meets Asia and this is certainly true both geographically and culturally. Of course, cruises to Istanbul are all about mosques, markets and Turkish baths but there’s so many other things to see in this literal city of two halves. Bisected by the Bosphorus Strait, its split into eight different districts, each with its own distinct sights, sounds and ambience. While it’s true that most cruises to Istanbul won’t give you chance to explore the whole of the city, you’ll still get to explore a great deal, while acruise and stay holiday which involves a few days in the Turkish capital will give you a little more time to get acquainted.
Explore 3,000 years of history on cruises to Istanbul
Well, almost. Yes, Istanbul’s that old, though it hasn’t always gone by the same name. Jazz fan or not, there’s a chance you may have heard the 1950’s song Istanbul (not Constantinople), which refers to the city’s renaming to Istanbul in 1930. So, why Constantinople?
Well, first we have to go back to 660BC, when the city was founded as Byzantium by Greek settlers. After being part of successive Athenian leagues and empires for many years, the city gained independence in 355BC, which it enjoyed for over 400 years before becoming part of the Roman Empire in 74AD. Fast-forward to 324AD, when Constantine the Great became the emperor of the Roman Empire. He wanted a new Christian city, a sort of ‘second Rome’ which would be a living example of the Empire’s expansion further east. Contrary to what you may think, he didn’t name the city after himself but christened it nea Roma (New Rome) and it was in fact the people who referenced him directly, referring to it as ‘Constantinople’. In a few years, the city became the capital of what we know of today as the Byzantine Empire.
This Christian influence saw the existing Greek culture and Christianity merge and many new religious buildings were built. For hundreds of years, Constantinople thrived and was one of Europe’s most influential cities until it was raided by Catholic crusaders during the Fourth Crusade, just after the turn of the 13th century. The Latin Empire, as it became known, was Rome’s answer to the Byzantine Empire and Constantinople would be its heart – but not for long. The Latin Empire would only last until 1261, after which Constantinople’s Byzantine Empire was restored. The attacks had taken their toll on the city however, something which hadn’t gone unnoticed by the Ottoman Turks, who in 1453, led by Sultan Mehmed II, took the city and declared it the capital of the Ottoman Empire.
It was around this time that the city first started being referred to as Istanbul as well, as the city was redeveloped and many of its Islamic structures built. However, the sultan was big on multiculturalism and though the Ottoman stamp was put firmly on the city, he welcomed Christians and Jews back and invited other Europeans to live there. Subsequent sultans brought more architectural and artistic development until the early 20th century, when modernisation and revolution took hold and the Republic of Turkey was created. Constantinople officially became Istanbul in 1930 and today, after thousands of years and four different empires, it remains one of the largest, most populous and most culturally rich cities in the world.
Thing to see on cruises to Istanbul
The City of Mosques
One of the tourist must-sees on cruises to Istanbul is the Blue Mosque, known locally as SultanAhmet Mosque. Located in the Old City, it’s a truly spectacular building, boasting six minarets (slim tower-like structures) and several domes. Why the name? Well, certainly there are blue tiles to be found inside, but another reason is perhaps that years ago, before the high-rise Istanbul of today, the blue waters of the Marmara Sea used to reflect onto the mosque, giving it a blue colour. Another very popular mosque is Suleymaniye, constructed by the famed architect Sinan. Indeed, for hardcore architecturalists, it’s probably even more of a draw than the Blue Mosque, with its stunning interior and beautiful location. Another of Sinan’s works is Hagia Sophia, which boasts a staggering 30 million gold tiles inside, while another popular mosque also famous for its tiles is Rustem Pasha. Its smaller scale means some seriously fine tile-work inside and out and its intimate feel and ornate beauty make it some people’s favourite.
I’m giving the Palace its own entry as most cruises to Istanbul offer an excursion which explores this tourist hot-spot. When it comes to Turkish history in Istanbul this is the place, as it’s where the sultan held court and where all the governmental decisions were made during the days of the Ottoman Empire. Almost like its own little city back in the day, now it’s a huge museum which boasts many beautiful rooms, pavilions and treasures. Buy a museum pass in advance or book an excursion through your cruise line and get there early to avoid the inevitable queues, as the Palace is never quiet and the best way to brush up on your Ottoman history.
Byzantine and Roman sites
Istanbul’s history is a long one and some of its oldest tourist attractions date back to the days before Ottoman rule. One site not to miss is the Kariye Museum, though this isn’t a museum in the traditional sense. Architecturally, it’s a splendid example of Byzantine architecture and is actually a church, though was converted to a mosque during Ottoman rule. There are some beautiful frescos to be found inside, though no services, as since 1948, it’s been a museum to show off its spectacular works. The Basilica Cistern is close to the Blue Mosque and though it also functions as a museum, displaying a number of ancient Ottoman outfits and artifacts.
Bustling bazaars and bargains on cruises to Istanbul
For many people any cruise with a Middle-Eastern flavour should always include a visit to a bustling market or two and a good haggle to boot. If that sounds like you, then cruises to Istanbul offer the opportunity to visit the ancient retail granddaddy himself, the Grand Bazaar. This is THE place to haggle and indeed, it’s expected in this, Turkey’s largest covered market. It’s hard to know the number of outlets exactly, as you certainly won’t find a shopping centre floor plan here, but the Grand Bazaar is said to boast at least 4,000 different shops. It goes without saying that this place is always crowded, so be prepared for a bit of jostling but it is the place to pick up everything from exotic fruits and spices to clothes and ceramics. Indeed, there are outlets galore dedicated to all these things around the city, so even if you don’t have time to delve into the Grand Bizarre, you’re sure to be able to pick up a souvenir or two.
For the serious cosmopolitan shopper, Istanbul Sapphire is the place – a thoroughly modern shopping complex populated by all the latest designer outlets. However, it’s not just about retail therapy here and if you’re looking for the perfect place from which to view Istanbul from above, this is it. Rising high above the rest of the complex, the Istanbul Sapphire Tower is one of the city’s most modern attractions and the panoramic view you’ll enjoy from the top from the top is certainly worth the ticket.
By Simon Brotherton