I’m slowly sailing past the Golden Horn at sunrise, listening to the Muezzin calling the faithful to prayer. The Blue Mosque of Istanbul emerges from the early morning haze against a back drop of what has, and will always be, one of the most important cities in the world. As Napoleon said, “If the Earth were a single state, Istanbul would be its capital.”
Even at this hour we are not alone. Behind and in front of Azamara Journey are many other cargo ships of various sizes transiting the straits, as we arrive at the cross-roads of Europe by sea. Built on two continents, Europe and Asia, located on the shores of the Bosphorus, Istanbul stands where the waters of the Black Sea meet those of the Sea of Marmara at the Golden Horn. Near the tip of the old-town peninsula is the compact district of Sultanahmet which is home to many of the city’s most famous sites.
For first-time visitors the city appears to be an enormous metropolis but we found that the main tourist sites of Istanbul were manageable for our final day’s cruise stop with Azamara Club Cruises. Our ship, Amazara Journey, docked right in the heart of town, close to the Galata bridge and the Golden Horn. As we had only a day we decided to focus on the compact Sultanahemet district taking one of Azamara’s Land Discovery tours.
Most people know that Istanbul was originally called Constantinople, named after the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great who chose it as his capital. After the Romans came the Byzantine Empire and from the 15th century the Ottoman Empire took over, ruling through the end of World War I. Given the geography and history it is hardly surprising that modern Istanbul is a melting pot of ideas and cultures; a cosmopolitan and exciting world city.
We boarded our mini-bus for a panoramic tour over one of the major bridges to what the Turks call “the other side”, technically Asia. Despite the traffic and commuting time, this is a popular place to live since it is calmer than the European side where most of the businesses are located. Returning to the European side our first stop was the Spice Market near the Galata Bridge.
The Spice Market in Istanbul
The Spice Market was built in the 17th century and houses merchants dealing in spices, herbs, medicinal plants, vegetables, meat and fish. Tourists and locals mingle, with the smell of spices wafting enticingly throughout the area. We were offered samples of Turkish delight and pomegranate tea and whilst the salesmen were smooth tongued we were genuinely welcomed. Of course we bought some Turkish delight and Iranian saffron, then continued to walk around looking at the fresh fish stalls and the fruit and veg market.
For a foodie like me it was a real pleasure and I could have spent many hours tasting anything from walnuts through to caviar, fresh apricots, soft cheeses, spicy sausages. We found the Spice Market less intimidating than the Grand Bazaar, although you need to understand that it is fine to walk away if you find the salesmen too intense.
Lunch at Hamdi restaurant
Somewhat reluctantly we left the Spice Market to walk across the square to Hamdi restaurant where we had a table booked on the top floor. By now it was very hot and humid, so the air-conditioned dining room was a welcome retreat. It also provided a stunning panoramic view towards the Bosporus and the endless river traffic as well as the domes and minarets of the nearby New Mosque.
Lunch was delicious and we tried kebabs of finely minced lamb and beef with pistachios and spicy chicken served with yoghurt. As mezes we had hummus, pinto beans and vine leaf dolma and a sweet taste of baklava followed by strong, sweet Turkish coffee.
The restaurant was packed with professionals taking lunch, discerning tourists and Turkish families out for a treat. Mr Hamdi started as a street vendor and I can fully understand why he now has a restaurant covering four floors and serving the same simple dishes using local fresh ingredients, both delicious and beautifully presented.
Hagia Sophia in Istanbul
After lunch we were back on our air-conditioned coach for our visit to Hagia Sophia, known as the greatest house of worship in the Christian and Muslim worlds. This is the Church of Constantinople built by the Emperor Justinian in A.D. 537 on the grandest scale possible – the dome alone has a span of 56 m! Since the Emperor was in a hurry, the church took just five years to build and if you ask how they did it, the legend is that it was built by angels.
Hagia Sophia served as a church for nearly a millennium and for 1000 years it was the greatest dome in the world surpassed only by the renaissance cathedral in Florence. The day the Ottomans captured Constantinople in 1453 the building was converted into a mosque. Fortunately, they left much of the fine mosaic work, save plastering over the faces of the icons, since Muslims do not allow pictorial representations of the prophets.
Kemal Attaturk, the founder of modern Turkey had the sense to convert the building into a museum in 1935, since it was such an important site for both Christians and Muslims. Whilst there was much to see, the images that left the greatest impact on me were the colourful mosaics of Mary and the Christ child. Above where the altar once stood were two enormous wooden medallions, one with the Arabic lettering for Allah on the right and the other of the Prophet Mohammed on the left. Given the current conflict between the Muslim and Christian world it is humbling to see three of the most important figures in world religion venerated in one place.
The Grand Bazaar in Istanbul
Next on our tour was The Grand Bazaar, the “Mall of all Malls” with 4000 stores as opposed to the 150 in the Spice Market. The Bazaar was the centre for trade for the entire Ottoman Empire and remained Turkey’s commercial hub right up until the 1950s. The enormous covered market is bursting with everything you can imagine from jewellery (especially gold), to silks, copperware, spices, ceramics, leather goods and plenty of tourist tat. About 80% of the visitors nowadays are tourists and it is probably not the place to get the best bargains, although certainly an unmissable experience.
We were looking for some hand painted Turkish bowls and we expected to have to haggle hard. However I was delighted to meet a lovely gentleman who’d had the shop for 40 years who not only allowed me to taste his tea but also immediately accepted our offer of four for the price of three. Our purchases were quickly bubble wrapped and we left the best of friends. While you have to visit the Grand Bazaar, I preferred the Spice Market for a less intimidating experience.
So what did we learn from our day’s cruise stop in Istanbul? Firstly, you should do your research if you only have a limited amount of time since there is so much to see, more than you could possibly cover in a day. Secondly it is worth taking one of the Land Discoveries with an air conditioned bus and guide since Istanbul is just too busy and you will waste too much time if you don’t. Thirdly you have to have an open mind. For example I enjoyed seeing headscarfed ladies, arms around the waists of their husbands doing their shopping. Everyone I spoke to was incredibly helpful and I didn’t feel intimidated at all. Of course one day in Istanbul is just not enough. Many of the other cruise passengers had decided to stay on after the cruise for three or four days and of that I was very envious.
Listening to the fifth and final call to prayer as the sun sets I observe three young modern Turkish women, smart phones in hand, enjoying a chat in the evening sunshine. I can’t help but think that Napoleon had it right all those years ago. Istanbul could easily be the capital of the world.
Thanks to Guy for sharing his impressions of Istanbul. Guy occasionally writes for the blog, and is always happy to be Heather’s travelling companion, photographer and bag carrier!
About Azamara Club Cruises
Azamara Club Cruises is a small luxury cruise line with two ships; Azamara Journey that Heather and Guy sailed on and Azamara Quest, each with a capacity of 686 guests. The smaller ship size means you often visit destinations that larger ships can’t get into and the ships can dock in more central locations. The emphasis is on destination immersion; enjoying the destination to the full, arriving early and sailing late so that guests can enjoy nights and cool places ashore, with insider access programmes and a unique AzAmazing evening included in each cruise. No itinerary is the repeated and each year the ships visit different destinations around the world. Azamara is part of Royal Caribbean Cruise group. Visit the Azamara Club Cruises website more information about a Mediterranean luxury cruise like the one Heather and Guy enjoyed.
Joining your Azamara Club Cruise
Heather and Guy flew from London Heathrow to Athens and back from Istanbul using British Airways, although obviously each cruise is different in the best way to get there.
Heather used the Meet and Greet Parking Service booked through Airport Parking and Hotels (APH) who offer airport parking at a range of airports across the UK as well as travel extras such as airport lounge booking and airport hotel stays.
Both flights and transfers from the airport to your cruise ship can be arranged through Azamara Club Cruises.
Thanks to Azamara Club Cruises who hosted Heather and Guy for their 7 day Greek Island Cruise and to Airport Parking and Hotels (APH) who provided their airport parking at Heathrow.
Read More about our Azamara Greece Island Cruise
Sailing into Santorini – Day 1 of our Azamara Greek Island Cruise
Windy Mykonos – Day 2 of our Azamara Greek Island Cruise
Charming Patmos – day 3 of our Azamara Greek Island Cruise
Visiting Kusadasi and Ephesus – Day 4 of our Azamara Greece and Turkey Cruise
You’ll also find our sister blog with tips on how to build a successful travel blog at My Blogging Journey