We hear that all 2008 Holland America itineraries that include Istanbul include an overnight which will be great, because more than one day is needed to explore this historic and exotic city.
Since it was our first visit, we booked HAL’s eight-hour “Best of Istanbul” tour, which included the Hippodrome, Blue Mosque, Haghia Sophia, Topkapi Palace and the Grand Bazaar.
We knew Istanbul was a large and chaotic city with 12 million people. We were surprised that most of the main attractions are concentrated in the same area.
Our tour visited the outdoor Hippodrome built between 203 and 330 AD for Emperor Constantine the Great, who wanted the city to be a second capital in the Roman Empire. Within the Hippodrome is the Egyptian Obelisque, created in Egypt 3500 years ago with Egyptian hieroglyphics. The obelisk was brought to Istanbul in 390 BC where it has stood for the last 1600 years.
Next we removed our shoes (the tour guide provided bags) and entered the Blue Mosque – the only mosque in Turkey with 6 minarets. More than 21,000 blue and green tiles cover the interior.
Shoes back on, we headed across a busy street to the Haghia Sophia, built as cathedral in 537 AD. It was converted to a mosque in 1453 and then turned into a museum in 1934, as it has detailed ancient Christian mosaics.
Our next stop was Topkapi Palace, home of the Ottoman sultans. Here we viewed the palace kitchens and porcelain collections and the 86 carat Spoon Makers Diamond.
Our tour included lunch at the restaurant within the Palace, consisting of salad, lamb, rice, cheese pie, and rice pudding. Our guide gave us several hours of free time here; unfortunately this tour doesn’t include the Harem section and there wasn’t enough to see to warrant several hours. There are only a few vendors in the Palace, and they only accept Turkish lira (very different that throughout most of Istanbul).
Back onto our bus, we drove to the Grand Bazaar, and were encouraged to attend a carpet demonstration before going to the Bazaar. Having experienced a previous Turkish carpet demonstration (everyone should see it once) we skipped this and headed up the street near the Grand Bazaar, which is lined with cafes, shops and even a Starbucks. As it was a hot day, a cold Efes beer hit the spot, followed by a stop at Starbucks to add to our city mug collection. The Grand Bazaar is a site to experience – for us, in small doses!
Back to the ship, we found an internet café near the ship. We wanted to go out in the evening, but found ourselves exhausted and ready for a quick Lido dinner.
Istanbul is definitely a magical city; we enjoyed viewing it from the ship after the sun set