Istanbul Tours Istanbul Vacation Package Tours to Istanbul Turkey
If asked to name a city in the world that most evokes a sense of the exotic, of immense beauty, and of intrigue and mystery, many people would name Istanbul. Standing over two continents, three empires, several cultures, and thousands of years of history, it is a truly international city - one that seems to have long drawn people to project their own fantasies onto it. Arguably the greatest appeal of Istanbul is the unique combination of its rich history and historical structures with its cosmopolitan feel. While the city’s unique past will fascinate you and the various monuments will evoke a genuine sense of awe, perfectly combined with an oriental feel in many areas of the city, it might be no exaggeration to argue that there are also other areas where you would not know whether you are in London, Paris, Rome or any great Western city.
The architecture, the traffic, the advertising, or the all-too-familiar food and clothing stores - all are witnesses to the homogenization of globalization. No matter the origin of the appeal of each area and moment in Istanbul, there is no doubt that you are in a fabulous city like no other on this planet. And it is this Istanbul that experienced guides will introduce you to, leaving you relaxed and open to this city’s many true delights.
Istanbul through the Centuries
It was the Roman Emperor Constantine I - the same Constantine who in 313 AD declared Christianity legal throughout the Roman Empire - who inaugurated the next great phase of the city: in 324 AD he chose Byzantion to become the new capital of the Roman Empire, renaming it Nova Roma and embarking on an ambitious building program. The city became the official capital of the Empire in 330 AD, but when seven years later Constantine died, soon thereafter it took on yet another name: Constantinople, or “city of Constantine”. Meanwhile, Rome and its western provinces were moving into the phase known today as “the decline of the Roman Empire”, and in 395 AD the eastern part separated and formed its own empire with Constantinople as its capital. This Eastern Roman Empire has become known in modern times as the Byzantine Empire to recognize that it was no longer part of the ancient Roman world, but the center of the expanding Christian church throughout the eastern Mediterranean.
Constantine had already undertaken some major construction projects - including the famous Hippodrome, or race track for chariots - but it was during the reign of Emperor Justinian (527-565) that Constantinople saw the construction of the then largest church in the world, the Church of Hagia Sophia, or “Holy Wisdom”. In the centuries that followed, the Byzantine Empire was attacked by Slavs from the north, Persians from the east, and then Muslims from several directions, but Constantinople remained free, and by the late 800s the city had entered into a period of renewed prosperity at the center of what was now a vast commercial empire. In 1054, after the split between the Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox Christians, Constantinople would become the seat of the Patriarch, or senior bishop of the Christian Orthodox Church.
During the 11th century, Seljuk Turks captured Asia Minor, which today is the area of Turkey that borders with the Aegean Sea, and the emperors appealed to the Christians of Western Europe to take back the Holy Land. This led to the series of crusades, culminating in the Fourth Crusade, in which the Venetians, commercial rivals of the Byzantine Empire, diverted the crusaders to take over Constantinople. This occurred in 1204, when the Venetians removed the Byzantine Emperor and divided up the empire’s territories. An interesting fact of cultural trivia from the time is that the Venetians also removed the four great bronze horses from the Hippodrome and installed them on the roof of St. Mark’s Basilica! Then, in 1261, a Greek general, Michael Paleologus, took Constantinople back from the Venetians and restored the Byzantine imperial dynasty.
However, a new group from the east, the Ottoman Turks, began to take over more and more of the Byzantine Empire, which by 1400 had essentially been reduced to little more than Constantinople and its surrounding territory. Under attack for many decades by the Ottoman Turks, Constantinople finally fell on May 29, 1453, and was thoroughly sacked by the Turks. This event even in its own day had major repercussions throughout the world, for many Greeks fled Constantinople, carrying with them the books and knowledge that would contribute to the great Renaissance of Western Europe.
From this day on, Constantinople became a Turkish and a Muslim city. Its name soon changed, too, and the city eventually became accepted by the Turks and internationally as “Istanbul.” During the next century, the Ottoman Turks expanded their empire until it extended all the way from the Danube River in Hungary, east across Turkey, down into Mesopotamia and along the eastern shores of the Mediterranean, the shores of the Red Sea, Egypt, and all across North Africa to Morocco. Istanbul, as the capital of the Ottoman Empire, grew in population to be the largest city in the world and probably one of the most prosperous and the Sultans who ruled lavished the vast profits received from their empire on the great palaces and mosques that impress visitors to this day.
Of course, Istanbul has long been a destination for travelers and tourists - it was, after all, the terminus for the legendary Orient Express. The city is built over seven hills - just like Rome - but visitors will not be much aware of this fact. Most visitors will spend all their time in the European side of the city, which since 1973 has been linked to the Asian side by the Bosphorus Bridge, one of the world’s longest suspension bridges at 3,524 ft (1,074 meters), while a second bridge opened in 1988. The European side is in turn split by the so-called Golden Horn - actually a river that empties into the Bosphorus - and its two sides are connected by the famous Galata Bridge. Again, most of the tourist attractions are on the southern side of the Golden Horn, for this is the oldest section of the city. Even so, these sights are spread out over a fairly broad area, so taxis might be in order, although the public streetcar system is actually quite easy to master. But there is definitely much more to Istanbul than the old town, and just walking around the many appealing areas of Istanbul can fill several hours. Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul (2003) is required reading if you want to really get a feel for the city. The book plus a knowledgeable guide can make even a few days stay in Istanbul a never-to-be forgotten experience.
Routes and Interests in Istanbul
Once you arrive at Eminönü, one of the most amazing historical districts in Istanbul, just opposite the ferry docks you will find the famous Spice Bazaar. The Spice Bazaar is what may be called a mini covered market where you can find all kinds of spices, as well as a variety of “lokum”, the famous candy that the rest of the world has come to call Turkish Delights! From the Spice Bazaar you can walk straight up to the Sџleymaniye Mosque, which reigns over one of the seven hills of Istanbul. This spectacular mosque was ordered to be built between the years 1550-1557 by Sultan Sџleyman the Magnificent, who commissioned the great Turkish architect Sinan to create a masterwork that is today considered one of the most substantial ensembles of the Ottoman architecture within the city.
If you take the tram from Eminönü to Sultanahmet, you will be greeted by the Blue Mosque (Sultanahmet Camii), which was built by Sultan Ahmet I between 1603 and 1617 and received its name because of the dazzling blue tiles that line the imposing interior. It was in this mosque where Pope Benedict XVI stood and prayed on his visit to Istanbul in 2006. Just across the Blue Mosque lies the astonishing Hagia Sophia, the Byzantine church turned into a mosque shortly after the Ottoman Turks captured Istanbul in 1453 and in modern times serving as a museum. These two architectural marvels face each other as if competing for eminence!When Justinian built the Hagia Sophia in the 6th century, his goal was to outshine the Temple of Solomon. As a result, he erected what was the largest church in the world until the Cathedral of Seville was erected between 1402 and 1519. In 1935, centuries after its conversion into a mosque, Kemal Mustafa Ataturk, the founder and first president of the Republic of Turkey, turned the Hagia Sophia into a museum as part of his general program of making Turkey a more secular and tolerant nation. Across the centuries, it has undergone countless renovations, additions and subtractions, but these need not concern most visitors: they will simply stand in awe of this magnificent work of architecture. The inside of the Hagia Sophia is as glamorous as its outside and while admiring the inner architecture, do not forget to make a wish in the hole that exists in the rectangular pillar close to the door to the narthex. In the lower section, which is covered by a brass plate, you can place your finger in the hole and make a wish: it is said that your wish will come true if your finger comes out wet!
Only some 150 meters from the Hagia Sophia, is the great Basilica Cistern, or the Yerebatan Saninci in Turkish: it is the largest and most impressive of hundreds of underground cisterns throughout the city. Begun by Constantine, enlarged by Justinian, and then further enlarged by the Ottomans, this ancient cistern once held about 80,000 cubic meters of water that were delivered through 20 kilometers of aqueducts from the reservoir near the Black Sea. The Basilica Cistern is now a major attraction and will astonish anyone expecting just a pool of water; in fact, some might recognize the Basilica Cistern as the setting for a scene in the 1963 James Bond movie, From Russia with Love, and the truth is that even in the 21st century this intriguing place keeps attracting Hollywood productions, such as The International. When touring the site, do not neglect to turn your attention to the carved Medusa heads, which provide one of the many highlights of this impressive underground location.
Just a few steps next to the Hagia Sophia, you will come across the Topkapi Palace, located on the hilly headland known as Seraglio Point, overlooking the waters where the Golden Horn, the Bosphorus and the Sea of Marmara all converge. The principal residence of the Sultans from the late 1400s till the mid 1800s, it underwent constant reconstructions, in part due to earthquakes and fires and then fell into disrepair by the end of the 19th century, so what visitors see today is a renovated selection of rooms and public spaces. The several sections are linked by four open courtyards and most visitors will only have the time and energy to visit a selection of the rooms and different museums. The one thing you should not miss is the famous Kaşikçi (Spoonmaker) Diamond, a teardrop-shaped diamond of 86 carats surrounded by numerous precious stones. It was first worn by Mehmet IV at his coronation ceremony in 1648 and is considered to be the fifth largest diamond in the world. This unique jewel is called the Spoonmaker’s Diamond due to the rumor that it had been found among litter in Eğrikapi by a street beggar, who - not knowing its value - subsequently sold it for 3 spoons!
Not too far from the main attractions of the Old City lies the Grand Bazaar, the largest covered market in the world. Even before entering, one is confronted with a “flea market” of vendors, while inside the bazaar there are literally thousands of small shops selling every imaginable item, from expensive jewelry and carpets to leather jackets and silk scarves to traditional ornaments and souvenirs. Dating back to the 1500’s, this bazaar is considered to be the first covered shopping mall in the world and the progenitor of all modern shopping malls, but with the advantage of being on one floor! Of course bargaining is an inseparable part of the culture at the Grand Bazaar: it is expected that customers will bargain for the purchase of an item, threatening to walk away and many times being able to purchase an item even at a 50% reduction from the original price!
Route 2: The Bosphorus Another aspect that makes Istanbul unique and different from so many other intriguing cities in the world is the impressive Bosphorus and its magnificent scenery. Seeing Istanbul by land is undeniably a beautiful experience, but experiencing Istanbul by water through the Bosphorus will give your visit an entirely different perspective! There are quite a few alternatives if you wish to gaze at the beautiful scenery of the city traveling by sea. If TrueTurkey has not already included a Bosphorus cruise in your itinerary, you may join boat cruises scheduled as a tourist attraction, hire a boat for your own convenience, or hire a luxurious yacht for a more relaxed journey. Just a few examples of one-of-a-kind ensembles of Ottoman architectural marvels that you will be able to see on this spectacular sea route include the Dolmabahçe Palace, the Ciragan Palace and Yildiz Palaces, the bohemian art and cafe scene of the authentic Istanbul suburb of Ortaköy, the baroque style Mecidiye Mosque, the Bosphorus Bridge, the Beylerbeyi Palace, the beautiful village of Çengelkoy, the spectacular Naval Academy Kuleli, the Fortress of Europe (Rumeli Hisari), the sea-side district of Bebek, and the impressive Hekim Basi Salih Efendi residence. A Bosphorus cruise is guaranteed to fill your digital camera with hundreds of impressive pictures and your mind with memories to last a lifetime!
A more romantic alternative to the Bosphorus boat tours described above is a trip to the charming Princes’ Islands in the Marmara Sea. Büyükada is the largest and most popular of these islands, mainly due to the absence of cars in this natural environment. The only way of transportation on the island is by means of horse carriages that travel through the vast green forests and beautiful residences of its inhabitants; hence we encourage you to take a fun carriage ride through the island to explore the scenery. There are nine islands in the Princes’ Islands complex and the island ferry makes stops in four of them, where you will have a chance to either swim, bike, or dine in the area’s well-known fish restaurants.Route 3: Ortaköy, Dolmabahçe and Bebek Heading down from the areas of Taksim and Nişantaşi towards the sea, you will come across one of world’s most impressive palaces: the Dolmabahçe Palace. Commissioned by Sultan Abdülmecit and completed in 1854, this palace became the new home for the Ottoman Sultans during their reign in the last decades of the prominence of the Ottoman Empire. Dolmabahçe gained even greater significance when during the years of the early Republic Ataturk used to reside in the palace during his stays in Istanbul, and died here in 1938. If you wish to explore Dolmabahçe on your own, there are extensive tours starting every five minutes during the busy tourist season and every fifteen minutes in the off-season. The queues at the ticket office may be long, but the 2-hour tour including a segment of the harem is certainly rewarding! After the tour, you also have the opportunity to take a break in the charming tea garden with a full sea view of the Bosphorus.
A promenade from Dolmabahçe to the district of Ortaköy offers an opportunity for a nice walk along the Bosphorus, especially since on the way you will come across another of Istanbul’s imposing palaces! The Cirağan Palace is yet another exemplary neoclassical architectural work that combines both the Ottoman and Moorish styles from the “Tulip Era”, the period of cultural innovation of the Ottoman Empire. Continuing your walk further along, you will reach the beautiful area of Ortaköy: this suburb’s shore is a car-free section where you can take a stride in the cobble stone streets, glancing at the few Anatolian-style houses and enjoying its authentic cafes and restaurants. The beautiful panorama at the shore is especially preferred by photographers because the Orta Mosque (Orta Camii) and the Bosphorus Bridge behind it comprise a truly unique and inspiring scenery. If you want a taste of the authentic local life, do sit at one of the tea shops, order a traditional Turkish tea or coffee and play backgammon while admiring the view!
Further on from Ortaköy you will find Bebek, a trendy area with a park by the shore, cozy cafes, renowned fish restaurants, and a pleasant walking path along the seaside. Since Bebek is one of the city’s most exclusive neighborhoods, the Ottoman-style residences along the way are a must-see, so we encourage you to take the time to visit this beautiful area if your schedule allows for some exploration outside the main tourist attractions.Route 4: The Istanbul Neighborhoods of Galata, Taksim, Beyoğlu, and Nişantaşi Istanbul’s appeal is certainly not limited to the historical sites and the Bosphorus - this is a city with many fascinating and vibrant neighborhoods that offer themselves for many pleasant short excursions of discovery that put Istanbul under yet another unique angle: these are the areas of Galata, Taksim, Beyoglu, and upscale Nişantaşi.
The Galata Tower area is considered the “Soho” of Istanbul. After climbing the historical tower, a highlight for many visitors of this district, you may choose to shop at some of the trendy Turkish designers’ boutiques, such as Bahar Korcan or Arzu Kaprol, present amidst various vintage shops. This bohemian neighborhood is now becoming a popular destination for art galleries, and wandering through it you might just come across street festivals of fashion or photography. Not far from this area you will find yourself in Istiklal Street, which starts from the busy Taksim Square and is a 2-kilometer long, vibrant pedestrian street. Also referred to as the ‘Beyoğlu Region’, this district’s history dates back to the 15th century, when some embassies first moved here. During your walk along Istiklal Street, you will have a chance to indulge yourself in the scene of a busy street with impressive buildings on both sides and many shops of distinctive style.
At the end of Istiklal Street, in the proximity of the area also referred to as ‘The Tunnel’ (just before going down the stairs which head to Şişhane), you can turn right into the narrow street right across the Tram Station, finding yourself in the colorful Sofyali street. Sofyali street and Asmalimescit street a bit further down have become the heart of the trendy night life in Istanbul. Resembling the Meat Packing District in New York, this place starts packing up in the evening hours because of its interesting choices of restaurants, bars, and clubs, while its street-side tables serve as the perfect spot for enjoying a dinner or a glass of beer.
If you are looking for a more upscale district, there is no better choice than to head to the nearby Nişantaşi, an area just 5 minutes by car or one metro stop away from Taksim. Home to international fashion boutiques such as Louis Vuitton or Prada, which are situated in the main broad streets amidst a variety of other designer stores, Nişantaşi is packed with boutique coffee shops and restaurants, while tables situated along the sidewalks provide an ideal place for people watching and taking in the latest fashion trends!
Museums & Other Activities
Visiting a Hamam (a Turkish Bath) is a true Turkish experience! Aside from the exclusive, modernized hamams in top hotels, traditional ones are still very popular with both tourists and locals. If you are interested in visiting a hamam, do try Galatasaray Hamami, and don’t be shy about telling them to take it easy on you if the experience gets somewhat rough!