Port of Istanbul
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For nearly 2,000 years, the ideally situated metropolis has been the keystone of some of the world's great empires, serving as capital city for the Romans (under the name Constantinople, as noted by the informative "They Might Be Giants" tune), Byzantines and Ottomans.
Inside the sprawling city, the secular and the sacred mingle -- minarets with nightclubs and dusty prayer rugs with designer digs. The idea of Istanbul as collision between East and West reveals itself immediately, with monumental churches cum mosques (the Hagia Sophia), Roman ruins (the Hippodrome, where horse and chariot races were held in Roman times) and unadulterated symbols of consumerism (the Grand Bazaar with its thousands of shops).
Even if the these iconic attractions are what draw many of its tourists to this vast (second only in size to Shanghai) city of 17 million inhabitants, visitors, dutifully plodding through them, may easily miss what makes this city one of the world's most vibrant right now.
Increasingly prosperous, Istanbul has exciting neighborhoods, upscale shops (not just the usual international brands like Prada but also fashion designs by Turkish clothiers) and a thriving restaurant scene that ranges from classic fare to newer, Mediterranean-infused interpretations of local standards. Its Museum of Modern Art -- handily located pierside, where ships dock -- is new and offers both rotating internationally-minded exhibitions and works from Turkish artists.
Istanbul is increasingly popular as a port of embarkation (or disembarkation) for a range of itineraries, from the Black Sea and Eastern Mediterranean Greek Isles trips to the migration, twice a year, of ships between Europe and Asia. You can find as many as six ships a day docking there. This noisy place, in which the magical call to prayer several times a day manages to overcome the sound of honking cars, is a great place to add a pre- or post-cruise stay.
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Where You're Docked
Cruise ships dock at the Yolcu Salonu ("Passenger Terminal") in Karakoy, which is centrally located.
There are no facilities inside the port, but just outside there's a collection of cafes, though these are generally oriented to young people enjoying the Turkish tradition of Narjile (which my guide described as "hubble bubble" -- hookah in other countries). Better yet, head over to the cafe and bar at the Museum of Modern Art, which is also within easy walking distance.
Good to Know
In Istanbul's bazaars and many tourist shops, sellers can be quite brazenly and annoyingly persistent. When shopping for rugs, know that it's customary for the seller to offer shoppers cups of tea. It's considered good manners to accept, particularly if you are genuinely shopping (as opposed to browsing casually).
Also, in deference to Istanbul's beautiful mosques, churches and synagogues, it's advisable to wear respectful attire -- long pants or long skirts if you want to enter these historic sites.
Gratuities are expected, even at restaurants that levy surcharges. (Locals tell us to plan to tip 10 percent of the check and to pay in cash; otherwise the waiters don't get the money.) In taxis, just round up.
By Cab: Metered taxis are plentiful, and they line up right at the pier; credit cards are generally not accepted. Be wary of any taxi driver who doesn't operate on the meter system.
By Tram: There's also a convenient tram, located a few hundred yards from the pier.
On Foot: If you have strong legs, it's possible to walk up one of Istanbul's infamously steep hills to the Beyoglu, the heart of the city's shopping district. Walking between the major sites, including the Bazaar, Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia, is also quite doable.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
Currency is the Turkish lira. For the latest currency conversion figures, visit www.xe.com. ATMs are readily accessible.
Turkish is spoken there. English is generally spoken at major tourist sites and hotels, but not necessarily otherwise.
Food and Drink
Turkish cuisine represents a mixture of many cultures from the diverse regions of the Ottoman Empire. Hors d'oeuvres (meze) like eggplant salad with yogurt, hummus, spiced lamb meatballs and dolmas (meat and rice rolled in grape leaves) are popular. Main courses, often served with rice or a bulgur pilaf, include grilled lamb, chicken with peppers or eggplant, and grilled fish. For dessert, try the lokum (also known as Turkish delight), a sweet gel rolled in powdered sugar and mixed with hazelnuts or pistachios. There's also tasty baklava, layers of thin pastry filled with walnuts and drizzled with syrup. Or try muhallebi (milk pudding).
Istanbul's bustling harbor, known as the Golden Horn, rings the waterfront and is a good place for snacking at outdoor markets and food stalls.
In Beyoglu, tru 360 Restaurant, located atop a building quite appropriately located at 360 Istiklal, is a way to get away from the madding crowds.
In scenic Ortakoy, the House Cafe is a local chain restaurant right on the water that not only features a vast international menu but also specializes in contemporary and traditional Turkish dishes. (It also has a hotel in Nisanstasi.) (Salhane Sokak No: 1; open Sunday to Thursday from 8 a.m. to 1 a.m. and Friday and Saturday, 8 a.m. to 2:30 a.m.)
In Pera, a small, rooftop restaurant called X (located in a historic building operated by the Istanbul Culture & Art Foundation) has breathtaking views over the Golden Horn and a Turkish menu, which features grilled prawns with saffron and oven-roasted lamb shank, among other delicacies. (Don't miss the grilled octopus with white cheese or the raw artichoke salad. (Sadi Konuralp Caddesi Deniz Palas 5, Sishane)
Those for whom lunch (or dinner) is an event should head via taxi to the Sunset Grill and Bar, which, despite its rather pedantic name, is one of the city's top restaurants for locals. It's not just the magnificent view that draws, even though the all-glass restaurant and bar, with a DJ, sits on a hilltop overlooking the Bosporus. It's also got a great menu with both Turkish and international classics; try the sea bass wrapped in parchment with lemongrass and ginger. There's also a superb sushi bar. It's the kind of place that invites you to linger. (Kuruçesme Mh., Yol Sk No:2; open Monday to Saturday from noon to 3 p.m. and every day from 7 p.m. to midnight)
For traditionalists, take home a Turkish rug. Turkey also has a number of internationally regarded craftspeople in the art of contemporary ceramics and other beautiful artisan crafts. (We discovered a great shop called IKSA, with a Caffe Nero next door, in the Pera district.) Foodies might also want to consider a package or two of Turkish delight, a type of candy for which the country is known.