Travel Weekly senior editor Andrew Compart recently visited
Istanbul. His impressions follow:
ISTANBUL, Turkey -- Cruising on the Bosporus strait between Asia
and Europe; taking a Turkish bath; listening to a Turkish pop duo
with a smattering of local residents in a small bar; taking in the
aroma of cinnamon, saffron and other herbs and spices amid the
bustle of the Spice Bazaar, and walking down Istiklal Cadessi, the
long, constantly busy shopping and entertainment pedestrian street
As a first-time visitor to the only major city in the world
resting on two continents, my favorite times were more related to
experiences like these than to sightseeing.
For me, nothing topped the Bosporus -- the winding strait that
separates the European and Asian sides of the city and links the
Black and Marmara seas.
I'd highly recommend spending an entire day on one of the ferry
boat excursions (which also provides a welcome respite from the
hellish local traffic).
Just the sights alone are a pleasure, as the ferry passes by the
small communities and fishing villages; mosques; palaces;
refurbished Ottoman-era villas, and seafood restaurants and cafes
near the docks.
Given an entire
day, cruisers also have time to get off at a few of the
That means they can relax and enjoy one of the seafood
restaurants, taste the famed yogurt at Kanlica or (on a Sunday) see
artists exhibiting their work at a streetside gallery in
I only had time to disembark at Anadolu Kavagi on the Asian
side, but it was an excellent choice. The village, accessible only
by boat, seems locked in an earlier era, with minimal traffic and
development -- and cows occasionally meandering down the
A friend and I hiked uphill (taxis also are an option) to the
remains of the Genoese fortress. From there, we could spot the
mouth of the Black Sea.
We enjoyed the view as, from the distance, we heard the Muslim
call to prayer.
The sounds and atmosphere were much different on the night a
friend and I took a short cab ride to Ortakoy, known for its
nightclubs, bars and jazz.
We decided on a small bar featuring a singer and synthesizer
player performing what we assumed to be Turkish pop tunes.
A couple of dozen young locals were there, singing back some of
the lyrics during the songs and, at one point, snaking around the
bar in a group dance. One young woman, in jeans and a cutoff shirt,
did some impromptu belly dancing for her group at the table beside
In yet another Istanbul experience, I was lying on a marble slab
in the "hot room" of a hamam, or Turkish bath, of the Galatasaray
Hamami, first built as the palace baths in 1481 in the
Galatasaray/Beyoglu section of the city.
Sweating profusely in the sauna-like heat, I looked up at a high
domed and windowed ceiling. A light hung down from the dome, and
the effect gave the impression of looking up at a UFO hovering
overhead, waiting to whisk me away.
Instead, I was massaged by the bath attendant. But "massage" is
a polite term because the technique is a bit punishing; one of our
group jokingly referred to his attendant as "Brutus."
The attendant then scrubbed me clean with soap and a
coarse-clothed, luffa-like sponge used to rub away dead skin.
I left feeling cleaner and relaxed (despite -- or because of --
the massage). The baths are segregated by gender -- with same-sex
bath attendants -- and modestly priced. The full treatment cost
I wasn't as impressed by the Covered Bazaar, with more than
4,000 shops and hordes of shoppers. It's jam-packed with tourists
and gets even more so when cruise ship passengers are in town.
The nearby Spice Bazaar held much more appeal for me. It had
more of a local flavor, even though, in a nod to modern times and
Western culture, a lot of the items are marketed as "Turkish
Of course, historic sites and architectural wonders and the like
often are worth visiting.
It would be shame, for example, to miss Istanbul's vast St.
Originally built as a church in the sixth century, and later
used as a mosque, its towering dome alone (181 feet high and 102
feet in diameter) makes it an architectural marvel.
Virtually next door stands the Sultan Ahmet Mosque, also called
the Blue Mosque.
It's impressive for its six minarets, but the real drawing card
is inside: more than 21,000 predominantly blue tiles peacefully
bathed in the light shining through 260 windows.
Another must-see is the underground Cistern Basilica, built in
the sixth century as a water reservoir and supported by 336 marble
The Topkapi Palace, while overrun with tourists, includes
collections of jewelry and porcelain and other treasures that make
it hard for many to pass up.