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At a Glance
Istanbul, although not the capital city, is the economic, financial, and cultural centre of Turkey. It’s also the largest city in terms of population with just over 15 million people living there. Located on both sides of the Bosphorus, what makes Istanbul so interesting is that it straddles two continents. The western half of the city is situated in Europe while the eastern half is located in Asia. The Asian side is largely residential with most of the major tourist attractions located in two districts on the European side – Sultanahmet and Beyoğlu. You will most likely spend the majority of your time in these two districts, especially if it’s your first visit. Istanbul Port is conveniently located to explore these areas.
Istanbul is a city steeped in history and culture so there is much to see and do there. From its Byzantine churches adorned with mosaics and frescoes to its magnificent mosques decorated by sky-high minarets. Istanbul is a city that will mesmerize you at every turn.
Where do cruise ships dock at Istanbul Port?
Istanbul Port has recently been redeveloped and Cruise ships will now dock at the new Galataport Istanbul. The new Galataport Istanbul Cruise Port will see the Karaköy coastline, which currently has restricted access, transformed into a promenade open to the public, connecting the city with the sea. This will be a much welcome addition as the older cruise terminal was not so good with limited facilities.
Getting to/from Istanbul Port
If you are starting or ending your cruise at Istanbul Port then you will most likely fly into the new Istanbul Airport that is located about 30 miles (48km) north-west of the city. A taxi would take around 45mins to 1 hour depending on traffic and will cost upwards of around TL280-350 ($35-45).
You can take an airport shuttle from the Airport with Havaist into the centre of Istanbul and vice versa. It takes longer (around 100mins) but is considerably cheaper than a taxi at TL25 ($3.65)
If you arrive at the smaller Sahiba Gokcen Airport the distance and price are not too dissimilar to the main International Airport.
What to do with a day in Istanbul Port
It’s quite common for cruise itineraries to begin and end in Istanbul Cruise Port so it’s a great city for exploring before or after your cruise. However, if it is just a port stop you will want to make the most of your day. Here are some of the must-see attractions
Topkapi Palace (Topkapı Sarayı) is one of Istanbul’s top tourist attractions. Strategically located on Seraglio Point (Sarayburnu) in the historical part of Istanbul. For 400 years, the palace was the administrative, educational and cultural centre of the Ottoman Empire. Initially, the palace served as the seat of government and imperial residence. Access was strictly regulated and inhabitants of the palace rarely had to venture out since the palace functioned as an autonomous entity, almost like the Vatican in Rome. As it’s one of the most popular tourist attractions it’s advisable to arrive early and head straight to the Harem. They only allow so many people into the Harem at once so this will save you waiting too long. After the harem, you can wander the Palaces grounds and 4 courtyards at your leisure. The 3rd courtyard contains the treasury with its collection of gold, gems and works of art.
Bosphorus Ferry Trip
With so much to see and do in Istanbul a trip along the Bosphorus can often be overlooked but we can highly recommend this unforgettable little excursion.
Şehir Hatları Bosphorus Line is Istanbul’s official ferry company and we advise taking a trip with these as opposed to some of the more unscrupulous private operators that ply their trade along the docks of Eminou where most trips start from. These operators often use less than seaworthy boats packed to the rafters with tourists paying almost double the going rate. From Istanbul Cruise Port it would be an easy 5-minute walk to Tophane tram station and then alight at Eminönü just two short stops away. Eminönü is also handy for a visit to the Spice Market (also known as the Egyptian Bazaar).
Şehir Hatları offers three great tours
- Short Bosphorus Tour – This one is great for people who are pressed for time but don’t want to miss a genuine Bosphorus experience. The cruise takes you from Eminönü to Istinye and back. The ferry leaves the Eminönü docks at 14:30, arrives at Ortaköy around 14:50 to pick up more people, and then continues its two hour non-stop tour. The price per person is 12 Turkish Lira (TL), 6 TL for children under 12. For the latest updates, check the official timetable.
- Full Bosphorus Cruise – The Full Bosphorus Tour offers a great Bosphorus experience and will take several hours in total. For a mere 25 TL, this cruise will take you from Eminönü all the way to the Black Sea, and back. You must get off the ferry in Anadolu Kavağı, the last harbour before the Black Sea. This allows you to grab a (late) lunch in one of the town’s fish restaurants located on the shore and/or visit the fortress.
- Moonlight Tour – This cruise offers the same tour as the regular Full Bosphorus Cruise, but you get to see Istanbul at night! The ferry leaves before dusk providing great Istanbul sunset views. It again stops in Anadolu Kavağı for a bit over two hours so people can enjoy dinner in the fish restaurants at the shore. Around 22:30 the ferry departs again for the return journey — a unique experience! This tour is only available on Saturday evenings in July & August. Cost: 20 TL
Basilica Cistern – The coolest spot in town
There are hundreds of ancient cisterns hidden underneath the streets and houses of Istanbul. Of the two that are open to the public, the Basilica Cistern (Yerebatan Sarnıcı) is the largest. You can take a stroll within this eerie forest of marble columns and enjoy the subterranean cool on a hot summer’s day. Walkways and atmospheric lighting were installed during the 1990s so you can see all its curious corners. Soft music plays to create a mood.
It’s open every day of the week from 09:00 am to 18:30 in summer (17:30 in winter). Admission costs TL10. You’ll probably want to stay anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour.
Suleymaniye (Blue) Mosque
More commonly referred to as the Blue Mosque because of its interior tiles (although these are hard to spot as they are mostly located in the inaccessible upper galleries). The mosque (built 1603-17) is the masterwork of Ottoman architect Sedefkâr Mehmet Ağa. It’s built on the site of the Great Palace of Byzantium, on the southeastern side of the Hippodrome. With its six minarets and a great cascade of domes, the mosque is a worthy sibling to Ayasofya (Hagia Sophia) just a few minutes’ stroll to the north.
The Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofya) is one of Istanbul’s most famous and fascinating monuments. This ‘church of divine wisdom’ was inaugurated by Emperor Justinian on 26 December 537, converted into a mosque in 1453 and declared a museum in 1934. It is among the world’s greatest architectural achievements, in particular famous for its massive dome, and considered the epitome of Byzantine architecture. Called Hagia Sophia in Greek, Sancta Sophia in Latin, Ayasofya in Turkish, it was built in 537 AD on the site of Byzantium‘s acropolis
Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar is Turkey’s largest covered market offering excellent shopping: beautiful Turkish carpets, glazed tiles and pottery, copper and brassware, apparel made of leather, cotton and wool, meerschaum pipes, alabaster bookends and ashtrays, and all sorts of other things. If you like shopping then this is the place to go. If you don’t like crowds then it might be best to avoid as it gets very busy. Because of this, you need to be very wary of pickpockets and bag slashers in the crowd. With some common sense (and this goes for any crowded area) and a look at our guide to Anti-Theft Travel Accessories, your precious belongings should be quite safe.
Click here for our GUIDE to some of the best Anti-Theft Gear.
- Kebap – together with döner, probably one of Turkeys most famous food exports and probably the first street food that comes to any tourist’s mind when asked to name one. The most familiar Turkish kebap is şiş kebap (SHEESH keh-bahp, “shish kabob”), chunks of lamb roasted on a skewer.
- Döner – is lamb roasted on a vertical spit and sliced off when done. When laid on a bed of chopped flatbread and topped with savoury tomato sauce and brown butter, it becomes İskender (or Bursa) Kebap.
- Börek – is a general Turkish term for filled pastries. There are different variations.
- Ispanaklı (with spinach)
- kıymalı (with ground lamb)
- patatesli (with mashed potatoes)
- peynirli (with feta cheese)
- karışık (with everything)
- Pide – a slightly leavened, flat pizza-like bread. They again come in different styles, with Kaşarlı Pide (melted cheese) and Sucuklu Pide (melted cheese and spicy sausage) & Kiyamali Pide (minced meat) among the most popular.
- Lahmacun – a Turkish-style pizza. A very thin oval piece of pide, with ground meat, onions, pepper paste, sometimes tomato, pepper, parsley, and spices. It is often served with a salad and a few pieces of lemon in a side dish. You’ll see locals topping the pizza with the salad, sprinkling it with lemon and making a roll out of it.
- Mısır – freshly boiled or grilled corn on the cob, often sprinkled with salt or spices. This popular snack is almost exclusively sold during the summer months by the real street sellers with their push-cars.
- Balık ekmek – literally translated ‘fish bread’. And that’s basically what it is — fish, grilled or fried in front of your eyes and stuffed inside a large piece of bread. Fans of this fast-food can have a blast in Eminönü, on the shore next to the Galata Bridge.
Trams run from Bağcılar, in the city’s west, to Kabataş, in Beyoğlu, stopping at the Grand Bazaar, Sultanahmet, Eminönü and Karaköy en route. Connect with the metro at Zeytinburnu and Sirkeci, with ferries at Eminönü and with funiculars at Karaköy and Kabataş. Tophane tram stop is about a 5 minute walk from the Istanbul Cruise Port.
On the European side, there are two lines in service.
T1 line from Kabataş allows easy access to Sultanahmet
T4 line that goes North – West of the city. It runs from 6am to 11pm
The T1 line will allow you to reach the main attractions of the city. We recommend you using it as it is really cheap and fast and definitely the easiest way to get to the old town. The main stops of T1 are:
- Kabataş — Dolmabahçe Palace, Taksim connection with the funicular (F1) to go to the pier to the Princes’ Islands and Kadıköy.
- Tophane — Museum of Modern Art in Istanbul. Istanbul Cruise Port
- Karaköy —Connection Tünel funicular, (T) which will drop you on Istiklal Street.
- Eminönü — Spice Market.
- Sirkeci — Train station and connection to the Marmaray.
- Sultanahmet — Topkapı Palace, Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, Basilica Cistern, Archaeology Museum.
- Beyazit — Grand Bazaar.
Karaköy-Tünel (T): It allows you to go quickly down Istiklal Street and you will avoid climbing the slopes to get to neighbourhoods like Galata. Once in Tünel, you can use the historical tram (NT) to go to Taksim Square. It runs from 7 am to 9 pm.
Taksim-Kabataş (F1): It allows you to go from Taksim Square to Kabataş. From here, take the tramway (T1) to get to the old town, and the boat to the Princes’ Islands from Kadıköy. To go to the old town, another option is to take the M2 metro directly to the Golden Horn (Haliç stop) from Taksim.
The Historical Tramway
They look like trams out of an old movie and reminded us of the trams in San Fransisco. We didn’t ride them but it was nice to see them trundle their way along the street.
Two lines are in service: the first on the European side (NT) which runs down Istiklal Street from Taksim Square to Tünel, and the second (T3) is on the Asian side from the pier and it goes from Kadıköy to the Moda neighbourhood.
It is open from 6:15 to midnight, there are currently two lines on the European side. Unfortunately, these two lines are not connected yet. There is also a line on the Asian shore but it is not of great interest to you because it is not connected to Sabiha Gökçen Airport yet.
Line M1: This metro line used to be much busier when it served the old International Atatürk Airport. However, Atatürk Airport now only accepts cargo and VIP passenger flights. There is a new metro line being built to the new Istanbul airport (IST) which should be ready sometime in 2020. Line M1 is not essential for walking in the city of Istanbul.
Line M2 Yenikapi-Hacıosman (M2): It is the longest metro line in Istanbul and the one you will use the most. It has recently been lengthened and it is now possible to get to the old city from Taksim Square and more. This is especially useful for businessmen residing in the district of Levent, or for travellers who have chosen to reside in more Turkish and less touristy areas like Nisantasi. The main stops of the M2 are:
- Yenikapı — This station is intended to be the hub of transport in Istanbul. You can already use the Marmaray from Yenikapı (the metro passing under the Bosphorus ) to reach Üsküdar on the Asian side.
- Haliç — This is the most useful station for tourists wishing to reach the old town or for those wishing to go from the old town to other areas that seem less accessible. You will be near the spice market and Eminönü tram station (T1).
- Şişhane — Located at the bottom of İstiklal Street, it will allow you to reach the Tünel funicular located right next to the station, as well as the Galata district.
- Taksim — Located in Taksim Square, the station can be reached quickly by foot from the districts such as Cihangir, Beyoğlu or Çukurcuma. You can also use the funicular (F1) to get to Kabataş where you’ll take the ferry for Asia and the Princes’ Islands, and the tram (T1) to get to the old town.
- Osmanbey — Located just minutes from the upscale Nisantaşı district. Very nice area with many bars and restaurants as well as luxury shops and many Turkish designers.
- Levent — This is the business district of Istanbul. There is also close to the metro two major shopping malls: Kanyon and Metrocity.
- İTÜ Ayazağa — Located near the chic shopping gallery İstinye Park (you need a little walk or take a taxi or a minibus). This gallery is a paradise for all lovers of fashion and luxury, you will find all the most luxurious brands.
Marmaray: After long years of work, the European side and the Asian side are now connected by the metro which passes under the Bosphorus. It allows you to go to the Asian shores from Yenikapı or Sirkeci. Two stops from the Asian side are Üsküdar and Ayrılık Çesmesi. You can use the M4 to get to the Kadıköy district.
They allow you to move from Europe to Asia. Taking the ferry is a good way to see the city from the water at a lower price. The main piers on the European side are Eminönü, Kabataş, Karaköy, and Besiktaş, and on the Asian side, Üsküdar and Kadıköy.
There are 400 bus lines in Istanbul, the majority work until midnight every night. Except for Sultanahmet (accessible by tram), buses go all over the city. Destinations and major stops are written in yellow on the sides of the buses.
For information on bus timetables and to see where they stop click here.
These are buses that run on reserved lanes to avoid congestion. Most of the areas served are on the outskirts of the city. Therefore, its use is not of great interest if you are visiting the city. Only the Istanbul Kart and the Mavi Kart (which is for monthly subscriptions) are accepted to access Metrobus. You can buy or recharge your Istanbul Kart at all stations.
Good to Know
Visiting a Mosque
Shoulders and Legs should be covered as well as heads for women.
You must take your shoes off. There will be a place to store then near the entrance.
Carry some socks to put on (especially if you are barefoot in sandals).
Get ready to Haggle
Stall owners tend to hike their prices at the first sign of a foreign accent. So be firm & steady, and prepare to walk away until you negotiate a price that you’re happy with. Hint: it’s usually at least half of their initial price!
Currency: Turkish Lira
Money: ATMs can be found throughout the city.
Visas: You do not need to obtain a visa if you are visiting by cruise ship and your stay does not exceed 72 hours (3 days). If you are staying pre or post-cruise then please check out the requirement for your particular country.