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I was fortunate to recently spend four glorious days in Istanbul. Entering this city by ship @ 6:00 in the morning is spectacular. The air is clear and the views are endless as you sail along on the Sea of Marmara up to the Bosphorus and past the Golden Horn. The captain on Azamara Quest encouraged us the night before to set our alarms and get up to the Lido Deck for the best views in town. With our dark coffee in hand, surrounded by only small clusters of fellow early birds, we were glad we heeded his advice.

Istanbul: Morning of Arrival

Istanbul GOLDEN HORN: Morning of Arrival

We were staying on the ship our first night, so we had the full day ahead of us to enjoy Istanbul. To get the most out of our visit, we hired a local Turkish guide for 3 of the 4 days. One of the reasons I selected this specific tour guide was because we would be getting around by public transportation. Public transportation is excellent in congested Instanbul, not to mention uber easy and cheap. To underscore the congestion issue, this is a city which has grown from around 2.5 million people in the 1980’s to over 12 million today. Pretty incredible.

Here is how the itinerary broke down:

DAY 1: Visited the historical Sultanahmet district. Our guide provided us with an in-depth experience at these “must sees” sites:  Blue Mosque (aka Sultan Ahmed Mosque); Basilica CisternHagia Sophia (aka Aya Sofya); Topkapi Palace;  Grand Bazaar; and a leisurely walk around the surrounding neighborhoods. Tips: The Grand Bazaar has more than 58 streets and 4,000 shops, and it has between 250,000 and 400,000 visitors daily. So spend some time researching which shops best suit your interests. Otherwise, just wander and soak in the lively atmosphere. Also, Turkey is famous for being secular, however, you will find more women in Burkas in the Sultanahmet district visiting their holy sites. If at all uncertain, I would recommend covering your shoulders with a scarf whenever you enter a mosque (they many time have extras there for you to use).

Istanbul: Blue Mosque

Istanbul: Blue Mosque

DAY 2: After saying good-bye to the Azamara Quest, we checked into the Witt Suites Istanbul in the Cihangir district.  This is a hip, up-and-coming neighborhood (read: transitional; think: Greenwich Village) where many artists live and work. We were thrilled with the quality of our hotel (interior styling and service were excellent) and the close proximity to great local restaurants, clubs and the pedestrian İstiklal Caddesi (Independence Avenue). After checking in, our guide took us, via boat, to a lively neighborhood over on the Asian side of Istanbul – Kadikoy. We visited a couple of working Armenian Churches (1 Orthodox, 1 Catholic) and then wandered the narrow and steep neighborhood streets, enjoyed munching our way down a market street (mussels stuffed with rice and spices was incredible), and enjoyed a leisurely Turkish lunch. Finally, we made our way back to the area around our hotel and walked down the pedestrian-only İstiklal Caddesi (Independence Avenue) from Taksim Square to Galata Tower.

Istanbul: Architecture in Cihangir Biyoglu Neighborhood

Istanbul: Architecture in Cihangir Biyoglu Neighborhood

DAY 3: Today was about relaxation and absorbing all of the sights and impressions gathered in Istanbul so far. There are several boat options to chose from, but we decided to do the locally run full Bosphorus cruise up to the Black Sea (3 hours round trip, plus any stops along the way). It is a wonderful way to sit back and let Istanbul and her suburbs unfold. I could not help thinking about the San Francisco Bay. The water, architecture and fauna all had hints of our home town. After an excellent fish lunch in Andolukavagi, we made our way back to Istanbul. This wonderful day ended at a small Hookah cafe where we smoked our way through our personal backgammon tournament, sipping tea, and people / dog / cat watching. Perfect.

Bosphorus 1/2 Day Boat Tour

DAY 4: Our last day was saved for wandering the streets and visiting the lesser known Byzantine Chora Church (aka Kariye Camii). The Chora Church museum is about a 15 minute taxi ride from the Sultanhamet, and is definitely worth the diversion. We made an afternoon of it by first having lunch at Restaurant Asitane. I had read about this restaurant in several places (including Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations), and it was highly recommended for authentic Ottoman recipes (all dishes are dated in the menu). We had as much fun watching the prowling garden cats as eating this wonderful food in the sun-dappled garden. Following lunch, we were treated to what must be one of the best preserved Byzantine churches in the world, filled with mosaics and frescoes. Although unplanned, we were also pleasantly surprised to see a good portion of the original Constantinople Wall very close to this Church.

Constantinople Walls

Constantinople Walls

Istanbul: Asitane Restaurant

Istanbul: Asitane Restaurant

Chora Church Museum (Kariye Camii)

Chora Church Museum (Kariye Camii)

My final objective was to visit all of the Virtuoso hotels in Istanbul. As always, the hotel general managers graciously gave me tours of the common areas and examples of their various room types. I always love doing these tours because they are so much more meaningful than looking at pictures on a website. While each one of these properties has something different to offer, all are surprisingly unstuffy. If you want to be in the middle of the action, then the Four Seasons – Sultanhamet is your hotel. If you prefer to relax by the Bosphorus and get away from the crowds (but don’t mind a 15+ minute taxi ride), then either the Four Seasons – Bosphorus or neighboring Ciragan Palace are perfect. All are spectacular.

  • Four Seasons – Bosphorus:  Contemporary, with an Ottoman flair. Mostly American clientele. Front row seat of the Bosphorus.
  • Four Seasons – Sultanhamet: Boutique feeling, full of classic Ottoman style.  For history/movie buffs, this was the prison in Midnight Express (sore subject in Turkey). Located in the heart of Sultanhamet, this intimate hotel is ideal if you are visiting only for a day or two. They are also in the process of adding a new wing (thus doubling the size), but this has been suspended since they ran into archeological finds. Nonetheless, be sure to think twice about a room overlooking this construction.
  • Ciragan Palace: Most opulent of the three. Traditional, with hints of Ottoman styling. If you want true luxury, go for one of the large suites in the “original” palace. A neighbor of Four Seasons – Bosphorus, this property also has a front row seat of the Bosphorus. Mostly American and Middle Eastern clientele. Definitely had a more politico atmosphere, maybe because there was a high security event taking place when I arrived.

Bottom Line: Four days in Istanbul gives you a good feel of what she has to offer, but it only scratches the surface.

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