With roughly 7,200 kilometers of coastline, it is no surprise that Turkey is a major cruising and sailing destination. Sitting on the edge of Europe, it taps into the continents popularity as the second most visited cruise destination in the world. Indeed, an official report by the Cruise Lines International Association stated that in 2013, 683,598 cruise passengers docked into Istanbul and further down the Aegean coast, 580, 000 passengers docked into the cosmopolitan resort of Kusadasi.
This is impressive for a country in the infancy stages of building cruise ship tourism. With that in mind, we have prepared this helpful guide for the Istanbul cruise port and what to see and do nearby. We speak as experts because we have enjoyed helping many passengers over the years to enjoy their time in the country, through shore excursions.
Exploring Istanbul Cruise Port
The cruise ship port of Istanbul is in the Karakoy district, a historically rich area that in 2015, the Lonely Planet called Istanbul’s hippest neighborhood. Those who like exploring independently will come across trendy cafes filled with young urban artists who are slowly transforming the area. Although look closely to find the original establishments of days gone by including Karaköy Güllüoğlu that has a long standing reputation for selling excellent baklava, the country’s favourite desert and sweet that is a must-try.
There are three main tourist attractions in this vicinity.
1: Istanbul has a long history of Jewish communities and neighborhoods of which one of them is Karakoy. Fully functioning synagogues still operate in the city although you need prior permission to enter them. Instead visit the Quincentennial Foundation Museum of Turkish Jews containing artifacts, clothing, and documents that perfectly portray the story of Jews in Turkey.
2: Built in 1348 and with a perfect view over the Bosphorus and Golden Horn, the Genoese Galata Tower is one of the city’s more iconic medieval landmarks reaching nearly 67 meters tall. During the day, visitors mainly use it as a viewing platform, but at night, the restaurant holds Turkish night shows with a sumptuous buffet meal and traditional entertainment.
3: Open since 2004, the Istanbul Modern Art Museum features up and coming Turkish artists in exhibition space covering 2 floors, although some historical pieces are also included. The museum is open every day apart from Monday.
Venturing outside the vicinity of Istanbul cruise port, the two most popular places to explore for the first time and repeat visitors to Istanbul are the new and old parts of the city.
Sultanahmet Old Part of Istanbul
As the ruling capital center for both the Byzantine and Ottoman empires, historical landmarks belonging to the UNESCO World Heritage sit throughout the Sultanahmet old part of the city. The first stop is usually the Hagia Sophia, former church and mosque, and now a museum that used to be the largest domed building in the world. The ancient mosaics sitting with Islamic calligraphy plagues perfectly complement the exquisite architecture.
Sitting directly opposite is the grand Blue Mosque dating from 1616 and famously displaying more than 200 stained glass windows. The nickname stems from the thousands of blue tiles used to adorn the interior, although the mosque is also famous for its six minarets which at the time of construction was only featured in the mosque of Mecca.
Around the corner, the Topkapi Palace gives a great insight into the early days of the Ottoman Empire, their sultans, harem, beliefs, and armies. Including items of the prophet Muhammad in the old relic room, the palace, once a fully functioning city, displays many other ancient artifacts including the sultan’s clothing, jewels, and armoury exhibitions. The highlight, however, is the harem section of which old legends includes tales of power struggles between the females in the Ottoman Empire, eunuchs and mad Sultans, including Ibrahim who famously drowned more than 200 concubines in the Bosphorus.
The above three are the main landmarks to see but if time allows the underground basilica cistern that used to supply water to Constantinople is great fun, as is the Istanbul Archeological Museum holding thousands of artifacts from around the world. Before heading back to the cruise ship port, an hour or two in the ancient and gigantic grand bazaar will fulfill every souvenir shopping desire. Read more about the area here.
From Istanbul Cruise Port to Istiklal Avenue
Naturally, cities grow and in Istanbul, Istiklal Avenue became the modern center of the growing metropolis. Sitting close to the Karakoy cruise ship port, in the Beyoğlu district and finishing at Taksim square, the 1.4-kilometre Avenue was the place to be seen for foreign dignitaries and consorts during the 19th century. While it is a smart hub of western brand name stores and a partying nightlife hub, it also has some iconic landmarks along the way.
The Pera Museum holds the Tortoise Trainer painting, one of the most expensive ever sold in Turkey. Russian immigrants in the early 20th century who fled the revolution used the slim, glass ceiling Flower Pasaj to sell flowers hence the name, but it is now a favorite place for locals dining on traditional Turkish cuisine. The Saint Anthony of Padua church with its unusual interior design is still a fully practicing location of worship while the Galata Whirling Dervish Museum, using old personal items delves into the world of Sufism, an ancient sect of Islam.
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Our shore excursions from the Istanbul Cruise Port visit all major attractions and more. Enjoy a walking tour, a Bosphorus cruise, a stroll through local neighborhoods, or a visit to churches and museums. Find out more here. If on your cruise, you are also headed to Kusadasi to see the famous ancient ruins of Ephesus, then our private shore excursions are listed here.