How to Spend 48 Hours in Istanbul, Turkey
Istanbul was one of my top bucket list destinations. It was fascinating to visit the beautiful country on a Black Sea Cruise with Princess Cruises. Istanbul’s striking scenery and culture are what intrigued me. Boy, did they deliver! Here is how I spent 48 hours in Istanbul, Turkey, a trip that will forever be in my heart.
Ten of us from Cruise Critic group made our own excursion for our two-day adventures in Istanbul. Our private guide Honifi, of Tours By Locals, picked us up from the cruise pier in a Mercedes mini-van, and we set out to explore.
First things first, we had to beat the crowds. We started the day by touring the over-the-top Dolmabahce Palace, which runs along the coast of the Bosphorus, Sea of Marmara, and Golden Horn. It was the headquarters for the Ottoman Empire from 1856 to 1922 and Turkey’s largest palace.
The 31st Sultan built Dolmabahce as he wanted a more modern palace than the one at Topkapi. In today’s currency, the price tag would be 1.5 billion dollars or one-quarter of the tax revenues collected annually. The mega-palace consisted of 285 rooms, partly appointed to the sultans family, and the others to the public. You’ve got to see it to believe it!
Photography is not allowed inside Dolmabahce, but the beauty is immeasurable. Gorgeous Bohemian, Baccarat glass chandeliers hung throughout with gilded gold leaf ceilings behind them. My favorite was a four-ton light with 750 lamps. The ceremonial hall was even more opulent than the palaces I’ve visited in Russia. Ornamental alabaster, bearskin rugs, oil paintings, and substantial Turkish carpets decorated the palace.
I was surprised to see a painting of Old Faithful, a gift from the United States, in the 202 oil paintings collection.
Photo worthy spots outside of Dolmabahce include the gates, ornate clock tower, and river views.
Cruising the Bosphorus
Our tour group took a relaxing and informative Bosphorus cruise, which lasted 90 minutes. Our cruise ship previously sailed through the Bosphorus on route to the Black Sea (for ports in Romania and Bulgaria), so it was the same scenery that we had already seen. This is a perfect opportunity to see Eurasia, with parts of Istanbul on both sides of the water that are in Europe and Asia, respectively.
Fact: Istanbul is the most popular city in Turkey and also is the only city in the world to straddle two continents. Its 14 million people make up a small portion in Europe and the other 27 million live on the Asian side.
We walked into Hippodrome Square, stopping to learn about its three famous columns on the way to Topkapi. Hippodrome Square was the former center of the political activities of Constantinople. After taking a few pictures, we headed for Topkapi Palace.
Built between 1609-1616, Topkapi Palace is not one single palace, but a series of buildings scattered around an enormous complex. Topkapi sits on two waterways; the Bosphorus and Golden Circle. Its’ grounds are well maintained, while interesting fountains with dancing waters offer visitors a place to relax and unwind. The sandstone palaces have lovely hand-painted tiles and marble floors. In a nutshell, this was the former imperial residence from where the Great Ottoman Empire was ruled.
The first building I went into was a contemporary museum that housed biblical relics. Here, I found amazing biblical artifacts such as Moses’s staff, Joseph’s cast of his arm, David’s sword, and Abraham’s hat. It even had some oddities, like the beards of prophets.
Another museum building housed the most valuable single exhibit, the famous Spoonmaker’s diamond, an 86 karat pear-shaped diamond, surrounded with 49 Old-mine cut smaller diamonds. The Queen of France once wore the Spoonmaker’s diamond, the 4th largest (of its kind) in the world.
Eating a Great Meal
Back in the van, our group drove a short distance to the town of Pierre Lotti, where we ate at a gorgeous seaside restaurant. At Pierre Lotti Cafe, I order the mixed lamb, beef, and rice platter. We all had a delicious, complimentary apple tea. I really loved the town of Pierre Lotti and hope to revisit someday.
Honifi dropped us at the Emerald Princess. As for my first day in Turkey, I was pleasantly intrigued by the city and humbled by its friendly people. I never felt any danger and liked joining huge droves of people hustling around the city.
Touring A Most Famous Mosque
On day two of exploring Istanbul, we began by visiting the most famous mosque, maybe in the whole world.
The Sultan Ahmed Mosque, or Blue Mosque as westerners know it, is incredible. We were required to wear a scarf over our heads and remove our shoes before entering the illustrious building. Men wearing shorts, or women showing their knees, had to wear a skirt to cover them inside the religious center.
The Blue Mosque is impressive, almost hypnotic. It is made of 22,000 handmade ceramic tiles and has the biggest carpet I’ve ever laid eyes on. Black symbols on the wall with gold writing offered the signature of sultans, and impressive decor clamored for approval. The upper levels and dome contain 200 stained glass windows.
The Blue Mosque has six minarets (a tall, skinny tower where one goes to call others to prayer), one central dome, and eight secondary domes. So what makes it known as Blue Mosque? The sapphire hue that reflects off of its walls and tiles does.
During service, the Blue Mosque would be full of men only, standing shoulder-to-shoulder in straight lines across the carpets in prayer. Prayer, in this part of the country (Muslims), occurs five times a day. A loud-speaker inside the minarets broadcasts a chant (or song) that calls everyone to worship. It was a first for me and took some getting used to since they are so loud.
This was my first time in a Muslin country, and I was most surprised to find that they do believe in Jesus Christ, but think he was only a prophet and not the son of God.
Discovering the Grand Bazaar
Following the mosque, we toured the Grand Bazaar, arguably Istanbul’s most well-known destination. The Bazaar features 4,000 stalls of merchandise in a structure so large it has 23 entrance gates. It is the largest market in the entire world! We stepped into a stall for a sampling of Turkish delight, a variety of nuts, teas, and dried candies, then we had time on our own.
The Grand Bazaar is overwhelming due to its size, but things were repetitive stall after stall. Items such as Turkish rugs, jewelry, spices, teas, and linens were the majority of it. I will add that the Bazaar is unbelievable; it would be easy to spend hours there.
Exploring a Wonder
Lastly, we walked to the Hagia Sophia. (pronounced hi-ya So-fee-ya). Think domes (182 feet tall!), minarets, and the most amazing site of all within a country of over 25 million, and you may have captured the magnificence of the Hagia Sophia. I was awestruck at the grandeur of it and had been waiting for this moment since my ship first docked in Istanbul.
This iconic figure is one of the most recognizable and famous places on Earth; wrap your head around that. It is also one of the only places in the world where both Muslim and Christian symbols are visible under the same roof.
Hagia was built in 537 C.E. by Emperor Justinian as a basilica. It began its holy days as an Eastern Orthodox Church, and because of this, there are paintings of Jesus throughout the decor.
An invasion of the Ottomans in 1453 converted the church into a mosque. Since Islam forbids depictions of man in places of worship, the paintings were covered over. As of 1931, the mosque became a museum. After much hard work, some of these religious depictions were uncovered and can be seen today. For 1500 years, the Hagia Sophia has been delighting people with its exuberance and enchantment.
A Wonderful 48 Hours in Istanbul
My head was swimming after so much culture, education, and beauty during my 48 hours in Istanbul, Turkey. Though we were in Istanbul for two days, everything we did could be condensed into 24, with much determination and energy. Istanbul is a phenomenal city to visit, and one that made me feel like a foreigner for the first time in my life. I hope you will enjoy these stellar attractions and culture with a fantastic history.
Fact: Turkey is a modern democracy and a secular (separation of government and religion) country.
FYI: Our tour was roughly $68 per day, per person for a group of 10, plus admissions to Topkapi ($14), Hagia Sophia ($14), local boat cruise ($7), Dolmabahce Palace ($14), and lunch (around $15).