Feast like a sultan, gape at glittering palaces and soak in a steamy hammam. Welcome to Istanbul!
For most visitors, Istanbul is the starting point for a visit to Turkey.
Tops on our list of must-see attractions is the Topkapi Palace.
Home to sultans of the former Ottoman empire, its most famous exhibits are the emerald-encrusted Topkapi dagger and glittering 86-carat Spoonmaker’s diamond.
In the imperial harem, your imagination is apt to run wild.
But a new exhibit aims to squelch any misperceptions about the juicier aspects of harem life. We learn the harem was also “a center of education for concubines,” making them suitable marriage partners for courtiers and elite soldiers.
Still, even modern-day Turks aren’t immune to the allure of harem tales. During our visit, a popular Turkish TV show about Roxelana, the red-haired slave girl who bewitched Suleyman the Magnificent into marrying her, has every female in the country glued to the TV on Wednesday nights.
We follow our palace visit with a traditional Turkish bath at Roxelana’s old bathing temple, the AyaSofya hammam. The steam, scrub and soapy massage is all quite dreamy and beats the quick utilitarian showers we take back home.
Bosphorus cruise in Istanbul
One day, we book a 90-minute cruise up the Bosphorus Canal in a local passenger ferry.
Onboard, vendors hawk hot black tea in tulip-shaped glasses as we putter past grand villas.
Other days, we visit the opulent 19th century Dolmabahce Palace (14 tons of gold gild its ceilings), the Hagia Sophia (built as a Byzantine church, then transformed into an Ottoman mosque), the Blue Mosque (named for its blue-tiled interior) and the historic Grand Bazaar (one of the world’s oldest and largest markets).
Mezzes and more…
We also taste our first mezes (small shared appetizers) in Istanbul.
At Meze by Lemon Tree, we sample delectable eggplant rolled with hand-braised escargot, plums and mustard. Kofte (meatballs) and kebabs are also rightly famous in Turkey. At Hamdi Restaurant’s romantic rooftop terrace, overlooking the night-lit New Mosque and Bosphorus Canal, our favorite is a delicious grilled minced lamb, cumin, pistachio and onion creation. For distinctive Ottoman cuisine, where elaborate dishes are flavored with dried fruits, we head to NAR.
We could easily spend more time in Istanbul. But then we’d miss Bodrum, both a peninsula and a town, an hour’s flight away on the southwest coast of Turkey…
Why visit Bodrum? You’ll just have to read “Turkish Delight Part 2 – Bodrum” on why all the buzz about Bodrum.
The complete story of our visit to Turkey was published as “Turkish Delight” in Compass (see a PDF), Cruise & Travel Lifestyles and World Traveler magazines. Our magazine article won a Silver award in the 2013 North American Travel Journalists Association (NATJA) Travel Writing Competition.