Istanbul, Turkey is where West meets East, and tourists can visit Europe and Asia in the same day. The city is an exotic, fascinating mix of old and new. World travel expert Lee Abbamonte wrote "Istanbul can be maddening at times, but Istanbul is a treat for the senses and will take your breath away. It is one of my favorite cities in the world."
Istanbul has lots to offer, but we've narrowed down the list to five things you must experience while you're there.
Istanbul is home to many incredible museums that highlight the city's rich history. Topkapi Palace (pictured here) was home to Ottoman Sultans (and their harems) for over 300 years, but is now a museum. Visit to see the grandeur of the palace, the famous Topkapi Diamond, and other historical treasures.
The famous Hagia Sophia was once a church, then a mosque, and is now a museum. This makes it one of the most interesting places in Istanbul, both historically and architecturally. You'll see both Ottoman and Byzantine influences under one great dome, as well as spectacular Byzantine mosaics that weren't uncovered and refurbished until 1930.
For those with a deeper interest in history, the Istanbul Archaeology Museums are a highlight and can be found near Topkapi Palace.
Istanbul's Blue Mosque is the city's most famous mosque, and absolutely worth visiting. From the outside, you may wonder how the mosque got its name. Inside, the Blue Mosque is covered with 20,000 spectacular, shimmering blue-green tiles. 260 stained glass windows and intricate floral patterns painted on the ceiling give the mosque a bright, airy atmosphere very different from the experience of the Hagia Sophia.
Of course, the Blue Mosque is not the only beautiful mosque in Istanbul. The Süleymaniye Mosque is the second-largest in the city, and features a grand courtyard. At Rüstem Pasha, you'll find the best examples of Iznik tiles (the distinctive Ottoman decoration) in all of Istanbul.
Turkish cuisine is diverse, flavorful and world-renowned. Indulging in street food is a must, as well as enjoying a leisurely late-night dinner. (There's another reason to be thankful that Azamara ships stay late in port - great cuisine should never be rushed!)
Döner: Turkey's most popular street food, a sandwich filled with meat (usually lamb) that has been thinly sliced from a rotating spit.
Börek: Phyllo pastries with a variety of fillings, like ground meat, cheese, and spinach.
Meze: Instead of a main course, order these shareable plates of cold starters. Eggplant, artichokes, yogurt, chilis and tomatos are common ingredients.
Midye: Mussels (and seafood in general) are popular in Istanbul. You'll see roving vendors carrying baskets piled with shells, which have been stuffed with mussels, rice, herbs and spices. At snack bars, look for mussels that have been battered and fried.
Kumpir: Huge baked potatoes, taken hot out of the oven and split, then filled with a variety of toppings - cheese, pickles, olives and more. It's not uncommon to ask for six or seven ingredients. The kumpir-maker mixes everything up and stuffs it back into the potato skin.
Simit: Sesame-coated bread rings. Simit is the ultimate street food - cheap, delicious, easy to eat and seemingly available on every corner.
Baklava: A popular Turkish dessert made with phyllo pastry, nuts, and syrup.
Turkish Tea and Coffee: Turkish black tea is the national drink, and consumed plentifully. Turks often add cubed sugar, but never lemon or milk. Turkish coffee is made with sugar and very finely ground coffee. It's typically double- or triple-boiled, with some of the grinds remaining in the bottom of the cup. The result is a strong, flavorful cup of coffee that is traditionally served with a glass of water.
Rugs, linens, fabrics, jewelry, art, antiques, spices, ceramics... the list of things to buy in Istanbul is endless! Istanbul's Grand Bazaar is one of the oldest and largest covered markets in the world. It spans 61 streets, is home to over 3,000 shops and attracts anywhere from 250,000 to 400,000 daily visitors. Bring your bargaining skills, and take your time as you wander this incredible complex.
Sometimes night is the best part of your day. In Istanbul, that couldn't be truer. The city is vibrant and fun-loving and comes alive after dark. Settle in at a meyhame for platters of hot and cold meze, or find a great rooftop patio where you can sip a cocktail and take in the views.