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12 hours in Istanbul: What to do, see & eat on a Turkey cruise

Greece & Turkey cruises take travelers to a land of glistening coastlines, the greatest architectural achievement of the Byzantine Empire and…kebabs. Here’s what to do with your time in Istanbul.

Istanbul is a popular port of call on Greece and Turkey cruises and is a dazzling city not to be missed.

Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) has nine ships sailing Europe in 2023 – with unmissable itineraries in Northern Europe, the Mediterranean and the Greek Isles – and a variety of five to 16-day itineraries.

On Greece and Turkey cruises you can not only island hop but also spend an entire day in Istanbul. To help you make the most of your time in the city, we’ve investigated the best things to see, do, eat and drink during your time ashore.

Cruises to Istanbul 2023

Istanbul cruise: What to see in Istanbul

Hagia Sophia: This iconic six-century landmark is a testament to Istanbul’s rich history. Originally built as a Byzantine church, the Hagia Sophia [above left] later became an Ottoman mosque then a museum… and now it’s a mosque again after the UNESCO World Heritage site stripped it of its museum status in 2020. Admire its awe-inspiring architecture, stunning mosaics and intricate design (and maybe feel sympathy for its confused identity…).

Topkapi Palace: Explore the opulent Topkapi Palace [above right and main image], the former residence of Ottoman sultans. This sprawling complex houses an array of exhibits, including imperial chambers, courtyards and the impressive Treasury, where you can view precious artifacts such as the Topkapi Dagger and the Spoonmaker’s Diamond. Perhaps you’ll pick up some interiors inspo?

Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmed Mosque): Marvel at the breathtaking beauty of the Blue Mosque, famous for its detailed blue tiles adorning the interior. The architectural masterpiece features six towering minarets and a vast central dome – but remember to dress modestly and remove your shoes before entering to show respect.

Grand Bazaar: Need to stock up on Turkey cruise souvenirs? Immerse yourself in the vibrant atmosphere of the Grand Bazaar, one of the world’s oldest and largest covered markets. There are over 4,000 shops to check out so take time to wander through a labyrinth of stalls selling everything from textiles and jewellery to spices and Turkish delight. Don’t forget to practice your haggling skills – and maybe prepare to get lost!

Istanbul cruise: What to do in Istanbul

Experience a traditional Turkish bath: Treat yourself to a traditional Turkish bath, also known as a hammam during cruises to Turkey. Relax in the steamy marble chambers, indulge in a body scrub and foam massage, and unwind in the soothing atmosphere. Istanbul is home to several historic hammams, such as the Çemberlitaş Hamamı and the Ayasofya Hürrem Sultan Hamamı, so staying zen (and clean) while experiencing a slice of the past is easy.

Explore Karaköy and Galata: Discover the trendy and artistic neighborhoods of Karaköy and Galata [above] and wander through the narrow streets lined with boutique shops, art galleries and trendy cafés. Head to the iconic Galata Tower for panoramic views of the city and explore the local street art scene.

Explore the Street Art of Kadikoy: Cross the Bosphorus to the Asian side of Istanbul and visit the vibrant neighborhood of Kadikoy on your Istanbul cruise stop, soaking up its lively atmosphere and artistic spirit. Stroll through its streets, alleys and parks to admire colorful murals and urban art installations. You can guarantee it’s better than the average graffiti under that railway bridge back home….

Visit the Princes’ Islands: Escape the hustle and bustle of the city on cruises to Turkey and take a ferry to the Princes’ Islands, a cluster of nine islands in the Sea of Marmara. Explore the car-free streets by bike or horse-drawn carriage, relax on picturesque beaches and enjoy the tranquil atmosphere. Büyükada, the largest of the islands, is particularly popular among visitors.

Istanbul cruise: What to eat in Istanbul

Döner Kebab: Nope, nothing like those mystery meat 2am kebabs by your local pub – this is where you’ll get the real deal. Döner kebabs [above, right] are a quintessential Turkish street food made of layers of marinated meat, typically lamb or chicken, slow-cooked on a vertical rotisserie and then thinly sliced. Enjoy it wrapped in a warm flatbread with fresh vegetables, herbs and a drizzle of tangy yogurt sauce – you won’t even have to suffer any hungover regret the next day.

Lahmacun: Often referred to as Turkish pizza, Lahmacun [above, left] is a thin and crispy flatbread topped with a flavourful mixture of minced lamb or beef, onions, tomatoes and a blend of herbs and spices. It’s usually garnished with fresh herbs, such as parsley and mint plus a squeeze of lemon juice.

Balık Ekmek: Experience the flavors of Istanbul’s waterfront by trying this popular fish sandwich. Grilled or fried fish, typically mackerel or sea bass, is served in a crusty bread roll with fresh lettuce, onions and a squeeze of lemon. You can find excellent balık ekmek stands along the shores of the Golden Horn or Eminönü.

Manti: Delight in the small, dumpling-like delights of manti on cruises to Turkey. These bite-sized dumplings are usually filled with seasoned ground meat, often lamb or beef, and served with a generous dash of garlicky yogurt and melted butter sauce. They are typically topped with a sprinkle of sumac or red pepper flakes.

Istanbul cruise: What to drink in Istanbul

Turkish tea and coffee: Sipping Turkish tea (çay) or Turkish coffee (Türk kahvesi) is a cultural experience in itself and the perfect fuel for your explorations on an Istanbul cruise. Turkish tea is a black tea served in small tulip-shaped glasses, while Turkish coffee is a strong and rich coffee served in a small cup with grounds at the bottom.

Ayran: This refreshing and traditional Turkish beverage is made by mixing yogurt, water and a pinch of salt. Both cool and tangy it pairs perfectly with savory dishes and provides a refreshing respite on a hot day.

Şalgam suyu: If you’re feeling adventurous, give şalgam suyu a try. This unique and traditional Turkish drink is made from fermented turnip juice and flavored with spices such as purple carrots, garlic and salt. It has a piquant and slightly spicy taste and is often enjoyed alongside kebabs.

Fresh fruit juices: Istanbul is known for its abundance of fresh fruit so take advantage of this on your Turkey cruise by sampling the various fresh fruit juices available throughout the city. From pomegranate and orange to sour cherry and apricot, there is a wide variety of flavors to enjoy.

Turkish rakı: For something stronger, anise-flavored alcoholic spirit rakı is often referred to as the “lion’s milk” and is traditionally enjoyed by diluting it with water and adding ice. It is typically consumed alongside mezes during leisurely meals. Drink too much though and you may end up making a late-night visit to that kebab joint after all.

Istanbul cruise: Your NCL cruise to Turkey

On the seven-day Greek Isles: Santorini, Mykonos & Istanbul itinerary you’ll sail onboard Norwegian Jade, which offers a diverse range of amenities and entertainment options, including 16 dining venues, from French and Italian cuisine to Brazilian and Asian.

The Pit Stop is a concept combining poolside fun and dining, O’Sheehan’s Neighbourhood Bar & Grill is a 24-hour pub and Bliss Ultra Lounge is a hotspot for dancing!

Alongside a variety of bars and lounges, there’s a lavish casino, a theatre showcasing Broadway-style shows and impressive acrobatic performances, a spa with over 50 treatments and a wide range of recreational activities such as swimming pools, sports courts and fitness facilities.

What’s more, NCL passengers on cruises to Turkey can upgrade and benefit from the Free at Sea package, featuring Premium Beverages (a wide selection of soft drinks, spirits, cocktails, wines by the glass and bottled or draft beer) and specialty dining.

You’ll also get Wi-Fi and excursion discounts (US$50) per stateroom, per port of call) while guests three and four in the stateroom pay only the applicable tax for their cruise on select sailings.

Set Sail

Greek Isles: Santorini, Mykonos & Istanbul Round-Trip Athens (Piraeus) with NCL

Duration: 7 nights

Where: Athens (Piraeus), Greece | Kusadasi, Turkey | Istanbul, Turkey | Mykonos, Greece | Rhodes, Greece | Santorini, Greece | Athens (Piraeus), Greece

Ship: Norwegian Jade

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Published 06.26.23