01 of 07
Istanbul is one of the most popular ports of call for cruise ships sailing the eastern Mediterranean. The city is certainly fascinating and exotic, filled with history and many interesting sites for visitors to enjoy. Istanbul is divided by the Bosphorus, a strip of water connecting the Black and Mediterranean Seas. Although most of Turkey is in Asia, a large piece of Istanbul is in Europe since it sits on the north (or west) side of the Bosphorus. Cruise ships dock on this European side of the city, and many of the famous historic sites are located nearby.
I've been to Istanbul several times when visiting Turkey, and never tire of the hustle and bustle of the city. Although a visitor could easily spend a week or more in the city, it's possible to see most of the iconic sites of the city in just one day since they are all located near each other in the Sultanahmet neighborhood, which sits right on top of the old Byzantine city. These must-see sites include:
The Hippodrome is one of the oldest sites in Istanbul, dating back to the second century AD. This large arena was used for chariot racing and other events and was the center of the city for over 400 years. None of the original Hippodrome remains, but the site is now a park that includes three ancient columns including an obelisk brought to the city from Egypt in 390 AD.
The Blue Mosque looms over the Bosphorus, and its six minarets make it easy to spot. The Blue Mosque is still an operating mosque, but visitors are allowed inside to see the magnificent blue tiles from which the mosque takes its nickname.
The Basilica Cistern is the largest surviving Byzantine cistern in Istanbul. Since it is underground, it is cool in the summer. I loved the 336 huge columns and was impressed that water was pumped from the cistern throughout the city using 40 miles of aqueducts.
The Hagia Sophia was the world's greatest Christian church until the Ottoman conquest in the 15th century. The Ottomans transformed this magnificent building into a mosque, but today it is a museum. Restorers continue to work on the building, so each time I've been I've seen something new.
The Topkapi Palace is the ancient home of the Ottoman sultans, but has been a museum since Turkey became a Republic in the 1920's. The grounds, structures (like the harem), artifacts, and jewelry make this a must-see site.
The five sites listed above are all within easy walking distance of each other. Two other sites are nearby, but you probably want to take a taxi or public transportation. I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Market. Dedicated shoppers could spend days in either of these. The Grand Bazaar is much larger, and one can easily get lost. The Spice Market features a memorable mixture of smells, sounds, and sights and is a photographer's dream.
Although Istanbul is a great cruise port of call, Louis Cruises has partnered with Turkish tour operator Karavan Travel to offer travelers the option of taking a cruise of the eastern Mediterranean in combination with a land tour of Turkey. These cruise and land tours include a four- or five-day cruise of Turkey and some of the Greek Isles on the Louis Cristal, along with a multi-day land extension to other parts of Turkey. A cruise tour like this one can provide a travelers the opportunity to get a taste of much of this exciting part of the world efficiently, while letting someone else do the driving.
I participated in one of the Louis Cruises/Karavan Travel cruise and land tours in western Turkey that included visits to Istanbul, Izmir, Pergamon, Pamukkale, and Kusadasi. We enjoyed a hotel stay at the Hilton Garden Inn Golden Horn in Istanbul before flying to Izmir and an overnight stay at the Point Hotel Taksim at the end of our cruise tour. Both hotels were very good, although we didn't spend much time there (other than to sleep).
Author's Note: The Louis travel group renamed its Louis Cruises brand as Celestyal Cruises in 2015. As part of this rebranding, the Louis Cristal cruise ship was renamed the Celestyal Crystal.Continue to 2 of 7 below.
02 of 07
Izmir - Old City of Smyrna
Izmir is Turkey's third largest city following Istanbul and the capital city of Ankara. It is a major port and also has a modern commercial airport. Our Louis Cruises/Karavan Travel tour used Izmir as a base for visiting the ancient city of Pergamon.
History of Izmir
Most of us will remember Izmir by its old name--Smyrna, and the city did not officially take its current name until 1930. Scientists have found settlements at Izmir dating back to the third millennium BC. One of Smryna's most famous residents was Homer, the Greek poet who lived about 700 BC. Alexander the Great conquered Smyrna in 333 BC and moved the center of the city to Mt. Pagus (also called Kadifekale). Two hundred years later, the city became part of the Roman Empire. Unfortunately, an earthquake destroyed Smyrna in 178 AD.
Izmir played an important role in the Ottoman Empire from the 15th century until the early 20th century when the empire collapsed at the end of World War I. The Greeks used the end of the war to try and re-create a portion of the Byzantine Empire. Fighting was fierce, but the Turks, led by Ataturk, repelled the Greeks from Izmir on September 9, 1922, ending the Greco-Turkish War of 1919-1922. This day is still the biggest holiday in Izmir, despite the fact that most of the city was destroyed by a fire just 13 days later. Almost 200,000 Greeks who lived in Izmir were evacuated to Greece soon afterward as part of an exchange of populations between Greece and Turkey that was stipulated in the Treaty of Lausanne.
The city is a modern port and because of earthquakes and fires, does not have many historical sites like those found in Istanbul. One interesting place to visit is Mt. Pagus, where Alexander the Great re-established the city. The walls of the Velvet Fortress built by Alexander still remain, and the mountain provides wonderful views of the city.
Our tour group spent the night in Izmir at the nice Hilton Hotel, but we didn't do any touring of the city other than to ride to the top of Mt. Pagus. We spent our time in the area at the town of Bergama, site of the ancient city of Pergamon.Continue to 3 of 7 below.
03 of 07
During the 350 years following the death of Alexander the Great (323 BC) until Pergamon (also spelled Pergamum) became a province of the Roman Empire (129 AD), it was one of the richest and important cities of the Middle East. The city reached its high point during the reign of King Eumenes II (197-159 BC).
Today, visitors can explore the historical remains and significant archaeological excavations at the Pergamon Acropolis, Red Basilica, and at the Asclepion (hospital complex), all of which are in the modern town of Bergama, which is in the Turkish province of Izmir and only 16 miles from the Mediterranean Sea.
Located in downtown Bergama on the road to the Acropolis, the Red Basilica was built in the second century BC and was once a temple to the Egyptian God Serapis. In the Book of Revelations in the Christian Bible, St. John the Divine identified this basilica as the throne of the devil and one of the seven churches of the Apocalypse.
The Acropolis is accessed via a cable car, which was built just a few years ago. Previously, buses and cars drove a winding road to the summit, but now visitors park, pay a fee, and ride the cable car to the top. Once you exit the cable car, there's a cafe and a few shops.
Walking around the ancient site of this important city's acropolis is quite interesting, and the views of the surrounding countryside, the old Roman aqueducts, Begama, and Asclepion are terrific.
The Pergamon acropolis was the site of the world's second largest ancient library (after the library at Alexandria, Egypt). Eumenes II loved collecting books, and his library is said to have contained 200,000 books. At one point the rivalry between Alexandria and Pergamon became so intense that Egypt cut off its supply of papyrus to the city. Not to be deterred, Eumenes II challenged his scientists to find a replacement, and they did--pergamen, which is known as parchment in English. Parchment was derived from animal hides rather than pressed papyrus seeds and was more durable and could be written on both sides.
The Temple of Trajan is one of the best preserved structures still remaining on the Pergamon Acropolis. It was restored by the German Archaeological Institute. Scientists from the Institute excavated the entire site over many years, and many of the best artifacts are now contained in the Pergamon Museum of Berlin, Germany. I thought the most interesting structure on the Acropolis was the 10,000-seat theater, which is built into the hillside of the Acropolis and is one of the steepest in the world.
Those fascinated by Roman ruins could easily spend several hours at the Acropolis, especially if the weather is favorable. Our group had plenty of time to walk all over the site before riding the cable car back down to board our bus and drive to the Asclepion.Continue to 4 of 7 below.
04 of 07
The Pergamon Asclepion was a renowned medical center of ancient times. The name is taken from Asclepius, who was known as a healing god and was a son of Apollo. The center was founded by Archias, a local resident who had been cured at a similar center near Epidaurus in Greece. The famous doctor Galen worked at the Pergamon Asclepion in the second and early third century AD. Although he was born in Pergamon, he had studied in Egypt, Greece, and Asia Minor. His first patients were the Pergamon gladiators, and he is still recognized as one of the world's greatest physicians of ancient times.
One of the most fascinating treatments at the Pergamon Asclepion was the use of dream therapy, accompanied by massage, mud baths, drinking sacred waters, and the use of herbs and ointments. Patients sometimes slept in the Temple of Telesphorus seen in the photo above, hoping that the god would send them a diagnosis or a cure in a dream.
Exploring the medical complex with a guide was very interesting, and the link to Galen and the rich city of Pergamon enhanced the experience.
Our Louis Cruises/Karavan Travel tour group returned to Izmir to spend the night before traveling to Pamukkale the next morning.Continue to 5 of 7 below.
05 of 07
Pamukkale and Hierapolis
Pamukkale is probably one of the world's oldest "tourist sites". Historians have documented that travelers trekked to the hot springs at Pamukkale for many centuries, and the kings of Pergamon even founded the city of Hierapolis at the site at the end of the second century BC. The mineral springs were favored for their healing powers, but visitors also like to marvel at the spectacular travertine pools and terraces.
Our Louis Cruises/Karavan Travel tour bus arrived at the Colossae Hotel just in time for a nice lunch. This spa hotel is just a few minutes from Pamukkale and it features a full spa and both indoor and outdoor swimming pools.
After lunch, we re-boarded the bus for the 5-minute ride to the Pamukalle entrance at the Hierapolis necropolis. What a huge ancient cemetery this is! Visitors can either enter the National Park, which is also a UNESCO World Heritage site at the necropolis or on the other side, which has a parking lot.
The National Park has a shuttle that takes visitors from the necropolis entrance to the travertine terraces, but those with more time might want to walk and explore some of the ancient tombs. We spent the whole afternoon at the park, with plenty of time to explore the ruins of Hierapolis, wade in the pools, and marvel at the huge calcium carbonite pools and terraces. We also had time to visit the antique pool, but not enough time to swim (or soak) at the ancient site.
Many of the Louis Cruises/Karavan Travel cruise and land tours include an overnight at Pamukkale, which would allow time to more fully explore the ruins and enjoy the thermal spas and mineral waters. This half-day at the site just made me want to return someday!
Soon it was time to get back on the bus and ride to Kusadasi, where we would spend the night at the Charisma Hotel before visiting Ephesus the next day.Continue to 6 of 7 below.
06 of 07
Ephesus is one of the best-preserved classical cities of Turkey, and it is also the busiest outside of Istanbul, with over 2 million visitors each year. Many visitors come to Ephesus from cruise ships that are docked at nearby Kusadasi. Although the site is large, touring Ephesus is easy since buses drop guests off at the top of a hill, and they walk down the gentle slope of the Curetes Way through the old city, ending at the spectacular Great Theater.
Either a tour guide or a guide book will help you understand what you are seeing better. The ancient ruins are amazing, but the story behind each piece is even more remarkable. When you get home, everyone will ask if you saw the ancient flush toilets or the front of the old library, so be sure to check those out.
The terraced houses (example seen in the photo above) are the newest area excavated at Ephesus. There's an additional charge to go inside the excavation, but these once-elegant residences are well-preserved and worth the extra fee, especially for those who have been to Ephesus before and are looking for something new.
Our Louis Cruises/Karavan Travel tour group spent the morning at Ephesus before boarding the Louis Cristal in Kusadasi.Continue to 7 of 7 below.
07 of 07
Kusadasi is located on the southwestern coast of Turkey and is primarily known as the cruise ship port of call closest to Ephesus. Our Louis Cruises/Karavan Travel tour group arrived in Kusadasi in the early evening from Pamukkale, checked into the nice Charisma Hotel, and enjoyed a buffet dinner before heading off to bed after a long day.
The hotel had spectacular views of the Aegean Sea, and would be a great base for those wanting to visit sites in western Turkey like Ephesus, Pamukkale, or Aphrodisias before or after their cruise. The town of Kusadasi really caters to the cruise ship visitor, with many shops located near the port.
Our group toured Ephesus the next morning, and I was excited to finally have time to tour the terraced houses, which is the newest excavation at the ancient city. The well-preserved ruins were well worth the wait. After a half-day tour, we re-boarded the bus and rode back to Kusadasi. The land portion of our cruise tour was over until we returned to Istanbul for one more day. However, we were all set to enjoy a four-night cruise on the Louis Cristal as she sailed from Kusadasi back to Istanbul with stopovers at Patmos, Rhodes, Crete, Santorini, and Athens.
Author's Note: The Louis travel group renamed its Louis Cruises brand as Celestyal Cruises in 2015. As part of this rebranding, the Louis Cristal cruise ship was renamed the Celestyal Crystal.
As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with complimentary hotel accommodations for the purpose of review. While it has not influenced this review, TripSavvy believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest. For more information, see our Ethics Policy.