Istanbul - Tales of Adventure (IST)
Istanbul was alway a fantasy destination for me - ever since I read Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express. And it does not disappoint. This has to be one of the most fascinating and unique cities that I have every had the chance to discover. Istanbul is 1000's of years old - and full of layer, upon layer, of history and intrigue!
This city was both the center of the Christian and Islamic communities for centuries - and it shows - most notably in the historic center of the city - which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Hagai Sophia is probably one of the most spectacular spots - and a must see. It has changed religious hands several times over the centuries: Greek Orthodox, Muslim, and Catholic - and each have left their mark on the massive building. This mix of styles and references make the site a unique place to explore. For me -- I really think this building is an engineering marvel - -from its spectacular dome to its sheer size. It's hard to believe that it's over 1500 years old! Whatever you do - -make sure you save time to take-in some of the iconic mosaics located throughout the church.
I have had a chance to visit Istanbul several times - and for me - - the Basilica Cistern is my favorite spot! As a kid, I craved to explore it after seeing it featured in the James Bond film From Russia with Love.
The Basilica Cistern is part of an ancient underworld system that provided water to the palace. It is made up of marble columns of several shapes and sizes - -and part of the fun is discovering the differences between them. Most of these were recycled from the ruins of other buildings.
You will feel like you are in another world when you are in the cistern. It's of course cool, damp, and full of water. But the lighting and the ambiance is what really makes the place. At any given point in time you expect a choir to start singing - or for some mythical creature to rise out of the waters.
Sultan Ahmed Mosque - The Blue Mosque
I love this mosque for so many reasons. First of all - - the exterior is reminiscent of something out of Arabian Nights. It has five domes and six minarets -- - and you almost expect a flying carpet to emerge from it at any instant. The exterior is particularly mythical at night, so make sure you return at some point after sun-down.
However, the inside is off-the-charts. The walls are covered in over 20,000 blue tiles with varying patterns and colors (most of which are some form of blue- hence the name). I could spend hours inside looking at all of the variations and soaking up the atmosphere. The floors are covered in carpets - and there are several massive hanging lamps that illuminate the space. This has to be one of the most spectacular places of worship in the world.
If you have ever wanted to see what a haram looks like - - or discover how sultans lived, the Topkapi Palace fits the ticket. The 'campus' for the palace is sprawling. It's made up of several buildings and gardens, and since it was built on the top of a hill - many of the views are fantastic. The royal residence was primary home for the Ottoman Sultans for over 400 years - - and it provides a window into both their private and official lives. You can explore everything from kitchens - to state function rooms - - to the sultan's private quarters.
Sample Turkish Delight: You will be hard pressed to leave this city without diving into a plate of these local sweets. The temptation is truly impossible to resist. And I would never have imagined that there were so many different varieties of these candies. There's everything from the more traditional orange and lemon ones - to versions that include dates and nuts. Ordering and perusing the confectionary is half the fun. Pick a colorful window-display you like and walk in!
Take a ferry ride: I am a huge fan of Tintin, and for some reason the minute I saw the Istanbul ferries parked outside the Eminönü terminal I thought of that comic book character. These vessels are made for one of his adventures or journeys of exploration. Take one of these ships somewhere -- - just to experience the Bosphorus or to discover one of the many of the charming stops along the way.