'Where in the World?',
Want the best of Asia and Europe? Try Istanbul
Explore the city that sits at the threshold of two cultures and continents
For the best of both the East and West,
heads to Istanbul on the fourth leg of his journey.
Istanbul and Turkey on NBC TV, Live
Where is Lauer on Day 4? Turkey!
A whirlwind tour of Turkey
NBC's Lester Holt joins TODAY's Matt Lauer on his "Where in the World"
tour and takes a trip through Turkey, visiting such colorful locations
as Bodrum, Cappadocia and Ephesus.
Fascinating facts about Turkey
In Istanbul on his "Where in the World" tour, TODAY's Matt Lauer shares
surprising facts about Turkey, including origins of the story of Santa
Claus and the word "coffee."
In the Blue Mosque of Istanbul
How Lauer got to Istanbul
Istanbul: What you need to know
In Istanbul on his "Where in the World" tour, TODAY's Matt Lauer talks
to American expatriates Anastasia Ashman and Jennifer Eaton Gokmen about
the city's political and social conditions.
Lauer takes quickie tour of Istanbul
TODAY's Matt Lauer takes a quick tour of Istanbul, the biggest city in
Turkey and the latest stop on his 2008 “Where in the World is Matt
Lauer's presents from Turkey
Tempting Turkish dishes
Whirling dervishes of Turkey
How to go to Istanbul
Istanbul has always been what I call a "threshold" destination. It sits
at the threshold of two continents. It exists at the threshold of two
cultures. And every time I visit, I get to sit at the threshold of
Geographically, it straddles Europe and Asia. It's a great hub for
traveling either east or west. But it's also a great place to start your
trip. It brings together Ottoman mosques, Byzantine mosaics and Roman
masonry. It is the most densely populated and cosmopolitan city in
Turkey, and in my experience it remains the center of Turkish culture.
Each neighborhood within the city retains its own distinct character.
Of course, there are many neighborhoods in Istanbul. And there are the
must- see iconic places — St. Sophia, the Blue Mosque, Topkapi, the
former palaces of the sultans. But for me, a trip to Istanbul must start
on the water. Even the ride in from the airport is on a coastal road,
with all the boat traffic on the Bosporus. In fact, it's the waterways
of Istanbul that split the city into three sections. Two of these
sections (Taksim and Sultanahmet) are on the European continent, while
one (Kadikoy) is on the Asian continent.
The city always seems crowded, and much of that is because of its
density. But there are two good times to go: May, and between September
and November. And you can get a visa upon arrival. You can purchase a
sticker-type entry visa when you arrive at the airport that is valid for
three months. (If you purchase a single-entry tourist visa from a
Turkish consulate in the U.S. prior to your trip, it will cost you $37.)
Golden Crown Hotel: This small, three-star
hotel is clean, centrally located and affordable, with breakfast
included. Rates range from about $95 to $200. 90 212 638 19 44;
Yesel Ev: On the higher end is Yesel Ev,
located literally steps from the Blue and Hagia Sophia Mosques. This
former 19th-century mansion comes complete with brass bed, kilims (woven
carpets) and even velvet curtains to make you feel like royalty. Try to
stay in room 31, which has its own marble Turkish bath. Double room,
about $350. Kabasakal Cad. No: 5; 0212 5176785; istanbulyesilev.com
Grand Halic Hotel: Located about a
15-minute walk from the Sultanahmet area, this 177-room hotel is a good
option for travelers on a modest budget — double rooms start at about
$150 a night. Refik Saydam Caddesi 37; 90 (212) 252 69 80
Four Seasons Hotel: This former Turkish
prison is one of the top luxury hotels in the city. It’s centrally
located just steps from the Blue Mosque, with 65 rooms and suites
surrounding an open courtyard. Expect to pay the price, though — rates
are about $1,500 a night in early September. Tevkifhane Sokak No. 1,
Sultanahmet-Eminönü, 90 (212) 638 82 00; fourseasons.com
Like Mediterranean and Middle Eastern food, Turkish cuisine is all about
flavor and spices (caution: you must love garlic and lemon). Vegetarian
dishes abound here, with salads, grilled vegetables, hummus and other
spicy dips. You can also find plenty of lamb kebobs, seafood, and
grilled meats. If you can’t decide on just one dish, mezzes are small
plates of hot and cold appetizers, and are a popular dining option among
Tea time is a local tradition here; tea is served in clear, tulip-shaped
glasses and drunk only with sugar. Another tradition is the meyhane, a
traditional Turkish bar where the locals gather to work their way
through several small plates and wash it down with raki, the national
For home-style Turkish cooking in a slightly elevated, white-tablecloth
type atmosphere, head to Hunkar, where you can view the day’s specials
on the counter before making your choice. Mim Kemal Oeke Caddesi 21;
Hamdi is an excellent spot for dinner and an unbeatable view — if the
weather is good, sit on the rooftop, where you can see the sun set over
the Golden Horn. Reservations are a must to grab one of these seats. And
the food is pretty good, too, with a focus on grilled meats and a good
variety of baklava for dessert. Tahmis Caddesi, 17 Kalçin Sokak Eminönü,
90 212 528 0390
Don’t skip out on Istanbul’s street food culture. The neighborhood of
Ortakoy on the European banks of the Bosporus has several lanes filled
with food stalls. In the neighborhood of Taksim, the main street,
Istiklal Caddesi, is a pedestrian-only area with plenty of food stands.
Try simit, a traditional ring-shaped bread covered in sesame seeds
served warm around tea time, Turkish Delight and plenty of spicy kebabs
Blue Mosque: Named for the blue tiles that
decorate the interior, the Blue Mosque is a working religious facility,
which means it is a bad idea to visit during prayer times. Completed in
1617, it was Sultan Ahmet’s way of saying “size doesn’t matter” in
response to the Hagia Sophia, which is located right across from it. It
has 16 balconies and six minarets and an underground pool that regulates
the inside temperature. It also houses Sultan Ahmet’s tomb, those of his
family, and a reliquary that contains strands of the Prophet Muhammad’s
Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofia): When it was built
in 537 C.E., it was the biggest building in the world. Now it is a
museum, with a gold-leaf mosaic dome that has hundreds of circular
windows. The gallery inside contains Byzantine mosaics that were
uncovered from beneath a layer of Ottoman plaster, as well as the
“sweating pillar.” The pillar contains a small hole that you stick your
finger into, and the drop of water that hits your finger is thought to
contain healing properties.
Hippodrome: This open area, which contains
a large Egyptian obelisk, exists as a testament to Byzantine glory. This
was the area used for chariot races and public executions of what was
then called Constantinople.
Topkapi Palace: Just steps from the Hagia
Sophia, this palace offers insight into the wealth, excess, cruelty and
emphasis on artistic pursuits of the Ottoman Empire at its peak. The
palace was built between 1458 and 1465, and is divided into four
courtyards and a harem. The harem’s 400-plus rooms housed the Sultan and
his family, as well as servants, eunuchs, concubines and general
Grand Bazaar: Consisting of more than 3,000
shops, this large, covered bazaar is a maze of small streets. It's a fun
but daunting experience. Getting lost is almost guaranteed as you follow
the labyrinthine streets, haggle for the abundance of goods spilling out
onto the walkways, and get harassed by the overeager vendors. My advice:
Don't go on Fridays. It's overcrowded. But if you visit on Saturday
afternoons after lunch, it's when the locals go and it's more
Must-see sights (off the beaten track)
If you cross the Galata Bridge to the non-Sulatanahmet side, directly to
your left you will find a small fish market. You will hear the Turkish
fisherman yelling out and selling their freshly caught products.
Head to the Galatasaray neighborhood to get a feel for one of Istanbul’s
artsy parts of town. French Street, or Fransiz Sokagi, is a steep,
narrow street lined with art galleries, boutiques and cafes — this area
particularly comes to life in the evening, with street musicians and
crowds spilling onto the street.
Istanbul’s Spice Bazaar dates back to 1664
and is a heady introduction to Turkish flavors. Inside this covered
market you can find spices, nuts, dried fruit and the ubiquitous Turkish
Delight. But here’s a tip: If you just head outside to the street
Hasircilar Caddesi, you’ll find more spice shops selling goods — often
for a lower price!
Don’t miss out on a traditional Turkish bath.
Public baths are still a way of daily life in Istanbul — the most famous
(and some say best) of the bunch is Cagaloglu Hamami, a 300-year-old
institution that has hosted some famous faces like Florence Nightingale,
Omar Sharif, Tony Curtis and Harrison Ford. A separate women’s entrance
is on the side. 34 Professor Kazim Gurkan Caddesi
For a day trip, you can sail down the Bosporus on a ferry ride to the
village of Anadolu Kavagi (it’s the last stop on the Asiatic side).
Ferries depart daily from Eminonu Pier. This little fishing village is
about as authentic as you can get — and it’s loaded with fish
restaurants (some say the best in Istanbul). Climb to the top of the
hill to explore the Byzantine fortress Yoros Kalesi and take in the
amazing view, then follow it up with a lunch at a restaurant for the
fresh catch of the day.
There are spas, and then there is the traditional hamam. This is
old-school massage. Every hotel has one. but go for the original. My
best bet: Cagaloglu Hamam (cagalogluhamami.com.tr).
Or, hop on a ferry to a small islet to visit Kiz Kulesi (aka Maiden’s
Tower or Leander’s Tower). This ancient structure, built in 341 B.C.,
serves primarily as a lighthouse, but also has a café and restaurant
featuring live music and dance on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. It
also has one of the best views in town, with a 360-degree view of
Istanbul from its unique position on the Bosporus.
If you’re into high-end shopping, sail down the Bosporus and inland a
bit to the neighborhood of Nisantasi. This popular, fashionable shopping
district has brand-name stores like Gucci and Armani, spas, and a
surprising number of bakeries and sweet shops.
And, last but not least: One of my favorite desserts in the world is
rice pudding. And no one does it better than the folks in Turkey. You
can find it on almost every menu, so make room for it for dessert.
You'll be glad you did ...