Amp up your Eastern Mediterranean cruise with amazing tours in Istanbul, Ephesus (Kuşadası), Rhodes, Santorini, Jerusalem (Ashdod) and Haifa. Discover cultural landmarks, legendary palaces, picturesque villages, breathtaking vistas, mediaeval strongholds and much more as you are transported through the fascinating pages of the area’s history. Read on for our top 20 list of the best tours for a Greece vacation or a holiday in Turkey or Israel. Enjoy your travels on your Eastern Mediterranean cruise!
Welcome to Istanbul, the iconic cradle of civilization where Europe meets Asia and the Ottoman and Byzantine heritage coalesce. History lovers, foodies, shoppers and admirers of the exotic all agree that Istanbul is a paradise you never want to leave. During your holiday in Turkey, join the locals at one of the many lovely tea gardens, bars or restaurants and experience the magic of Istanbul through its people.
Sultan Ahmed Mosque
Named after the sultan who commissioned the mosque and reigned here from 1603 till 1617, the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, also known as the Blue Mosque, is an exquisite architectural marvel graced by splendid domes, slender minarets, 260 stained-glass windows, and more than 20,000 handmade blue tiles hailing from the town of İznik. Visitors can use the south door, while worshippers enter through the main entrance.
A stunning masterpiece and feat of engineering situated beside the Blue Mosque is the red-hued Hagia Sophia, built as a Byzantine basilica in the 6th century and touted as the world's largest building at the time. For 10 centuries, until it became a mosque, Hagia Sophia claimed the title of largest cathedral on earth. In 1934, secularist president Mustafa Kemal Atatürk turned the mosque into a museum, a decision annulled by the Council of State in 2020, when it was reclassified as a mosque. You will be enthralled by the mesmerising gold mosaics as you tour this landmark, unearthing more tales and tidbits from its storied past.
Trip to the Princes' Islands
Hop on a ferry across the Bosphorus southeast of Istanbul to the sea of Marmara and the nine Princes' Islands. These car-free islands offer horse-drawn carriages (phaetons), stunning panoramic views and beautiful natural preserves, including the pine forests of Dil Burnu National Park. On the ferry ride, kick back while sipping a sweet, hot salep and enjoy sailing by beautiful mosques, palaces and timber mansions.
The brainchild of Sultan Mehmet II, who wished for Constantinople (Istanbul) to be the trading Centre of the Ottoman Empire, the Grand Bazaar started operating in 1461 with more than 3000 shops. It is the oldest and most visited–as well as one of the largest–covered markets in the world, selling fragrant spices, colourful textiles, handmade artefacts, and just about everything else a shopper might desire. If you find that the price you are quoted is a bit on the high side, there is no dishonour in making a counter-offer! Rest assured that good old-fashioned haggling is alive and well in this ancient and mystical market.
Between the 15th and 19th centuries, the vast and opulent Topkapi Palace served as residence for the imperial Ottoman court. This architectural and historical gem maintains an extensive collection of original manuscripts and books in its library, as well as a dazzling display of jewellery and sacred relics. You will be transported back in time when stepping into the magnificent Imperial Hall in the harem, and also the awe-inducing Chamber of Petitions, where requests were presented before the sovereign. Even as you stroll through the tulip-filled courtyard gardens, you will be treading where sultans–great admirers of the flower–also walked.
In the resort town of Kuşadası on Turkey's Aegean coast, wonderful beaches, great food, and a vibrant nightlife await, making the city a good base for visiting the rest of Ephesus. Big draws in Kuşadası are the picturesque Byzantine fortress and Kaleiçi Camii, the beautiful 17th century Old Town Mosque. Head to the Orient Bazaar for any souvenirs you may wish to take home then go for a little sun-bathing and swimming at the Kadınlar Denizi beach, which quite literally means, Ladies Sea! But no worries if you are a gent, you too can enjoy this beach experience!
A UNESCO-listed World Heritage Site built in the 10th century B.C., the amazingly well-preserved ruins of Ephesus provide a window into life during the ancient Greco-Roman times. This buzzing port and centre of commerce, grew to incorporate a population in excess of 250,000 inhabitants under the Roman Republic. While excavations began 150 years ago, only about one third of the ancient city has been uncovered. Don’t miss the Library of Celsus with its impressive columns, or the Scholastica Baths where the noble and wealthy came to be bathed, perfumed and massaged.
Only two kilometres north of Ephesus, the pleasant village of Selçuk is home to the Byzantine ruins of the Basilica of St. John the Apostle, built in the sixth century, as well as the impressive Ayasuluk Fortress. Although little remains of the Temple of Artemis–once the biggest temple on earth and one of the Seven Wonders of the world–an ancient pillar marks the history-soaked spot.
Dilek Peninsula-Büyük Menderes National Park
A mountainous national park south of Kuşadası located on a peninsula that is separated from the Greek island of Samos by a narrow strait, this forest is a favourite hiker destination. With stunning vistas over the azure blue sea, the park tempts you to find your way to one of the sand or pebble beaches and immerse yourself in the translucent water. So don’t deny yourself: after you’ve had your fill of hiking and bird-watching (about 256 bird species are found here!), go for a refreshing dip – and you may even encounter a dolphin!
Breathtaking Pamukkale (meaning “cotton castle” in Turkish), is a fairy-tale-like village known for its hot springs and other-worldly white landscape, created by a carbonate mineral deposit. It was a literal hot spot in the second century B.C. as people flocked there to dip in the blue thermal pools for their healing properties (feel free to follow suit!) The city of Hierapolis was built in this popular destination and extensive ruins remain, including the fountain, amphitheatre and necropolis.
No Greek vacation is complete without a visit to idyllic Santorini, one of the Cyclades islands in the Aegean Sea, situated 200 km southeast of Greece's mainland. With a rugged landscape formed by a volcanic eruption in the 16th century B.C., Santorini, officially called Thira, is home to picturesque whitewashed villages, castle ruins, and other bucket-list draws.
A small uninhabited island made of black lava rock, Nea Kameni (meaning “Young Burnt Island”) is a charter boat ride away from the Fira or Athinios ports. For a once-in-a lifetime hike, trek up a 130-metre tall volcano, as you pass (gulp) actively smoking craters. Once at the top, you’ll enjoy panoramic views of Santorini and the surrounding sparkling sapphire sea. For a dip in sulphurous hot springs, hop on over to the neighbouring Palea Kameni, (“Old Burnt Island”), an even tinier version of Nea Kameni.
Clinging to cliffs, Santorini's principal towns of Fira and Oia, are whitewashed, postcard-perfect destinations gleaming invitingly under the Aegean sun. Reached by cable car, the bustling capital of Fira houses the blue-domed St. Gerasimos Church as well as the ruins of a Byzantine castle. After sightseeing, take your pick of waterfront tavernas to enjoy fresh Greek seafood with stunning views. In Oia, don't miss the flaming sunsets and be sure to sample Santorini's delicious Vinsanto dessert wine.
Ancient history? Check. Incredible natural beauty? Check, check. Wonderfully laid-back beaches? Check, check, check. When you are looking for an island that has it all, Rhodes is a top choice. Located in close proximity to Turkey, Rhodes was once famous for the Colossus, a 33 metre statue of Helios, the Greek sun god. The statue, which towered over the harbour in 280 B.C., was considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Although the gigantic Colossus was felled by an earthquake, then disassembled by invaders and sold in pieces, it's no surprise that this colourful spot is among the most visited of all Greek islands.
The Medieval Old Town
From 1309 until 1522, the crusading Knights of St. John occupied Rhodes, building a walled city that remains one of the most astounding examples of Gothic architecture. From the Palace of the Grand Masters, the Great Hospital and the Street of the Knights in Upper Town to Lower Town, where Gothic elements are found alongside mosques and other buildings dating from the Ottoman period, the Mediaeval Old Town is a history buff's dream.
Palace of the Grand Master of the Knights of Rhodes
Also known as the Kastello, this mediaeval citadel, originally a Byzantine fortress, was used by the Knights Hospitaller as their palace, headquarters and fortress. Admire the panoramic view from the high towers, and check out the lovely mosaic floors dating from Hellenic, Roman and early Christian times.
Acropolis of Lindos
It’s well worth making the 50 km trip south of Rhodes City to Lindos, where the beautifully preserved, cliff-top acropolis is a must-see sight. At this citadel – fortified by the Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Knights of St. John and even the Ottomans – you can visit the Temple to Athena Lindia, view the monumental fourth-century gates, and the columns of the Hellenistic stoa, once a covered walkway.
Begin your Holy Land tours south of Tel Aviv in Ashdod, the largest port in Israel. A mere one-hour’s drive away rests the timeless jewel that is Jerusalem, or Al-Quds in Arabic, meaning "the Holy one." A visit to the city sacred to Jews, Muslims and Christians alike is a life-defining experience that should not be missed. Enter the mythical Old City through the Damascus or Jaffa Gate, or any of the six other gates, and stroll through streets built in the early 16th century by the Turkish Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent.
Dome of the Rock Mosque
To see one of the earliest surviving buildings from the Islamic world, head to the Temple Mount or Al Haram Ash Sharif. Built between 688 and 691, the iconic Dome of the Rock, with its distinctive gold dome and traditional Islamic geometric designs is an exquisite shrine. Adjacent to the building is the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site in Islam. Non-Muslims are not permitted to enter the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque, although visitors can take pictures and admire the exterior perimeters. The Temple Mount plaza is surrounded by walls, including the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest prayer site.
Church of the Holy Sepulchre
Follow the crowds of faithful pilgrims and the heady aroma of frankincense as they weave their way through the Via Dolorosa street to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, one of Christianity's most sacred sites. The church was built in 335, destroyed in 1009, and then once again rebuilt, marking the site where Jesus is believed to have been crucified (Golgotha) as well as the site where he was buried and resurrected.
Yad Vashem Memorial
Meaning "a memorial and a name", Yad Vashem is Israel's official memorial to the approximately six million Jews who were killed during World War II. The 18-hectare site honours those whose lives were taken and also acts as a research centre recording the names of victims who didn't have any family. A deeply moving memorial, you will see photos of the victims and an eternal flame near a crypt containing their ashes.
Haifa, Israel’s third-largest city, nestled on the slopes of Mount Carmel, enjoys both beautiful panoramic views and appealing beaches. Wadi Salib, the Old City centre near the port, is a wonderful starting point for a pleasant stroll as you continue to Wadi Nisnas, the Arab quarter. The trendy German Colony neighbourhood is not to be missed either. A highlight is the iconic Shrine of the Bab, an impressive structure surrounded by gardens created as “a gift to humanity”.
Bah'ai World Center
In Haifa, the world centre for the Baha'i faith, the lovely Bah'ai Gardens set atop 19 terraces are an entrancing experience in and of themselves. Next, visit the Shrine of the Bab, with its magnificent golden dome crafted from 12,000 tiles. A UNESCO World Heritage site built in 1953, the Shrine of the Bab is said to hold the remains of the Bab and is the second holiest place on Earth for Bahá’ís. The Bahá’í Faith was founded in Persia in the 1800s and emphasises the spiritual unity of all mankind.
Haifa’s German Colony was founded by German Templars who were seeking to establish a Christian community in the area. Stretching along the base of the Baha'i Gardens, this captivating neighbourhood is a vibrant cultural and tourism centre, with numerous cafes, restaurants, boutiques and art galleries set in attractive stone houses.
Stella Maris Carmelite Monastery
The monastery — whose name in Latin means “Star of the Sea” — offers unparalleled views of Haifa and its surroundings. To visit Stella Maris, take the cable car at Bat Galim's seafront promenade up to Mt. Carmel. The church’s beautifully painted ceiling and dome are sure to linger in your memory, but do wear clothes that cover your shoulders and knees in observance of the dress code.