The mosques in Istanbul are lavish and monumental, a true testament to the city's rich history.

Image: Bill Wiatrak

Ed. Note: We recently posted a piece about Houston and Istanbul being sister cities, so we wanted to let our Traveling Wizard explore Istanbul even further.

If you happen to be searching for a flight to Europe and you’re using a popular site like Expedia or Cheapoair, you might be a little surprised by the carrier that is more than likely going to pop up at as your least expensive option. Turkish Air is sometimes less than half the price of other carriers going to the same destination.

What’s even more surprising: if you’re going to a city in the very western part of Europe, like Amsterdam or Paris, Turkish Air is going to take you to Istanbul first. How do they do that?  The good news is, not only is Turkish Airlines a great airline, but you can get a free stopover in the capital city. And an amazing city it is.

If you haven’t been to Istanbul, you’ve been missing out. The city straddles the Bosphorus Strait so that one side is in Europe, the other in Asia. There’s your first reason for going. You can cross a pair of continents off your bucket list by just crossing the bridge in less than an hour. The old Roman city formerly called Constantinople has been the crossroads of civilization for thousands of years and somehow has been able to take the best from each band of marauders that have conquered it to create a very rich culture with world class monuments and tourist sites.

The two buildings in the city that you will notice are the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia. The Turkish Muslims are pretty low key and you’d be hard pressed to find anyplace more tourist friendly in the Middle East. Hagia is really just a museum, but the Blue Mosque is still in business and if you follow a few rules you’re welcome to have a look around.

Beside these impressive buildings you’ll find some amazing markets selling carpets, purses, jackets and anything else you can imagine. Then there’s the spice market with open bags full of various wondrous smells and flavors. Need some myrrh and frankincense? No problem! There’s the ancient palace of Topkapi where Ottoman rulers once lived with their harems within walking distance.

Below the city is a Roman Cistern that you’ve probably seen in a couple of James Bond movies and is a great place to cool off for few minutes. Have you ever wanted to treat yourself to a Turkish bath? The Oruculer hammam is over 500 years old, is located right next to the big market and is an ultimate Turkish traditional experience.

Apart from all the amazing buildings you’ll find in Istanbul, you’ll be blown away by the food. The word shish kebob is Turkish and you won’t find anyone who makes them better. You’ll find a few Greek and Mediterranean influences, but the restaurants have amazing salads, fish, casseroles and some of the most interesting cuisine in the world. Take a walk to the Galata bridge and have one of the vendors make you a fish sandwich. It’s the best fish sandwich you’ve ever had. Turkish coffee and hookah bars are everywhere and part of the real Turkish experience.

Next time you’re flying into Frankfurt or Rome, try a stopover in Istanbul. It’s a world class city that never gets old. Full of culture and fun and very inexpensive, it could be the most adventurous fun you’ve ever had in 24 hours.

For more on Istanbul, don’t miss Houstonia’s June issue devoted to Great Escapes!

Bill Wiatrak is an avid international traveler and renowned local entertainer. To see more of his worldly adventures, tune into Wanderlust for his weekly contributions or check out his personal blog, www.thetravelingwizard.com.

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