Embark on a voyage to remember on a cruise to the Eastern Mediterranean. Set foot ashore at Istanbul, Ephesus (Kuşadası), Rhodes, Santorini, Jerusalem (Ashdod) and Haifa. Here is our top 20 list of the best tours for a Greece vacation or a holiday in Turkey or Israel. Enjoy!
Cruise to Turkey and depart at incomparable Istanbul, the city where Europe and Asia collide. Soak up the extraordinary atmosphere when admiring many traces from the Ottoman and Byzantine past. Join the locals during your Turkey vacation at one of the many lovely tea gardens, bars or restaurants. This is the kind of place you'll want to return to one day.
Sultan Ahmed Mosque
The Sultan Ahmed Mosque has splendid domes, slender minarets and 260 windows. It's named after the sultan, who commissioned the mosque and reigned here from 1603 till 1617. While the mosque is grey on the outside, it's also called the Blue Mosque because of the blue tiles from the town of İznik that adorn the interior. Visitors can use the south door, worshippers the main entrance.
Situated beside the mosque is the no less impressive red colored Hagia Sophia, which was built as Byzantine basilica in the 6th century. Back then, it was the world's largest building and an engineering marvel. It was also the world's largest cathedral for centuries until it became a mosque in the 16th century. In 1934, president Mustafa Kemal Atatürk decided to turn the mosque into a museum. Have a look at the glittering gold mosaics and learn more about its fascinating history.
Trip to the Princes' Islands
Take a ferry across the Bosphorus to one of the Princes' Islands, nine islands southeast of Istanbul in the Sea of Marmara. The trip and a stroll around the islands will be one of the many highlights of your visit to Istanbul. The islands are mainly car-free and are a welcome change from the busy city streets. On the ferry, enjoy the views of mosques, palaces and timber mansions while sipping salep, a sweet, hot drink.
Head to one of the world's largest covered bazaars to shop for spices, textiles and other attractive souvenirs. The colorful market, a sprawling labyrinth in the heart of Istanbul's Old City, was built in 1461 by order of Mehmet the Conqueror. Take your time and drink tea with the vendors.
Get a fascinating glimpse of life at the court of the Ottoman empire, which was located here between the 15th and 19th centuries. Construction of the vast complex on a hill began in 1459, six years after the conquest of Constantinople. Walk around the gardens, the four courtyards and be amazed by the magnificent Imperial Hall in the harem and the sultan's Petition Room. Also impressive are the displays of sacred relics and precious jewels.
Travel to the resort town of Kuşadası on Turkey's Aegean coast. Great beaches, food, and nightlife make this a popular destination and a good base for visiting Ephesus during your Turkey vacation. In Kuşadası, you can visit the recently renovated, picturesque Byzantine fortress, and Kaleiçi Camii, the Old Town Mosque, built in the 17th century. You can also go shopping in the Grand Bazaar and the Orient Bazaar, and of course, relax at the beach (Kadınlar Denizi, literally Ladies Sea).
The well-preserved ruins of Ephesus, a 1.5-square-mile area, give you an idea of life in the ancient Greco-Roman times. The UNESCO-listed World Heritage Site was built in the 10th century B.C. as a trading city and a center for the Anatolian fertility goddess Cybele. When the Roman Republic took control, it became a vibrant city of over 250,000 inhabitants. Excavations started 150 years ago, and still, only 29% of the ancient city has been uncovered. Check out the Library of Celsus with its towering columns and the statue of the goddess of wisdom. The Scholastica Baths with its marble toilets and the remarkable Ephesus' Terraced Houses are fascinating as well.
Situated a few miles from Ephesus is the pleasant village of Selçuk. You can enjoy the views from the hilltop with the Byzantine ruins of the Basilica of St. John the Apostle, built in the sixth century, and the spectacular well-preserved Ayasuluk Fortress. Migrating storks use the nearby Roman & Byzantine Aqueduct for their huge nests. West of the center is a reconstructed pillar, which is what remains of the Temple of Artemis. This was once the biggest temple on Earth, and one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
Dilek Peninsula-Büyük Menderes National Park
Go hiking in this large mountainous national park south of Kuşadası. It is located on a peninsula that is separated from the Greek island of Samos by a narrow strait. Admire the stunning vistas and deep-green forests and take a dip in the azure blue sea from one of the sand or pebble beaches when you need to cool down. Don't be surprised when you spot a dolphin or some of the 256 (!) bird species that live here.
Consider a trip to the village of Pamukkale, 118 miles (190 km) east of Kuşadası. It is famous for its surrealistic white terraces, called the "Cotton Castle" (pamuk means cotton in Turkish). A dip in the calcium-rich, blue thermal waters is an experience you won't easily forget. In the second century B.C., people came to enjoy the healing waters, and the city of Hierapolis was built here. Visit the extensive ruins, such as the fountain, amphitheater and necropolis.
Cruise to rocky — but breathtaking — Santorini for a fantastic Greece vacation. One of the Cyclades islands in the Aegean Sea, it's situated 120 miles (200 km) southeast of Greece's mainland. Officially called Thira, the island is known for its dramatic volcanic scenery and picturesque whitewashed villages. Its rugged landscape was formed by a volcanic eruption in the 16th century B.C.
Take a boat from the Fira or Athinios ports to the small, uninhabited island of Nea Kameni. It is made of black lava rock and is almost round. You can hike the steep gravel paths to the top of the 427-feet-high (130 meters) volcanic crater and pass red, grassy succulents and active, smoking craters. Beside it is the even smaller Palea Kameni, which means Old Burnt Island, where you can relax at the sulfurous hot springs.
Santorini's principal towns, Fira and Oia, cling to cliffs. Stroll along the meandering streets and check out the photogenic white houses. The bustling capital of Fira can be reached by a cable car. Have a look at the picturesque blue-domed St. Gerasimos Church and the Byzantine castle ruins. Next, sit down at a cozy waterfront taverna to enjoy Greek seafood. You'll have picturesque views of the sea, the other islands, the black and red lava pebbled beaches, and the deep blue waters. In Oia, don't miss the stunning sunset and sample Santorini's delicious Vinsanto dessert wine.
Looking for ancient history combined with breathtaking nature and laid-back beaches? You've come to the right place. This Greek island, located less than 12 miles (20 km) from Turkey, was once famous for the Colossus, a 108-feet-high (33 meters) statue of the Greek sun-god Helios. Erected at the harbor in 280 B.C., it was considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Nowadays, it's no surprise Rhodes is among the most visited of all Greek islands and a great spot for a Greece vacation.
The Medieval Old Town
The crusading Knights of St. John used the island as their main base from 1309 until 1522. They left their traces on the gorgeous Old Town of Rhodes City, which is surrounded by medieval walls with seven gates and a dry moat bed. Climb the clock tower for a bird's-eye view of the city.
Palace of the Grand Master of the Knights of Rhodes
One of the highlights of the island is this medieval citadel, also known as the Kastello, and one of the few examples of Gothic architecture in Greece. Originally a Byzantine fortress, the Knights Hospitaller used it as their palace, headquarters and fortress. Admire the panoramic view from the high towers, and check out the pretty mosaic floors dating from Hellenic, Roman and early Christian times.
Acropolis of Lindos
Around 31 miles (50 km) south of Rhodes City, it's worth making the trip to the town of Lindos for its beautifully preserved, cliff-top acropolis. This natural citadel was fortified by the Greeks, the Romans, the Byzantines, the Knights of St. John and the Ottomans. Stroll around the remains of the Temple to Athena Lindia, the monumental fourth-century gates, and the columns of the Hellenistic stoa, once a covered walkway.
Cruise to Ashdod, the largest port in Israel, south of Tel Aviv, to start your Holy Land tours. From here, it's a one-hour drive east to the fabulous city of Jerusalem, or Al-Quds in Arabic, meaning "the holy one." A visit to the city sacred to Jews, Muslims and Christians alike will be a memorable experience. Pass through Damascus or Jaffa Gate, or one of the six other gates, and stroll around the mythical Old City, built in the early 16th century by the Turkish Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent.
Dome of the Rock Mosque
Head to the Temple Mount or Al Haram Ash Sharif, an ample public space sacred to all three monotheist faiths. You won't miss the iconic Dome of the Rock, constructed between 688 and 691, with its distinctive gold dome and traditional Islamic geometric designs. The dome covers a piece of stone sacred to both the Muslim and Jewish religions. Next 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. The Temple Mount plaza is surrounded by walls, including the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest prayer site.
Church of the Holy Sepulchre
Join the crowds of pilgrims through the Via Dolorosa street and follow the smell of frankincense to the intriguing Church of the Holy Sepulchre, one of Christianity's most sacred sites. The church was built in 335, destroyed in 1009, and then rebuilt again. It is believed this was where Jesus was crucified, died and was resurrected.
Yad Vashem Memorial
Yad Vashem means "a memorial and a name." This is Israel's official memorial to the six million Jews who were killed during World War II. The 18-hectare site both honors the people who died and is a research center to record the names of people who didn't have any family. There are photos of the victims and an eternal flame near a crypt containing the ashes of victims.
Cruise to Haifa the country's third-largest city, which is beautifully set on the slopes of Mount Carmel. You'll find several interesting sights and a pleasant, sandy beach to enjoy your Holy Land tours. Stroll around Wadi Salib, the Old City center near the port, and continue to Wadi Nisnas, the Arab quarter. The trendy German Colony neighborhood is not to be missed either. Still, the absolute highlight is the iconic Shrine of the Bab.
Bah'ai World Center
Haifa is the world center for the Baha'i faith. You can walk around the lovely Bah'ai Gardens set around the 19 steep terraces. Next, visit the Shrine of the Bab, a UNESCO World Heritage site. The striking golden dome is composed of 12,000 tiles. Men and women must be covered from shoulders to knees. The pilgrimage site, built in 1953, is said to hold the remains of the Bab. Recommended is the free, 45-minute Panorama Tour. From the Viewing Balcony, you have a breathtaking view of the shrine and out toward the Mediterranean Sea.
At the foot of the Baha'i Gardens is this picturesque, restored neighborhood. It was founded in the late 1860s by German Templars, who came to establish a Christian community here. The nowadays lively culture and tourism center is lined with pretty stone houses with attractive cafes, restaurants, art galleries and boutiques.
Stella Maris Carmelite Monastery
For magnificent views of Haifa and the surroundings, take the cable car at Bat Galim's seafront promenade up to Mt. Carmel. Visit the Stella Maris Carmelite Monastery and the church with its beautifully painted ceiling and dome. The monastery — the name is Latin for "Star of the Sea" — was established in the late 12th century. The current building was constructed in 1836. Wear clothing that covers your shoulders and knees.