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Norwegian Viva Mediterranean Cruise Blog – Day 4 – Istanbul

On the fourth day of our Mediterranean cruise, the Norwegian Viva docked in Istanbul, Turkey. We had nine hours (9 AM to 6 PM) to explore the city before returning to the ship. Follow along as we explore Istanbul’s sites and see what we did back onboard the Viva. 

Norwegian Viva Mediterranean Cruise Day 4 Overview

Norwegian Viva Freestyle Daily – Day 4

Breakfast at Indulge Food Hall

Since we had a full day ahead of us, we wanted to get a good breakfast in. We returned to the Indulge Food Hall to get breakfast. Again, the restaurant was nearly empty, providing a relaxing experience. As I mentioned in our Day 2 blog, finding where different breakfast items were on the first day was a bit of a struggle. But coming back here the second time was much easier; you understood where everything was. We grabbed our food and headed to the Indulge outdoor dining section to enjoy the views of Istanbul as we ate. 

Arriving at Galataport Istanbul

The ship docked at Galataport Istanbul, a relatively new cruise port right at the edge of the city. We arrived promptly at 9 AM, and they announced guests could leave from Deck 4. We didn’t have an excursion booked; our group would explore the city on our own. That allowed us to take our time with breakfast and leave the ship around 9:30 AM. 

We didn’t encounter any lines and could walk right off the Viva. The cruise port is massive, so it took a bit of walking to get out (it’s the first underground cruise terminal in the world). On our way out, we had to have a mandatory Istanbul card to exit. Norwegian provided this card in our staterooms the night before. According to the document, it took the place of our passports for Istanbul and let us scan in and out of the cruise terminal with a QR code. 

Taking the T1 Tram to the Tourist Area

We wanted to see a few sites in the tourist area called Sultanahmet Square. It’s about a 50-minute walk from the cruise terminal to that area, so we decided to try the local transportation system. Right next to the cruise terminal is the T1 Tram, which will take you to Sultanahmet. 

We could see the tram line on the main street as soon as we exited the cruise terminal. Unfortunately, it didn’t look like there were any ticket machines there. We had to walk about 5 minutes to a stop where two ticket machines were waiting. There, a line of cruise ship passengers stood at the machines, trying to figure them out. They were pretty confusing about what you needed to buy and how to get it. Some helpful locals were working the screens for people (mainly because they needed tickets themselves and wanted to speed up the line). They really should have put separate machines in the cruise terminal so they didn’t clog up the lines for the locals. The cost was 17.70 Turkish Lira, but we used a credit card and it came out to around $0.60.

Tip: Turkey was our only stop that didn’t use the Euro; they use the Turkish Lira. ATM machines are available right across the street from the cruise terminal, but we decided to use our credit cards and the euros we had. Since we were doing all tourist stuff, they would accept Euro, usually at a worse exchange rate, but we were talking low dollar amounts so we didn’t care. 

Basilica Cistern: An Ancient Wonder

Our first stop was the Basilica Cistern. It’s a massive underground cavern built 1,500 years ago that the city used to catch run-off water and provide fresh water to its residents. The Basilica Cistern is used for tours and has art installations throughout the walkways. 

We purchased tickets in advance through the facility’s official website (see the link here). The cost for tourists was 880 Turkish Lira, or about $27 per person. When purchasing, you choose your date but don’t have to pick a time, which gives you a lot of flexibility. 

Tip: Beware aggressive sellers. About a block away from the Cistern, a man approached us and asked what we were looking for. We said the Cistern, and he pointed to it in the distance, trying to help us out. Then, he asked what time it was. We said 10:15, and he said, “You just missed the 10 o’clock tour. They run every hour, why don’t you come to my store to see Turkish Carpets.” It was an outright lie; there are no timed tours there. We politely declined. Then, again, as we got closer, another man approached us, trying to get us to go to his store to purchase a rug (the store was nowhere near the place). 

Once inside the Cistern, we could appreciate the magnitude of this facility. It’s longer than a football field and 30 feet high, supported by 336 stone columns. Color-changing lighting illuminated the space, providing an eerie, otherworldly glow. We followed the metal walkways over the shallow water to take in the art installations and the whole space. 

In the Basilica Cistern, I noticed there wasn’t a ton of signage. Without a tour guide, it made it hard to understand what exactly we were looking at and what it was used for. An audio guide was available, but you’d have to access it on your phone and have your own headphones. Overall, we spent about 30 minutes exploring this ancient underground reservoir.

Tip: If you like audio guides, bring headphones with you. Many attractions offer audio guides along with your entry ticket, but you have to access them on your phone and use your own headphones.

Blue Mosque And Hagia Sophia

After the Cistern, we headed across the street to Sultan Ahmet Park. The expansive public square is nestled between two huge mosques, the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. Police patrolled the area, which seemed to keep the pushy merchants at bay. 

The red building at the north of the square was the Hagia Sophia. Originally built in 360 AD, it was used as a Christian Church for over a thousand years before being converted to a mosque. Now, it’s also a museum, charging a 25 euro admission. 

Instead, we headed south to the massive Blue Mosque, formally known as Sultan Ahmed Mosque. Much more recently built in 1616, this grand building is still used for work but is open to guests. The Blue Mosque is free to enter but is closed during prayer times, which can vary daily, usually around 1 PM and 5 PM.

The Blue Mosque is currently undergoing renovations, but we made our way through the scaffolding to the entrance at the rear. The line was outside the building but moved fairly quickly. We waited on line less than 5 minutes. 

Tip: For places of worship, you must dress appropriately. For men, that meant no shorts. For women, they must wear a head covering and no shorts or skirts. Before you entered they had a booth handing out head covering and leg covering you could borrow if you weren’t dressed appropriately. The men were okay in our group because it was a cool day, and we had pants on, but the women had to get head coverings. 

As we entered, we had to take off our shoes before stepping foot on the plush carpet. Then we turned the corner, and my jaw dropped as I entered the expansive space. The domed ceiling was adorned with blue and gold tile and artwork. Massive candelabras hung from the ceiling, providing illumination along with light through the windows. I’ve been to a lot of churches and historical sites, but never something that looked like that. The Islamic and Byzantine styles of decor were so unique to me. 

Since we didn’t have a tour guide, we spent about 15 minutes walking around and taking in the beauty of the inside of the building. Tour guides around us explained the historical significance to their groups; it’s another time a tour guide or audio guide might have helped me better understand what we were looking at. 

Lunch at 7 Hills Restaurant in Istanbul

For lunch, we headed to Seven Hills Restaurant, known for its rooftop dining with panoramic city views. A few weeks before the cruise, we made reservations online so we wouldn’t have to wait long. It was a humid day, and the sun was in full force; I wouldn’t have minded eating inside, but the views were too good to pass up. 

While people are waiting for tables, they stand in a corner of the rooftop, and the staff puts out bread so they can feed the seagulls. The location in between the two mosques and the birds flying around creates amazing pictures but also makes dining much less enjoyable (a bird pooped on our table during our meal). 

Here, we tried Raki, Turkey’s national drink. Also called “lion’s milk,” this clear liquor is made with grapes and anise. As you add ice or water to it, it gets cloudy, and the flavor profile changes. Tasting it, I got the familiar licorice taste of ouzo and a kick from the alcohol (ouzo is usually around 37% alcohol; this Raki was 45%).

The prices here were higher than we saw in Greece, but that’s not surprising considering this was the epitome of a tourist place. We ordered several dishes to share with the table. Overall, it cost us $33 euro each for the food and one cocktail per person.

Visiting Sultanahmet Meydani

After lunch, we made a short walk to Sultanahmet Meydani, a large public square where an ancient hippodrome (race track) once stood. Here, we saw a few structures left over from the old days, but mostly, it was just a large, open public space. 

Authentic Hookah Bar Experience

Some people in the group wanted to try an authentic hookah bar while we were there. We pulled up a random one on Google Maps and headed there. It was tucked into an alley, consisting of an outdoor space with benches and chairs under awnings. It was genuinely authentic; I only saw one other group of tourists in the place.

I’d never been to a hookah bar and was surprised by the crowd. I always assumed it was more of a social activity, but a majority of the patrons were single men sitting on their phones while enjoying hookah for 15-20 minutes. It was around lunchtime, so maybe they were on their lunch breaks, as many seemed to be dressed for work.  

glasses of apple tea in instanbul
While at the hookah bar, we tried traditional apple tea.

I was feeling under the weather that day, so I avoided hookah and instead opted for apple tea, which Istanbul was known for. It tasted like a cross between apple cider and a really light tea (we brought some apple tea powder home as a gift).

Exploring Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar

It wouldn’t be a stop in Istanbul without visiting the Grand Bazaar, a sprawling labyrinth of shops and stalls. I read about it before the cruise but never saw pictures or videos, so I didn’t know what to expect. I was kind of disappointed when we entered and saw that it was basically a massive indoor mall. 

The place was bustling with activity, with local vendors offering everything from spices and textiles to jewelry and souvenirs. Most shops here offered the exact same things, so there wasn’t much “shopping” to do. We also had to be careful, as if you showed any interest, you’d get high sales pressure. At one point, while my friends were in a shop, I was chastised for not wanting to buy something from a vendor while I was in the walkway. “You’re supposed to buy things here,” he said.

That’s not to say there wasn’t anything to see at the Grand Bazaar. We saw several stores with beautiful Turkish lamps on display. We also saw tons of Turkish Delight. I’ve had Turkish Delight in the States before, but nothing like what was here. It’s a dessert made with gel and sugar for a unique, almost taffy-like texture. Here, vendors would cut and sell rolls of it rather than prepackage boxes (they had those, too, if you wanted). I wasn’t prepared for all their varieties: hazelnut, blueberry, cinnamon. We bought a kilo of different types to sample later that day. 

Back on the Norwegian Viva: Snacks and Indulge Food Hall

Since the Grand Bazaar was halfway back to Galataport Cruise Terminal, we opted to walk the rest of the way. It was a pleasant walk, basically just through a busy metropolitan area. It was 4:30, and we had to be back on the ship at 5:30, so we had plenty of time for the 20-minute walk. 

Overall, Istanbul was my least favorite port on this trip. While it was nice to see the culture and sights, the pushy salesmen trying to take advantage of tourists were off-putting. At no point did I feel unsafe, but it just made me uneasy. 

Since the cruise terminal is so large, it takes about 15 minutes to walk through it and then head back onto the ship. We headed up to Indulge Food Hall / the Soleil Bar to grab some cocktails and munchies while we tried our Turkish Delight. The Turkish Delight was really tasty, I could see why the kid in “The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe” sold all his siblings out for this dessert. Our food we ordered from Indulge was delivered quickly. and was quite tasty. 

This area proved to be one of my favorite parts of the ship, a great place to relax and snack with amazing views. When I first saw this space when I sailed on the sister ship, the Prima, I had this cruise in mind, and I could picture this group enjoying the Mediterranean landscape while hanging out together. It turned out just like I imagined it.

Dinner at the Commodore Room

We went back to our rooms to change and get ready for dinner and agreed to meet at 7:30. We met at the Metropolitan Bar, which was hosting a trivia. It was an odd time for it, and the host was on a loud microphone that kind of killed the vibe for pre-dinner cocktails. We ended up just heading to Hudsons main dining room.

When we arrived, the hostess told us there were no tables available and that we should go down one level to the Commodore Room, the other main dining room. We would have known that if the app had waitlists, but because they weren’t using the virtual queues on our sailing we had to go to one room to be redirected to the other. The menu is the same in both dining rooms, so we didn’t really care.

The Commodore Room is much less grand than Hudsons. Instead of the panoramic windows, you get port holes, some obstructed by lifeboats, and it’s much louder in the space. It’s much more like what you’d see in a standard cruise ship main dining room, while Hudsons feels like specialty dining in atmosphere. 

Again, service was lacking here. Our waitress barely engaged in conversation and started the meal by bringing four dinner rolls for the five of us. We had to request to see the wine list, and then when we tried to order a wine off the list, the staff seemed confused by our specific orders. Out of the three wines we chose, only two were correct. 

For dinner this evening, I started with the French Onion Soup, which was really disappointing. That soup is known for having copious amounts of caramelized cheese on top. Norwegian’s version uses a gruyere cheese crouton instead, so it feels more like onion soup with a crouton. It was very disappointing compared to the fantastic version Royal Caribbean offers.

Thankfully, my entree made up for it. I got the Hawaiian Pork Belly with Sweet Soy Drizzle. It was delicious. The presentation looked very high-end, and the pork belly was perfectly crispy while still tender. While I am not usually a yam fan, it worked perfectly with the soy drizzle.

Nothing leapt out at me for dessert. I found it odd that two of the three featured desserts that day had cheese in them (ricotta and cream cheese). I ended up going with the chocolate cake with no sugar added. I was pleasantly surprised by how good it was.

Ocean Music Fest in the Viva Theater

We ended the evening by going to “Ocean Music Fest” in the Viva Theater. Norwegian described the event as “the ultimate jam session” filled with “all your party favorites.” It wasn’t overly descriptive, but my guess was it was something like a variety show meets a music festival. 

Tip: On the Viva, on “Beetlejuice” and “Press Your Luck” require reservations. Everything else is first-come, first-served. 

This time, the Viva Theater setup was slightly different. The stadium seats didn’t extend all the way to the stage, leaving floor space between the seats and the stage. Rather than the pub-style tables they had during Icons, this floor was meant to be a “general admission” or dance floor setup. The problem is that no one wanted to be the center of attention on the dance floor; people clung to the sides. 

This show featured the musicians we’ve seen around the ship performing at the bars and lounges. It was nice to see them getting the big stage, as there was some good talent there, but the way the show was written didn’t highlight their voices or styles. When they perform their sets in the bars, they get to adhere to their styles. Here, Norwegian shoehorned them into arrangements and songs that didn’t really highlight their strengths. 

Also, the whole concept as a whole didn’t make sense. What do these songs have in common?

  • Fighter by Christina Aguilera
  • We Built This City by Starship
  • So What by Pink
  • Semi-charmed Life by Third Eye Blind
  • Watermelon Sugar by Harry Styles
  • Bad Romance by Lady Gaga
  • Rolling In the Deep by Adele
  • Levitating by Dua Lipa

Can’t figure it out? Neither can I. There wasn’t a story or even a theme I could make out. Also, it was just the different performers from the ship; there weren’t dancers or choreographers to enhance the performance like other production shows on cruise ships. 

The cruise director and her staff were in the general admission area, engaging with the crowd and trying to get them to dance. They were trying hard, probably harder than I ever saw cruise entertainment staff work, but people didn’t want to do that. The one exception was orange shirt guy. At one point, a very drunk older man in a bright orange t-shirt drunkenly stumbled to the general admission area and tried to talk to a female singer while she was performing her song. The cruise director noticed and expertly guided him to the side. He later returned, planting himself feet from the female singer and staring, swaying back and forth like a weeble wobble kid’s toy. Later on, another drunk man was dancing by himself in the middle of the floor, having the time of his life as the crowd watched. If anything, the people-watching was good for this show.

Our seats were on the side of the stage, the upper level, so we got a good look at the crowd. I felt bad for the performers; the first 10-15 rows were filled with people with arms crossed and stone faces. In the back, people were dancing and singing along, but I doubt the performers could see it. It was a shame because people enjoyed it, but the people who got there early got the closer seats to sit there and be unamused.

Norwegian should either describe the show better to weed out the people who won’t enjoy it or pull the seating all the way out and get rid of the standing room, as it doesn’t seem to work with these crowds. 

Overall though, the show kind of highlights a problem with Norwegian’s entertainment. Due to budget cuts, they’ve removed big production shows (at least the Viva had Beetlejuice) and replaced them with cheaper shows using in-house musicians, but the execution is flawed. Carnival does something similar, but they do it well. They take the bands and vocalists who perform in their big shows and have them also perform at the bars and lounges around the ship, but they make sure it suits them. The brass section plays big band music; the strings play acoustic string pop, etc. Instead, Norwegian takes these talented performers and shoehorns them into a show they made that doesn’t really fit them.

After Hours on the Viva

After the show, the Viva Theater transformed into a “Rock and Roll Party.” Like many of the Viva parties, it was sparsely attended. I’m unsure if it’s because it’s a Mediterranean cruise or the crowd on this specific sailing, but they really struggled to get parties going. It could be the schedule too; we had nine busy port days and one sea day, so people weren’t as likely to want to party into the night. Perhaps these are better attended when the Viva is doing Caribbean cruises out of Puerto Rico. The entertainment staff was doing everything they could to engage people, so it’s not something you can blame them for.

We ended up turning in to get ready for our next day in Mykonos, Greece.

Follow along on our Mediterranean Adventure

Norwegian Viva – Cruise Blog - Pre-cruise – Athens

Norwegian Viva – Cruise Blog - Day 1 – Athens

Norwegian Viva – Cruise Blog - Day 2 – Santorini

Norwegian Viva – Cruise Blog - Day 3 – Kusadasi

Norwegian Viva – Cruise Blog - Day 4 – Istanbul

Norwegian Viva – Cruise Blog - Day 5 – Mykonos

Norwegian Viva – Cruise Blog - Day 6 – Sea Day (coming soon)

Norwegian Viva – Cruise Blog - Day 7 – Messina (coming soon)

Norwegian Viva – Cruise Blog - Day 8 – Naples (coming soon)

Norwegian Viva – Cruise Blog - Day 9 – Florence (coming soon)

Norwegian Viva – Cruise Blog - Day 10 – Nice (coming soon)

Norwegian Viva – Cruise Blog - Day 11 – Rome (coming soon)

5 Hits and Misses on Norwegian Viva (coming soon)

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Randy Young

Randy Young is the founder and editor-in-chief at Cruise Spotlight. He has been in marketing for 19 years and has been cruising for just as long. Over the years, he's worked with products like TVs, copiers, light bulbs, and EV chargers, but cruising has always been his passion. There's nothing Randy likes more than the first couple of hours on a ship, exploring every nook and cranny and seeing how it's different from everything else out there. He's known for providing detailed and analytical coverage of cruising to help cruisers get a comprehensive picture of a ship's offerings.