The Black Sea arguably ranks among the world’s most unique bodies of water. This inland sea, which consists of layers of both fresh and salt water, touches the shores of six different countries (Bulgaria, Georgia, Romania, Russia, Turkey, and Ukraine).
There is much to see during a Black Sea cruise, from history to natural wonders, food to gold, and art to ancient archaeology. Here’s a look at some of the more extraordinary places travelers can explore while circumnavigating the Black Sea.
1. Istanbul’s Sultanahmet (Old City)
The oldest area of Istanbul, the Sultanahmet (or Old City) is where most of the city’s ancient Byzantine and Ottoman sites are located. Here are a few of the many Old City Istanbul attractions you won’t want to miss:
2. Hagia Sophia
This historic basilica was built in 537AD. It has also served as a mosque and is now a museum. Inside, visitors will marvel at the enormous dome, as well as impressive Byzantine mosaics and the extraordinary 30 million gold tesserae (tiny mosaic tiles).
As renowned Turkey expert Tom Brosnahan notes, “Hagia Sophia is an experience in space and time, and the architects' magic still works after more than fourteen centuries.”
3. Sultanahmet Mosque
Also known as the Blue Mosque due to the thousands of blue tiles that decorate the interior, Sultanahmet Mosque ranks right alongside the Hagia Sofia among the most recognizable structures in Istanbul’s city skyline.
Be aware that this imperial Ottoman mosque is still used daily by worshippers. So visitors will need to be aware of the times it is closed for the scheduled prayer sessions, and be respectful of the conservative dress code.
With six minarets and domes that swell toward the sky, the exterior is just as beautiful as the interior, which features gorgeous hanging chandeliers and an incredible array of dazzling colors.
4. Topkapi Palace
Located alongside the Bosporus River, Topkapi Palace was home to the Ottoman emperors for hundreds of years. It features four courts (each of which is extravagantly decorated), including the harem and the state and imperial treasuries.
At Topkapi, you’ll marvel at nature and history alike, (our trip is in late June, the tulips are there from April until early May. Roses are flowering in the summer) with a display of the Prophet Mohammed’s belongings and the annual tulip bloom. Tulip bulbs were once sent to the Netherlands as a gift, changing history: The tulip is Turkey’s national flower.
In the fourth court, head outside to see some of the best scenic views of Old Town Istanbul.
5. The Basilica Cistern
Located underground, the damp, watery cistern features hundreds of beautiful Byzantine marble columns. Historically, the Cistern provided water for Topkapi Palace. Of particular interest are the Medusa statues and all the fish you’ll find swimming around!
6. Istanbul’s Bazaars
Istanbul is known for its two main markets, the Grand Bazaar, and the Spice Bazaar. Both are located in historic buildings and offer very different shopping experiences.
The Spice Bazaar is an olfactory and visual treat. This is an excellent place to stock up on souvenirs (both for yourself and friends/family) to take back home.
The Grand Bazaar is known as the world’s oldest shopping mall. With over 4,000 shops, this labyrinthian market has something for everybody– tourists and locals alike.
Other Noteworthy Towns in Turkey
The city of Bartin (whose historic name is Parthenia) is located six miles inland from the Port of Bartin Harbor.
The best things to see in Bartin include Kemer Bridge Square, which features an enormous statue of two hands holding the country of Turkey; the Kemal Samancıoğlu Ethnography Museum, which features local ethnographic treasures; and the natural beauty of Ulukaya Kanyonu, an unspoiled national park that features a waterfall tumbling down into a canyon.
If you have an opportunity to check out (or, better yet, participate in) the Bartin Double Farm style of folk dancing, take it! These lively folk songs from the 18th and 19th centuries are typically accompanied by oud, violin, tambourine, clarinet, flute, cümbüş, and darbuka
This historic Turkish town is best known for growing saffron and being a stop along the historic Silk Road trade route. It’s also packed with Ottoman architecture, which earned it UNESCO World Heritage Site status. Explore the marketplace, mosques, and hammam to get a true flavor of the area and its rich history. Also, take the time to dine at a caravanserai– a traditional roadside inn that once served trade caravans.
Samsun is located between two river deltas that lead to the Black Sea. This city is where Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey, began the Turkish War of Independence in 1919.
Samsun is packed with millennia of history, from a mention in the Iliad to being home to countless ancient civilizations. A substantial portion of this history can be seen in the city's four main museums.
Start at the Bandirma Vapuru Muzesi, which features a replica of the ship Atatürk took to Samsun to start the War of Independence. Then head to the city history museum, Samsun Kent Muzesi, and the Gazi Museum, which shares the details of Atatürk's life and is located in the mansion Atatürk once stayed in. Lastly, visit the Samsum Arkeologi Etnografya Muzesi, which has a fascinating array of Turkish archaeological treasures.
Amaysa is the capital of the Amaysa Province and the birthplace of several Ottoman sultans. The local history here goes back over 7,500 years!
Over the course of centuries, the city was ruled by the Pontic, Persian, Roman, Hellenistic, Byzantine, and Ottoman empires. Of course, with all this history, there is a lot to see!
It’s a great place to explore mosques, museums (especially the ethnographic museum), traditional Turkish architecture, and archaeological sites. The views of the tombs of the Kings of Pontus, which are carved into limestone cliffs, are especially memorable.
Another town located on the Silk Road, Trabzon was historically a trade center that was home to people from numerous cultures.
Famed explorer Marco Polo ended his overland journey in Trabzon, while Suleiman the Magnificent (who is widely considered one of the greatest rulers in history) was born here in 1494.
Trabzon also has its own Hagia Sophia (with renowned frescoes), a castle, an excellent bazaar, the Trabzon Museum, mansions, mosques, and gardens.
Disembarking from your Black Sea cruise ship and heading inland to Sumela, you’ll find the Greek Orthodox Sümela Monastery built into a steep cliff
Founded in 386 AD, the monastery is located within Altındere National Park. Inside the monastery complex, visitors can see a large aqueduct, interior courtyard, library, Rock Church, and gorgeous frescoes, which are currently in the process of being restored.
This Black Sea resort and port is the capital of the Republic of Adjara, a region of Georgia. Evidence of a wide variety of historical influences (including Greek, Roman, Ottoman, and Imperial Russian) can be seen in the Adjara State Museum, as well as throughout the city.
The Batumi Botanical Garden, founded in 1912, has an extensive subtropical plant collection among its nine flora sections, which span 266 acres. There’s also a mosque, dancing water fountains, an incredibly beautiful statue of Medea atop a column, and the country's oldest park, which includes a zoo.
14. Gonio Fortress
An old Roman fort referenced by Pliny the Elder's Natural History, Gonio Fortress is the burial site of Matthew, one of Jesus’ twelve apostles. It’s also connected to the Pan-Hellenic myth of the Argonauts. It was the site where King Aeëtes, who owned the Golden Fleece, buried his son Absyrtus, who was murdered by Jason and Medea (the king’s daughter).
Located just south of Batumi, Gonio Fortress is an easy place to visit. It’s the oldest fortress in Georgia and features mostly Roman-style architecture. Archaeologists have uncovered the ruins of a bathhouse, water supply system, Hippodrome, and Roman theatre, as well as coins, amphorae, and more. The site is now a historical museum.
Sochi is often referred to as the Russian Riviera. Summers there are delightful, with visitors enjoying pebble and sand beaches and a subtropical climate.
The Sochi Arboretum features a global selection of tropical trees; the Mayors Alleé is lined with palm trees planted by mayors from around the world.
Buildings not to miss in Sochi include the Michael Archangel Cathedral, the Archangel column, the neoclassical Sochi Art Museum, the Hall of Organ and Chamber Music, the Winter and Summer theaters, the Marine Station, the Sochi State Circus, and Stalin’s dacha.
16. Sochi’s Olympic Park
Built for the 2014 Winter Olympics, Sochi Olympic Park boasts a variety of buildings that should be familiar to international sports fans.
Today Sochi Park has been turned into an amusement park and the first theme park in all of Russia. The park features roller coasters, a majestic fortress, a magical teacup ride, and five themed lands based on Russia's traditional folklore and fairy tales.
With a variety of historical and maritime influences, Odessa is a multicultural, architectural, and intellectual haven. The city was founded by decree from Russia's Catherine the Great, although people had already lived there for millennia by then.
Mark Twain famously mentioned Odessa in his book, Innocents Abroad:
I mention this statue and this stairway because they have their story. Richelieu founded Odessa – watched over it with paternal care – labored with a fertile brain and a wise understanding for its best interests – spent his fortune freely to the same end – endowed it with a sound prosperity, and one which will yet make it one of the great cities of the Old World.
The legendary nobleman and military leader Potemkin–a favorite of Catherine the Great–is immortalized with the Potemkin Steps, the city's most recognizable symbol. Other places to explore include the Odessa Opera House (the second largest in the world, after Milan's La Scala) and the Gagarin Palace. The latter is now the Odessa Literary Museum, with an outdoor sculpture garden focusing on literary characters.
18. The Danube River Delta
Did you know that the Danube is Europe's second longest river, and crosses nine countries? The largest part of the Danube River Delta, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is in Romania. The Danube Delta is an extraordinary wetland habitat that is home to over 200 bird species, including the gray heron, great white pelican, great crested grebe, and pygmy cormorant.
Tulcea, which is located on the Danube River Delta and the Black Sea, was founded in the 7th century BC. Like Rome, Tulcea has seven hills.
Important stops in town include the Danube Canal Museum and Danube Ecologic Museum, where you can learn more about the delta's waterways (and great influence).
This ancient Greek city was also founded in the 7th century BC, and is the oldest urban settlement in Romania. The 33rd Olympic Games were held here in 657-656 BC.
Over time, the city was covered by alluvial deposits from the Danube. Archaeological excavations have uncovered many layers of civilization, including archaic Greek layers (630-500 BC), classical Greek layers (500-350 BC), Hellenistic layers (350-20 BC), and early and late Roman layers (20 BC-250 AD).
Of course, a visit to the museum and ruins of Histria will delight history lovers, but bird lovers will also marvel at the species seen in this biodiverse wetland area.
Constanta, historically known as Tomis, was founded in 600 BC and is the oldest continuously inhabited (and warmest!) city in Romania. The poet Ovid spent the last years of his life here, and a statue of him can be seen in Ovid Square. Don't miss the Roman Mosaic Edifice, which was originally a three-level building dating from the 4th century.
Today, you can see around 9,150 square feet of the original mosaic floor. The Museum of Natural History and Archaeology is housed in the old City Hall and features almost half a million items documenting Romania's historical and archaeological heritage.
Of special interest here are the Glykon Snake (the only depiction of the Romanian deity, Glykon); the Hamangia Thinker and Sitting Woman (both 7,000year-old statues that appear quite modern); and the statue of Fortuna with Pontos (the patron deities of the city).
The ancient city of Varna is the largest seaside resort in Bulgaria and also a major seaport. Once known as Odessos, this city is mostly known for gold. In fact, the oldest gold treasure in the world belongs to Varna.
Discovered during an archaeological dig in 1972, the Varna Eneolithic Necropolis (which features almost 300 tombs) is one of the most important prehistory sites in the world. Ancient gold treasure dating from 4,600 to 4,200 BC was discovered inside the Necropolis. Visitors can see some of it in the Varna Museum of Archaeology, which is located in a building that once housed a girls' high school. Three of the graves held about 75% of the necropolis' gold, indicating a complex social stratification.
Other sites of interest in Varna include the extensive ruins of 2nd-century Roman baths; the Seaside Garden, which is the oldest public park (and largest landscaped park) in the Balkans; and the Balchik Palace and Botanical Gardens, which was the summer residence of Romanian Queen Maria (1875-1938).
You can also explore the Aladzha Monastery, a cave complex located on a cliff, which housed Orthodox Christian hermit monks in the medieval ages; and the Retro Museum, which showcases cars, motorcycles, typewriters, and other artifacts from Bulgaria’s Communist era.
Bio: Jessie Voigts has a Ph.D. in International Education, has lived and worked in Japan and London, and traveled all around the world. She’s published eight books about travel and intercultural learning (including guides to Cambodia and Vietnam), with more on the way. Jessie is constantly looking for ways to increase intercultural understanding and is passionate about sharing the world through her website, Wandering Educators.