Sevastopol: Crimea’s Shifting Seaport

Who knew that a summer vacation could turn into a such a valuable lesson in Eastern European politics, history, and geography for my boys? Our recent cruise to the Black Sea included stops in Greece, Turkey (covered in my recent post “Where East Meets West”), Russia (“Sochi: Sub-tropical Olympic City”), and Ukraine. Thanks to this unique family trip, my kids have a deeper understanding of the ever-changing current events unfolding in this part of the world. How fortunate to have experienced Crimea during peaceful times.

Our Regent ship’s itinerary included a stop in Sevastopol, the coastal, Black Sea city in the southwestern part of the Crimean Peninsula; its subtropical climate has made it a popular seaside resort destination. Crimea extends out into the Black Sea—it’s basically an island, except for the narrow strip of land that connects it to the Ukrainian mainland in the north; (it’s eastern shore is separated from mainland Russia by just a narrow strait of water.)  During its complex 2,000-year history, this territory has changed hands numerous times – Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Ottomans, and Russians have all called it their home. In 1991, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it became a Republic of the newly independent Ukraine, and home to the Russian Black Sea fleet. Since then, the city’s status has remained calm until recent events—Russia’s annexation.

Artillery Bay, Sevastopol, Crimea, Crimean Peninsula


On an already warm, cerulean-sky morning, we embarked on a walking tour of Sevastopol’s sun-drenched, bustling port area. It was surprising to see the Mediterranean-style architecture, palm tree-lined boulevards, and colorful sailboats floating through the harbor area. The city’s seaside promenade was filled with souvenir shops and terrace-fronted restaurants with menus written in Cyrillic script—not surprising since the majority of the population is Russian. Rich with thousands of years of history, our local guide pointed out that Sevastopol is a living museum—1,800 monuments dot the city.

Monument to Scuttled ships, Sevastopol, Crimean, Crimean Peninsula

The “Monument to Scuttled Ships”–Russian ships, flooded to form a line of defense from the Allies during the 1854 Siege of Sevastopol

The next stop was Chersonesus, the archeological remains of the ancient Greek colony dating from the 5th century BC, nicknamed the “Ukrainian Pompeii” or the “Russian Troy.” Wandering amongst Greek theatres, Roman temples and columns, we watched the locals as they took advantage of the seaside location, diving into the dark blue waters from the narrow strip of beach that abutted the ruins.

Chersonesus, Sevastopol, Crimea, Crimean Peninsula

In Greek, Chersonesus means “peninsula,” an appropriate name for this ancient seaside colony

Nearby is the recently restored Byzantine-style St. Vladimir Cathedral, built in the 19th Century; it’s the cradle of Russian Orthodox Christianity. Covering our arms and legs in respect before entering, we studied the dramatic marble-clad interior punctuated by bold frescoes, mosaic tile-inlaid floors, and vibrant stained glass windows, committing it all to memory since interior photography was forbidden. Outside, we took a break from the sun’s heat, pooling our Ukrainian hryvnia to buy soda bottles and freshly baked pampushki (garlicky rolls) from a nearby vendor.

St. Vladimir Cathedral, Sevastopol, Crimea, Crimean Peninsula

St. Vladimir Cathedral commemorates the baptism of Prince Vladimir the Great of Kiev

A must-see is the Panorama Museum, which memoralizes the defense of the city during the 1853-1856 Crimean War. Opened in 1905 on the 50th Anniversary of the defense of Sevastopol, the cylindrical building houses the impressive 377-foot long, 46-foot high circular canvas of the famous battle as depicted by artist Franz Roubaud. An 80-step climb to the top of the display reveals the massive work of art, an impressively accurate portrayal, which is best viewed by walking around the elevated observation platform in the center of the hall.

Outside the museum, the boys stopped in the parking lot to admire a vendor’s display of Soviet-era memorabilia artfully arranged on the hood and roof of his beat up, Trabant. As they picked out brass military pins and wool caps, the gentleman patiently explained the unit each item hailed from—Air Force, Army, Navy—with some vintage Aeroflot wings and KGB insignias thrown into the mix.

Trabant, Sevastopol, Crimea, Crimean Peninsula

A “vintage” Trabant–a popular Eastern European car–makes an appropriate backdrop for a display of Soviet-era memorabilia

Now, at home as we turn on CNN, read the Times, and watch as another chapter of Crimean history is written, we feel very fortunate to have visited the Crimean Peninsula and learn about its multi-faceted heritage and culture. We only hope that recent events are settled peacefully, not only for the residents, but also for those who have not yet had the opportunity to experience and appreciate first hand its rich and unique history.

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Istanbul: Where East Meets West

Before our first visit to Istanbul, it was hard to imagine how this historic Silk Road city straddles two continents – Europe and Asia. Its dividing line is the 17-mile long Bosphorus Strait, the narrow channel of water that connects the Black Sea to the north, with the Sea of Marmara to the south.

Although no longer the capital, Istanbul is Turkey’s largest and most memorable city. Ancient religious places of worship and palaces mix with modern European-style buildings and hotels. This blending of old and new makes this ancient city unique – it’s no wonder it has been used as the dramatic setting of many Hollywood films.

With only a few days at the conclusion of our Regent Cruise, we confined most of our sightseeing to central Istanbul, which can be divided into four distinct areas: Seraglio Point (home to Topkapi Palace), Sultanahmet (dominated by Haghia Sophia and the Blue Mosque), the Bazaar Quarter, and the trendy Beyoglu district. It is easy to walk or take a taxi between locations, but try to have your destination written down and ready to hand to the taxi driver to avoid any confusion.

Galata Tower, Istanbul, Turkey

Medieval Galata Tower in the Beyoglu District stands tall just north of the Golden Horn

Topkapi Palace, originally built as a residence for Sultan Mehmet, and then serving as a seat of government is now a museum. Allow several hours to explore its many courtyards, apartments, and pavilions. A must see is the Treasury room with its vast array of jewel-encrusted artifacts including the Topkapi dagger. Rent the award-winning 1964 film, “Topkapi” to see the Hollywood version.

Across from the palace is the Blue Mosque, which takes its name from the 20,000 blue-green Iznik tile-work interior. No expense was spared in designing one of the most famous religious buildings in the world. The dome and six minarets of this 17th century masterpiece can be seen for miles.

Bosphorus, Istanbul, Turkey, Blue Mosque

As we sailed up the Bosphorus, we caught our first glimpse of the Blue Mosque

Not far from the mosque is the Haghia Sophia. This Byzantium Church is over 1,400 years old but is well preserved thanks to recent renovations. In the 15th century, the Ottomans converted this architectural wonder into a mosque. In 1936 it became a museum, and now many of the intricate mosaics and frescoes have been restored to their original grandeur. And, for a bit of trivia, in the movie “Argo,” you can watch actor Ben Affleck have a clandestine meeting in the Haghia Sophia.

Istanbul also dazzles from below. The Basilica Cisterns or “Sunken Palace” is a massive underground water cavern of beautiful arches and Roman columns, originally the Byzantine city’s main water storage during times of siege. Now this cathedral-size interior presents a mystical aura, with its dramatic lighting and fish filled pools—an appropriate location in the classic James Bond film “From Russia with Love.”

The Turkish people, known worldwide for their hospitality, are extremely welcoming especially to children. No shop could be entered without accepting generous offers of apple tea and biscuits, which my boys happily obliged. One of our favorite stores, Iznik Classics, offers the hand-made, color-rich tiles and ceramics Turkey is famous for.

Iznik tiles, Istanbul, Turkey

We loved the Iznik tiles so much, we brought some home

After a day or two of touring, a shopping trip to a bazaar provides a welcome change of pace. The Grand Bazaar with its labyrinth of streets is filled with over 4,000 booth-like shops. It is impossible to walk even a few steps without being summoned to sample all the exotic wares contained inside: intricate gold jewelry, embroidered silk scarves, antique copperware, and Turkish rugs.

We spent hours wandering, bargaining, and getting lost. My son reminded me that actor Daniel Craig furiously drove a motorcycle across the roof of the Bazaar in “Skyfall,” the most recent James Bond flick. The Spice Market, although smaller, is worthy of close inspection. Known by its Turkish name, the Egyptian Market, it is filled with fragrant spices from the Orient and endless displays of dried herbs, tea, honey, nuts, and caviar. We filled several satchels with all sorts of delicacies to enjoy upon our return to the states.

Next to the Spice Market is one of our favorite restaurants Hamdi. Perched several flights up it offers majestic views of the Galata Bridge, the Bosphorus, and the Golden Horn, the inlet that forms Istanbul’s natural harbor. After a long morning of walking, my kids dove into plates of meze (appetizers), lamb kebab, humus with pide bread (similar to pita), numerous cups of traditional Turkish tea, and ample plates of sweet baklava for dessert.

Hamdi Restaurant, Istanbul, Turkey

The dramatic view from Hamdi

Baklava, Hamdi Restaurant, Istanbul, Turkey

Delicious Baklava — rich, sweet pastry filled with layers of filo, nuts and honey

At the end of the day, we went back to our hotel, the Four Seasons—perfectly perched on the shores of the Bosphorus. Originally a 19th-century Ottoman palace, it was transformed into an elegant property that perfectly blends traditional and modern decor. The boys cooled off in the marble-rimmed pool and heated up in the hot tub. We spent our evenings on the terrace at Aqua, the hotel’s romantic Mediterranean restaurant, feasting on plates of homemade spaghetti and langoustines. The Bosphorus Bridge provided us with our own movie-set backdrop as we watched the ferries make their way under this architectural wonder, beautifully illuminated by an impressive LED rainbow light show.

Four Seasons Bosphorus, Istanbul, Turkey

The Four Seasons Bosphorus offers views across the water to the Asian side of Istanbul

At home, we often reminisce about Istanbul’s exotic sights, tastes and smells. And, when we make our Turkish tea and sip it from our glass, tulip-shaped Spice Market teacups, we think often of returning to this distinctive city that connects the continents.

Four Seasons Bosphorus, Istanbul, Turkey

The Four Season Bosphorus pool — the perfect place to end a day of touring

Interested in visiting Istanbul by ship? Check out Regent Cruise Lines  — their small, luxury ships specialize in unique ports and top notch service.

Herricks Travel American ExpressReady to plan a unique trip for you or your family? Contact me at For more information on my trip planning services, please click here.

EMAIL SUBSCRIBERS: to view my previous posts, and my ENTIRE blog, please click here: . To become a SUBSCRIBER of unique family traveler, please enter your email address in the box on the upper right hand side of the blog (or scroll ALL the way to the bottom), and then make sure to respond to the follow-up email (check spam). Thank you!