In a previous life, before I became a writer, I still travelled the world. China, Korea, Hong Kong, Turkey, Italy, France and other places I can barely remember. I was in the cut-throat business of women’s fashion; I’d turn up with a buying team, stick to a schedule like glue and leave with the results I’d meticulously planned to achieve.
Destinations Unlocked:Let our travel expert Stefano help you find your perfect Culture trip
Looking for an expert's perspective?Uncover my top 3 recommended places from each continent on the map.
1. GuatemalaAn express adventure for those with limited time off. Prepare yourself incredible experiences. You will hike a volcano, visit mayan temples and witness a ceremony and take in beautiful colonial Antigua.
2. BelizeA quick trip not too far away for those seeking a relaxing mini break. You will have plenty of free time to relax but also some awesome activities to experience the rainforest and the caribbean sea.
3. MexicoAn exciting mini trip exploring the lesser known colonial towns of central Mexico. This is hte perfect trip for someone with limited time off and still wants to turn on explorer mode and do something different.
1. EcuadorA remarkable 8 days adventure through the Andes and the Amazon rainforest. The best choice for adventure seekers wishing to visit the 2 most iconic areas of South America, in only 1 week and no flights.
2. PeruAn alternative itinerary to classic Peru, from Cusco to Arequipa. This itinerary is great combination of highlights Cusco and Machu Picchu with the lesser known Arequipa and Colca Canyon.
1. ItalyThe ultimate Italian experience from the vibrant streets of Naples to the breathtaking sceneries of the Amalfi Coast followed by Matera and down to Puglia with its golden beaches, intense flavours and fascinating destinations.
2. ScotlandEmbark on this great adventure starting from London all the way to Scotland with a true Scottish experience made of breathtaking sceneries, whisky tasting and ..lots of fun! Ideal for train lovers and explorers.
3. PortugalA wonderful train journey around Portugal, from the romantic city of Porto to the Douro Valley, to the beautiful Aveiro all the way to Lisbon and Sintra. The perfect trip to train, culinary and culture lovers.
1. South KoreaDiscover incredible temples, mountains and modern cities on this 10 day adventure. This trip is perfect for those seeking immersion in the cuisine, culture and natural wonders of South Korea.
2. ThailandFrom Bankgok to Angkor Wat to Ho Chi Minh City and everything in between - adventure through the heart of South-East Asia. Taste the delights, see history brought to life and unwind on a Mekong River cruise.
3. Sri LankaA fantastic adventure that showcases Sri Lanka's fantastic landscapes, wildlife and flavours. With 3 epic rail journeys, 3 UNESCO heritage sites and time to relax, this trip has loads to offer at a great price
1. MoroccoAn epic journey across Morocco: from Casablanca to Marrakech, through the blue city of Chefchaouen to the wonders of the desert and deep to the High Atlas Mountains - this trip has it all! Ideal for true explorers!
2. EgyptFrom Cairo to Aswan, this trip brings the land of the pharaohs to life. You'll visit the Pyramids, Valley of the Kings and Luxor Temple and cruise down the Nile in style. This is the perfect way to explore Egypt.
Explore spice markets, haggle in the Grand Bazaar and peek inside the Blue Mosque with Culture Trip’s International Istanbul trip
On one such trip to Istanbul I was invited to a Michelin-esque restaurant on the European side of the city. “The best seafood,” I was told. When I arrived, I noticed that the tables were perfectly laid, the terrace looked out to the Bosphorus and the waiters had movie star good looks. As I hot-footed it through the restaurant in my high heels, the sound of cutlery clinking echoed around me in symphony, and the murmur of excited human chatter sounded like birdsong. My host waved at me from a table at the edge of the water. As I sat down, I felt an overwhelming emotion I didn’t understand. I buried it quickly to drive forward what was still a working dinner. Long after I left Istanbul I carried that feeling around with me, always trading it in for getting the job done. I’d have intrusive flashbacks of it at random moments. It would take me several more years to understand that the feeling I had buried, was my calling to a different life.
Almost seven years to the date since my epiphany, an invitation to visit Shangri-La Bosphorus arrived in my inbox. I was to travel from Heathrow on Turkish Airlines, and spend a long weekend exploring Istanbul. I decided that the time was right for my return to the city.
I arrived at Shangri-La Bosphorus after sunset. It was hard to imagine that this breathtakingly beautiful hotel, which now wows visitors from around the globe, was a humble tobacco warehouse in the 1930s. It sits on the edge of the Bosphorus facing the Asian coastline. After a quick change and a dinner of beautifully crafted sushi at the hotel’s IST TOO terrace cafe, I could all but run upstairs to dote on the view from my room. I watched, mesmerised, as the lights twinkled, ferries pulled in and crowds dispersed in waves, over and over again, like the sea returning, time after time, to touch the beach. I could hardly believe that I was finally here to see Istanbul.
I wanted to do all the things I’d not had a chance to do before, starting with a breakfast cruise. At 7am, the following morning, a magnificent yacht pulled in to the Art Deco terminal opposite the hotel and carried us along the strait, past the Bosphorus Bridge, mosques and private houses. “The red houses used to belong to government officials,” said the host. “What about that building over there with the big roof,” I asked. “Oh, that’s the elephant house,” came the answer. It turns out that India and Iran gifted elephants to the Ottoman Sultans. The animals were kept here, away from the palaces. The building is still called the elephant house. You have to travel slower to notice the little things.
I then dropped in on the big hitters – Hagia Sophia Grand Mosque and the Şerefiye Cistern. The queue for Hagia Sophia stretched for at least half a mile. Ten seconds inside and I understood why. It was built as a cathedral in 537 and converted to a mosque in 1453. Today, the awestruck faithful from all sides meet here, phones at the ready, recording every detail. Another hotspot, the Blue Mosque, was closed for renovation work. I was sad to miss it.
A short walk away is the Grand Bazaar, where there are throngs of tourists at every shop, walkway and crossing. Locals hurriedly weave in and out amongst them, buying bread, groceries and spices. For someone who dislikes crowds, I felt puzzlingly at ease amongst this sparkling energy. It is said that half an hour is the longest anyone should stay here. I could have spent most of my day pottering around the stalls, looking, smelling, tasting and savouring beautiful things. Having whizzed through the Grand Bazaar on previous occasions, I could barely remember any of this. Guided walking tours offer a chance to leave the glorious chaos below and climb up to the roof of the bazaar. I followed my guide through a narrow alleyway and up precarious steps, brushing aside ruby carpets and silky fabrics that got in the way. The rooftop has a surprising stillness. A sea of neatly stacked terracotta tiles and glimmering minarets stare right back at you.
To celebrate my last day in the city I headed to a private hammam at Shangri-La’s CHI The Spa, where I was bathed, scrubbed, lathered in bubbles, oiled and massaged to serenity. Dinner was at Shangri-La’s magnificent Shang Palace. All of it affirmed what I had always quietly known – that this is an unequivocally beautiful place.
So, what exactly is so alluring about a city with so much traffic that it’s regularly gridlocked, where 16 million people, at last count in 2021, bump into each other on the pavements and every café is packed with tourists even on a November morning? Well, great civilizations collided here; Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman. Each powerful empire left an indelible stamp on Istanbul. You can see and feel it everywhere, in the buildings, the tastes, the colours and the sounds they left behind. The bridges, tunnels and ferries that connect two continents, came long after. They certainly impress, but it’s the larger-than-life history that triumphs in the end. It is what creates perfection out of the chaos and lingers on long after you leave the city. Is it any wonder that Istanbul is where I heard my true calling?
Travel from the bazaars of Istanbul to the beautiful beaches of Antalya with Culture Trip’s Majestic Turkey itinerary
Volcanic Iceland Epic Trip
meet our Local Insider
HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN A GUIDE?
WHAT DO YOU LOVE ABOUT YOUR JOB?
It's the personal contact, the personal experiences. I love meeting people from all over the world... I really like getting to know everyone and feeling like I'm traveling with a group of friends.
WHAT DESTINATION IS ON YOUR TRAVEL BUCKET-LIST?
I have so many places on my list, but I would really lobe to go to Africa. I consider myself an “adventure girl” and Africa feels like the ULTIMATE adventure!
Every CULTURE TRIP Small-group adventure is led by a Local Insider just like Hanna.
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Since you are here, we would like to share our vision for the future of travel - and the direction Culture Trip is moving in.
Culture Trip launched in 2011 with a simple yet passionate mission: to inspire people to go beyond their boundaries and experience what makes a place, its people and its culture special and meaningful — and this is still in our DNA today. We are proud that, for more than a decade, millions like you have trusted our award-winning recommendations by people who deeply understand what makes certain places and communities so special.
Increasingly we believe the world needs more meaningful, real-life connections between curious travellers keen to explore the world in a more responsible way. That is why we have intensively curated a collection of premium small-group trips as an invitation to meet and connect with new, like-minded people for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in three categories: Culture Trips, Rail Trips and Private Trips. Our Trips are suitable for both solo travelers, couples and friends who want to explore the world together.
Culture Trips are deeply immersive 5 to 16 days itineraries, that combine authentic local experiences, exciting activities and 4-5* accommodation to look forward to at the end of each day. Our Rail Trips are our most planet-friendly itineraries that invite you to take the scenic route, relax whilst getting under the skin of a destination. Our Private Trips are fully tailored itineraries, curated by our Travel Experts specifically for you, your friends or your family.
We know that many of you worry about the environmental impact of travel and are looking for ways of expanding horizons in ways that do minimal harm - and may even bring benefits. We are committed to go as far as possible in curating our trips with care for the planet. That is why all of our trips are flightless in destination, fully carbon offset - and we have ambitious plans to be net zero in the very near future.