Coveted by empires over the centuries, straddling Europe and Asia, Istanbul is one of the great metropolises of the world. Founded around 1000 BC, the colony of Byzantium became the great capital of the Byzantine Empire of Constantinople and after the Ottoman conquest of the city, retained its glorious place at the heart of their empire. The city (officially renamed Istanbul after the founding of the Turkish Republic) is dotted with glorious remains from its long and illustrious history, and sightseeing here will impress even the most weary visitor to the monuments.
In addition to the big four (Aya Sofya, Topkapi Palace, Blue Mosque and Grand Bazaar), allow enough time to explore the other sites. Although many tourist fascinations are located in or near the old city of Sultanahmet, there is a dazzling array of other things to do within the limits of the city. Plan your journey with our list of the main tourist fascinations in Istanbul.
1. Aya Sofya
It is said that when the Byzantine Emperor Justinian entered his completed church for the first time in 536 AD, he cried out “Glory be to God that I was judged worthy of such work. Oh Solomon, I have exceeded!. Tradition has maintained that the area surrounding the emperor’s throne within the church was the official center of the world.
Thanks to its conversion to a mosque, after Constantinople’s conquest of the Ottoman armies, to its subsequent conversion to a museum in the 20th century, the Aya Sofya has remained one of the most appreciated monuments of Istanbul.
2. Topkapi Palace (Topkapi Sarayi)
Built for the first time by Mehmet the Conqueror in the 15th century, this magnificent palace next to the Bosphorus was the place where the sultans of the Ottoman Empire ruled over their dominions until the 19th century. The vast complex is a dazzling display of Islamic art, with opulent courtyards lined with intricate hand-painted tiles, connecting a maze of sumptuously decorated rooms, all bounded by crenellated walls and towers. Among the many highlights here, the most popular are the Harem (where the sultan’s many concubines and children would spend their days); the second courtyard, where you can walk through the palace’s vast kitchens and admire the dazzling interior of the hall of the Imperial Council; and the third courtyard, which contained the private rooms of the sultan.
The third courtyard also presents an impressive collection of relics of the Prophet Muhammad in the sacred guard room and houses the Imperial Treasury, where you are greeted with a cache of glittering gold objects and precious stones that will give you water to the view. To fully see the Topkapi Palace, you will need at least half a day.
3. Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmet Camii)
The great architectural gift of Sultan Ahmet I to his capital was this beautiful mosque, commonly known today as the Blue Mosque. Built between 1609 and 1616, the mosque was all the rage in the Muslim world when it was finished, because it had six minarets (the same number as the Great Mosque in Mecca). A seventh minaret was finally offered to Mecca to stem dissent.
The mosque takes its nickname from its interior decoration of tens of thousands of Iznik tiles. The overall spatial and color effect of the interior makes the mosque one of the most beautiful achievements of Ottoman architecture. A great tourist joy from a trip to Istanbul is walking among the gardens sandwiched between the Blue Mosque and the Aya Sofya to discover their domes dueling in twin glory. Come at dusk for an additional atmosphere, as the call to prayer resounds from the minaret of the Blue Mosque.
Directly behind the Blue Mosque is the Arasta Bazaar; a great place for shopping as the craft shops sell high quality souvenirs here. Even if you are not interested in a route, go here to see the Grand Palace museum, which is nestled between the Arasta bazaar and the mosque. This small museum exhibits the 250 square meter fragment of mosaic pavement that was unearthed in the 1950s here. Excellent information boards explain the recovery of the mosaic floor and subsequent rescue.
4. Basilica Cistern (Yerebatan Sarniçi)
The Basilica Cistern is one of the most surprising tourist attractions in Istanbul. This huge underground palace-shaped room, supported by 336 columns in 12 rows, once housed the imperial water supply of the Byzantine emperors. The project was started by Constantine the Great but ended by the Emperor Justinian in the 6th century.
Many columns used in construction have been recycled from earlier classical structures and present decorative sculptures. The most famous of them are the bases of columns known as jellyfish stones in the northwest corner with their jellyfish head sculptures. A visit here is very atmospheric with the beautifully lit columns and the constant stream of fresh water all around you.
The old Hippodrome was started by Septime Sévère in 203 AD and completed by Constantine the Great in 330 AD. It was the middle of Byzantine public life and the scene of splendid games and chariot races, but also of battles between factions. Today, there is not much left of the racetrack to see, except for a small part of the gallery walls on the south side, but at At Meydani (park), which now stands on the site , is home to a variety of monuments.
On the northwest side is a fountain, obtainable to the Ottoman sultan by the German emperor William II in 1898. Then, in the southwest direction, there are three ancient monuments: an Egyptian obelisk 20 meters high (from Heliopolis ); the serpent column brought here from Delphi by Constantine; and a stone obelisk which was originally covered with bronze plating covered with gold until they were stolen by soldiers of the 4th Crusade in 1204.
6. Istanbul Archaeology Museum
Just a jump, jump and jump from Topkapi Palace, this important museum complex brings together a staggering array of artifacts from Turkey and the Middle East, which sweep across the vast history of this region. There are three separate sections in the complex, each worth a visit: the Museum of the Ancient Orient; the main museum of archeology; and the tiled pavilion of Mehmet the Conqueror, which holds an impressive collection of ceramic art. In addition to all the wonderful exhibits, don’t miss the interesting Istanbul through the Ages exhibition hall in the main archeology museum.
7. Grand Bazaar (Kapali Çarsi)
For many visitors, visiting Istanbul is as much a question of shopping as it is of museums and monumental attractions, and the Grand Bazaar is where everyone comes. This massive covered market is essentially the first shopping center in the world, occupying an entire district of the city, surrounded by thick walls, between the Nure Osmaniye mosque and the Beyazit mosque. The Beyazit mosque (built in 1498-1505) itself inhabits the site of the Forum of Theodosius I and has architecture enthused by the Aya Sofya.
The entrance to the bazaar is through one of the 11 doors from where a labyrinth of alleys with vaulted ceilings, lined with shops and stalls selling all the souvenirs and Turkish handicrafts you could imagine, covers the area. The different trades are still mostly separated into specific sections, which facilitates navigation. Near the Divanyolu Caddesi entrance to the bazaar is the burnt column. This stump (still 40 meters high) of a porphyry column was erected by Constantine the Great in his forum. Until 1105, he wore a bronze statue of Constantine.
8. Süleymaniye Mosque
Located at the top of a hill above the Sultanahmet district, the Süleymaniye Mosque is one of the most famous monuments of Istanbul. It was built for Süleyman the Magnificent by the famous Ottoman architect Sinan between 1549 and 75. The interior, dominated by its vertiginous dome of 53 meters high, is remarkable for its harmonious proportions and its unity of design. Outside, in the peaceful garden, there is an interesting Ottoman cemetery which also houses the türbes (tombs) of Sultan Süleyman and his wife Haseki Hürrem Sultan (known in the west as Roxelana).
9. Spice Bazaar (Misir Çarsisi)
The Spice Bazaar is the perfect place to get your gourmet dose of lokum (Turkish delight), dried fruit, nuts, herbs and, of course, spices. Much of the money that contributed to its construction comes from the taxes that the Ottoman government levied on products made in Egypt, which is why its name in Turkish (Misir Çarsisi) means “Egyptian market”. The spice bazaar is one of the most popular things to do, and at certain times of the day it is ridiculously crowded with huge groups of tourists from the moored cruise ships. Try to come before 11 a.m. or after 4 p.m.
Right next to the main entrance to the spice bazaar is the majestic Yeni Camii (new mosque), which was started in 1615 and finished in 1663 – it’s “new” to Istanbul. It is worth taking a look at the interior while you are visiting the area, as the interior is richly decorated with tiles and a liberal use of gold leaf.
10. Dolmabahçe Palace
The sumptuous and flowery Dolmabahçe Palace shows the clear influence of European decoration and architecture on the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century. Constructed by Sultan Abdülmecid in 1854, it swapped the Topkapi Palace as the main residence of the sultans. The French gardens are dotted with fountains, decorative basins and flowerbeds, while inside, the splendor and pomp of the Turkish Renaissance style are dazzling. The interiors mix Rococo, Baroque, Neoclassical and Ottoman elements, with chandeliers in mammoth crystal, a liberal use of gold, French-style furniture and dazzling frescoed ceilings.