Istanbul is one of the greatest metropolises in this world, juxtaposed between Europe and Asia. The colony of Byzantium became the great capital of the Byzantine Empire of Constantinople and it retained its glorious place at the heart of their empire after the Ottoman conquest of the city. The city was officially renamed Istanbul after the founding of the Turkish Republic. It is brimming with monumental remains of its long and prestigious history, and sightseeing here will impress even the most worn-out tourist.
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In addition to the best spots we have mentioned in our list below, allow enough time to explore the other sites. Although many charming spots are located in or near the old city of Sultanahmet, there is a splendid collection of other things to do within the city. Plan your journey with our list of the most captivating tourist locations in Istanbul:
Basilica Cistern (Yerebatan Sarniçi)
The Basilica Cistern is one of the most astounding tourist attractions in Istanbul. This massive underground palace-shaped room, supported by 336 columns in 12 rows, once accommodated the imperial water supply of the Byzantine emperors. The project was inaugurated by Constantine the Great but was shut down in the 6th Century by Emperor Justinian I.
Many pillars used in construction have been recycled from ancient structures and various ornamental 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 illuminated pillars and the constant stream of fresh water all around you.
Topkapi Palace (Topkapi Sarayi)
This magnificent palace was built for the first time by Mehmet the Conqueror in 1459. It is situated next to the Bosphorus; it served as the administrative center of the Ottoman Empire and was the main residence of its sultans until the 17th Century. The huge establishment has a brilliant display of Islamic art, and extravagant courtyards lined with intricate hand-painted tiles, connecting a maze of lavishly decorated rooms. 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 (P.B.U.H.) in the sacred guard room and holds the Imperial Treasury, where you are greeted with a reserve of glittering gold treasures and precious stones. To fully experience the Topkapi Palace, you will need at least half a day.
It is said that when the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I 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.
The old Hippodrome was initiated by Septime Sévère in 203 AD and completed by Constantine the Great in 330 AD. It was the middle of Byzantine public life and had 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 Meydani (park), which now stands on the site, is home to a variety of vestiges.
On the northwest side is a fountain, gifted 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 (from Heliopolis ) 20 meters high; the serpent column brought here from Delphi by Constantine; and a stone monolith which was originally covered in bronze plating (now covered in gold) until they were stolen by soldiers of the 4th Crusade in 1204.
The Süleymaniye Mosque is one of the most famous monuments of Istanbul, located at the top of a hill above the Sultanahmet district. It was built for Süleyman the Magnificent by the famous Ottoman architect Sinan between 1549 and 1575. The interior, dominated by its statuesque dome of 53 meters high, is remarkable for its resonant proportions and its unity of design.
In the peaceful garden, an interesting Ottoman cemetery also houses the türbes (tombs) of Sultan Süleyman and his wife Haseki Hürrem Sultan (known in the west as Roxelana).
The luxurious and flowery Dolmabahçe Palace shows the clear influence of European embellishments and architecture on the Ottoman Empire. Constructed by Sultan Abdülmecid in 1854, it replaced 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 gorgeous. The interiors mix Rococo, Baroque, Neoclassical and Ottoman elements, with chandeliers in mammoth crystal, liberal use of gold, French-style furniture, and dazzling frescoed ceilings.
Grand Bazaar (Kapali Çarsi)
For many tourists, visiting Istanbul is as much a question of shopping as it is of museums and monumental attractions, and the Grand Bazaar is where everyone must go. 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 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.
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.
Istanbul Archaeology Museum
Located near the Topkapi Palace, this significant museum brings together a staggering array of artifacts from Turkey and the Middle East, which sweep across the impressive history of this region. There are three separate sections in the establishment, 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.
Spice Bazaar (Misir Çarsisi)
The Spice Bazaar is the perfect place to get your 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 places among tourists, and at certain times of the day it is ridiculously crowded with huge groups of tourists from the moored cruise ships. We recommend coming 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.
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