Istanbul: 10 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions
Coveted by empires across the centuries, straddling both Europe and Asia, Istanbul is one of the world’s great metropolises. Founded around 1000 BC, the colony of Byzantium grew into the Byzantine Empire’s great capital of Constantinople and after the Ottoman conquest of the city, retained its glorious place as the heart of their empire.
The city (officially renamed Istanbul after the founding of the Turkish Republic) is liberally scattered with glorious remnants of its long and illustrious history, and the sightseeing here will impress even the most monument-weary visitor.
As well as the big four (Aya Sofya, Topkapı Palace, Blue Mosque, and Grand Bazaar), leave enough time to explore the other sights. Although many tourist attractions are located in, or near, the old city district of Sultanahmet, there is a dazzling array of other things to do throughout the further reaches of the city.
It’s said that when the Byzantine Emperor Justinian entered his finished church for the first time in AD 536, he cried out “Glory to God that I have been judged worthy of such a work. Oh Solomon, I have outdone you!” The Aya Sofya (formerly the Hagia Sophia) was the emperor’s swaggering statement to the world of the wealth and technical ability of his empire. Tradition maintained that the area surrounding the emperor’s throne within the church was the official center of the world.
Through its conversion to a mosque, after the Ottoman armies conquered Constantinople, to its further conversion into a museum in the 20th century, the Aya Sofya has remained one of Istanbul’s most cherished landmarks.
Location: Aya Sofya Medanı, Sultanahmet
Topkapı Palace ( Topkapı Sarayı )
First built by Mehmet the Conqueror in the 15th century, the sultans of the Ottoman Empire ruled over their dominions from this glorious palace beside the Bosphorus up until the 19th century. The vast complex is a dazzling display of Islamic art, with opulent courtyards lined with intricate hand-painted tile-work, linking a warren of sumptuously decorated rooms, all bounded by battlemented walls and towers.
Of the many highlights here, the most popular are the Harem (where the sultan’s many concubines and children would spend their days); the Second Court, where you can walk through the vast Palace Kitchens and stand in awe at the dazzling interior of the Imperial Council Chamber; and the Third Court, which contained the sultan’s private rooms.
The Third Court also displays an impressive collection of relics of the Prophet Muhammad in the Sacred Safekeeping Room and is home to the Imperial Treasury, where you’re greeted with a cache of glittering gold objects and precious gems that will make your eyes water. To fully see Topkapı Palace you’ll need at least half a day.
Location: Babıhümayun Caddesi, Gülhane Park
Blue Mosque ( Sultan Ahmet Camii )
Sultan Ahmet I’s grand architectural gift to his capital was this beautiful mosque, commonly known as the Blue Mosque today. Built between 1609 and 1616, the mosque caused a furore throughout the Muslim world when it was finished as it had six minarets (the same number as the Great Mosque of Mecca). A seventh minaret was eventually gifted to Mecca to stem the dissent.
The mosque gets its nickname from its interior decoration of tens of thousands of İznik tiles. The entire spatial and color effect of the interior make the mosque one of the finest achievements of Ottoman architecture. A great sightseeing joy of a trip to Istanbul is wandering amid the gardens sandwiched between the Blue Mosque and the Aya Sofya to experience their dueling domes in twin glory. Come at dusk as the call to prayer echoes out from the Blue Mosque’s minaret for extra ambience.
Directly behind the Blue Mosque is the Arasta Bazaar; a great place for a shopping stop as the handicraft shops here sell high-quality souvenirs. Even if you’re not interested in a browse, head here to see the Great Palace Mosaic Museum, which is tucked between the Arasta Bazaar and the mosque.
This small museum displays the 250-square-meter fragment of mosaic pavement that was unearthed in the 1950s here. Excellent information panels explain the mosaic floor’s recovery and subsequent rescue.
Location: At meydanı, Sultanahmet
Grand Bazaar ( Kapalı Çarşı )
For many visitors, sightseeing in Istanbul is as much about shopping as museums and monumental attractions, and the Grand Bazaar is where everyone comes. This massive covered market is basically the world’s first shopping mall; taking up a whole city quarter, surrounded by thick walls, between the Nure Osmanıye Mosque and Beyazıt Mosque. The Beyazıt Mosque (built in 1498-1505) itself occupies the site of Theodosius I’s Forum and has architecture inspired by the Aya Sofya.
Entrance to the bazaar is through one of 11 gates from where a maze of vaulted-ceiling laneways, lined by shops and stalls selling every Turkish souvenir and handicraft you could imagine, cover the area. The various trades are still mostly segregated into particular sections, which makes browsing easier. Near the bazaar’s Divanyolu Caddesi entrance is the Burned Column. This stump (still 40 meters high) of a porphyry column was set up by Constantine the Great in his forum. Until 1105 it bore a bronze statue of Constantine.
Location: Beyazıt Meydanı, Beyazıt
Sitting high on the hill above Sultanahmet district, the Süleymaniye Mosque is one of the most recognised landmarks of Istanbul. It was built for Süleyman the Magnificent by the famed Ottoman architect Sinan between 1549 and 75. The interior, dominated by its soaring 53-meter-high dome is notable for its harmonious proportions and unity of design. Outside in the tranquil garden area is an interesting Ottoman cemetery that is also home to the türbes (tombs) of the Sultan Süleyman and his wife Haseki Hürrem Sultan (known in the west as Roxelana).
Location: Süleymaniye Caddesi, Beyazıt
Spice Bazaar ( Mısır Çarşısı )
The Spice Bazaar is the place to get your foodie fix of lokum (Turkish delight), dried fruit, nuts, herbs, and of course spice. Much of the money that helped construct it came from the taxes the Ottoman government levied on Egyptian-made products, which is why its name in Turkish (Mısır Çarşısı) means “Egyptian Market”. The Spice Bazaar is a prime tourist attraction and at certain times of the day gets ridiculously crowded with huge tour groups from the docked cruise ships. Try to come before 11am or after 4pm.
Just next door to the Spice Bazaar’s main entrance is the stately Yeni Camii (New Mosque), which was begun in 1615 and finished in 1663 – that’s “new” for Istanbul. It is worthwhile taking a peek inside while you’re sightseeing in the area as the interior is richly decorated with tile-work and liberal use of gold leaf.
Location: Yenicamii Meydanı, Eminönü
Chora Church ( Kariye Müzesi )
Chora means “country” in Greek, and this beautiful Church (originally called the Church of St. Saviour of Chora) lay just outside old Constantinople’s city walls. The first Chora Church was probably built here in the 5th century, but what you see now is the building’s 6th reconstruction as it was destroyed completely in the 9th century and went through several facelifts from the 11th to 14th centuries. The church (now a museum) is rightly world-famous for its fabulously vibrant 14th-century mosaics, preserved almost intact in the two narthexes and fragmentarily in the nave, and the frescoes along the walls and domes. These incredible examples of Byzantine artistry cover a wide range of themes from the genealogy of Christ to the New Testament stories.
Location: Kariye Camii Sokak, Edirnekapı
Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts ( Türk ve Islam Eserleri Müzesi )
Housed in the palace of İbrahim Paşa who was Grand Vizier for Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent, this museum is a must-see attraction for anyone interested in Ottoman and Islamic art. The carpet collection on display here is vast and is heralded by textile experts as the world’s best. This is a prime place to come have a peek at the dazzling array of styles of Turkish carpets (along with carpets from the Caucasus and Iran) across the centuries before setting out on a shopping mission to purchase your own floor piece. There are also exquisite ceramics, calligraphy, and wood carving exhibits ranging in date from the 9th century AD to the 19th century.
Location: At Meydanı Caddesi, Sultanahmet
Yedikule Fortress ( Yedikule Hısarı )
Although it’s a bit of a schlep on the suburban train to get out to Yedikule, this commanding fortress is well worth it. Built in the 5th century by the Emperor Theodosius II, the fortress made up the southern section of Constantinople’s defensive walls. The mammoth arch (blocked up in the late Byzantine period) was known as Porta Aurea (Golden Gate), with doors plated in gold. When the Ottomans conquered the city they used the fortress for defense, and later as a prison and execution place. Yedikule has been restored in recent years, and you can climb up to the top of the battlements for superb views across the Sea of Marmara.
Location: Yedikule Sokak, Yedikule
Istanbul’s Asian shore is easily reached by ferry from Eminönü dock across the Bosphorus. On an islet just off the Asiatic shore stands the 30-meter-high Kiz Kulesi, (Maiden’s Tower). Üsküdar was traditionally known as Scutari and has some handsome old mosques, winding lanes, and weathered brown timber houses (particularly between the ferry dock and the large cemetery).
The town, known in antiquity as Chrysopolis, was one of the earliest Greek settlements on the Bosporus. It was much more exposed to attack by foreign conquerors than Constantinople, with its defensive situation and strong walls, but it was able to draw economic advantage from its exposed situation – until 1800 it was the terminus of the caravan routes that brought the treasures of the East to Constantinople and onwards to Europe. Of particular sightseeing interest here is the Mihrimah Sultan Mosque, built by Süleyman the Magnificent in 1547 for his daughter Mihrimah, and the Yeni Valide Mosque, built in the 18th century by Sultan Ahmet III.
Location: Easiest access is by ferry from Eminönü dock