Istanbul is a city like no other, with an incredible rich history that dates back to the 6th millennium BC. Once the largest city in the world during the Ottoman Empire rule, it had an envious strategic and economic position that linked the trade routes between Europe and Asia. Istanbul is the fifth largest city in the world and is currently home to around 14 million people. Istanbul was previously known as Constantinople, named after it’s conquerer, Constantine the Great. Constantinople served as the new Eastern Capital of the Roman Empire. This city has many cultural influences (evidenced on many monuments) over the centuries due to being conquered by the Greeks, the Romans and finally the Ottoman Turks. Constantinople was renamed Istanbul during the Ottoman Empire rule and from the 14th century onwards moved away from christianity converting to the religion of Islam. Today Istanbul is socially a very modern and progressive city where many cultures exist side by side. There is so much to see and do in Istanbul and narrowing it down to a few may be challenging, especially if you are a history buff. Here are the top 15 places to see in Istanbul.
1. The Blue Mosque
The Blue Mosque or the Sultanahmet Mosque was built in 1616 and remains an active mosque adhering to the 5 prayer sessions per day. It’s interior is lined with over 20,000 handmade blue tiles – giving rise to it’s name the blue mosque. If you are a tourist, the best time to visit the mosque, is mid morning and mid afternoon to avoid the prayer closure times.
2. Istiklal Street
Istanbul’s most famous street is Istiklal Street or Avenue as it’s known and is a pedestrian only thoroughfare. The popular Istiklal Street is visited by thousands of tourists each day and even more so during the summer months. The street is lined with 19th century buildings, filled with shops, theatres, galleries, restaurants and bars. Getting from one end of the street to the other can be made via the iconic historic street trams, which are a favourite subject of photographers.
3. The Egyptian Spice Market
The Egyptian spice market or Spice Bazaar was once the centre of the worlds spice trade and currently operates with around 85 spice vendors amongst a host of other grocery shops and kitchen wares. The hustle and bustle of this market is predominantly locals going about their daily shopping and socialising. The market is relaxed, friendly and something not to be missed, as it’s an insight into the Turkish culture.
4. The Grand Bazaar
The Grand Bazaar is the world’s oldest and largest market with over 3000 vendors selling their wares in the covered structure. Here you will find virtually anything – carpets (of course), textiles, clothing, jewellery, lamps, the list is endless. The Bazaar receives a staggering 100,000 visitors daily.
5. The Topkapi Palace
The Topkapi Palace was where the Sultans of the former Ottoman Empire once lived for around 600 years. The palace shows the culture of the era, with magnificent architecture, soaring ceilings, exquisite ancient art exhibits and beautiful mosaics. There is lot’s to see, so be prepared to spend around half a day here and don’t miss seeing the harem, it’s a highlight of a visit to this palace.
6. Sail the Bosphorus
The Bosphorus strait is some 32km long and joins with the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea. It also separates the the two continents by way of the Europe side and the Asian side. Taking a boat ride down the Bosphorus will give you a view of many historic buildings, along with a great view of looking back towards the city and particularly so at night.
7. Take a Food Tour
It would be a crime to leave Istanbul without taking a food tour. Delight your senses and taste buds with a food tour that gives an insight into the culture, traditions and history of Turkey. Try some authentic Ottoman cuisine, indulge in some Turkish delight or try your hand at a cooking class. If you are interested in a great food tour, then check out my experience with Turkish Flavours here which is one of the top food tours in Istanbul.
8. Gulhane Park
If you are looking for a tranquil escape from the busy city, then the Gulhane Park serves as an welcoming oasis. Set below the Topkapi palace, the park has well manicured and artistic gardens, a pond and walking paths. A great place to take a stroll, rest or a picnic in the park.
9. Hagia Sophia Museum/Mosque
Hagia Sophia’s modest exterior hides a former byzantine church that was converted to a mosque after being conquered by the Ottoman empire. Beautiful mosaics line the walls and the intricacy of detail is outstanding. It’s no longer a place of worship but serves as a museum.
10. Rustem Pasha mosque
Hidden within the spice bazaar is this little gem. Most tourists don’t even know this mosque exists. If you want to visit a beautiful mosque without the crowds then this is the place. Decorated in beautiful blue tile work from the byzantine era and offers a free quran for each visitor wanting to know more about Islam.
11. Galata Tower
This medieval stone tower was built in 1348 as a replacement for the original Galata Tower that was located at sea level. The original tower was destroyed during the fall of Constantinople. The Tower is now a tourist attraction offering panoramic views of the Bosphorus from the upper levels. There is also a cafe, restaurant and nightclub situated at the top.
12. Sultanahmet Square
The heart of old Istanbul and the site of the ancient hippodrome. This site once sported a chariot racing track and game venue during the Byzantine Empire. There are still four relics remaining that hints at it’s former glory. You may need to use your imagination for this site, the U shaped track was once lined with bronze statues of horses and chariot drivers. The statue of the four horses were looted by the Venetians during the battle of 1204 and transported to Venice, where they can be seen at St Mark’s Basilica.
13. Walls of Constantinople (walls of Istanbul)
The elaborate 5th century Walls of Constantinople were built by Constantine the Great and served as a protector of the city from an attack by either sea or land. The walls remained mostly intact until the city began to outgrow the walls and parts were dismantled to allow for this growth. The sea walls have all but gone but there are parts of Istanbul where they can be viewed, particularly near the Chora Church and coming from the airport passing through Yedikule towards the old town. Restoration of the walls began in the 1980s and continue to be ongoing.
14. Dolmabahce Palace
The Dolmabahce Palace is the largest palace in Turkey with 285 rooms, 46 halls and the grounds are set over 11 acres. Originally commissioned in 1856 by the 31st Sultan who wanted to reside in a more modern and luxurious palace (as of those in Europe) than that of the medieval Topkapi Palace. The palace reflects the ever increasing European influence, as the Ottoman empire was on it’s decline. It served a further 6 Sultans before it became the presidential summer home of Ataturk and in fact he spent his last days at this Palace. The clocks of the palace were each stopped at 9.05 which was the precise time Ataturk died in his bed in 1938. It has only been of recent times that the clocks have been restarted, although the clock in Ataturk’s bedroom remains stopped at 9.05. The Palace has the world’s largest Bohemian Crystal chandelier gifted by Queen Victoria.
15. Basilica Cistern
Escape the hustle and bustle of the city above with this incredible underground cistern. Unexpectedly large, with dim lighting to set the mood, the sounds and water make for a unique experience. This engineering feat was built over 1500 years ago with ornate columns and the famous Medusa head.