Istanbul is a major city in Turkey that straddles Europe and Asia across the Bosphorus Strait. Its Old City reflects cultural influences of the many empires that once ruled here. 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.
Best Time to Visit
Spring and autumn, from April to May and from September to mid November respectively, are the ideal times to visit Istanbul and the inland regions when temperatures are pleasant and the skies are clear.
Top Places to Visit in Istanbul
- Aya Sofya
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.
2. Blue Mosque
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.
The ancient Hippodrome was begun by Septimius Severus in AD 203 and completed by Constantine the Great in AD 330. This was the center of Byzantine public life and the scene of splendid games and chariot races but also factional conflicts. Today, there isn’t much of the Hippodrome left to see, except for a small section of the gallery walls on the southern side, but the At Meydanı (park) that now stands on the site is home to a variety of monuments. On the northwest side is a fountain, presented to the Ottoman sultan by the German Emperor William II in 1898. Then, heading southwest are three ancient monuments: a 20-meter high Egyptian obelisk (from Heliopolis); the Serpent Column brought here from Delphi by Constantine; and a stone obelisk that originally was clad in gold-covered bronze plating until they were stolen by the soldiers of the 4th Crusade in 1204
4. Grand Bazaar
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.
5. Süleymaniye Mosque
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).
6. Dolmabahçe Palace
The sumptuous and ornate Dolmabahçe Palace shows the clear influence of European decoration and architecture on the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century. Built by Sultan Abdülmecid I in 1854, it replaced Topkapı Palace as the main residence of the sultans. The formal gardens are punctuated with fountains, ornamental basins, and blooming flower beds, while inside the sheer splendor and pomp of the Turkish Renaissance style is dazzling. The interiors mix Rococo, Baroque, Neoclassical and Ottoman elements, with mammoth crystal chandeliers, liberal use of gold, French-style furniture, and dazzling frescoed ceilings.
7. Chora Church
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.
8. Yedikule Fortress
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.
9. Basilica Cistern
The Basilica Cistern is one of Istanbul’s most surprising tourist attractions. This huge, palace-like underground hall, supported by 336 columns in 12 rows, once stored the imperial water supply for the Byzantine emperors. The project was begun by Constantine the Great but finished by Emperor Justinian in the 6th century. Many of the columns used in construction were recycled from earlier classical structures and feature decorative carvings. The most famous of these are the column bases known as the Medusa stones in the northwest corner with their Medusa head carvings. A visit here is very atmospheric with the columns beautifully lit and the soft, steady trickle of water all around you.
10. Istanbul Archaeology Museum
Just a hop, skip, and jump away from Topkapı Palace, this important museum complex brings together a staggering array of artifacts from Turkey and throughout the Middle East, which sweeps through the vast breadth of history of this region. There are three separate sections in the complex, each of which are worthy of a visit: the Museum of the Ancient Orient; the main Archaeology Museum; and the Tiled Pavilion of Mehmet the Conqueror, which holds a staggering collection of ceramic art. As well as all the wonderful artifacts on display, don’t miss the interesting Istanbul Through the Ages exhibit room in the main Archaeology Museum.