Centuries of Byzantine and Ottoman history provide Istanbul with dreamy mosques, grand churches, fairytale palaces, bustling souks and an exotic atmosphere. Check these Istanbul sights off your bucket list.
Istanbul Famous Landmarks
1- Grand Bazaar
Of all the places to visit in Istanbul, the Grand Bazaar is a shopaholic’s mecca.
The labyrinth of vaulted covered alleys is virtually a city within a city of mosques, banks, cafes, restaurants and over 4,000 shops.
The oldest part of the bazaar was built by Sultan Mehmet II after he conquered Constantinople in 1444.
Wander through the maze and you’ll find leather jackets, jewelry, and carpets, along with memorabilia such as fine glass lamps, replica Ottoman weapons, mother-of-pearl mirrors, and water pipes.
Your biggest problem is what to buy and how to take it all home.
2- Spice Bazaar
Nuts, dates and dried fruits, buckets of colorful powdered spices, mysterious herbal love potions, Turkish Viagra and fragrant oils are some of the things you can fill your shopping cart with at the Spice Bazaar in Istanbul.
The bazaar is one of the most interesting places to visit in Istanbul and was once the last stop along the legendary Silk Road. It was built in 1663 to generate money for the adjacent Yeni Mosque.
It is often referred to as the Egyptian Bazaar because spices were once imported from Egypt.
3- Topkapi Palace
One of the most intriguing historical places to visit in Istanbul is Topkapi Palace.
The marbled halls and mosaic courtyards of Topkapi Palace reflect legends of sultans, slaves, eunuchs and court treasures.
Among the more colorful sultans were Selim de Sot, who drowned in his bath after drinking too much champagne, and Ibrahim de Gek, who lost his mind after being locked up in the palace kafés (cage) for four years.
Built in 1453 by Mehmet II, Topkapi Palace was the home of the sultans until the 19th century.
The treasury of the palace displays riches from Ottoman conquests.
Wander through the treasuries to admire Suleyman the Magnificent’s bejeweled sword, the Topkapi Dagger (with three huge emeralds on the hilt), and the Kasikci (Spoonmaker’s) Diamond (a massive teardrop-shaped 86-carat rock surrounded by smaller stones).
4- Blue Mosque
The Mosque of Sultan Ahmet (better known as the Blue Mosque), with its dreamy curves, controversial six minarets, and blue-and-white tiles, is one of Istanbul’s most notable landmarks.
Sultan Ahmet I was criticized for his assumption that he would build a mosque with the same number of minarets as the mosque in the Kaaba of Mecca.
The wily sultan overcame the opposition by paying for a seventh minaret in the Mecca mosque.
The Blue Mosque is a working mosque where prayers are held five times a day.
For the best external view of the mosque, visit the nearby Hippodrome first.
Built by the Romans around AD 200 as a site for chariot races, the Hippodrome was the center of life in Byzantine Constantinople for over 1,000 years.
It is now a public square dominated by an Egyptian obelisk built in Egypt in 1500 BC. And one of the sights in Istanbul that every traveler should put on their bucket list.
5- Hagia Sophia
Aya Sofia is one of the most amazing sights of Istanbul and an icon that was the largest cathedral in the world for almost 1000 years before it was converted into a mosque and then a museum.
Completed in 537 by Emperor Justinian I (527-565), the Aya Sofya (known as Haghia Sofia in Greek, Sancta Sophia in Latin, or Church of Divine Wisdom) was one of Christendom’s largest places of worship.
In 1453, Mehmet II turned it into a mosque; in 1935 Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (founder of the Turkish Republic) declared it a museum.
Inside Aya Sofya there are beautiful mosaics, massive doors, stone ramps and an awe-inspiring dome.
For more amazing European monuments, read:
6- Basilica Cistern
Basilica Cistern is the largest of several hundred water reservoirs that lie beneath the city.
The cistern was built during the days of the Byzantine Empire by Justinian I and was the water cistern for the palace.
The 336 columns and cathedral ceilings are a sight to behold. It’s an astonishing feat of engineering, especially considering the lack of modern machinery available at the time this grand edifice was built.
The two columns in the northwest corner are supported by large carved Medusa heads.
7- Istanbul Modern
The Istanbul Modern museum displays works by prominent and emerging Turkish artists.
The photo exhibition on the ground floor is particularly fascinating and shows recently commissioned works of the Galata Bridge.
The museum’s permanent exhibition “Modern Experiences” highlights the development of painting from the 19th century to the 1940s during the days of the Ottoman Empire and the Turkish Republic.
8- Turkish Hammams
The hammam (or traditional Turkish bath) evolved from the Roman tradition of public bathing as a place to cleanse both body and soul.
Throughout history, men gathered to talk about politics and sports, while women used it as a venue to find suitable wives for their sons.
Mahmut I built the Cagaloglu Hamami to finance the construction of his library near the Aya Sofia.
Another historic Hammam is Cemberlitas Hamami.
9- Bosphorus crossing
Catch the ferry across continents from the Eminonu terminal on the European side to the Kadikoy district on the Asian side.
Crossing the Bosphorus at dusk gives you fairytale views of many of the city’s top landmarks, including Suleymaniye Mosque, Galata Tower, Aya Sofya, and the majestic walls of the Topkapi and Dolmabahçe Palaces.
10- Tesvikiye District
The Nisantisi and Tesvikiye districts are an enclave for Istanbul’s best fashion stores.
Istanbul’s best-known young fashion designer is Gonul Paksoy (Atiye Sokak 6A, Tesvikiye), whose boutique has a range of unique handmade velvet slippers, silk overcoats, embroidered purses and tribal-style jewelry.
Istanbul is a fascinating city to explore and most of the people who work in the popular tourist spots speak English. But if you’re planning a trip to Turkey, it’s helpful to know a few phrases in the local language. Here are some helpful Turkish phrases to help you find your way.