Istanbul is one of the only transcontinental cities on the planet, spreading across Europe and Asia Minor. As Turkey’s largest city, Istanbul is a bustling hub of culture, history and gastronomy – a cosmopolitan capital in every sense. To see Istanbul’s top attractions, you must first make your way to the historical center, which merits a minimum of four-to-five days to properly explore.
Together, the Sultanahmet, Beyoğlu and Galata districts contain a variety of historical monuments, religious buildings, museums and beautiful views of the Bosphorus. Crossing the Golden Horn in both directions is easy thanks to the pedestrian and car-friendly Galata Bridge. While this vast city certainly extends farther than these districts, here is what you can accomplish on foot.
Ayia Sofya (Hagia Sophia)
Donning one of the largest domes in the world, the Ayia Sofia, or Hagia Sophia, is one of Turkey’s biggest tourist attractions. Although it has been a museum since 1935, the Ayia Sofia served as a house of worship for centuries. It was built as an Eastern Orthodox Basilica by Emperor Justinian in 535 AD., serving as a Christian church for over 900 years. After the the Ottoman invasion, the building was modified slightly and used as a mosque for another 481 years. This remarkable ancient structure was the largest church in the world for over a millennium! It is truly a sight to behold. Opening hours: Tues – Sun 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Built in 532 AD, this cavernous complex served as a water supply for the Great Palace and other significant buildings in Constantinople. It is the largest cistern in Istanbul and is in remarkably good condition thanks to restoration efforts. The cistern features 12 rows of 28 columns, two of which are supported by medusa head statues. The heads were likely repurposed from a town from the late Roman Period. Opening hours: Daily 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
Blue Mosque (Sultanahmet Mosque)
Located across from the Ayia Sofia, the Blue Mosque, or Sultanahmet Camii, was built in the early 17th century. Its name was derived from the handmade blue Iznik tiles used to decorate it (there are over 20,000 of them!) Inside this impressive building visitors will see detailed calligraphy, an ornate mihrab and over 200 stained glass windows. The Blue Mosque is closed to visitors during prayer times. Women must wear a head cover and everyone must remove their shoes before entering. Admission is free.
Listed as one of the “1,000 Places to See Before You Die,” is the beautiful and historic Cağaloğlu Hamamı. A Hammam, or “Turkish bath,” is a fantastic way to decompress and get restored. The Cağaloğlu Hamamı just happens to be over 300 years old! This opulent spa was designed for men and women to get scrubbed, steamed and massaged (separately, of course.) Services range from steam baths to full body massages. Staff is expertly trained and very professional. Feel free to wear a bathing suit or strip down to your birthday suit. Either way, you’ll leave renewed and relaxed and glad you had a 100% authentic Turkish bath. Opening hours: Daily 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.
With over 4,000 shops spanning an area of over 30,700 square meters, the covered Grand Bazaar of Istanbul is a must-see. You could literally spend hours here meandering the 60+ streets and thousands of stores. Construction of the bazaar began shortly after Sultan Mehmet II captured Constantinople in 1456. Nowadays, the Grand Bazaar is a bustling, exciting, colorful experience unlike your average shopping trip. Items for sale include fine jewelry, antiques, shoes, garments, leather, copper ware, silk, and rugs. You may want to get a guide if you’re planning on spending a lot of time here. Opening hours: Mon – Sat 8:30 a.m. to 7 p.m.
What is known today as Sultan Ahmed Square was once the Hippodrome of Constantinople. A Hippodrome, or circus, was a common feature in Greek in Roman cities – a place where horse and chariot races were held. The Hippodrome of Constantinople was capable of holding over 100,000 spectators. It had a U-shaped race track that could accommodate up to eight chariots at a time. For centuries, the Hippodrome served as the center of public life. During the Fourth Crusade (1202–1204), Constantinople was destroyed and sacked. Most of the magnificent statues and adornments were destroyed or removed from the Hippodrome. Today, few remnants of the once-mighty circus remain, but knowing what once existed beneath the present-day Sultan Ahmed Square is quite a feeling.
Near the Topkapı Palace is one of Europe’s most illustrious museums, exhibiting priceless works of art and ancient artifacts. Istanbul’s Archaeology Museum contains a large collection of Greek, Roman, Byzantine and Anatolian objects including coins, pottery, statues, religious items, maps, and more. Perhaps the most impressive thing on display is the Sarcophagus of Alexander the Great. Opening hours: Tues – Sun 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
The Topkapı Palace was originally constructed between 1460 and 1478 by Sultan Mehmed II, the conqueror of Constantinople. Topkapı Palace served as the home and governmental seat for the Ottoman sultans until the 1850s, after which the sultans relocated to the Dolmabahçe Palace further north on the Bosphorus. The palace is an architectural wonder with several stately rooms such as the Imperial Meeting Hall, Royal Hammams, Harem Apartments, Royal Library, and Sultan’s Apartment. However, the most alluring attraction at Topkapı Palace is the collection of priceless jewelry and jewel-studded objects amassed by the Ottoman sultans over the centuries. No pictures allowed, but the pieces on display from the Imperial Treasury are to-die-for! Keep an eye out for the Pièce de résistance, the 86-carat Spoonmaker’s Diamond. Opening hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., closed on Tuesdays.
This 14th century Genoese fortification stands over the Galata District like a sentinel. In fact, it looks over all of Istanbul, providing spectacular 360-degree panoramic views of this ancient city. From the top, you’ll see the Bosphorus, Golden Horn, and several of the city’s notable landmarks. First used as a lighthouse in the 6th century by the Byzantines, Galata Tower was rebuilt, modified, and renamed over the centuries until it took its final shape (and name.) For 10 TL, visitors can take an elevator to the top and take in the incredible vistas. Opening hours: Daily 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Istiklal Street, or “Independence Avenue,” is an elegant pedestrian street in the historic Beyoğlu District. At 1.4 kilometers, Istiklal is the perfect place to go shopping or grab a bite to eat. The street extends from the Tünel, the world’s second oldest subway station, to Taksim Square at the heart of the Taksim District. Istiklal Street is lined with beautiful Ottoman-era buildings and is often used for marches, parades and demonstrations. You can walk or take the Nostalgic Istiklal Caddesi Tram in either direction.
Located at the northern end of the Istiklal shopping street, Taksim Square is oftentimes thought of as the center of Istanbul. Unfortunately, Taksim Square has had a lot of bad press during the 2013 protest clashes with Turkish police, but it is important to note that the area has always been a center for social gatherings and public demonstrations. Popular with tourists and locals, Taksim Square is a bustling intersection, meeting point, and transportation hub. In the center of the square is the Monument of the Republic (1928) commemorating the formation of the Turkish Republic in 1923.
It is my hope that you devote a minimum of four days to explore the enchanting city of Istanbul. Its history, architecture and distinct neighborhoods make it a rich melting pot of European, Asian and Middle Eastern cultures. Walking is undoubtedly the best way to take in the sights and sounds of Istanbul, but if your feet grow tired, there are metro, tramway and funicular systems available. The people of Istanbul are friendly, forward-thinking, and welcoming, which is why it’s one of my favorite cities on the planet!
Other Places of Interest
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A special thanks to Go Turkey for their support.