Istanbul is a city that carries its cultures and its history well and connects them to an exciting city that has much to offer travellers from all over the world. Istanbul was founded in the Neolithic Age and is today a modern city that remains true to its historical heritage with its mosques, basilicas, cathedrals and ancient bazaars. Turkey’s largest city, located between East and West, offers an aura of intrigue and charm that will appeal to all visitors.
An overview of the most important sights in Istanbul:
It is said that when the Byzantine Emperor Justinian entered his finished church for the first time in 536 A.D., he exclaimed: “Glory be to God that I have been found worthy. Oh Solomon, I have surpassed you!” The Aya Sofya (formerly Hagia Sophia) was the Emperor’s dizzying statement to the world about the wealth and technical abilities of his empire. The tradition claimed that the area around the imperial throne within the Church was the official center of the world.
By converting it into a mosque, after the conquest of Constantinople by the Ottoman armies and further conversion into a museum in the 20th century, Aya Sofya has remained one of Istanbul’s most coveted landmarks.
Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmet Camii)
The great architectural gift of Sultan Ahmet I to his capital was this beautiful mosque, today commonly known as the Blue Mosque. Built between 1609 and 1616, the mosque, with six minarets (the same number as the Great Mosque of Mecca), caused a sensation throughout the Muslim world. A seventh minaret was finally donated to Mecca to stop the dissent. The mosque gets its nickname from its interior decoration of tens of thousands of İznik tiles. The overall spatial and colorful effect of the interior makes the mosque one of the most beautiful achievements of Ottoman architecture. One of the great sightseeing delights of a trip to Istanbul is wandering amidst the gardens between the Blue Mosque and Aya Sofya to experience their duel domes in double splendour. Come at dusk when the call to prayer sounds from the minaret of the Blue Mosque to create an extra ambience.
Topkapı Palace (Topkapı Sarayı)
The sultans of the Ottoman Empire, who were built by Mehmet the Conqueror in the 15th century, ruled over this magnificent palace on the Bosporus until the 19th century. The vast complex is a dazzling representation of Islamic art, with opulent courtyards lined with intricate hand-painted tilework and connecting a building of lavishly decorated rooms, all bordered by crenellated 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 Courtyard, where you can stroll through the huge palace kitchens and marvel at the dazzling interior of the Imperial Council Chamber, and the Third Courtyard, where the Sultan’s private rooms were located. The Third Courtyard also houses an impressive collection of relics of the Prophet Mohammed in the Sacred Storage Room and the Imperial Treasury, where you will be greeted with a stockpile of glittering gold objects and precious stones that will make your eyes water. To see Topkapı Palace in full, you need at least half a day.
Istanbul is not only fascinating above ground, but also underground with the Basilica Cistern (Yerebatan). This beautiful piece of Byzantine technology is a spectacular underground cistern, which once brought drinking water with aqueducts from present-day Bulgaria to Istanbul. With its dimmed light and classical music in the background the sound of dripping water, some find it romantic, while others experience it as a bit spooky.
Walk through the footbridges and see how the fish swim between the 336 columns supporting the ceiling. Walk all the way to the end to see the Medusa head, placed upside down as the base of one of the columns.
Large Bazaar (Kapali Carsi)
The Grand Bazaar is an exotic labyrinth that enchants you and draws you deeper into the winding passages at every step. From the stalls with mountains of earthy spices in red, ochre and orange, shops with crystal walls that make the whole niche shine like a diamond, or rolls of lively and luxurious fabrics, everything about this bazaar is a sensory feast. The bustle of this local bazaar is exemplary of life in Istanbul, and promises countless delicacies around every corner. The sweets are fresh, the music is loud! A chance to visit the Kapali Carsi is somehow a chance to see Istanbul in its most real yet most magical way.
The Maiden’s Tower is a picturesque tower off the coast of Istanbul with a fascinating legend around its origins. Guests can take a short ferry trip to the site and climb the stairs to learn the legend, not only the legend, but also the beautiful murals on the walls that lead to the observation balcony. The tower also provides information about the history of the coast and the tower. This is a must-see curiosity on the coast!
Istanbul Archaeology Museums
Walk to Istanbul’s three-in-one equivalent of the British Museum via the grounds of Topkapi Palace or via Gulhane Park. If time is pressing, head straight to the large porch building with Alexander’s glorious sarcophagus, which vividly depicts 3D scenes from Alexander the Great’s life. Children will love the Trojan horse model in the children’s section. Then jump into the beautiful Tiled Pavilion, one of the city’s oldest Ottoman buildings, beautifully restored to show off its finest ceramics. Finally, catch a glimpse of a 1269 B.C. peace treaty preserved in the part of the museum closest to the gate.
Watery Istanbul is a city that wants to be viewed from above, and from the balcony on the Galatatoren in Beyoğlu, the modern part of ancient Istanbul that was home to the city’s foreigners in pre-Republican times, you can see everything at a glance. The tower, built in 1348, was once part of a suburb of the Genoese that stretched as far as the Bosphorus. In a footnote to aviation history, Hezârfen Ahmed Çelebi flew from this tower in 1638 over the Bosphorus from Europe to Asia, heralding its first intercontinental flight ever.
Istanbul is a huge city with a long history and numerous important sights. Taking a tour is the best way to make sure you hit the highlights, learn about what you see, and avoid the hassle and time it takes to try and do it yourself.