The largest city in Turkey is a popular travel destination for families and couples looking to discover and experience the old and new, all in one place. Istanbul is the only city in the world that straddles the 2 continents of Europe and Asia, divided by the Bosphorus. More than that, it is one of the few places in the world where more than 2,500 years of history still lives within its mosques, museums and narrow streets. In the shadow of old Istanbul, you can also find the vibrancy of modern life in thoroughfares, shopping centers, restaurants and clubs.
Istanbul's major attraction is derived from antiquity, as the capital of the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman Empires. Their legacy are opulent Byzantine cathedrals, Christian relics, Ottoman buildings, ancient fortress walls and remnants of Greek and Roman palaces that dot the city. While there are many attractions to fill a week's itinerary, there are 16 must-see places that form the foundations of the city. If its your first time to Istanbul, don't leave without taking in these wondrous sights.
The scene of chariot races and games filled the ancient Hippodrome through more than 1,000 years of Ottoman history. Once the heart of Constantinople's political and sporting life, the Hippodrome is today's city park called 'At Meydani'. Although the park largely follows the dimensions and course of the old race track, all that remains of the original structure are 4 monuments including the German Fountain of Wilhelm II, the Obelisk of Thedosius, the bronze Serpentine Column and the Column of Constantine.
Emperor Theodosius brought the 3,500 year old Egyptian granite Obelisk from the Amun Re temple at Karnak in Egypt to Constantinople in 390 AD. This pink granite Obelisk is the the oldest monument in Istanbul. A spiral column is all that remains of a golden basin that Constantine the Great brought from the temple of Apollo. The Kaiser gifted a stone gazebo with mosaic-tiled dome in 1901, also referred to as Kaiser Wilhelm's Fountain. You can see where the original ground level of the Hippodrome once stood at the base of the Walled Obelisk, a 10th century obelisk that was once covered with bronze plaques.
It is one of the oldest standing churches in Istanbul dating back to the 6th century, with a large central dome supported by an octagonal base. Originally the Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus, it was founded in the golden age of the Roman Empire by Emperor Justinianos. The church was renamed Little Hagia Sophia Mosque for its resemblance to the much larger Hagia Sophia built a few years later. This oldest surviving Byzantine monument in Istanbul has been used as a mosque since 1497.
This ancient basilica is one of the architectural marvels of all time. It is one of the world's few man-made structures that was both a church and mosque in its past life. Built by Constantine the Great in the 4th century and reconstructed by Justinian in the 6th century, this UNESCO-listed museum now showcases artifacts from the Ottoman and Byzantine era.
You will be mesmerized by the gold-tiled mosaics depicting stories of saints, saviors, emperors and empresses. It is not surprising that many historians nominated Hagia Sophia as the 8th wonder of the world. It is closed on Mondays.
Located across from Hagia Sophia is the 17th century Sultanahmet Imperial Mosque. It was built to rival the grandeur of the Hagia Sophia at the bequest of Sultan Ahmet I. One of the finest examples of classical Ottoman architecture, the mosque features 6 minarets and 260 windows illuminating a vast main interior decorated with 20,000 blue Iznik tiles. Hence the name, 'Blue Mosque'. It is an active mosque therefore Muslims visit during the 5 daily prayers with the first call to prayer at sunrise and the last one at nightfall. During these times, the mosque is closed to non-worshipers for 90 minutes. It is also closed on Fridays.
This is the mother of all markets in Istanbul and one of the world's largest covered markets. In this labyrinth of 60 domed alleys and passages, parts of which date back to Byzantine days, are some 5,000 shops with each trade having its own area such as the goldsmiths' street, the carpet sellers, leather goods, pottery, jewellery and various Turkish arts and crafts.
This shopping hotspot attracts between 250,000 and 400,000 visitors daily. You may have to budget an additional day to complete all the shopping in the Bazaar. It is closed on Sunday.
The crown jewel of the Ottoman sultans from the 15th to 19th centuries is a extensive complex of monumental gates, towers, pavilions, gardens and spectacular vistas of the Golden Horn. The largest and oldest palace in the world is now one of the city's premier museum. It houses an exquisite collection of gold, silver, jewellery, porcelain and robes worn by the sultans and their harems. A highlight is the 85-karat Spoonmaker's Diamond. It is closed on Tuesday.
Basilica Cistern / Photo by Josep Llauradó of Wikimedia Commons
Featured in the James Bond movie 'From Russia with Love', Basilica Cistern is the largest of several hundred ancient cisterns lying beneath the city and open to public. Istanbul's 'sunken palace' was built in the 6th century during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I. The highlights are the forest of hundreds of marble columns and the 2 Medusa heads.
Preserved fruits and Turkish Delight shop in Spice Bazaar, Istanbul, Turkey / Photo by Takeaway of Wikimedia Commons
The air in the Spice Market is filled with the aroma of dried fruits, nuts, teas, oils and sweets from the aisles of stallholders. Add to that the myriad color and scent of every conceivable spice such as saffron, cinnamon, caraway, mint and thyme. This 17th century market is also known as the Egyptian Market as the spices used to originate from India and Southeast Asia via Egypt. Wander around to enjoy the smells, sights and sip an apple tea.
Byzantine-era Land Walls run for 6.5 kilometres from Yedikule on the Marmara Sea to Ayvansaray on the Golden Horn. These former fortifications are steeped in history dating back to early 5th century during the reign of Byzantine emperor Theodosius II. They protected Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire. The first breach of the walls was by the 4th Crusade in 1204 and the second was by cannons and troops of Mehmet the Conqueror in 1453. Today, modern Turkish life continues in the shadows of the Walls.
Taksim Square on the European side is the heart of modern Istanbul. What was previously the point of convergence for water lines established by Sultan Mahmud I now draws people day and night to shops, restaurants, hotels and the adjacent main pedestrian thoroughfare of Istiklal Street.
You will find the Monument of the Republic in the center of the square build in 1928. It commemorates the 5th anniversary of the founding of the Republic of Turkey. The monument also bears witness to many public celebrations, parades and even demonstrations over the years.
Running some 3 kilometers, this is the city's main and most well known pedestrian thoroughfare. Istiklal Street receives as many as 3 million visitors each day. Previously known as Grand Avenue during the Ottoman Period, the street running from the Galata Tower to Taksim Square still retains many of the late Ottoman era buildings with architectural styles, ranging from Neo-Classical to Art Deco. Even the old tram that once ran up and down the length of the avenue still operates today. The street is truly a center of day and night activity in Istanbul with boutiques, art galleries, nightclubs, street food and even restaurants that are opened 24 hours.
The Palace surpasses all other palaces in the world in wealth and magnificence. A blend of various European architectural styles, it was built between 1843 - 1856 by Karabet Balyan, the court architect of Sultan Abdulmecid. The 3 storey building with a symmetrical plan, has 285 rooms and 43 halls. Dolmabahce Palace was home to the sultans from 1856 to 1922 and also Atatürk, the father of modern-day Turkey till 1938. The Palace remained intact over the ages with it original decorations, furniture, silk carpets and curtains. A highlight is contained within is the world's largest crystal chandelier, gifted by Queen Victoria. Views of the ornate interiors including the waiting rooms, offices and apartments are solely by guided tours in the Palace and included in your admission.
The Rumeli Fortress
Rumeli Hisari Fortress, Bosphorus, Istanbul, Turkey / Photo by Dennis Jarvis of Flickr
Perched on the European side of Istanbul, overlooking the Bosphorus is the Rumeli Fortress. Its history dates back to Sultan Mehmed II who commissioned the fortress. Completed in just over four months, the fortress featured 3 main towers, 13 watchtowers, a small tower, a mosque and water fountains. The shaft of the mosque's minaret and one of the water fountains remain today. It has served as a checkpoint to control traffic along the Bosphorus including any external aid during his conquest of Constantinople in 1453, a customs checkpoint, a prison for foreign prisoners-of-war and a residential neighborhood before reopening as a museum and open-air theater in 1960.
The Leander's Tower
Photo courtesy of Republic of Turkey Ministry Culture and Tourism
This small 19th century tower built on an islet at the entrance to the Bosphorus is one of the symbols of Istanbul. It also offers visitors a spectacular panoramic view of Istanbul. Used in the past as a lighthouse and watchtower, it now serves as a landmark for ships entering the Bosphorus. Restored in 2000, the Tower was opened to the public and you can access it via ferries leaving from Kabatas and Salacak.
Exterior view of Beylerbeyi Palace / Photo by José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro of Wikimedia Commons
This 2 storey stone palace located at the shore of the Bosphorus, on the Asian side of Istanbul is the summer residence of the Ottoman Sultans. It consists of 6 halls, 24 rooms, a hamam and a bathroom. The interior is a mix of Western neo-classical elements and traditional Ottoman design, rich with mother-of-pearl, wood paneling, 16 blue columns and the original furniture. The grounds include magnificent garden terraces, bathing houses and stables. Its history includes visits by foreign heads of state like Empress Eugenie of France, Emperor Joseph of Austria-Hungary and Crown Prince Oscar of Sweden.
A cruise along the Bosphorus will allow you to enjoy the many sights that line the banks of the 2 continents of Europe and Asia. Some of the highlights include the Dolmabache Palace, Beylerbeyi Palace, Ciragan Palace Hotel Kempinski, Ortakoy Mosque, The Leander's Tower, The Rumeli Fortress and the Bosphorus Bridge. You can also see entrance to the Golden Horn, the inlet separates the European shore into two.