Straddling Europe and Asia across the Bosphorus Strait between the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea, Istanbul is one of the major tourist destinations in Europe. The city’s strategic location has made it one of history’s most important cities. So there’s plenty of historic places to see, and to feel the exotic atmosphere. Here are the top five most rated tourist attractions and must-see places in Istanbul.
1. The Historic Peninsula
The vast majority of the historical places from the ages of four Empires which ruled the city (Roman, Byzantium, Latin, and Ottoman) are located in the historic peninsula, which is the center of ancient Istanbul. Naturally, there are a lot of hotels and restaurants also exist there. Main sights include:
1.1. Hagia Sophia
Hagia Sophia is a former Christian patriarchal basilica (church), later an imperial mosque, and now a museum (Ayasofya Müzesi in Turkish). From the date of its construction in 537, it was used as a church for 916 years but, following the conquest of Istanbul by Fatih Sultan Mehmed in 1453, it was converted into a mosque. Then it was converted into a museum in 1935. As of 2021, it’s a mosque again.
Its name comes from Ἁγία Σοφία in Greek, meaning, “Holy Wisdom”; Latin: Sancta Sophia or Sancta Sapientia; Turkish: Ayasofya.
The church was dedicated to the Wisdom of God, the Logos (a name or title of Jesus Christ), the second person of the Holy Trinity.
The building is an important place in the art world with its architecture, grandness, size, and functionality. It actually has been constructed three times in the same location. When it was first built, it was named Megale Ekklesia (Big Church); however, after the fifth century, it was referred to as the Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom). The church was the place in which rulers were crowned, and it was also the biggest operational cathedral in the city throughout the Byzantine period.
The first church was constructed by Emperor Konstantinos (337-361) in 360. The first church was covered with a wooden roof and expanded vertically (basilica) yet was burned down after the public riot that took place in 404 as a result of the disagreements between Emperor Arkadios’ (395-408) wife empress Eudoksia and Istanbul’s patriarch Ioannes Chrysostomos, who was exiled.
The patriarch’s mosaic portrait can still be viewed at the tymphanon wall located in the northern part of the church. No remains have been recovered from the first church; however, the bricks found in the museum storage branded “Megale Ekklesia” are predicted to belong to the first construction.
The second church was reconstructed by Emperor Theodosios II (408-450) in 415. This basilical structure is known to contain five naves and a monumental entrance; it is also covered by a wooden roof.
The church was demolished on January 13, 532, after the public riot (Nika revolts) that took place during the fifth year of Emperor Justinianos’ reign (527-565), when the ‘blues’ who represented the aristocrats, and the ‘greens’ who represented the tradesman and merchants in the society, collaborated against the Empire.
Remains found during the excavations led by A. M Scheinder of the Istanbul German Archeology Institute, 2 meters below ground level, include steps belonging to the Propylon (monumental door), column bases, and pieces with lamb embossings that represent the 12 apostles. In addition, other architectural pieces that belong to the monumental entrance can be seen in the west garden.
The current structure was constructed by Isidoros (Milet) and Anthemios (Tralles), who were renowned architects of their time, by Emperor Justinianos’s (527-565) orders. Information from historian Prokopios states that the construction that began on February 23, 532, was completed in a short period of five years and the church was opened to worship with a ceremony on December 27, 537.
Resources show that on the opening day of the Hagia Sophia, Emperor Justinianos entered the temple and said, “My Lord, thank you for giving me chance to create such a worshiping place,” and followed with the words “Suleiman, I beat you,” referring to Suleiman’s temple in Jerusalem.
1.2. The Blue Mosque
The mosque’s real name is the Sultan Ahmed Mosque. Its popular name, the “Blue Mosque” comes from the blue tiles adorning the walls of its interior. It was built from 1609 to 1616, during the rule of Ahmed I. The Sultan Ahmed Mosque is still popularly used as a mosque. But the tourists can go inside with removing their shoes. Women also have to wear a head covering when entering to Blue Mosque, which is available at the entrance for free.
1.3. Topkapı Palace
It is a large palace located on the Seraglio Point (Sarayburnu), a promontory overlooking the Golden Horn and the Sea of Marmara, with a good view of the Bosphorus from many points of the palace. It was one of the major residences of the Ottoman sultans for almost 400 years (1465-1856) of their 624-year reign.
1.3. Roman-era Hippodrome and Obelisk
The Hippodrome of Constantinople (Turkish: Sultanahmet Square) was a circus that was the sporting and social center of Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire. The word “hippodrome” comes from the Greek hippos (ἵππος), horse, and dromos (δρόμος), path or way. Horse racing and chariot racing were popular pastimes in the ancient world and hippodromes were common features of Greek cities in the Hellenistic, Roman, and Byzantine eras. Today it is a square named Sultan Ahmet Square, with a few fragments of the original structure surviving. Sultan Ahmet Square is one of the main tourist attractions of Istanbul.
You can also see the Obelisk of Theodosius in there: it is the Ancient Egyptian obelisk of Pharaoh Thutmose III re-erected in the Hippodrome of Constantinople by the Roman emperor Theodosius I in the 4th century AD. It is made of red granite from Aswan and was originally 30 meters tall, like the Lateran Obelisk. The lower part was damaged in antiquity, probably during its transport or re-erection, and so the obelisk is today only 18.54 meters high, or 25.6 meters if the base is included.
Between the four corners of the obelisk and the pedestal are four bronze cubes, used in its transportation and re-erection. Each of its four faces has a single central column of inscription, celebrating Thutmose III’s victory over Mitanni (Hurrian-speaking state in northern Syria and southeast Anatolia from ca. 1500 BC–1300 BC) which took place on the banks of the Euphrates in about 1450 BC.
One of the magnificent ancient buildings of İstanbul is the Basilica Cistern (Turkish: Yerebatan Sarayı – “Sunken Palace”, or Yerebatan Sarnıcı – “Sunken Cistern”). It is the largest of several hundred ancient cisterns that lie beneath the city of Constantinople. It is located southwest of Hagia Sophia. Constructed by Justinianus I, the Byzantium Emperor (527-565), this big underground water reservoir is called “Yerebatan Cistern” among the public because of the underground marble columns. As there used to be a basilica in the place of the cistern, it is also called Basilica Cistern.
This cathedral-size cistern is an underground chamber approximately 138 meters (453 ft) by 64.6 meters (212 ft) – about 9,800 square meters (105,000 sq ft) in area – capable of holding 80,000 cubic meters (2,800,000 cu ft) of water. The ceiling is supported by a forest of 336 marble columns, each 9 meters (30 ft) high, arranged in 12 rows of 28 columns each spaced 4.9 meters (16 ft) apart.
The capitals of the columns are mainly Ionic and Corinthian styles, with the exception of a few Doric styles with no engravings. The cistern has the capacity to store 100,000 tons of water, despite being virtually empty today with only a few feet of water lining the bottom.
1.4. Istanbul Archaeological Museum
It is actually three museums, located near Gülhane Park and Topkapı Palace: the Archaeological Museum (in the main building), the Museum of the Ancient Orient, and the Museum of Islamic Art (in the Tiled Kiosk).
The museum is open to the public from 09:00 to 19:00, closed on Mondays. Tickets are 15 TL (around 5 euros).
The museum has a large collection of Turkish, Hellenistic, and Roman artifacts. The ornate Alexander Sarcophagus, found in the necropolis of Sidon (the third-largest city in Lebanon), once believed to be prepared for Alexander the Great, is among the most famous pieces of ancient art in the museum. Other important artifacts include (but are not limited to):
- Sarcophagus of the Crying Women, also found in Sidon
- Tabnit sarcophagus and the Satrap
- A monumental Lycian tomb
- Glazed tile images from the Ishtar Gate of Babylon
- Statues from ancient antiquity until the end of the Roman Era, from Aphrodisias, Ephesus and Miletus
1.5. The Grand Bazaar
Located inside the walled city of Istanbul, the Grand Bazaar (Turkish: Kapalıçarşı, meaning “Covered Bazaar”) is one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world, with 61 covered streets and over 3,000 shops which attract between 250,000 and 400,000 visitors daily. In 2014, it is listed No.1 among the world’s most-visited tourist attractions with 91,250,000 annual visitors.
Related: What To See In One Day In Istanbul
2. Beyoğlu and Galata
Beyoğlu is a district located on the European side of İstanbul, Turkey, separated from the old city (historic peninsula of Constantinople) by the Golden Horn. It was known as Pera (Πέρα, meaning “Across” in Greek) during the Middle Ages, and this name remained in common use until the mid-20th century and the immigration of its large Greek population.
Galata is a neighborhood opposite the historic peninsula, located at the northern shore of the Golden Horn, the inlet which separates it from the historic peninsula of old Constantinople. The Golden Horn is crossed by several bridges, most notably the Galata Bridge. The medieval citadel of Galata was a colony of the Republic of Genoa between 1273 and 1453.
2.1. The Galata Tower
The Galata Tower (Galata Kulesi in Turkish), called Christea Turris (the Tower of Christ in Latin) by the Genoese, is a medieval stone tower in the Galata/Karaköy quarter of Istanbul, Turkey, just to the north of the Golden Horn’s junction with the Bosphorus. One of the city’s most striking landmarks, it is a high, cone-capped cylinder that dominates the skyline and offers a panoramic vista of Istanbul’s historic peninsula and its environs.
The nine-story tower is 66.90 meters tall (62.59 m without the ornament on top, 51.65 m at the observation deck), and was the city’s tallest structure when it was built. The elevation at ground level is 35 meters above sea level. The tower has an external diameter of 16.45 meters at the base, an 8.95 meters diameter inside, and walls that are 3.75 meters thick.
There is a restaurant and café on its upper floors which command a magnificent view of Istanbul and the Bosphorus. Also located on the upper floors is a nightclub that hosts a Turkish show. There are two operating elevators that carry visitors from the lower level to the upper levels.
2.2. St. Anthony of Padua Church
St. Anthony of Padua Church is the largest church of the Roman Catholic Church in Istanbul. It is located on İstiklal Avenue in the historic Beyoğlu (Pera) district, the social and cultural center of Istanbul.
3. The Bosphorus
The Bosphorus is a natural strait and internationally significant waterway located in northwestern Turkey that forms part of the continental boundary between Europe and Asia and separates Asian Turkey from European Turkey. The world’s narrowest strait used for international navigation, the Bosporus connects the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara, and, by extension, via the Dardanelles, the Aegean, and Mediterranean Seas.
You can enjoy the beauties of the Bosphorus on special cruise tours. There are a lot of options, and the cheapest (but still great) option is using the city’s ferry lines.
3.1. Rumelihisarı (Rumelian Castle)
Rumelihisarı (also known as Rumelian Castle and Roumeli Hissar Castle) is a fortress located in the Sarıyer district (but it’s actually close to Bebek), on a hill at the European side of the Bosphorus. It gives the name of the quarter around it. It was built by the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II between 1451 and 1452, before his army’s conquest of Constantinople.
The castle is situated at the narrowest point with 660 meters of the Bosphorus strait, just opposite of Anadoluhisarı (Anatolian Castle) on the Anatolian side, which is another Ottoman fortress that was built between 1393 and 1394 by Sultan Bayezid I.
3.2. Maiden’s Tower
The Maiden’s Tower (Turkish: Kız Kulesi), also known as Leander’s Tower (Tower of Leandros) since the medieval Byzantine period, is a tower lying on a small islet located at the southern entrance of the Bosphorus strait 200 m (220 yds) from the coast of Üsküdar.
4. The Prince Islands
The Prince Islands, officially just Adalar (“Islands”), are an archipelago off the coast of Istanbul, in the Sea of Marmara. They consist of four larger islands:
- Büyükada (“Big Island”) with an area of 5.46 km2 (2.11 sq mi)
- Heybeliada (“Saddlebag Island”) with an area of 2.4 km2 (0.93 sq mi)
- Burgazada (“Fortress Island”) with an area of 1.5 km2 (0.58 sq mi)
- Kınalıada (“Henna Island”) with an area of 1.3 km2 (0.50 sq mi)
There are also five much smaller islands:
- Sedef Adası (“Mother-of-Pearl Island”) with an area of 0.157 km2 (0.061 sq mi)
- Yassıada (“Flat Island”) with an area of 0.05 km2 (0.019 sq mi)
- Sivriada (“Sharp Island”) with an area of 0.05 km2 (0.019 sq mi)
- Kaşık Adası (“Spoon Island”) with an area of 0.006 km2 (0.0023 sq mi)
- Tavşan Adası (“Rabbit Island”) with an area of 0.004 km2 (0.0015 sq mi).
During the summer months, the Princes’ Islands are popular destinations for day trips from Istanbul. As there is no traffic on the Islands, the only transport being horse and cart, they are incredibly peaceful compared with the city of Istanbul.
They are just a short ferry ride from Istanbul, with ferries departing from Bostancı, Kartal, and Maltepe on the Asian side, and from Kabataş on the European side. Most ferries call in turn at the four largest of the nine islands: Kınalıada, Burgazada, Heybeliada and finally Büyükada. Ferry and ship services are provided by 6 different companies.
In spring and autumn, the islands are quieter and more pleasant, although the sea can be rough in spring, autumn and winter, and the islands are sometimes cut off from the outside world when the ferry services are canceled due to storms and high waves.
During winter, with the addition of the biting cold and the strong winds, and the resulting ferry cancellations, the islands become almost deserted. As for cultural tourism, Büyükada happens to have the first and only city museum in İstanbul, the Museum of the Princes’ Islands in Aya Nikola Bay.
5. Dolmabahçe Palace
Dolmabahçe Palace is located in the Beşiktaş district, and really close to the Taksim square (10-15 minutes by walk), on the European coastline of the Bosphorus strait, served as the main administrative center of the Ottoman Empire from 1856 to 1922, apart from a 22-year interval (1887–1909) in which Yıldız Palace was used.
It is the largest palace in Turkey. It has an area of 45,000 m2 (11.1 acres) and contains 285 rooms, 46 halls, 6 baths (Hamam), and 68 toilets.
The design contains eclectic elements from the Baroque, Rococo, and Neoclassical styles, blended with traditional Ottoman architecture to create a new synthesis. The palace layout and décor reflect the increasing influence of European styles and standards on Ottoman culture and art during the Tanzimat period. The exterior, in particular the view from the Bosporus, shows a classical European two-wing arrangement which is divided by a big avant-corps with two side avant-corps.
Functionally, on the other hand, the palace retains elements of traditional Ottoman palace life and also features of traditional Turkish homes. It is strictly separated structurally in a southern wing (Mabeyn-i Hümâyûn, or Selamlık, the quarters reserved for the men) which contains the public representation rooms, and a northern wing
(Harem-i Hümâyûn, the Harem) serving as the private residential area for the Sultan and his family. The two functional areas are separated by the big Ceremonial Hall (Muayede Salonu) with a floor area of 2,000 m2 (22,000 sq ft) and a 36 m (118 ft) high dome.
Since the harem had to be completely isolated from the outside world, the main entrance for the visitors is located on the narrow southern side. There, the representation rooms are arranged for receptions of visitors and of foreign diplomats. The harem area includes eight interconnected apartments for the wives of the sultan, for his favorites and concubines, and for his mother, each with its own bathroom.
- Hagia Sophia on Wikipedia
- Hagia Sophia official website
- Sultan Ahmed Mosque on Wikipedia
- Topkapı Palace on Wikipedia
- Hippodrome of Constantinople on Wikipedia
- Obelisk of Theodosius on Wikipedia
- Basilica Cistern on wikipedia
- Istanbul Archaeology Museums on Wikipedia
- Grand Bazaar on Wikipedia
- Galata Tower on Wikipedia
- Rumelihisarı on Wikipedia
- Prince Islands on Wikipedia
- Dolmabahçe Palace on Wikipedia