Now the largest city in Europe, bustling Istanbul straddles the banks of the Bosphorus and has long been billed as the place where East meets West. Istanbul is a city that wears its cultures and history well, blending them into an exciting city that has much to offer travelers from around the world. Founded during Neolithic times, Istanbul today is a modern city that remains true to its historic heritage through its Byzantine monuments, and ancient bazaars.
Aside from standout tourist attractions in Istanbul, such as Topkapi Palace, Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, there are also busy bazaars, atmospheric old neighborhoods and thriving dining and nightlife scenes to delve into.
See also: Where to Stay in Istanbul
In this post, we'll cover:
17. Spice Bazaar
A literal treat for the senses, Istanbul’s colorful and chaotic Spice Bazaar is a fun and fragrant place to explore. One of the most famous and popular covered shopping complexes in the city, its spice-laden stalls and shops lie in the Fatih district, within walking distance of the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia.
Built in the 1660s, the bazaar exhibits exquisite architecture with more than 85 shops now lining its elegant indoor streets. Besides buying all kinds of colorful spices, you can also shop for souvenirs and sweets here. There’s everything from dried fruit and nuts to hand-crafted jewellery and textiles on sale.
16. Kiz Kulesi
Occupying a small islet at the southern entrance to the Bosphorus Strait, the ancient watchtower of Kız Kulesi makes for a striking sight. Meaning the ‘Maiden’s Tower’ in Turkish, it has an observation deck and restaurant that offer fantastic views over Istanbul.
Remarkably enough, a tower has stood on the isle for almost 2,500 years with everyone from the Athenians and Romans to the Byzantines and Ottomans having erected one. Over the centuries and millennia, it has acted as a watchtower, lighthouse and quarantine station, and has even featured in numerous films such as Hitman and The World is Not Enough.
15. Gulhane Park
One of the largest, most beautiful parks in Istanbul, Gülhane lies right alongside the top tourist attraction, Topkapi Palace. Once only accessible to the royal court, its gorgeous grounds and gardens are a delight with the park boasting some stunning scenery and divine views over the Bosphorus.
Popular with locals and tourists alike, its leafy paths take you past pretty flower beds and fountains with lush green spaces and groves of trees dotted about. In addition, it contains the Istanbul Museum of the History of Science & Technology in Islam; and the Sublime Porte, a remarkable rococo gate that once led to the outermost courtyard of the palace.
14. Galata Bridge
Spanning the breadth of the Golden Horn, Galata Bridge is one of Istanbul’s most-loved landmarks, having featured in countless plays and poems, paintings and novels over the years. The fifth bridge to stand in the same spot, it connects the city center to the site of the imperial palace and other important institutions, such as Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque.
Lined by fishermen, the bridge offers up delightful views over the surrounding waters with shops, restaurants and nargile cafes to be found beneath it.
With seagulls shrieking overhead, boats passing below and the spires of mosques to be spied atop of the surrounding hills, Galata Bridge really is an atmospheric place to visit and is very lively at almost all times of the day.
Now a popular meeting place and promenade, the Hippodrome used to instead host dramatic chariot races, gladiator fights, and even political debates. While not much of it remains, the square is pleasant to stroll around with some amazing ancient monuments and statues still on show.
For centuries, the Hippodrome lay at the center of life in the city and was decadently decorated with statues of emperors and gods, animals, and heroes. It never really recovered though from the sacking of Constantinople in 1204 when much of its stone was carted off.
Highlights now include its almost 3,500 year-old Obelisk of Theodosius and gorgeous German Fountain with the Blue Mosque also lying alongside it.
12. Taksim Square
The heart of modern Istanbul, the large and lively Taksim Square lies right in the center of the city, surrounded by countless shops and restaurants, hotels, and historic sites. Not only a popular tourist attraction and major transportation hub, it hosts lots of public events with everything from parades to protests taking place.
Besides being home to one of the only remaining green spaces in the area, it also encompasses the impressive Republic Monument with the massive, majestic, and modern Taksim Mosque rising up behind it. In addition to its innumerable establishments, Taksim borders the multi-purpose Ataturk Cultural Center which hosts operas, plays and concerts while a charming heritage tram line also meanders its way through the square.
11. Fener & Balat
Full of beautiful old buildings, bustling businesses, magnificent churches and synagogues; the winding cobbled streets of Fener & Balat are a treat to explore. Lying alongside the Golden Horn on the European side of Istanbul, the two historic neighborhoods are increasingly popular with tourists due to their scenic streets and lovely ambience.
Formerly home to large Greek and Jewish populations, the districts now have a wealth of interesting historic sites, such as the striking Phanar Greek Orthodox College, Ahrida Synagogue, and Bulgarian Iron Church.
Aside from taking in all the attractive architecture, you can also stop by its excellent local restaurants and cafes with countless antiques shops and bazaars.
10. Galata Tower
At 67 meters (219 feet) high, the Galata Tower rules over the Istanbul skyline, offering great views of the old city and its surroundings. The medieval stone tower, known as the Tower of Christ, was the tallest building in Istanbul when it was built in 1348.It still stands tall over Istanbul today.
The tower has been modified over the centuries, at one time being used as an observation tower to spot fires. Today, its upper reaches include a café, restaurant and a night club, both reached by elevator in the nine-story building, where one can find the stunning vistas.
9. Istanbul Archaeological Museum
One of the most important museums in Turkey, the Istanbul Archaeological Museum is actually three museums: the Archaeological Museum, the Ancient Orient Museum and the Tiled Kiosk Museum.
The three museums combined contain more than 1 million objects from civilizations around the world. Founded in 1891, it was the first Turkish museum, and was located on the Topkapi Palace grounds. The Tiled Kiosk dates back to 1472. The museums contain thousands of precious artifacts, including the sarcophagus of Alexander the Great.
8. Chora Church
The Chora Church may be a little bit off the beaten tourist path, but visitors say the beautiful Byzantine art is well worth the effort to get there. Magnificent mosaics and frescoes depict the life of Jesus and his mother, Mary. Known as the Church of the Holy Savior in Chora, it has been described as one of the most beautiful surviving works of Byzantine architecture.
Dating back to the days of Constantine, the Chora was a monastery in its early years; a few centuries later, it became a mosque, and in 1948, it was converted to a museum.
7. Basilica Cistern
The Basilica Cistern has been providing Istanbul residents with water since the sixth century when it was ordered built by the Roman Emperor Justinian I. A visit leaves travelers raving about the technology the ancient Romans used to build this architectural wonder that was very advanced for its day.
The underground cistern, just a few steps away from the Blue Mosque, was built on the site of a basilica that was constructed in the third century. Known as the Sunken Palace, the cistern can hold up to 2.8 million cubic feet of water. The cistern is one of the locations used in From Russia with Love, a James Bond thriller filmed in 1963.
6. Dolmabahce Palace
Luxurious, plush and beautiful are just some of the adjectives used to describe the Dolmabahce Palace, which has been compared to the Palace of Versailles. Built in the 19th century using 14 tons of gold leaf, Turkey’s most glamorous palace blends traditional Ottoman architecture with the European styles of Neoclassical, Baroque and Rococo.
Home to six sultans from 1856 to 1924, it also is home to the world’s largest Bohemian crystal chandelier, a gift from Queen Victoria. The Dolmabahce Palace’s setting is stunning: It was built along the Bosphorus coastline.
5. Suleymaniye Mosque
Visitors to the Suleymaniye Mosque say its beauty and peacefulness gives them an inspiring sense of spirituality. Located on the Third Hill of Istanbul, the mosque was ordered built in 1550 by the Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent. The mosque, indeed, is magnificent, blending the best of Islamic and Byzantine architecture.
The mosque was extensively damaged over the years, including during World War I when a fire broke out while the gardens were used as a weapons depot. It was restored in the mid-20th century. The mosque is marked by four minarets, indicating it was built by a sultan. When it was built, the dome was the highest in the Ottoman Empire.
4. Grand Bazaar
Travelers who love to shop shouldn’t miss out on a visit to the Grand Bazaar, with 5,000 shops making it one of the largest indoor marketplaces in the world. Receiving more than a quarter-million visitors a day, the bazaar features such items as jewelry, carpets that may or may not fly, spices, antiques and hand-painted ceramics.
The bazaar dates back to 1461 and today is home to two mosques, four fountains, two hammams or steam baths, and the Cevahir Bedesten, where the rarest and most valuable items have been found traditionally. Here is where shoppers will find old coins, jewelry with precious gems, inlaid weapons and antique furniture.
3. Topkapi Palace
Topkapi Palace is one of the must-see attractions in Istanbul that combines history and stunning scenery in an experience that is not to be rushed.
For almost four centuries, the opulent Topkapi Palace served as the official residence of the sultans who ruled the Ottoman Empire. It is one of the world’s largest extant palace. Sultan Mehmed II started work on the palace shortly after the conquest of Constantinople in 1453 and lived here until his death in 1481.
In 1924, the palace became a museum that exhibits an extensive collection of art, porcelain, jewelry, manuscripts and other treasures of the Ottoman Empire. Important artifacts include the jewel-encrusted Topkapi dagger and the 86-carat Spoonmaker’s Diamond. The palace is also home to venerated Islamic relics, including the Prophet Mohammed’s sword and cloak. Most of the stunning complex is open to the public.
The Ottoman palace has four primary courtyards and several outbuildings. Known as the Janissaries Court, the first courtyard is where elite palace soldiers stood guard. The square contains a magnificent fountain and the Byzantine church of Hagia Irene, which Emperor Justinian constructed in the 548. The church survived because it was used as a storehouse and imperial armory by the Ottomans.
The second courtyard is a lush green space encompassed by the former imperial harem and the Tower of Justice as well as a hospital and kitchens, which prepared thousands of meals each day. Suleiman the Magnificent constructed the entry gate. The third courtyard contains the treasury and the library of Ahmed III. Entry to the third courtyard was strictly regulated and off-limits to outsiders.
The fourth courtyard served as the sultan’s inner sanctum. Known as the Tulip Garden, the buildings are adorned with mother-of-pearl, tortoise shell inlays and exquisite blue-and-white Iznik tiles. Other architectural highlights include marble staircases and a reflecting pool.
2. Blue Mosque
The Blue Mosque, built in the early 17th century, remains an active house of worship today. This means visitors need to time their visits carefully, as the mosque is closed to sightseers during the five daily prayer times for Muslims.
All visitors must remove their shoes and women must cover their hair. This is a small price to pay for seeing its priceless treasures that include 20,000 ceramic tiles in various tulip designs and 200 stained glass windows, all with intricate designs. The mosque, built by Sultan Ahmet, takes its name from the blue tiles on the dome and the upper levels of the interior.
1. Hagia Sophia
The Hagia Sophia is a masterwork of Roman engineering, with its massive dome (102 feet or 31 meters in diameter) that covers what was for over 1000 years the largest enclosed space in the world.
Hagia Sophia is the Greek term for Holy Wisdom and refers to Jesus Christ, the Holy Trinity’s second person. Constructed between 532 and 537, on the orders of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian, the structure was an Eastern Orthodox cathedral until 1453, except for about 60 years in the 1200s when it served as a Roman Catholic cathedral.
In 1453, Ottoman Turks captured Constantinople and converted the edifice into a mosque, removing or plastering over many Christian relics and replacing them with Islamic features. The building closed in 1931, and the Republic of Turkey re-opened it as a museum in 1935.
Visitors can go through the Imperial Gate to the central nave and look up to see the dome’s majestic interior with its mosaic-covered ceiling.
Marble on the walls in the main nave extends to the gallery’s upper reaches, and the inner narthex and side naves have walls entirely covered with marble. The costly marbles of many different colors, selected exclusively for the Hagia Sophia, came from various areas of the empire.
In the Hagia Sophia courtyard is a Fountain of Purification with a Greek inscription in palindrome form that translates, “Wash your sin not only your face.”
Built in 1739, the Hagia Sophia Library contains ancient Turkish tiles, and the engraved, wooden bookshelves hold historical objects as well as books.
Through the years, the church suffered damage from earthquakes, fires and riots, making many repairs and restorations necessary, but it remains a beautiful building that some people call the world’s eighth wonder.