Moldova and Turkey are separated by the Black Sea and a bit of Ukraine, so it is quite understandable that it is on our radar. In my country Turkey is very popular for its Mediterranean resorts, and Istanbul is frequently overlooked, but not by me 🙂 I have visited lots of cities, but Istanbul will always be my favorite. I can’t explain what exactly makes it so special to me: its vibrant atmosphere, rich history, amazing culture, delicious cuisine, friendly people (at least those I met there), or my Turkic origin. If you did not know it, there are dozens of places to see in Istanbul, so sit yourself comfortably and prepare for a long read 🙂
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1. Blue Mosque
Blue Mosque is undoubtedly the most important place to visit in Istanbul, but if you ask me I would give the laurels to Suleymaniye. But about it later.
Officially called Sultanahmet Camii, the mosque was erected on the very place where the palace of the Byzantine emperors used to be and got the name ‘Blue’ thanks to the thousands of handmade tiles that decorate its interior.
But it is not only the tiles that are worth a tourist’s attention. The Blue Mosque has six minarets, and at the time of its construction this privilege belonged only to the mosque in Mecca. Of course, the Meccans were offended, and Sultan Ahmet I had to rectify the mistake by donating money to build the seventh minaret. As the legend has it, this whole situation was the architect’s fault: he heard ‘altı’ (six) instead of ‘altın’ (golden) when sultan ordered the construction. Nowadays the Sultanahmet Camii is just one of the mosques with six minarets.
2. Hagia Sophia
Hagia Sophia is the historical rival of the Blue Mosque, which was built to surpass the Byzantine church, so now it is up to you to decide which one of them is more magnificent.
Built in the 6th century, Hagia Sophia served as a Christian cathedral for about 900 years until it was converted into a mosque after Mehmed the Conqueror took Constantinople in 1453. I knew the history of the place before I visited it, but, nevertheless, it seemed too strange to see Byzantine Christian mosaics side by side with Muslim inscriptions.
It kept serving as a place of worship till 1935 when Mustafa Kemal Atatürk declared it a museum. When you are inside take the stairs to the upper floor: the view is breathtaking!
NB: in 2020 Hagia Sophia lost its museum status and was converted into a mosque. Entrance is free now, from what I’ve heard, but, I suppose, it is closed to tourists during prayers, just like the Blue Mosque.
As I mentioned already, Suleymaniye is the only rival to the Blue Mosque. Suleiman the Magnificent ordered its construction to the famous Mimar Sinan, the most skillful of Ottoman architects. It is worth mentioning that Hagia Sophia served as an inspiration.
In the cemetery next to the mosque there are the mausoleums of Suleiman the Magnificent himself and his beloved wife Hürrem Sultan (Roxelana). The garden behind the mosque offers breathtaking views of the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus.
In general, to my inexperienced eye there are not any big differences in the exterior of all the mosques in Istanbul, but it is Suleymaniye’s interior that makes it so special. When I entered it I could not believe my eyes: it was so colorful, bright and cheerful, so different from everything I saw before. It is not as huge as the Blue Mosque, and it does not need to be: it is amazing the way it is. I mean, it is truly magnificent!
Istiklal is definitely the most popular street in Istanbul. First of all, it is pedestrian, and secondly, there are many-many shops and restaurants there. This is a place to buy Turkish delights, clothes (European brands like Mango, Zara, H&M, etc. and local ones), bags, cosmetics; but frequent travelers advise to go to shopping malls as it is cheaper there.
Let me say you that tourists – including me – leave a lot of money here 🙂 Just buy yourself an ice-cream, stroll along the street, and feel the atmosphere and vibe of the place. But remember that it is always crowded!
This is by far the most amazing palace in Istanbul! Dolmabahce is the place where I would never stop exclaiming ‘Wow!’, if I was alone there.
It was built exactly on the shore of the Bosphorus to become the new residence of Ottoman sultans, who required more comfort than Topkapi could offer. The construction cost about 1,5 billion dollars (if converted to modern values), but the empire did not have the money and Sultan Abdülmecid I had to borrow it. 14 tons of gold were used to decorate the interior of Dolmabahce. The palace contains a huge collection of paintings, and houses the largest chandelier – a gift from Queen Victoria – that weighs about 4,5 tons.
Mustafa Kemal Atatürk passed away in Dolmabahce: the clock in his bedroom is set to show 9:05, the time when he died.
Some practical info: tourists are allowed in only in guided tours, and photographing inside is strictly prohibited, but if you are artful enough, you can take a picture 🙂
6. Yildiz Palace
Yildiz Palace is not as lavish or as famous as Dolmabahce, its interior is much more modest and closer to European designs. The construction started in the 19th century, and the palace was the official residence of the Ottoman sultans in the early 20th century.
Yildiz itself is set amid a park, and is located off the beaten track. I guess this is the only reason that explains why there were no tourists when we visited it. If you decide to go, keep in mind that the palace is on the top of the hill, and there is no public transportation going there, so you will have to walk. The tours are guided, I am not sure that you can walk around by yourself, especially considering that photographing is not allowed inside. We were lucky to join a group of tourists who arrived by bus, but I am sure there are local guides at the palace.
7. Galata Tower
This tower is in Beyoğlu (or Pera), one of the most modern districts of Istanbul. It was built by the Genoese residents of Constantinople in 1348, and was used as an observatory, prison, and fire lookout till it ended to be a touristic sight with panoramic views of the city.
The Tower is 67 meters high, its outer diameter is about 16 meters, so the structure is quite impressive. But tourists come here for the best views of Istanbul, not the tower itself.
8. Prince Islands
A visit to the Prince Islands is an absolute must! The largest of the islands is Büyükada, a place of exile for Byzantine officials, members of Ottoman families, and Soviet politicians. It is obvious that these people were not used to living in shacks, so you will have enough time to wander around the island and enviously think that you would love to live in one of these cute houses.
The highlight of the island is Aya Yorgi monastery on the top of the hill, but in my opinion it’s the breathtaking views from the top that attract so many tourists.
So don’t hesitate, get a ferry ticket and go! For more info on the Prince Islands check here.
9. Grand Bazaar
I think it is safe to assume that Grand Bazaar or Kapalıçarşı is a small town: it even has its own streets. Trust me, it is huge and it is easy to get lost there.
The construction of the bazaar began right after the conquer of Constantinople by the Ottoman Empire, and today there are more than 4,000 shops where you can buy clothes, bags, rugs, textiles, spices, delights, jewelry, souvenirs, crockery, lamps, etc.
The place is crowded, with thousands of people coming there daily. It is a touristic place, so it is obvious that the goods are overpriced. Haggling is a crucial skill if you want to spend some money here.
10. Egyptian Bazaar
Egyptian Bazaar or the Spice Bazaar is another famous covered market of Istanbul. It is located relatively not far from the Grand Bazaar, but is much cheaper.
It is much-much smaller and has around 85 shops. As the name suggests it, it was a place to sell spices, but with tourists coming in, the range of goods has significantly enlarged and includes delights, dried fruits, nuts, jewelry, souvenirs, crockery, lamps, etc.
This grand palace is an amazing sample of the Ottoman architecture. It was Mehmed the Conqueror who ordered the construction of the palace that has four courtyards and numerous buildings, pavilions, gardens, squares, etc. Actually, the palace complex is so huge that you will need more than 3 hours to really see it. And considering that Topkapi is one of the most famous sights in the city, expect long queues first at the ticket offices, and then everywhere inside, especially at the Treasury.
The Treasury in the third courtyard houses jewelry, stones, Koran covers, etc., but its most famous exhibit is the Spoonmaker’s Diamond of 86 carats. During the high season the crowds here are really huge, and you might consider yourself lucky if you actually see those stones.
The Harem is another place of interest, so make sure not to miss it. And the fourth courtyard is a place of breathtaking views of the city.
Hagia Irene is a part of the Topkapi complex as well, but the tickets have to be bought separately. Personally I did not go inside so I can’t say if the visit is worth the money and time.
This is a nice park next to the Topkapi Palace offering amazing views of the Bosphorus. Before the renovation there was a small zoo, but it was removed. Now Gulhane (Rose park from Turkish) is a typical park where you will see lots of locals and tourists walking around, sitting on benches, picnicking, taking pictures, etc.
In its old days the park served as an outer garden of Topkapi, and was closed to public.
13. Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts
I have to admit that I am not a big fan of museums, unless they have a collection of artifacts from Ancient Egypt. I was not very keen to visit it, but I do not regret doing it. The museum is located in Sultanahmet square, and holds a vast collection of amazingly decorated Koran books, examples of Islamic calligraphy, and carpets.
The building used to be the palace of Pargalı Ibrahim Pasha, the grand vizier of Suleiman the Magnificent. The name should sound familiar to you if you watched the famous Turkish television series ‘The Magnificent century’.
14. Rumeli Hisari
This is another building ordered by Mehmed the Conqueror. It was constructed in 1452 on the European side of Istanbul in the narrowest part of the Bosphorus. It stands opposite to another fortress Anadolu Hisari built about 50 years before Rumeli Hisari. The fortress was to guard the strait and prevent the aid from coming to Constantinople that was conquered by Sultan Mehmed a year after the construction.
Besides its historical significance, the most important thing about the fortress to me, the lover of breathtaking landscapes, is the view of the Bosphorus and Asian part of Istanbul that you get when you climb to the top.
15. Sultanahmet Square
The Byzantine knew it as the Hippodrome of Constantinople, the center of the city’s social life, today it is Sultanahmet Square. The Blue Mosque and the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts are just some of the places to see in the square. Don’t forget to have a look at the German Fountain, The Egyptian Obelisk, the Serpent Column, and the Constantine Obelisk. I made a more detailed review of the square here.
16. Chora Museum
The Chora Museum or Kariye Church is tightly connected to the Byzantine past of Istanbul. The first mentions of the church date back to the 4th century. The place was in decay and was rebuilt numerous times in the 6th, 11th, 12th, and 14th centuries. Some elements of the previous restorations can still be seen in some parts of the church.
Metochites was the most famous and thorough restorer of the church: he built domes, narthexes, ordered marble and mosaic decorations. Some documents even suggest that he built a library inside the monastery.
Naturally after the conquest of Constantinople by the Ottoman the church was converted into a mosque, but it is worth mentioning that it did not happen immediately.
Lots of the mosaics and frescoes are still preserved, including the most famous ones depicting the life of Virgin Mary in the chronological order.
17. The Ecumenical Patriarchate
The Ecumenical Patriarchate is the highest one in the Orthodox Church, and Istanbul (primarily Constantinople) has been its seat for more than 17 centuries. The Church of St. George was a convent and was converted to the patriarchal offices at the end of the 16th century. While it is unimpressive outside, the interior decorations are spectacular.
One of the most important and ancient relics of the church is a part of the column of Christ’s flagellation. It is the very column to which Christ was bound and whipped by Roman soldiers. You can see it in the far right corner of the church.
18. Taksim Square
This is one of the most famous places in Beyoglu district. If you ask me, there is nothing special about it: it is just a square surrounded by restaurants, international food chains, and hotels. I guess the facts that Istiklal ends here and that it is a stop of the famous tram made the square popular.
The most important monument in the square is the centerpiece which was erected to commemorate the foundation of the Turkish Republic. It portrays the founders of the republic and 2 communists from the Soviet Union.
19. The bridges
Galata bridge over the Golden Horn unites Karaköy and Eminönü. Namely here you will see locals fishing, and next to Yeni Mosque at the waterfront there are stalls where you can buy the famous balik ekmek (bread with fried fish). When we were there, a balik ekmek cost 10 Turkish liras. It is nice to buy one, sit on the stairs, eat, and enjoy the view.
Two other famous bridges that connect Europe and Asia are the First Bosphorus Bridge (15 Temmuz Şehitler Köprüsü) and Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge, and both of them are quite spectacular.
20. Basilica Cistern
Basilica Cistern or Yerebatan is the biggest subterranean reservoir in Istanbul: it can hold about 80,000 cubic meters of water. The ceiling of the cistern is supported by 336 marble columns; two of them – located in the corner – have Medusa heads. Their origin is unknown, but it is believed that the columns might have been removed from a Roman site. The cistern is widely known enough, but the last movie Inferno based on Dan Brown’s book made it even more famous.
These are the main (there are more!) sights of the so called European part of Istanbul which is the most popular among tourists. I visited all of them, but I still regret that I did not find time to go to Istanbul Archaeology Museums. This is the reason I did not mention it in my list of 20, but it should definitely be number 21.
Tourists stay mainly in the European part, but if you happen to cross the strait then take a look at Beylerbeyi palace, Anadolu Hisari, Haydarpaşa Terminal, and Maiden’s Tower. And take a walk along the Bağdat Avenue which is a kind of a shopping street with numerous malls, department stores, fashion shops, restaurants, bars, and all other imaginable places to have good time.
Do you know any other places to see in Istanbul?
Well, in any city you travel, you have to stay somewhere 🙂 When I search for accommodation, I always use two options: it is either AirBnB (click here for a discount on your first booking with AirBnB) or Booking.com.
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