8 Historic Sites Not to Miss in Istanbul Turkey

categories: europe travel

If you, like me are a history buff then Istanbul is a place to visit before you die. Here are 8 must-see historic sites of Istanbul:

Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia - Istanbul, Turkey

Hagia Sophia – Istanbul, Turkey

The crowning achievement in Roman / Byzantine architecture was the  church Hagia Sophia which is now a museum in Sultanahmet, the oldest region of Istanbul. It’s impressive dome on dome design so impressed the Ottoman Turks after they captured the city that you can find Mosques that are influenced by its design throughout the former Ottoman Empire.

Sultan Ahmet Mosque (Blue Mosque)

Sultan Ahmet Mosque (Blue Mosque)

Sultan Ahmet Mosque (Blue Mosque)

The most notable of the mosques that were influenced by the design of Hagia Sophia is the so called Blue Mosque which is located just opposite it. Stand in between the two and the similarities will be fairly obvious.  The nickname Blue Mosque comes from some of the tiles in the interior of the mosque (which is really not particularly blue).

The real name of the mosque is the Sultan Ahmet Mosque after which the Sultanahmet district is named. The Sultanahmet name has a more interesting story. Sultan Ahmet (or Ahmed I) caused all kinds of controversy when he commissioned the mosque be built with 6 minarets. Look around Istanbul and the number of minarets that a mosque has tells you the significance of the person who built it. While a neighborhood mosque would have 1 and a mosque built by a sultan could be expected to have as many as 4 minarets. But when Sultan Ahmet had this mosque built only the mosque in Mecca had 6 minarets. It was pointed out that Sultan Ahmet had won no great victory for Islam that would justify this hubris. Ahmet’s solution was brilliant. Rather than knocked down one of his minarets he paid from his own fortune to build a 7th minaret in Mecca.

Topkapi Palace

Topkapi Palace - Istanbul, Turkey

Topkapi Palace – Istanbul, Turkey

The Topkapi Palace is just around the corner from Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. It was the center of the Ottoman Empire until the 1800s when a more modern palace was built north of Sultanahmet. In addition to visiting the harem and the throne room the national treasure of Turkey is housed in the Palace. The collection has a large number of relics such as Mohammed’s footprint, one of his teeth and a selection of hairs from his beard, Moses’ rod, Abraham’s saucepan, and John the Baptist’s hand. It was a surprise to me that an islamic culture would even have relics.

Basilica Cistern

Basilica Cistern - Istanbul, Turkey

Basilica Cistern – Istanbul, Turkey

To get some sense of the layering of history in Istanbul visit the Bassilica Cistern. This underground reservoir was built by the Emperor Justinian in the 6th century. After the conquest by the Turks it was forgotten for 100 years until someone started to wonder how local residence were able to fish through holes in their basements. Apparently there are hundreds of ancient cisterns below the city streets of Istanbul.

Grand Bazaar

Grand Bazaar - Istanbul, Turkey

Grand Bazaar – Istanbul, Turkey

If you go to the Grand Bazaar someone will try and sell you a carpet. They will offer you tea and invite you to come in and sit down. I honestly think they think every tourist really wants a carpet and that my refusals were simply negotiating. The shop that I visited was run by a couple of Kurdish brothers. I was wearing a microphone at the time so you can eavesdrop on the process if you listen to Turkey, Istanbul – Amateur Traveler Episode 83.

Spice Bazaar

Spice Bazaar - Istanbul, Turkey

Spice Bazaar – Istanbul, Turkey

Even more colorful than the Grand Bazaar is the spice bazaar with piles of colorful spices (and lots of souvenirs). What I really needed was a cookbook to know how to use all of these wonderful spices.

Theodosian Walls

Theodesian Walls - Istanbul, Turkey

Theodesian Walls – Istanbul, Turkey

For over a thousand years the impressive walls of Constantinople kept out all invaders (well, there was that one regrettable incident in the 4th crusade that no one wants to talk about). They kept out enemies like the Ostrogoths and Atilla the Hun. You can still walk these walls and see what made them so impressive. They are far enough away from the normal tourist areas that you will need to grab a bus to get to them. If you managed to breach the outer wall you had the unpleasant surprise of finding yourself trapped between it and an inner wall. It was not until Mehmet the Conqueror brought his canons to besiege it that it fell.

North of the city you can see the two fortresses built on either side of the Bosphorus by Mehmet and his father: Fortress Europe and Fortress Asia. From the walls look south and you can see something like 100 ships bringing goods through the Bosphorus.

Saint Savior In Chora

Saint Savior In Chora - Istanbul, Turkey

Saint Savior In Chora – Istanbul, Turkey

On the way to the Theodisian Walls stop at one of my favorite under-visited spots in Istanbul: Saint Savior In Chora Church.  It is small church unlike the towering Hagia Sophia but Saint Savior In Chora has some of the best preserved Byzantine mosaics and murals. Both churches had the murals plastered over when they were convered to mosques after the conquest of the Turks in the 1400s, and both also had them uncovered when they were converted into museums in the 1900s. Watch Travel to Istanbul – St Saviour in Chora – Amateur Traveler Video Episode 14 to see what this site looks like today.

Getting To Istanbul

Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport has easy connections to flights from the USA, but sometimes you can save money by flying through a major European hub like Heathrow and then taking a flight on one of Europe’s discount airlines.

Istanbul has much to offer as a modern city but if you love history then a visit to this city is a must.

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by Chris Christensen

I am the host of the Amateur Traveler. The Amateur Traveler is an online travel show that focuses primarily on travel destinations and what are the best places to travel to. It includes both a weekly audio podcast, a video podcast, and a blog.

One Response to “8 Historic Sites Not to Miss in Istanbul Turkey”

Alex

Says:

I do agree with you Istanbul has a very rich history and widely popular for Islamic culture

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