22 Must See Places in Istanbul – Turkey

categories: europe travel

Istanbul is one of my favorite cities in the world. People who have been there always seem to understand that when I declare it. It is only those who have not been there yet who wonder why Istanbul. It is s city with a rich and enduring history that goes back to Roman times, overlaid with a muslim, Turkish history which goes back to 1453. It feels like a European city, which it is, but at times can also feel like a Middle Eastern city. It has one foot in Europe and one in Asia and is a great gateway city to the muslim world.

Istanbul Sites

Hagia Sophia

22 Must See Places in Istanbul - Hagia Sophia

One of the most enduring buildings in Istanbul is Hagia Sophia. This church was built by order of the Roman Emperor Justinian I. It was the world’s largest building from its completion in 537 until the  completion of the cathedral in Seville Spain in 1520, almost 1,000 years. 

22 Must See Places in Istanbul - Hagia Sophia

It was built as a Christian cathedral but then served as a mosque after the Turkish conquest in 1453. At the time the Christian elements of the church were covered up and only exposed again when it became a museum in modern Turkey.

22 Must See Places in Istanbul - Hagia Sophia

What’s the point of being emperor if you can’t include a picture of you and your queen along with your good friend Mary the mother of Jesus.

Sultan Ahmet Mosque (Blue Mosque)

22 Must See Places in Istanbul - Blue Mosque

Hagia Sophia influenced the design of churches in the region and later also influenced the design of mosques like the famous Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmet Mosque) just opposite from Hagia Sophia. 

22 Must See Places in Istanbul - Blue Mosque

The nickname Blue Mosque comes from some of the tiles in the interior of the mosque (which is really not particularly blue).

Visiting a mosque: Non-muslims are welcome to visit mosques like the Sultan Ahmet Mosque but should not enter during prayer times or worship times mid-day on Friday. Dress appropriately. Don’t wear short or revealing clothing. Women should cover their head. Carry a simple scarf so that you are ready to peek into an interesting mosque you may see. Remember that you are visiting a house of worship and act accordingly. This is not the place to do flash photography or a shout out to your friends on Live Chat.

Topkapi Palace

22 Must See Places in Istanbul - Topkapi Palace

After the conquest of Istanbul by Mehmed the Conqueror in 1453, he built himself a palace in the oriental design of the turks. This remained the palace of the Ottoman empire until it was replaced in 1843 by Dolmabahçe palace. The palace is part of the Historic Areas of Istanbul UNESCO site as is Hagia Sophia.

22 Must See Places in Istanbul - Topkapi Palace

Don’t expect a lot of furniture in the palace as this palace is a much more oriental design where people sat on pillows or cushions in large relatively sparse rooms. It is a reminder that while you are standing in Europe today, the turks came originally from much further east and were more influenced at the time of its construction by the east than the west.

A museum in the palace holds the national treasures of Turkey. These treasures include jewel encrusted swords, manuscripts,  but also significant religious relics like  the turban of Joseph, the staff of Moses, a tooth from Mohammed, and the swords of the first four Caliphs.

Basilica Cistern

22 Must See Places in Istanbul - Basilica Cistern

To get some sense of the layering of history in Istanbul visit the Basilica 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.

22 Must See Places in Istanbul - Basilica Cistern

Look for the two different columns that have the head of the mythical medusa at their base.

22 Must See Places in Istanbul - Obelisk of Thutmose

Obelisk of Thutmose III (Hippodrome)

One reminder that Istanbul was once a Roman city is the Egyptian Obelisk of Thutmose III. This obelisk dates back to the 1400s BC. but was brought to Constantinople by the Roman Emperor Constantius II in 357 A.D. to celebrate being on the thrown for 20 years. It was later moved to this site which was the site of the old Roman Hippodrome or horse racing course. Look at the shape of the long narrow square you are in and see if you can picture charioteers like in the movie Ben Hur.

Right next to the obelisk is the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts.

Grand Bazaar

22 Must See Places in Istanbul - Grand Bazaar

If you are looking to do some shopping, especially for a Turkish carpet then you should make a stop at the expansive Grand Bazaar. This is an indoor shopping area that has plenty that tourists might buy. The shop keepers speak an astonishing array of languages. 

Mısır Çarşısı (Spice Bazaar)

22 Must See Places in Istanbul - Spice Bazaar

As a photographer I love the Spice Bazaar for its displays of fragrant spices. A small bag of spices to cook something Turkish can make a great souvenir, especially if you take the time to take a cooking class while you are in Istanbul.

Theodosian Walls

22 Must See Places in Istanbul - Theodosian Walls

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 or an Uber 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 Mehmed the Conqueror brought his canons to besiege it that they fell.

Yedikule (Fortress of the Seven Towers)

22 Must See Places in Istanbul - Yedikule (Fortress of the Seven Towers)

Anchoring the Walls of Constantinople at the southern point is the Fortress of the Seven Towers. This is a great place to get up on the walls and explore.

22 Must See Places in Istanbul - view from Yedikule (Fortress of the Seven Towers)

From the walls look south and you can see something like 100 ships bringing goods through the Bosphorus.

Saint Savior In Chora

22 Must See Places in Istanbul - Saint Savior In Chora

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.

22 Must See Places in Istanbul - Süleymaniye Mosque

Süleymaniye Mosque

The Süleymaniye Mosque was built by Suleiman the Magnificent. Suleiman was sultan at the highpoint of Ottoman rule. His armies conquered Hungary, Rhodes, Belgrade and threaten all of Western Europe before they were defeated at the walls of Vienna. A bit of trivia for you, the croissant was invented in Vienna to commemorate the victory over the Ottoman Turks, hence its crescent shape.

Tünel

You may have heard that London has the oldest subway in the world, but did you know that Istanbul has the second oldest? The Tünel is quite different from the Underground as it is an underground funicular that is made to climb the hill of the neighborhood of Beyoğlu towards the Galata Tower.

Galata Tower

22 Must See Places in Istanbul - Galata Tower

The very un-Turkish looking tower that this the most notable landmark in the neighborhood of Beyoğlu is the Galata Tower. It was built by the Genoese in 1348 when the city had expanded to the northern shore of the body of water known as the Golden Horn.

22 Must See Places in Istanbul - Trolly

İstiklal Caddesi (İstiklal Avenue)

İstiklal Caddesi (İstiklal Avenue) is a pedestrian shopping street that runs from Galata Tower towards Taksim Square. This is where you will rub shoulders with the real day to day life of Istanbul as it is as popular with locals as it is with tourists

Stop at the Galata Mevlevi Museum to see the famous Whirling Dervish Dance show. The Whirling Dervishes are a Sufi order of islam. It was founded by a 13th-century Persian poet and is known for its exuberant dance. 

If you are an art lover the Istanbul Modern Art Museum is very near to the avenue.

The Flower Passage (Cicek Pasaji) is a colorful flower market turned traditionally popular restaurant. 

Taksim Square

22 Must See Places in Istanbul - Taksim Square monument

When you get to Taksim Square you are in an area of shops, restaurants, and hotels that is the heart of modern Istanbul. The monument in the center of the square is dedicated to the founding of the Republic of Turkey in 1923. Taksim square is also a major transit hub.

Dolmabahçe Palace

22 Must See Places in Istanbul - Dolmabahçe Palace

The Dolmabahçe Palace is an ornate palace built in the European style towards the end of Ottoman rule. While Topkapi Palace may seem sparsely decorated the same cannot be said for Dolmabahçe. The decorator was not going for subtile. 

22 Must See Places in Istanbul - Dolmabahçe Palace

Dolmabahçe  Palace is colorful, lavash and cost about 25% of the annual revenue. The Ottoman empire was not in great financial shape at the time of its constructions. This didn’t help. 

22 Must See Places in Istanbul - Ortaköy and the Bosphorus Bridge

Ortaköy and the Bosphorus Bridge

One of the photos most used by the Turkish tourism board to promote the country is the picture of this small mosque at the base of the Bosphorus Bridge in a small square filled with pigeons. This picturesque spot is Ortaköy. If it does not look familiar now, you will be surprised by how many times you see this picture in the future.

22 Must See Places in Istanbul - Bosphorus Bridge

Bosphorus Cruise

Istanbul is defined by the water that surrounds it. It is hard to say you have been to Istanbul if you have not gotten out into a boat. This might just be a ferry from the European side of the city to the Asian side, but I also highly recommend a cruise up the Bosphorus towards the Black Sea.

1.5-Hour Morning Bosphorus Boat Tour

US $20

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Ortaköy and the Bosphorus Bridge - Rumelihisarı

Rumelihisarı and Anadoluhisarı

North of the city you can see the two fortresses built on either side of the Bosphorus Rumelihisarı (on the Europe side built by Mehmed the Conqueror) and Anadoluhisarıa (on the Asia side built by his father Murad II). These fortresses were built in preparation for the siege of Istanbul. They were later used to control trade on the Bosphorus, coming in and out of the Black Sea22 Must See Places in Istanbul | What to See in Istanbul | Istanbul Attractions Map

While you can tour them, if you just want to get a photo of them I highly recommend a cruise on a site seeing boat on the Bosphorus. You can catch one from Ortaköy.

Free Things to do in Istanbul

From this list all outdoor sites, bazaars and mosques are free… unless you buy a carpet at the Grand Bazaar.

  • Grand Bazaar
  • İstiklal Caddesi (İstiklal Avenue)
  • Obelisk of Thutmose III (Hippodrome)
  • Ortaköy Mosque
  • Spice Bazaar
  • Süleymaniye Mosque
  • Sultan Ahmet Mosque (Blue Mosque)
  • Taksim Square

22 Must See Places in Istanbul - Shoe Shine Stand

Istanbul Attractions Map

Accommodations

I recommend staying in the Sultanahmet neighborhood if you are looking for a quiet place in the history part of the city. If you are looking for nightlife stay closer to the  Taksim square area. 

Conclusion

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

For what to see if you only have 3 days, check out 3 Days in Istanbul, Turkey.

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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.

3 Responses to “22 Must See Places in Istanbul – Turkey”

Alex

Says:

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

Natalia

Says:

I enjoyed reading your guide about Istambul. So much history is unvailed and there are very beautiful pictures. I did not know that croissant, my favorite in the morning, was a symbol of victory over the Ottoman Turks. Thank you for sharing!

chris2x

Says:

You are most welcome Natalia!

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