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.
In this post, I will talk about some of my favorite sites to see in Istanbul. Also check out 3 Days in Istanbul, Turkey for an itinerary.
Table of contents: ()
- Istanbul Sites
- Hagia Sophia
- Sultan Ahmet Mosque (Blue Mosque)
- Topkapi Palace
- Basilica Cistern
- Obelisk of Thutmose III (Hippodrome)
- Grand Bazaar
- Mısır Çarşısı (Spice Bazaar)
- Theodosian Walls
- Yedikule (Fortress of the Seven Towers)
- Saint Savior In Chora
- Süleymaniye Mosque
- Galata Tower
- İstiklal Caddesi (İstiklal Avenue)
- Taksim Square
- Dolmabahçe Palace
- Ortaköy and the Bosphorus Bridge
- Bosphorus Cruise
- Rumelihisarı and Anadoluhisarı
- Free Things to do in Istanbul
- Istanbul Attractions Map
- Istanbul E-pass
One of the most enduring buildings in Istanbul is Hagia Sophia. This church was built by the 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.
Whether you take a one day tour or are visiting on your own Hagia Sophia is one of the important sites. But, the site changed in 2020. It had been made into a museum during the time of Attaturk but has been converted back into an active mosque. How this will affect visiting is not yet clear. You can skip the line by pre-purchasing a VIP pass, the Istanbul Welcome Card, or a combo ticket that includes Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace, and Basilica Cistern.
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.
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)
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.
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 heads. 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.
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.
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. The lines can get long. You can skip the line by pre-purchasing a VIP pass, the Istanbul Welcome Card, or a combo ticket that includes Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace, and 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 residents were able to fish through holes in their basements. Apparently, there are hundreds of ancient cisterns below the city streets of Istanbul. You can skip the line by buying admission in advance.
Look for the two different columns that have the head of the mythical Medusa at their base.
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 throne 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.
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)
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.
The name of the bazaar literally translates to the Egyptian Bazaar.
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)
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.
From the walls look south and you can see something like 100 ships bringing goods through the Bosphorus.
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 a 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 converted 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.
The Süleymaniye Mosque was built by Suleiman the Magnificent. Suleiman was a 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.
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 Beyo?lu towards the Galata Tower.
The very un-Turkish looking tower that this the most notable landmark in the neighborhood of Beyo?lu 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.
İstiklal Caddesi (İstiklalAvenue)
İstiklalCaddesi (İstiklalAvenue) 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 that has been converted into a popular traditional restaurant.
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.
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 subtle.
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 construction. This didn’t help.
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.
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.
Rumelihisarı and Anadoluhisarı
North of the city you can see the two fortresses built on either side of the Bosphorus Rumelihisarı (on the European side built by Mehmed the Conqueror) and Anadoluhisarı (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 Sea.
Anadoluhisarı translates to “Anatolian Fortress” and Rumelihisarı translates to “Throat-Cutter Castle”.
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 (İstiklalAvenue)
- Obelisk of Thutmose III (Hippodrome)
- Ortaköy Mosque
- Spice Bazaar
- Süleymaniye Mosque
- Sultan Ahmet Mosque (Blue Mosque)
- Taksim Square
Istanbul Attractions Map
Istanbul E-pass is the city sightseeing pass that covers over 60 Top Istanbul Attractions all in 1 digital pass. It has 2, 3, 5, and 7 days options. There is no physical card, you get a digital pass with the confirmation after purchase instantly. There are 3 types of attractions;
Guided Tours: We offer museums and historical buildings with guided tours. The only thing for a guest is to meet with a guide at the meeting point at meeting time.
Walk-in Attractions: Simply show the pass to the counter and get in.
Reservation Required: Some attractions include pick-up or a seat that needs to be reserved. The E-pass panel allows guests to make a reservation in seconds.
Istanbul E-pass Attractions
- Hagia Sophia, Basilica Cistern, Dolmabahce Palace w Harem, Grand Bazaar, Blue Mosque, Spice Bazaar, Istiklal Street, Rustempasha Mosque, Hippodrome Guided Tours
- Topkapi Palace w Harem, Galata Tower, Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum, Rumeli Fortress, Mosaic Museums, Archeology Museum, Hagia Irene entry
- Bosphorus Cruise with Dinner & Turkish Show
- Whirling Dervishes Performance
- Bursa & Mount Uludag, Sapanca Lake & Masukiye, Sile & Agva Day Trip Tours
- Madame Tussauds Istanbul, Sealife Aquarium Istanbul, Istanbul Aquarium, Museum of Illusions Istiklal, Museum of Illusions Anatolia (Emaar Square) Entrance
- Legoland Discovery Centre Istanbul, Saphire Observation Deck, Skyride 4D Simulation, Safari Park, Dungeon Park Entrance
- Bosphorus Cruise (1,5 Short time cruise), Hop on Hop Off Bosphorus Cruise
- Princes Island Roundtrip Ferry
- Airport Transfer (Shuttle), Private Airport Transfer (Discounted)
Istanbul has much to offer as a modern city but if you love history then a visit to this city is a must. Who knows you may even think about living in Istanbul.
For what to see if you only have 3 days, check out 3 Days in Istanbul, Turkey