Things to do
What to See in Istanbul
The must-see historic sights stud the compact Sultanahmet district. Here the ornate pavilions of the Topkapı Palace sprawl behind the monumental Hagia Sophia. Opposite rise the domes and minarets of the equally splendid Blue Mosque. The superb Süleymaniye Mosque Complex occupies a hill-top above the 4,000-plus shops of the medieval Grand Bazaar. Across the Golden Horn the conical cap of the Galata Tower marks the pulsating entertainment quarters of Karaköy, Galata and Beyoğlu; nearby the Bosphorus waterfront is home to the stylish gallery, Istanbul Modern. A ferry rides take visitors across to the Asian suburbs, north to the mouth of the Black Sea or up the Golden Horn to the city’s ancient land walls. Discover some of Istanbul’s main sites:
Structured around four main courtyards and numerous smaller buildings, the Topkapi Palace has been described by UNESCO as “the best example of ensembles of palaces of the Ottoman period.” Sitting atop Seraglio Point, a promontory overlooking the Golden Horn and the Marmara Sea, it served as the major residency of the Ottoman sultans for almost 400 years (1465–1856). Visitors are drawn to fine architecture, collections of calligraphic manuscripts, robes, porcelain, and some of the most significant holy relics of the Muslim world.
One of the most remarkable monuments of the ancient world, the Hagia Sophia features a massive dome widely considered the epitome of Byzantine architectural expertise. For nearly a thousand years from its construction by Emperor Justinian I in 537, it served as a Greek Orthodox cathedral and the seat of the Patriarch of Constantinople until 1453 when it was converted to a mosque.
Sultan Ahmet Mosque (Blue Mosque)
Built between 1609-1616 by Sultan Ahmet I in order to assert Ottoman power, this most impressive of Istanbul’s mosques features a cascade of layered domes and cornered by six minarets adorning the city’s skyline. Its outdoor courtyard perfectly matches the size of its Blue İznik tiles covered interiors, numbering in the tens of thousands, giving it the name of Blue Mosque with which it is commonly known.
This subterranean marvel, located some 150 metres west of the Hagia Sophia, is another gem of antiquity commissioned by Emperor Justinian’s rule. It is the largest of hundreds of cisterns beneath the city of Istanbul and continued to supply water to Topkapi Palace well after the Ottoman conquest of 1453.
The church is famous for its breathtaking Byzantine frescoes and mosaics that depict the life of Christ and are remarkably well kept, despite the fact that the church-turned-museum was constructed around the 4th century.
After inhabiting the Topkapı Palace for more than 400 years, Sultan Adbulmejid I decided to move the court to the grand Dolmabahçe Palace due to its location by the Bosphorus. Built to belie the military and financial decline of the Ottoman Empire, Istanbul’s first European-style palace was an opulent one, excessive in size and filled with gold and crystal.
Your stay in Istanbul is not complete without a visit to the atmospheric Spice Bazaar, built in 1664.
Aside from the spices, there are rosebud, jasmine, and fruit teas; Turkish delight, herbal remedies; dried apricots, figs, dates; honey and baklava; olive oil soaps; and Turkish coffee. Discover some unique spices that flavour Turkish cuisine – sumac, Pul Biber, Nar Ekşisi, and Turkish saffron.
Over the years, the Grand Bazaar has become a sprawling roofed complex of thousands of shops, fringed by the tradesmen’s inns and workshops known as hans, now with over 4,000 shops and nearly 500 stalls known in Turkish as dolap (cupboard). Wares include jewellery, antiques, carpets, kilims and other textiles, ceramics, Turkish lamps, and Hammam soap.
View the Jewish district from the Galata Tower and visit the Neve Shalom Synagogue, the Ashkenazi Synagogue and Ahrida Synagogue.
Take a half-day cruise along the Bosphorus, the majestic strait that runs through Istanbul, linking Europe and Asia. View the dramatic sights lining the shores, including the 19th century mansions of the Ottoman elite and the Sultans' fanciful gingerbread palaces and hunting lodges.
Take a boat trip across the Marmara Sea for a day trip to one of the Princes Islands, a nine-island archipelago. With impressive wooden country mansions, fragrant tangerine and lemon trees, wisteria and pink magnolia, Istanbul’s Princes’ Islands are a world away from the city. Motorised vehicles are prohibited, so the best way to get around is on foot or by bicycle.
No visit to Istanbul is complete without experiencing the Turkish Bath and the historic Çağaloğlu Hamam is the perfect place to do so. It is a journey back in time to the 18th century when the hamam was built.