Things to Do in Istanbul
The Bosphorus Strait defines Istanbul. It is the divide between Europe and Asia, and the main connection between the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara. Dotted with parks and elaborate Ottoman mansions, including Dolmabahce Palace, and spanned by three intercontinental bridges, the Bosphorus is the veritable heart of the city.
Built in 532 as the world’s largest place of worship, the Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya) shifts its identity with the times but never loses its grandeur. Converted from a church to a mosque during the Ottoman era and becoming a museum in 1935, the pink-hued Old City building is one of Istanbul’s don’t-miss attractions.
Behold the imperial complex of Ottoman sultans at Topkapi Palace (Topkapi Sarayi), the royal residence in Istanbul throughout the first 400 years of the Ottoman Empire. The palace contains myriad buildings and courtyards, including a treasury, harems, an armory, imperial halls, and royal chambers—all with intricate Iznik tilework and opulent architecture.
Explore the grandeur of Ottoman architecture at the Blue Mosque (Sultanahmet Camii), located on Istanbul’s Old City peninsula. Opened in 1616 to rival the Byzantine-era Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofya) across the way, the six minarets punctuating the Istanbul skyline and 20,000 blue Iznik tiles decorating its interior are designed to inspire awe.
Built in an opulent European style, Dolmabahce Palace (Dolmabahce Sarayi) was the home of the Ottoman sultans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, before the fall of the empire. The giant crystal chandeliers, marble staircases, and lush carpets that adorn the interior reflect the shift toward Istanbul’s more European way of thinking.
Built in the third century, the Hippodrome was the home of now-named Istanbul’s sporting entertainment during the Byzantine era, with a wide track for chariot racing. Today, the route of the old track is covered by Sultanahmet Square (Sultanahmet Meydani), a wide open space in the center of the old city, punctuated by ancient obelisks.
The Bosphorus Bridge (Bogazici Koprusu) in Istanbul is one of three continent-spanning bridges over the Bosphorus Strait, connecting Europe and Asia. When it opened in 1973, the 5,118-foot (1,560-meter) bridge was the fourth-longest suspension bridge in the world. And though it has since slid down the rankings, it is still an impressive sight to behold.
Built in the 17th century, the covered Spice Bazaar is Istanbul’s fragrant hub for all things flavorful. Piles of pepper, saffron, teas, and dried apricots nestle alongside shops selling colorful Turkish delight, silk scarves, and glass mosaic lamps. Take time to chat with vendors, sip tea, and haggle for the perfect price.
Rising high above its namesake neighborhood, Istanbul’s Galata Tower (Galata Kulesi) dates back to the Genoese presence in Constantinople in the 14th century. An elevator takes you up to a viewing platform located under the roof, which offers panoramic views of the Old City peninsula and Beyoglu neighborhood.
Built over just four months, the 15th-century Rumeli Fortress played a key role in the fall of Byzantine Constantinople. Together with the Anatolian Fortress (Anadolu Hisarı) on the Bosphorus, Rumeli Fortress was used by the Ottomans to cut off aid and supplies to Constantinople. Today, it serves as both an open-air theater and site of historical interest.
More Things to Do in Istanbul
Located in the shadow of Istanbul’s first bridge, Beylerbeyi Palace (Beylerbeyi Sarayi) was historically a summer residence for Ottoman sultans. The 24 rooms of the palace contain a mix of Ottoman and Western decoration, with 19th-century furniture from Europe and garden pavilions, and its ornate exterior is visible from the Bosphorus Strait.
Located on an islet in the Bosphorus Strait, just offshore from Istanbul’s Uskudar neighborhood, Maiden’s Tower (Kiz Kulesi) is a historical site that has inspired myths and legends. The Ottomans expanded and rebuilt the structure, and today it contains a restaurant and bar with views of the city.
Surprisingly for a city split between two continents, Istanbul existed without connecting bridges for most of its existence. After the construction of the Bosphorus Bridge in the 1970s, the second unifying bridge, Fatih Sultan Mehmet, came in 1988. It is part of Istanbul’s O-2 highway and connects the European and Asian sides of the city.
Istanbul’s bustling waterside neighborhood of Ortaköy buzzes with the energy of bars, restaurants, cafés, and nightclubs. The main sight here is the Ortaköy Mosque (Ortaköy Cami), a 19th-century structure featuring a blend of baroque and neoclassical influences. Behind it, the Bosphorus Bridge looms, connecting the old Istanbul with the new.
Home to some of Istanbul’s most recognizable attractions, the Sultanahmet District is an ideal place to explore the city’s complex history. With the rose-colored Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofya) sitting across from the six minarets of the Blue Mosque and down the street from the energetic Grand Bazaar, this neighborhood packs in a wealth of culture.
Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar (Kapali Çarsi) is the ultimate covered market. Its 5,000+ vendors hawk carpets, beaded bracelets, gold and silver jewelry, multicolored lanterns, leather goods, ceramics, belly-dancing outfits, and more. With goods available at all price points, you’re sure to find the perfect souvenir in the bazaar’s labyrinthine alleys.
Commissioned in the mid-19th century by Sultan Abdulmecit, Küçüksu Palace (Küçüksu Kasri) Palace, aka Küçüksu Pavilion (Küçüksu Sarayı), was designed to be a summer palace for Ottoman sultans. The Istanbul palace’s design blends European and Ottoman styles, with an intricate carved exterior, sweeping staircases, and an interior with gilded accents and chandeliers.
Thank the natural harbor of the Golden Horn (Haliç) for the rise of the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires. The inlet separates Istanbul’s Sultanahmet district from Beyoglu, and is spanned by the Ataturk, Halic, and Galata bridges. An ages-old thoroughfare, ferries ply the Golden Horn to historical neighborhoods including Fener, Balat, and Eyup.
Stretched across the Golden Horn, the Galata Bridge (Galata Köprüsü) connects the shores of Istanbul’s historical peninsula with the Karakoy and Galata neighborhoods. Though the presence of the bridge started in 1845, the current structure dates only to 1994. Fishermen line the atmospheric bridge day and night, trying to haul in their daily catch.
Beautiful yet eerie, Basilica Cistern (Yerebatan Sarayi) isn’t your average underground well. Dating back to the Byzantine era, the huge cistern was built in the mid-500s on the former site of a basilica. More than 300 marble columns provide a grand, serene atmosphere to what was essentially subterranean water storage.
Commissioned by Suleyman the Magnificent and built in the 16th century by the celebrated Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan, Süleymaniye Mosque (Süleymaniye Camii) is the largest imperial mosque in Istanbul. Surrounded by a sprawling landscaped courtyard and with a clear view of the Bosphorus Strait, it’s a stunning and active place of worship to visit in Turkey.
Taksim Square (Taksim Meydani), Istanbul’s main modern hub, is located at the end of the pedestrian thoroughfare Istiklal Avenue (Istiklal Caddesi). A popular meeting place, Taksim Square is anchored by the Monument of the Republic and buzzes with activity day and night. The area historically hosts public celebrations, parades, and demonstrations.
Known for its views across Istanbul's natural harbor — the Golden Horn — Pierre Loti Hill (Pierre Loti Tepesi) is named after the famous French novelist and traveler. A popular spot for snapping a selfie (or three), atop the hill there are six historic mansions that have been turned into a boutique hotel. There’s also a restaurant, and the famous Pierre Loti Coffee Shop where you can enjoy the views with a cup of Turkish tea or coffee in hand. Loti used to sit here and write his novels when the cafe was known as Rabia Kadın Café. For the best views of all, test the telescope on the observation deck at Piyerloti funicular station.
The Golden Horn was once the center of the Byzantine and Ottoman navies, and it's fun to see the boats come in while enjoying the views of the parks and promenades that line the harbor’s shores.
In the Eyüp district, to get to Pierre Loti Hill there are two options: you can either take the 3-minute Eyüp-Piyerloti cable car ride, or alternatively, see that grand mosque at the bottom of the hill? It's the most important one in the district, and you can walk up to the top of this 53-meter-high hill from there by winding your way up through the graveyard.
Istiklal Street (İstiklal Caddesi) is the main pedestrian thoroughfare in Istanbul’s European Beyoglu district and an essential cultural center. Stretching from Taksim Square to Tunel Square, the bustling street is lined with late–Ottoman-era buildings built in a variety of architectural styles, ranging from neoclassical to art deco.
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