Istanbul is the most populous city in Turkey that will let you feel ambient of two continent, as it bridges Asia and Europe over the Bosphorus.
This mesmerizing city is a magnificent mix of modernity and tradition. This contrast shows itself in everything from the physical separation (Europe-Asia) to culture and architecture and this is exactly, what will fascinate you.
In 2010, Istanbul was chosen as “European Capital of Culture”. This title made more reputation for this city, hence, it is among the top most popular tourist destinations in the world.
It is important to know that most tourist attractions have been located in European side, in particular the both sides of the Golden Horn. In compare, the Asian side is less touristic and more residential. However, there are also nice things to visit in this part as well. In this article I have tried to cover the best of both European and Asian sides of the city and make a good balance.
Top 10 must-see places in Istanbul
Let’s start with the 10 must-see attractions in Istanbul and then more useful information regarding a perfect trip to this city.
1. Hagia Sophia
Hagia Sofia or Ayasofya as they call it in Turkish, should be without any doubt at top of the list of must-see places in Istanbul. Built in 6th century originally as a church with a pretty huge dome, it was the largest cathedral in the world and it had this title for almost over 10 centuries!
This place didn’t stop to amaze people, as just before losing the title of “world’s largest cathedral” to Seville Cathedral in Spain, it was converted into a mosque upon order of Mehmed the Conqueror under the Ottoman Empire in 15th century.
So what you will see is a strange, yet amazing mix of a church and a mosque, because they didn’t change the Christian features, but added Islamic features to this architectural masterpiece.
Later in 1935 after 4 years of being closed, it was transformed to a museum by the President of the Republic of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.
Despite the several damages during centuries to the building due to natural disasters, specially a big earthquake which led to a partial collapse on the dome, the main structure is still standing from the original one.
The structure of this UNESCO World Heritage site with its Byzantine architecture, consists of two floors with a massive dome of 55 meters. The interior design includes decoration by mosaics made by gold, silver and coloured stones and marble pillars and also Islamic calligraphy panels. There are also some artworks including photos and paintings.
Useful tips to visit the Hagia Sofia Museum:
- For skip the queue, purchase the ticket beforehand, while at the same time, I recommend you for having a better insight over its history and architectural details, take a guided tour.
- It is better to know that the museum does not have bathrooms.
- You will have better view for taking photos from upper gallery.
2. Topkapı Palace
Built in 15th century by the order of Mehmed the Conqueror (exactly the king that ordered the conversion of Hagia Sofia into a mosque), this palace was in use by many kings until 18th century. Then in 19th century, the king of that time decided to move to Dolmabahçe Palace along the Bosphorus. Later, at the time of President Atatürk in 1924, it was transformed to a museum.
This UNESCO World Heritage Site is a huge complex consisting of 4 courtyards and hundreds of rooms and chambers. However, only some parts are open to public. It includes the Ottoman Imperial Harem and the treasury.
The first courtyard is the biggest one and its main entrance is known as Imperial Gate where the sultan (king) used to enter the palace through it. To reach the second courtyard, you need to pass the the middle gate or the Salutation Gate with two octagonal tower. The second courtyard includes the harem, former palace hospital, Janissary, Divan, bakery, quarters, stables, and kitchens. The former Imperial Treasury is also located in this part and it houses the armoury collection.
Passing the Felicity Gate you reach the third courtyard where, is the heart of the palace. It also includes the treasury, the Imperial Harem, and the library of Sultan Ahmed III. The Imperial Harem or women corner located in this courtyard has over 400 rooms. The mother of sultan, the concubines and wives of the sultan lived in this place. And finally the fourth courtyard which was the most private part and known as the Imperial Sofa.
This complex is very large to explore, however, if you can mange the time, Gülhane Park and Hagia Sofia Museum are very close by that you can take advantage to visit all in one day.
3. Grand Bazaar
Built in 15th century, the Grand Bazaar of Istanbul is among the oldest covered markets in the world. The other unique aspect of this Bazaar is its hugeness! With more than 4000 shops distributed in 61 covered streets, grand Bazaar is also among the largest markets in its type.
Like other old markets, what you will see in this Bazaar, is handmade stuff mainly for decoration and perfect for souvenir, including super colourful lanterns, tea sets, crafts, garments, jewellery and sweets. So, do not expect to find original, expensive brands and products.
The Grand Bazaar is actually not just for shopping. The amazing architecture and colours, make it a perfect place for sightseeing, taking photos and getting lost in this massive traditional gem.
Remember when you are shopping there, you can make a bit of haggling! In this types of traditional markets there is always a space to haggle!
4. Blue Mosque
Blue Mosque or Sultan Ahmed Mosque as they call it in Turkish, was built in 17th century. The Blue Mosque name has been taken from the blue tiles (hand-painted) in the interior design of mosque, in addition, the whole mosque is enlighten by blue light at night.
The architecture of this UNESCO World Heritage Site is unique. It is a mix of traditional Islamic architecture with some touches of Byzantine Christian and this is among the few Mosques in Turkey that have six minarets.
It has five main and eight secondary domes. To have more natural light the central dome has 28 stained glass windows and the rest of the domes each one 14 windows, in total more than 200 windows.
Useful tips to visit Blue Mosque:
- The entrance to this mosque is free.
- Another interesting fact is that Blue Mosque is still in use for praying (takes place five times a day) and during pray time tourist visit is not allowed. It is nice to be respectful and silent during visiting this place.
- It is good to know that as a still functioning religious place, it is requested to respect the dress code that for women is to cover their hair, arms and legs and for men is to cover their legs.
- If your dress is not proper, there are gowns and scarfs, provided by the mosque for free to cover yourself during visit.
- Take into account that for stepping into the mosque, shoes also should be taken off.
- It is not allowed to take photo with flash.
5. Basilica Cistern
This subterranean cistern got the name “Basilica” from its location that at the time was under Stoa Basilica.
There are actually hundreds of ancient cisterns, located underground of Istanbul. However, the Basilica Cistern, built in the 6th century, is the most famous one as it is the biggest one. It occupies 9,800 square metres area and has the capacity of holding 80,000 cubic metres of water.
There are 336 marble columns, each 9 metres that support the ceiling. There are also two columns that their base is a stone carved like Medusa Head and interestingly one of the head is upside down.
The dimmed light, reflecting in the water and the columns amazingly arranged in 12 rows of 28 columns, make this place perfect for photography!
6. Istanbul Archaeology Museums
The idea of having an imperial museum in Istanbul, was shaped when the Ottoman Sultan Abdülaziz travelled to some of European countries in 1867 and visited archaeological museums in London, Paris and Vienna. Then after coming back to Turkey, he ordered constructing an archaeological museum in Istanbul. However, Istanbul Archaeology Museums were established years after him in 1891.
Located at one side close to Gülhane Park and the other side close to Topkapı Palace, Istanbul Archaeology Museums, are a group of three museums including, Archaeological Museum, Museum of the Ancient Orient, and Museum of Islamic Art.
With more than one million objects from ancient era up to now, this place is a gem for history lovers. While you are there, do not forget to visit the Alexander Sarcophagus, which is believed to be made for Alexander the Great and also Egyptian–Hittite Peace Treaty or Treaty of Kadesh that is considered as the world’s oldest peace treaty.
This museum is open from 9:00 am until 6:00 pm in winter and 8:00 pm in summer and it is closed on Mondays.
7. Istiklal Street
Running for almost 1.5 km, this street is the most visited and famous street in Istanbul. Like all the other pedestrian streets in the world, Istiklal Jaddeci is also full of shops and restaurants. In addition, there is a historic tram running in the middle of this street.
There are many buildings in this street with different architectural styles from Neo-Classical to Turkish National Architecture. One of the famous historic buildings, is Flower Passage (Çiçek Pasaj) which was opened in 1876.
Istiklal street ends to Taksim Square which is known as the heart of modern Istanbul. This square is also famous for being a political hub when there are demonstrations.
Apart from shopping, strolling around and enjoying vivid vibe, do not miss eating Turkish hamburger in this street.
8. Galata Tower
Galata Tower in the Karaköy neighbourhood of Istanbul, provides a 360 panoramic view of Istanbul’s peninsula.
From this 67-meter tower you can spot the many landmarks of Istanbul. Built in the 14th century, it was the tallest building in the city at the time. Back then, this stone tower was built for military purpose, for this reason, the walls are almost 4 meters thick.
On the upper floor of the tower there is also a restaurant and cafe with panoramic view, perfect place if you want to have a romantic meal!
There is always a queue for entering the tower, so, I recommend you to purchase the ticket beforehand.
Apart from visiting the tower itself, walking in the streets surrounding the tower is also very enjoyable. You can enjoy having a meal or a coffee in a cool restaurant in this neighbourhood.
9. Süleymaniye Mosque
The Süleymaniye Mosque takes its name from the Ottoman Sultan Suleyman that he ordered building this mosque in the 16th century at the highest end of the city and by the most famous architect of that time, Mimar Sinan.
Located on the Third Hill of Istanbul, Süleymaniye Mosque is one of the must-see places in Istanbul due to many reasons especially its location which gives an amazing view over the Istanbul. Apart from the view, reaching to its location is not easy, as you need to climb a bit, so, I should say, another advantage of visiting this place is, that is less touristic in compare to the other famous mosques like Blue Mosque.
The main dome of the mosque has 53 metres and a diameter of 26.5 metres (half of the height). It also has four minarets which 2 of them are 76 metres high and two smaller 56 meters. The four minarets are located in the corners of a big courtyard with a fountain in the middle with three stream of water: hot, cold and cold sweet water for drinking. Inside the mosque is also quiet impressive.
10. Other places to visit
As mentioned before, Istanbul is so big and full of attractions. It is almost impossible to end up just with 10 places. Therefore, for having more options in your mind, I am going to give you another shortlist of the places that you can visit:
- Üsküdar: This is the name of a municipality and district of Istanbul located on the Anatolian Shore of the Bosphorus. The reason I chose it, is the nice shore for walking. There is a tower in the southern entrance of the Bosphorus known as the Maiden’s Tower which makes a perfect background for photos there.
- Dolmabahçe Palace: Dolmabahçe Palace was built by the order of the 31st Ottoman Sultan, after visiting European Palaces, he thought that Topkapi Palace is not modern enough, so another palace should be built with new luxury style. Dolmabahçe Palace was the main palace of Ottoman Empire for almost 50 years.
- Spice Bazaar (Misir Çarsisi): This is the most famous bazaar after Grand Bazaar, where you can find any sort of spices. During time, other products were also added to this bazaar, mainly sweets and herbs.
- Chora Church (Kariye Müzesi): A bit far from the other landmarks of Istanbul, this church is still worth visiting because of unique interior design that is covered with some of the oldest mosaics and frescoes from Byzantine. Like other important buildings in Istanbul, this church also converted into a mosque by the order of Ottoman Sultans and later in 1948, it became a museum.
- Gülhane Park: This is one of the oldest and largest public parks in Istanbul that is located close to the Topkapi Palace. This park has been renovated recently in a modern style and now has a huge open space.
What to see in Istanbul in 2 days
Istanbul is a huge city. If you really want to catch up with the main attractions, you need minimum 3 days. With more days you will enjoy visiting more landmarks and you can also cover both European and Asian part. Let’s see what we can see in 2 days, in Istanbul.
1 Start with visiting Topkapi Palace in the morning. At the end of your visit to this palace, you can move to the Golhane Park which is in the same place. For afternoon you can stay in this neighbourhood, as Blue Mosque is within a 7-min walk and you can enjoy your evening.
2 For the second day, start the the day by visiting magnificent Hagia Sophia. It will take your morning. For the afternoon indulge in the historic beauty of Grand Bazaar.
What to see in Istanbul in 3 days
You already have the plan of two days. With one extra day you can visit the places in Istanbul that I have mentioned before according to your interest.
3 I recommend you to start the 3rd day by visiting Basilica Cistern. Spend the sunset time in Suleymaniye Mosque with a nice view over Istanbul.
What to see in Istanbul in 5 days
By having more days you don’t need to rush and also you can enjoy visiting more places in Istanbul.
For the first three days you can go according to the previous mentioned plan, in case you get tired you can keep visiting some places for the 5th day.
4 Starting early in the morning by going up to the Galata Tower (less crowded in the mornings). After visiting the tower, explore the neighbourhood and take a rest in a local cafe. For the afternoon you can move toward Istiklal Street which is in walking distance. Explore this street until you reach famous Taksim Square.
5 I have 3 suggestion for this day that you can choose according to your interest. If you are a museum person, then Istanbul Archaeology Museums are good options. If you are a shopping person, apart from Grand Bazaar, Spice Bazaar is a good option. And as the last recommendation, I personally won’t miss Üsküdar neighbourhood to visit again!
Istanbul Tourist Pass
Istanbul Pass provides you the facility to enter many sightseeing places. If you ask if it is worth it or not, I should say it depends on your plan. If you are going to visit a lot of things that you need to pay the entrance fee, I think it is worth it.
- You save much time from queuing at the entrances of museums or other tourist attractions.
- It includes the entrance to most important places.
- You can use it for public transport.
- It is much cheaper than buying separate tickets.
- You can buy the Istanbul Pass for 2, 3 or 4 days, which starts from the moment you use it for the first time.
Public Transport in Istanbul
Istanbul is a huge city. However, the good news is that, this city has a very well organised and integrated public transport system that works with a card called ISTANBULKART which you can purchase it in the small kiosks close to almost all metro or bus stations.
There are different modes of public transport in Istanbul including bus, metro, tram, suburban train, funicular, ferries, seabus and taxi.
Since the opening of the new airport in Istanbul in October 2018, there have been public buses running between this airport and city known as HAVAİST and İETT. Almost 150 buses operate between Istanbul Airport and different spots in the European and Asian side of Istanbul.
When is the best time to visit Istanbul?
Istanbul has cold winters. So, during winter months maybe you won’t be able to enjoy enough due to chilly weather.
On the other hand, summer is very touristy. For visiting everywhere you need to wait a long queue.
The best time in my opinion is during May till June. September and October are also good time.
The important thing is that there is a month called Ramadan that muslims fast at this month, and as it is according to lunar calendar, it changes every year and is not fix. During this time, maybe finding and eating food is not that much comfortable. However, maybe some people would like to see the ceremony of this month, which is another issue.
What should I take on my trip to Istanbul?
First of all, like all the other big touristic cities, you should be careful about your stuff due to pickpocketing.
Taking warm clothes in winter time is recommended as this city has cold winters.
Apart from that, Istanbul is not a flat city, there are a lot of ups and downs, so if you are going to walk a lot, taking comfy shoes (preferably sportive or without heel) highly recommended.
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