The city, officially renamed Istanbul after the founding of the Turkish Republic, is liberally scattered with glorious remnants of its long and illustrious history, and the sightseeing here will impress even the most monument weary visitor. As well as the big four; Aya Sofya, Topkapi Palace, Blue Mosque, and Grand Bazaar), leave enough time to explore the other sights. Although many tourist attractions are located in, or near, the old city district of Sultanahmet, there is a dazzling array of other things to do throughout the farther reaches of the city.
1. Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofya)
The Hagia Sophia is a masterwork of Roman engineering, with its 102 feet (31 meter) diameter massive dome that covers what was for over 1000 years the largest enclosed space in the world.
Hagia Sophia is the Greek term for Holy Wisdom and refers to Jesus Christ, the Holy Trinity’s second person. Constructed between 532 and 537, on the orders of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian, the structure was an Eastern Orthodox cathedral until 1453, except for about 60 years in the 1200s when it served as a Roman Catholic cathedral. In 1453, Ottoman Turks captured Constantinople and converted the edifice into a mosque, removing or plastering over many Christian relics and replacing them with Islamic features. The building closed in 1931, and the Republic of Turkey re-opened it as a museum in 1935.
Visitors can go through the Imperial Gate to the central nave and look up to see the dome’s majestic interior with its mosaic covered ceiling. Marble on the walls in the main nave extends to the gallery’s upper reaches, and the inner narthex and side naves have walls entirely covered with marble. The costly marbles of many different colors, selected exclusively for the Hagia Sophia, came from various areas of the empire.
In the Hagia Sophia courtyard is a Fountain of Purification with a Greek inscription in palindrome form that translates, “Wash your sin not only your face.”
Built in 1739, the Hagia Sophia Library contains ancient Turkish tiles, and the engraved, wooden bookshelves hold historical objects as well as books.
Through the years, the church suffered damage from earthquakes, fires and riots, making many repairs and restorations necessary, but it remains a beautiful building that some people call the world’s eighth wonder.
2. Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmet Camii)
Sultan Ahmet I's grand architectural gift to his capital was this beautiful mosque, commonly known as the Blue Mosque today. Built between 1609 and 1616, the mosque caused a uproar throughout the Muslim world when it was finished, as it had six minarets, the same number as the Great Mosque of Mecca. A seventh minaret was eventually gifted to Mecca to stem the disapproval.
The mosque gets its nickname from its interior decoration of tens of thousands of Iznik tiles. The entire spatial and color effect of the interior makes the mosque one of the finest achievements of Ottoman architecture. A great sightseeing joy of a trip to Istanbul is wandering amid the gardens in-between the Blue Mosque and the Aya Sofya to experience their dueling domes in twin glory. Come at dusk for extra ambience, as the call to prayer echoes out from the Blue Mosque's minaret.
3. Arasta Bazaar
Directly behind the Blue Mosque is the Arasta Bazaar; a great place for a shopping stop as the handicraft shops here sell high quality souvenirs. Even if you are not interested in a browse, head here to see the Great Palace Mosaic Museum, which is tucked between the Arasta Bazaar and the mosque. This small museum displays the 250 square meter fragment of mosaic pavement that was unearthed in the 1950s here. Excellent information panels explain the mosaic floor's recovery and subsequent rescue.
4. Topkapi Palace (Topkapi Sarayi)
First built by Mehmet the Conqueror in the 15th century, this glorious palace beside the Bosphorus was where the sultans of the Ottoman Empire ruled over their dominions up until the 19th century. The vast complex is a dazzling display of Islamic art, with opulent courtyards lined with intricate hand-painted tile-work, linking a warren of sumptuously decorated rooms, all bounded by battlemented walls and towers. Of the many highlights here, the most popular are the Harem, where the sultan's many concubines and children would spend their days. The Second Court, where you can walk through the vast Palace Kitchens and stand in awe at the dazzling interior of the Imperial Council Chamber. The Third Court, which contained the sultan's private rooms. The Third Court also displays an impressive collection of relics of the Prophet Muhammad in the Sacred Safekeeping Room and is home to the Imperial Treasury, where you are greeted with a cache of glittering gold objects and precious gems that will make your eyes water. You will need at least half a day to explore Topkapi Palace.
5. Basilica Cistern (Yerebatan Sarniçi)
The Basilica Cistern has been providing Istanbul residents with water since the sixth century when it was ordered built by the Roman Emperor Justinian I. A visit leaves travelers raving about the technology the ancient Romans used to build this architectural wonder that was very advanced for its day. The underground cistern, just a few steps away from the Blue Mosque, was built on the site of a basilica that was constructed in the third century. Known as the Sunken Palace, the cistern can hold up to 2.8 million cubic feet of water. The cistern is one of the locations used in From Russia with Love, a James Bond thriller filmed in 1963.
6. Galata Tower
At 67 meters (219 feet) high, the Galata Tower rules over the Istanbul skyline, offering great views of the old city and its surroundings. The medieval stone tower, known as the Tower of Christ, was the tallest building in Istanbul when it was built in 1348. It still stands tall over Istanbul today. The tower has been modified over the centuries, at one time being used as an observation tower to spot fires. Today, its upper reaches include a café, restaurant and a night club, both reached by elevator in the nine story building, where one can find the stunning vistas.
7. Istanbul Archaeological Museum
One of the most important museums in Turkey, the Istanbul Archaeological Museum is actually three museums: the Archaeological Museum, the Ancient Orient Museum and the Tiled Kiosk Museum. The three museums combined contain more than 1 million objects from civilizations around the world. Founded in 1891, it was the first Turkish museum, and was located on the Topkapi Palace grounds. The Tiled Kiosk dates back to 1472. The museums contain thousands of precious artifacts, including the sarcophagus of Alexander the Great.
8. Chora Church
The Chora Church may be a little bit off the beaten tourist path, but visitors say the beautiful Byzantine art is well worth the effort to get there. Magnificent mosaics and frescoes depict the life of Jesus and his mother, Mary. Known as the Church of the Holy Savior in Chora, it has been described as one of the most beautiful surviving works of Byzantine architecture. Dating back to the days of Constantine, the Chora was a monastery in its early years; a few centuries later, it became a mosque, and in 1948, it was converted to a museum.
9. Dolmabahce Palace
Luxurious, plush and beautiful are just some of the adjectives used to describe the Dolmabahce Palace, which has been compared to the Palace of Versailles. Built in the 19th century using 14 tons of gold leaf, Turkey’s most glamorous palace blends traditional Ottoman architecture with the European styles of Neoclassical, Baroque and Rococo. Home to six sultans from 1856 to 1924, it also is home to the world’s largest Bohemian crystal chandelier, a gift from Queen Victoria. The Dolmabahce Palace’s setting is stunning: It was built along the Bosphorus coastline.
10. Suleymaniye Mosque
Visitors to the Suleymaniye Mosque say its beauty and peacefulness gives them an inspiring sense of spirituality. Located on the Third Hill of Istanbul, the mosque was ordered built in 1550 by the Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent. The mosque, indeed, is magnificent, blending the best of Islamic and Byzantine architecture. The mosque was extensively damaged over the years, including during World War I when a fire broke out while the gardens were used as a weapons depot. It was restored in the mid 20th century. The mosque is marked by four minarets, indicating it was built by a sultan. When it was built, the dome was the highest in the Ottoman Empire.
11. Grand Bazaar
Travelers who love to shop should not miss out on a visit to the Grand Bazaar, with 5,000 shops making it one of the largest indoor marketplaces in the world. Receiving more than a quarter-million visitors a day, the bazaar features such items as jewelry, carpets that may or may not fly, spices, antiques and hand painted ceramics. The bazaar dates back to 1461 and today is home to two mosques, four fountains, two hammams or steam baths, and the Cevahir Bedesten, where the rarest and most valuable items have been found traditionally. Here is where shoppers will find old coins, jewelry with precious gems, inlaid weapons and antique furniture.