INSTANBUL

Istanbul is the largest city in Turkey and is among the 15 largest urban areas in the world. It is located on the Bosporus Strait and covers the entire area of the Golden Horn, a natural harbor. Because of its size, Istanbul extends into both Europe and Asia. The city is the world’s only metropolis to be on more than one continent. The city of Istanbul is important to geography because it has a long history that spans the rise and fall of the world's most famous empires. Due to its participation in these empires, Istanbul has also undergone various name changes.

Byzantium

Though Istanbul may have been inhabited as early as 3000 BCE, it was not a city until Greek colonists arrived in the area in the seventh century BCE. These colonists were led by King Byzas and settled there because of the strategic location along the Bosporus Strait. King Byzas named the city Byzantium after himself.

The Roman Empire (330–395)

Byzantium became a part of the Roman Empire in the 300s. During this time, the Roman emperor, Constantine the Great, undertook the rebuilding of the entire city. His goal was to make it stand out and give the city monuments similar to those found in Rome. In 330, Constantine declared the city as the capital of the entire Roman Empire and renamed it Constantinople. It grew and prospered as a result.

The Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire (395–1204 and 1261–1453)

After the death of the emperor Theodosius I in 395, however, enormous upheaval took place in the empire as his sons permanently divided it. Following the division, Constantinople became the capital of the Byzantine Empire in the 400s.

As part of the Byzantine Empire, the city became distinctly Greek, as opposed to its former identity in the Roman Empire. Because Constantinople was at the centre of two continents, it became a centre of commerce, culture, and diplomacy and grew considerably. In 532, though, the anti-government Nika Revolt broke out among the city’s population and destroyed it. Afterward, many of its most outstanding monuments, one of which was the Hagia Sophia, were constructed during the city's rebuilding, and Constantinople became the centre of the Greek Orthodox Church.

The Latin Empire (1204–1261)

Although Constantinople significantly prospered during decades following its becoming a part of the Byzantine Empire, the factors leading to its success also made it a target for conquering. For hundreds of years, troops from all over the Middle East attacked the city. For a time it was even controlled by members of the Fourth Crusade after the city was desecrated in 1204. Subsequently, Constantinople became the center of the Catholic Latin Empire.

As competition persisted between the Catholic Latin Empire and the Greek Orthodox Byzantine Empire, Constantinople was caught in the middle and began to significantly decay. It went financially bankrupt, the population declined, and it became vulnerable to further attacks as defense posts around the city crumbled. In 1261, in the midst of this turmoil, the Empire of Nicaea recaptured Constantinople, and it was returned to the Byzantine Empire. Around the same time, the Ottoman Turks began conquering the cities surrounding Constantinople, effectively cutting it off from many of its neighbouring cities.

The Ottoman Empire (1453–1922)

After being considerably weakened, Constantinople was officially conquered by the Ottomans, led by Sultan Mehmed II on May 29, 1453, after a 53 day siege. During the siege, the last Byzantine emperor, Constantine XI, died while defending his city. Almost immediately, Constantinople was declared to be the capital of the Ottoman Empire and its name was changed to Istanbul.

Upon taking control of the city, Sultan Mehmed sought to rejuvenate Istanbul. He created the Grand Bazaar, one of the largest covered marketplaces in the world, and brought back fleeing Catholic and Greek Orthodox residents. In addition to these residents, he brought in Muslim, Christian, and Jewish families to establish a mixed populace. Sultan Mehmed also began the building of architectural monuments, schools, hospitals, public baths, and grand imperial mosques.

From 1520 to 1566, Suleiman the Magnificent controlled the Ottoman Empire, and there were many artistic and architectural achievements that made the city a major cultural, political, and commercial centre. By the mid 1500s, its population had grown to almost 1 million inhabitants. The Ottoman Empire ruled Istanbul until it was defeated and occupied by the Allies in World War I.

The Republic of Turkey (1923–Present)

Following World War I, the Turkish War of Independence took place, and Istanbul became a part of the Republic of Turkey in 1923. Istanbul was not the capital city of the new republic, and during the early years of its formation, Istanbul was overlooked; investment went into the new, centrally located capital, Ankara. In the 1940s and 1950s, though, Istanbul reemerged. New public squares, boulevards, and avenues were constructed, and many of the city’s historic buildings were demolished.

In the 1970s, Istanbul’s population rapidly increased, causing the city to expand into the nearby villages and forests, eventually creating a major world metropolis.

Istanbul Today

Istanbul's many historical areas were added to the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1985. In addition, because of its status as a world rising power, its history, and its importance to culture in both Europe and the world, Istanbul was designated the European Capital of Culture for 2010 by the European Union.

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.

 

Hagia Sophia

Blue Mosque

Arasta Bazaar

Topkapi Palace

Basilica Cistern

Galata Tower

Chora Church

Istanbul Archaeological Museum

Dolmabahce Palace

Suleymaniye Mosque

Grand Bazaar

Hippodrome

Istiklal Caddesi and Taksim Pedestrianized

Yedikule Fortress

Maiden's Tower

12. Hippodrome

The ancient Hippodrome was begun by Septimius Severus in 203 CE and completed by Constantine the Great in 330 CE. This was the center of Byzantine public life and the scene of splendid games and chariot races but also factional conflicts. Today, there is not much of the Hippodrome left to see, except for a small section of the gallery walls on the southern side, but the At Meydani (park), which now stands on the site is home to a variety of monuments.

On the northwest side is a fountain, presented to the Ottoman sultan by the German Emperor William II in 1898. Then, heading southwest are three ancient monuments: a 20 meter high Egyptian obelisk, from Heliopolis. The Serpent Column was brought here from Delphi by Constantine; and a stone obelisk that originally was clad in gold covered bronze plating until they were stolen by the soldiers of the 4th Crusade in 1204.

13. Istiklal Caddesi and Taksim Pedestrianized

Istiklal Caddesi (Independence Street) is a bustling modern shopping street with a wealth of restaurants and cafés. The lower end of the street can be reached by taking the world's oldest underground railway from near Galata Bridge, the Tünel, constructed in 1875. There is also an old fashioned tramway that runs along its length right up to Taksim Square at the top of the hill. From Taksim Square, busy Cumhuriyet Caddesi is lined with hotels, shops, restaurants, and high rises. On the east side of the road, just after the square, is Maçka Park, which is home to the interesting Military Museum.

14. Üsküdar and Maiden's Tower

Istanbul's Asian shore is easily reached by ferry from Eminönü dock across the Bosphorus. On an island just off the Asiatic shore stands the 30 meter high Kiz Kulesi (Maiden's Tower). Legends say, the Maiden’s Tower was built by an emperor to prevent his beloved daughter from being killed by a venomous snake as prophesied by an oracle. I won’t spoil the rest of the story, but you should go and find out by yourself.

The town of Üsküdar was traditionally known as Scutari and has some handsome old mosques, winding lanes, and weathered brown timber houses. The town, known in ancient times as Chrysopolis, was one of the earliest Greek settlements on the Bosporus. It was much more exposed to attack by foreign conquerors than Constantinople, with its defensive situation and strong walls, but it was able to draw economic advantage from its exposed situation, until 1800 it was the last stop of the caravan routes that brought the treasures of the East to Constantinople and onwards to Europe. Of particular sightseeing interest here is the Mihrimah Sultan Mosque, built by Süleyman the Magnificent in 1547 for his daughter Mihrimah, and the Yeni Valide Mosque, built in the 18th century by Sultan Ahmet III.

15. Yedikule Fortress

Although it is a bit of a trip on the suburban train to get out to Yedikule, this commanding fortress is well worth the visit. Built in the 5th century by the Emperor Theodosius II, the fortress made up the southern section of Constantinople's defensive walls. The mammoth arch was known as Porta Aurea (Golden Gate), with doors plated in gold. When the Ottomans conquered the city, they used the fortress for defense, and later as a prison and execution place.

Yedikule has been restored in recent years, and you can climb up to the top of the battlements for superb views across the Sea of Marmara.

16. Miniaturk

Turkey is a magnificent country for traveling due to its rich history. At Miniatürk you will “travel” all over the country, see it’s most iconic landmarks and get a glimpse of all the things Turkey has to offer… everything from a single place!

Yedikule Fortress

Miniaturk