Istanbul is a melting pot of historical and cultural riches where the East meets the West. History enthusiasts and tourists with an appreciation for eclectic culture will surely admire Istanbul’s rich history. After all, with its geography spread over two continents, it has witnessed the rise and fall of many different civilizations.
Meanwhile, if you are looking for a spiritual adventure, an Istanbul trip will also be your cup of tea as it is widely regarded as the cultural capital of different monothetic religious communities. And even if you are not a big fan of history and religion, the architectural charms and vibrant vibes of this unique city will still enchant you.
There is no better way to know about life in Istanbul other than experiencing it for yourself. So get your passport ready because we are going on an Istanbul guided tour together! Here are the top 10 must-visit attractions you cannot miss:
1. Hagia Sophia
Hagia Sophia or Ayasofya in Turkish literally translates into “Holy Wisdom.” It was hailed as the world’s largest cathedral for almost 100 consecutive years until the Seville Cathedral took on the title in 1520. This majestic cathedral with its fascinating architecture was completed by the orders of the then-Byzantine Emperor Justinian I. The emperor dedicated this grand cathedral to his son, Constantius II. The cathedral has been converted into a mosque nowadays. However, it is worth noting that before the conversion, Hagia Sophia functioned as the center of the Eastern Orthodox Church during the 15th century.
The Hagia Sophia is among Istanbul’s most fabled historic spots, all thanks to its enormous, ever-grandiose dome that will surely capture the eyes and fascination of any onlookers. Aside from its soaring dome, the huge nave and glittering gold Byzantine mosaics featuring portraits of bygone emperors and representations of Christ adorn its walls and contribute to its reputation as one of the world’s most beautiful buildings.
When you visit this historic marvel, make sure to pay attention to the marble parapets displayed on the topmost gallery. There, you will see the two rune inscriptions personally engraved by the Royal bodyguards of the Byzantine Emperor. This engraving dates as far back as the Viking Age.
Some things to know before you visit Hagia Sophia on your Istanbul trip
Since its reconsecration as a mosque, the Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofya) is closed to non-worshippers during the five daily prayer times. Also, please be mindful of the proper attire when visiting. For starters, make sure you are wearing modest clothing. Women in particular should cover their heads and shoulders with headscarves called basortusu in Turkish and hijab in Arabic. Visitors must also remove their shoes before entering the building. Also, some of its mosaics are shielded by retractable screens and the upper gallery is inaccessible. Nonetheless, gazing at its historic grandeur remains breathtaking.
2. Topkapı Palace
If you wish to uncover the secrets of the Seraglio, there is no better place to find out other than the opulent Ottoman Topkapı Palace complex. Situated in the promontory of Istanbul’s Old City, the Topkapı Palace is the subject of many colorful stories of the former Turkish royalties. After all, a series of mad, despondent, and downright wicked sultans lived here with their concubines and courtiers between 1465 and 1830. The Topkapı Palace was home to Selim the Sot, who drowned after having one too many champagnes, İbrahim the Mad, who lost his wits after being imprisoned for 22 years by his brother Murat IV, and the malevolent Roxelana, who was a concubine turned consort of Süleyman the Magnificent.
To this day, the extravagant relics of their centuries of folly, luxury, and war traces are everywhere you look. Some of the highlights include the huge Harem, impressive Imperial Council Chamber, object-laden Imperial Treasury, and the picturesque Marble Terrace. You will also get to see the extensive manicured gardens that were once lit by candles riding on tortoises’ backs (crazy, I know), the exquisite tile-encrusted pavilions which served as royal circumcision sites, and the golden viewing platforms where the sultans looked upon the Golden Horn (Haliç).
If you like shiny things, you will surely take penchant in all the sparkling jewels kept in its treasury, including the famed 86-carat Spoonmaker’s Diamond and the jewel-encrusted dagger shown in the 1964 film Topkapi. Lavish costumes are also on display in the Dormitory of the Expeditionary Force, along with important Islamic relics and fine examples of Ottoman calligraphy and portraiture.
3. The Grand Bazaar
The chaotic and colorful Grand Bazaar is surely heaven on earth for shopaholic tourists. After all, it is one of the world’s oldest covered shopping centers and the best-known shopping destination on Istanbul’s historic peninsula. This historical bazaar is a microcosm of Turkish manufacturing and artisanship. Here, you can find kitsch souvenirs such as Nazar amulets, colorful piles of Turkish delights, Anatolian carpets, and a fragrant selection of spices.
Iznik Works or Iznik Gift Shop is the best place to buy exquisite pottery originally created in the Northwest Anatolian town of Iznik in the 15th century. Also, be sure to try the rose or pistachio-flavored Turkish delights from Haci Bekir — which is Turkey’s oldest producer. And if you are feeling a bit naughty, bring back some Turkish Viagra, which is, in fact, just dried quince stuffed with walnuts.
If you get lost in its labyrinthine lanes and hidden caravanserais, just follow the stream of crowds and head downhill into Tahtakale where you can explore yet another famous tourist spot: the Spice Bazaar. Once you are done buying spices, you can go back to the Blue Mosque. There, you will see an Arasta where you can buy cute souvenirs to remind you of your fascinating Istanbul trip.
4. Süleymaniye Mosque
Commissioned by the Ottoman sultan Süleyman I, this 16th-century mosque perches atop one of the old city’s seven hills. It offers one of the finest views in Istanbul. Looking over the domes and rooftops will give you unparalleled views of the confluence of the Bosphorus and Golden Horn waterways and beyond. With its elegant symmetry and soaring interior, the mosque itself is considered to be one of the treasures of Istanbul.
5. Basilica Cistern
Emperor Justinian I gave the orders to build the enigmatic Basilica Cistern for the purpose of storing up to 80,000 m3 of water so that it can be channeled to nearby palaces needing water supply. Its construction was completed by the end of the 6th century, featuring 336 ancient Ionic and Corinthian columns, vaulted brick ceilings, and ghastly swarms of carp. Mysteriously, Medusa’s head can be seen adorning the capitals for reasons yet to be known. In itself, the cistern is a testament to the outstanding Byzantine town planning and engineering skills. Visiting this dark underground building is also a great way to cool down and flee from the sun’s scorching heat aboveground.
6. Blue Mosque
Officially known as the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, named after the early 17th-century Ottoman ruler Ahmed I, the Blue Mosque gets its moniker from the color of the tens of thousands of İznik tiles that adorn its interior. Certainly, a building made to impress and rival the Aya Sofya, the Blue Mosque features an enormous courtyard which is the biggest in all of the Ottoman mosques, along with a grand prayer hall and six minarets, which is more than any other mosque at the time it was built. Nowadays, it is hailed as İstanbul’s most photogenic building, all thanks to its wonderfully curvaceous exterior featuring a cascade of domes, 260 windows, and blue İznik tiles.
Istanbul trip attractions: a feast for the eyes
Given the numerous architectural masterpieces that can be found in Istanbul, it will surely be a feast for the eyes of tourists with an appreciation for arts, architecture, and culture. Besides, it is one of the best places to learn about a variety of cultures, history, and everything in between.
Meet Mirela Letailleur, an esteemed travel aficionado from Romania, with an unwavering passion for the captivating Balkans. Currently nestled in the enchanting embrace of the South of France, Mirela has carved a name for herself as an unrivaled authority in the realm of travel blogging. Through her acclaimed platform, The Travel Bunny, she unveils the secrets to budget-friendly exploration across the diverse landscapes of Europe.
When it comes to Istanbul, she reigns supreme as the go-to source for intrepid explorers seeking an unforgettable adventure. With her intimate knowledge of the city’s captivating attractions and hidden gems, Mirela expertly navigates the labyrinthine streets of Istanbul, revealing the crème de la crème of sights and experiences. So, if you’re seeking an unparalleled Istanbul trip, look no further than Mirela Letailleur. With her wealth of knowledge and unwavering passion for travel, she is the ultimate guide, ready to take you on an unforgettable journey through the enchanting tapestry of Istanbul’s finest attractions. Embrace Mirela’s expertise and allow her to unlock the wonders that await you in this magical Turkish city.
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