This magical meeting place of East and West is one of the culturally richest lands and the 5h most visited city in the world. The location of Turkey’s largest city, at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, is a big reason for its popularity as a destination. Coveted by empires across the centuries, Istanbul is one of the world’s great metropolises. The city is liberally scattered with glorious remnants of its long and illustrious history, and the sightseeing here will impress even the most monument-weary visitor.
1. Aya Sofya
The Aya Sofya (formerly the Hagia Sophia) was the emperor’s way of announcing to the world how wealthy and technically able his empire was. Tradition maintained that the area surrounding the emperor’s throne within the church was the official centre of the world. It was converted to a mosque after the Ottoman armies conquered Constantinople and then into a museum in the 20th century. The Aya Sofya remains one of Istanbul’s most cherished landmarks. Enter this wonderful monument and admire all the amazing mosaics, kiosks, libraries, incredible decorations, galleries and many other fascinating things.
2. Topkapı Palace (Topkapı Sarayı)
Topkapı is the subject of more colourful stories than most of the world’s museums put together. Sultans, courtiers, beautiful concubines and eunuchs lived and worked here between the 15th and 19th centuries, when this was the court of the Ottoman empire. Visiting the palace’s opulent pavilions, jewel-filled Treasury and sprawling Harem gives a fascinating glimpse into their lives.
Enter the fascinating world that this palace represents and see the Harem, the Second Court, the Palace Kitchens, the Imperial Council Chamber, the Third Court, the Sacred Safekeeping Room to really feel the “Ottoman Empire vibe”. Take at least half a day to fully see the Topkapı Palace and be amazed.
3. Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmet Camii)
Istanbul’s most photogenic building was the grand project of Sultan Ahmet I. Although it is not it’s official name, the monument is commonly known today as the Blue Mosque due to its interior decoration of tens of thousands of Iznik tiles. The spatial and color effect of the interior make this one of the finest achievements of Ottoman architecture. The exterior features a cascade of domes and six slender minarets. It caused a furor throughout the Muslim world because it initially had the same number of minarets as the Great Mosque of Mecca, but a seventh minaret was eventually gifted to Mecca to stem the dissent. Admission here is controlled to preserve the sacred atmosphere, so only worshippers are admitted through the main door, while tourists must use the south door. From the courtyard, which is the same size as the whole interior, you’ll truly appreciate the building’s perfect proportions.
4. Basilica Cistern (Yerebatan Sarnıçı)
This is one of Istanbul’s most alluring tourist attractions. The huge, palace-like underground hall is supported by 336 columns in 12 rows. It once stored the imperial water supply for the Byzantine emperors. Many of the columns used in construction were were salvaged from ruined temples and feature fine carved capitals, the most popular of these being the column bases known as the Medusa stones from the north-west corner. The soft steady trickle of water all around, the raise wooden platforms, and symmetry and sheer grander of conception are breathtaking and the atmosphere is out of this world.
Splendid games and chariot races were held here when this was the center of Byzantine public life. Today you can still see a small section of gallery walls on the southern side and a variety of related monuments at the At Meydani park. It its heyday, the Hippodrome was decorated by obelisks and statues, some of which remain in place today. A wonderful fountain on the north-west side, an Egyptian obelisk, the Serpent Column and a stone obelisk on in the south-west are some of the most interesting sights here.
6. Istanbul Archaeology Museums
There are three separate sections in this captivating complex: the Museum of the Ancient Orient, the main Archaeology Museum and the Tiled Pavilion of Mehmet the Conqueror. Don’t miss the staggering collection of ceramic art, all the wonderful artefacts and classical statuary on display, the “Istanbul Through the Ages” exhibit room and the sarcophagi from the Royal Necropolis of Sidon. Follow the lines of the history of Istanbul and get a better understanding of this particular cultural environment.
7. Grand Bazaar (Kapalı Çarşı)
For a lot of people, sightseeing in Istanbul is as much about shopping as it is about museums and monumental attractions. Either way, the Grand Bazaar is not to be missed. This massive covered market is basically the world’s first shopping mall. Enter through one of the 11 gates into the maze of vaulted-ceiling lane-ways, lined by shops and stalls. This colorful and chaotic market is the heart of Istanbul’s Old City. Wander around and discover hidden hans, watch artisans at work, drink lots of tea, compare the prices and test your bargaining skills. You can spend from a couple of hours to a couple of days here, depending on how fascinated you will be by this amazing illustration of Turkish culture and customs.
8. Spice Bazaar
Vividly coloured spices displayed alongside jewel-like lokum (Turkish delight) will lure you into the Ottoman atmosphere and get you really excited about the wonderful tumult you are taking part in. You can get a huge variety of spices as well as caviar, dried herbs, fruits and nuts.
Te Spice Bazaar is a prime tourist attractions, so it can get extremely crowded at certain times. The best idea would be to try to arrive here before 11am of after 4pm, as the place clears up a little bit during these hours.
9. Dolmabahçe Palace
This palace shows the clear influence of European decoration and architecture on the Ottoman Empire. It is set in well-tended formal gardens, punctuated with fountains, ornamental basins and blooming flower beds and you can enter through an ornate imperial gate. The interior is a fascinating mix of rococo, baroque, neoclassical and Ottoman elements, with massive crystal chandeliers, gold, French-style furniture and alluring ceiling frescoes.
Wander around the three sections (Selâmik, Harem and Veliaht Dairesi) and remember to take into consideration the fact that the place gets really crowded on weekends and holidays, so it is best to reserve a day during the week to visit the palace.
10. Rüstem Paşa Mosque
This mosque is probably the most perfectly beautiful mosque in Istanbul. It is home to the best preserved Iznik tile panels in the city, which decorate both the exterior courtyard walls and the interior. The interior also features a lovely dome, supported by four tiled pillars. The mosque is easy to miss as it is not at street level. Find the set of access stairs of Hasırcılar Caddesi and another on the small street that runs right (north) off Hasırcılar Caddesi towards the Golden Horn. The mosque is definitely worth the trip, as it is probably one of the most charming sights you will find here.
Take the time to look into some of the many other monuments here, such as the Little Aya Sofya (Küçük Aya Sofya), the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts (Türk ve Islam Eserleri Müzesi), the Chora Church (Kariye Müzesi), Süleymaniye Mosque and the Yedikule Fortress (Yedikule Hısarı). All of them are extraordinarily beatiful and worth the effort.
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