Civilization in the Istanbul area dates back to 7th century BCE, so it is a fascinating place filled with rich historical sites. In modern times, this major Turkish city has plenty of entertaining venues, delicious restaurants, and luxurious shops. Whether you are planning a long vacation in Istanbul or just stopping by for a few hours, it is easy to find things to do. These 12 Istanbul attractions are loved by both tourists and Istanbul residents.
If you love shopping, you definitely need to see the Grand Bazaar. This enclosed shopping center has been the heart of Istanbul’s trade industry for centuries. You enter through a beautiful carved gate and wander through the vaulted ceilings of this bazaar to find just about anything. The shops that line the Bazaar are divided up depending on what they sell, so you can pick between categories like carpets, tourist souvenirs, jewelry, and leather handbags.
Also called the Aya Sofya, this beautiful ancient church was built in 536 CE by Emperor Justinian. At the time, it was the largest building in the world. Even now, it is a marvel of architecture that covers a large part of downtown. This lovely building has been a religious site for many years, but it was converted into a museum a few decades ago. In addition to marveling at the stunning Byzantine architecture of the building, you can now see many lovely artifacts, including mosaics, carved stones, brasswork objects, and ancient texts.
If you are tired of looking at ancient and historic wonders, check out the Istanbul Modern art museum. This gallery hosts all of Turkey’s current artistic celebrities. You can see a great blend of up and coming artists, internationally famous modern artists, and Turkey’s top modern art. After checking out all of the fascinating artwork, stop by the Istanbul Modern Cafe for freshly ground coffee and local treats.
The Rustem Pasha Mosque
Rustem Pasha Mosque might not be as large or famous as some of the other mosques in Istanbul, but this hidden treasure is definitely worth a visit. The thing that makes it stand out is it’s incredible tilework. This mosque has beautiful handpainted tiles in red, blue, and green that cover it’s entire surface in intricate flowers, leaves, geometric shapes, and script. The iznik tiles date back to the 1500s, providing fascinating insight into historic Islamic art.
Topkapi Palace was built by Mehmet the Conqueror in the 15th century. This Istanbul highlight is filled with classic examples of Islamic art. As you tour the massive complex, you can see hand painted tiles, mosaics, and intricate decorations. Visitors to Istanbul can also see relics from the Prophet Muhammed and the gems and worked gold in Imperial Treasury. This palace is absolutely massive, so plan on spending at least half a day if you want to see everything.
The Blue Mosque
This is one of the main Istanbul attractions due to its incredible architecture. This mosque gets its name from the blue iznik tiles used to decorate the interior, but that is not its only claim to fame. Its exterior, with the golden topped dome and beautiful pointed minarets. When it was built in 1609 CE, the Blue Mosque caused a lot of controversy because it had as many minarets as Mecca’s Great Mosque. They eventually gave a minaret to Mecca to calm the controversy, so the Blue Mosque got to keep its iconic blend of domes and soaring minarets. The Blue Mosque is right by the Hagia Sofia, so you can see both of these iconic structures in a single day.
If you are stuck in Istanbul for a little while, use your airline delay compensation to treat yourself to an extravagant meal at this beautiful restaurant. This gourmet hilltop restaurant is ideal for a special dinner or lunch. They serve their own dry aged meats, handmade pasta, and freshly made ice cream, and you can pick from a blend of international and traditional Istanbul foods. One of the highlights of this restaurant is its location, since you can see Bosphorus and multiple soaring Istanbul bridges from the terrace. It also boasts a wine list with over 4,500 bottles, custom cocktails, live music, and dancing.
The Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts
This fascinating museum is situated in a palace that belonged to Ibrahim Pasa, the grand vizier of Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent. It contains a showcase of carved wood, ceramics, and calligraphic arts, and it also has a world famous collection of Turkish, Iranian, and Caucasusian carpets. Once you look at all these beautiful objects, check out the shops around the museum. They feature many replicas and other pieces inspired by the historic art in the museum.
Galata Tower is a medieval tower that you can see from almost all of Istanbul. It is one of the iconic sites of the city that has been around since 1348 AD, so it is a must see sight for Istanbul travelers. This tower was built by the Genoese settlers, so it has a unique Romanesque design with arched windows and a thick, cylindrical body. You can choose to climb all the way up the nine stories or ride an elevator to the top to see the incredible views from the tower. Just keep in mind that it is quite popular, so you may have to wait in line if it reaches capacity.
This is a particularly interesting site to see because it is not hundreds of years old like most other famous Istanbul sites. Instead, it shows what Istanbul was like in the 19th century. During the mid 1800s, this palace was the main living quarters for Ottoman sultans. It is a stunning blend of Turkish and European artistic styles that showcases truly over the top luxury. See incredible gardens, Rococo balustrades, Baroque light fixtures, Ottoman carving, Neoclassical columns, and more. In addition to the unique architectural blend, this palace is also noteworthy for its beautiful antique furniture, oil paintings, and woven carpets.
Translating to Independence Street in English, this Istanbul road is a favorite area to shop and sightsee. Istiklal Caddesi is entirely pedestrianized, so it is a safe area to walk around browsing between restaurants and shops. Those who do not want to walk the entire distance can also take the old fashioned tram that runs between Galata Bridge and Taksim Square. There are plenty of fascinating places to visit including the Military Museum and the conceptual art museum called Museum of Innocence that is based on Orhan Pamuk’s Nobel Prize Winning novel of the same name.
Yedikule Fortress is an ancient fortress that provides a fascinating look into Istanbul’s history. Some of the older parts of the fortress were built by Emperor Theodosius II in the 5th century CE, while later parts were added Sultan Mehmed II during the Ottoman period. The end result is a beautiful fortress with a blend of ruins and restored stonework. You can climb to the top of this fortress to see the Sea of Marmara or explore the area around it to see spacious parks.
As you can see, there is a huge variety of different things for you to do while you visit Istanbul. What’s your favorite thing to do in Istanbul?