10 Unique Sites in Istanbul That You Shouldn't Miss
As a cosmopolitan city that rests on both the European and Asian continents, Istanbul is a vibrant hub of various religions, languages, cuisine, art, and architecture. From its gigantic mosques with sky-high minarets to its Byzantine churches, from the maze-like streets of the Grand Bazaar to the relaxing steam rooms of a Turkish bathhouse, the city is practically bursting with so much history and culture that there is plenty to see and do, especially if it’s your first time visiting.
What you should know before visiting Istanbul
Here are a few important things to remember when planning your trip:
If you’re traveling to Istanbul, you’ll need to apply for a Turkey Visa, which for many countries means simply applying and submitting an application online. It’s typically an easy process that doesn’t take much time!
If you’re wondering what the best time to visit Istanbul is, it’s during the spring or autumn months when the weather is generally moderate and there are fewer tourists around than in the summer months (although Istanbul is always fairly busy).
In Istanbul, there are plenty of mosques and religious places that are open to the public. Remember to be respectful of your surroundings and adhere to the appropriate dress code. In a mosque, this means removing your shoes before entering, and men should wear long pants while women should cover their hair with a scarf and dress conservatively (no tank tops, shorts, short skirts).
With that said, read on below for 10 unique sites in Istanbul that you absolutely shouldn’t miss!
#1. Hagia Sophia
Arguably the most iconic landmark in all of Istanbul, Hagia Sophia, or Ayasofya in Turkish, is a huge cathedral built in the 6th century and considered to be one of the most important Byzantine structures ever built due to its sheer size, splendour, and architectural wonder. Hagia Sophia has been constructed three times on the same site in different architectural styles, and over the centuries it has been used as a church, a mosque, and as its current purpose, a museum.
#2. Basilica Cistern
There are several hundred ancient cisterns that lie underneath modern-day Istanbul, but Basilica Cistern is one of the largest open to the public, constructed with over 300 columns. The cistern was built in the 6th century for Byzantine Emperor Justinian I to collect and filter water. More recently, Basilica Cistern has been featured in several films ranging from the 1963 James Bond classic “From Russia with Love” to the film adaptation of Dan Brown’s novel “Inferno”.
#3. Grand Bazaar
The Grand Bazaar is almost a city unto itself and it would be all too easy to spend an entire day exploring this enormous covered market. Inside the Grand Bazaar you’ll find a maze of over 4000 shops selling everything from tacky souvenirs to exquisite carpets to leather goods.
#4. Süleymaniye Mosque
Situated on one of Istanbul’s seven hills, the Süleymaniye Mosque is the second largest mosque in the city. Built in the 16th century by the famous Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan for Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent, today it remains far less-visited than the famous Blue Mosque, but is just as (if not more) impressive and worth the visit.
#5. Galata Tower
One of the main landmarks of Istanbul’s skyline is Galata Tower, which stands at over 60 meters tall. When it was originally built over 600 years ago, it was the tallest building in all of Istanbul. Today, visitors can climb up to the observation deck for a spectacular 360-degree view of the city. Admission costs 35 Turkish lira and children under 7 years of age are free.
#6. Topkapi Palace
Topkapi Palace was constructed between 1460 and 1478 by Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror to be used as the administrative centre of the Ottoman Empire. After the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire in the 1920s, Topkapi Palace was converted into an extensive museum which showcases Ottoman artifacts and relics, historical clothing, ancient weapons, and much more. If you plan on visiting, be sure to arrive early (ideally before opening time) as this is a very popular and congested tourist attraction.
#7. Blue Mosque
The monumental Blue Mosque is one of Istanbul’s most popular tourist attractions and for good reason due to its sheer size, religious importance, and astounding architecture and design. Inside you’ll find the mosque covered in tens of thousands of blue tiles which have earned the mosque its name, as well as hundreds of stained glass windows and calligraphy art. Keep in mind that the Blue Mosque is still used as a mosque, so it will be closed to tourists during the five prayer times every day and visitors should be respectful of the dress code and etiquette.
#8. Dolmabahçe Palace
Compared to many of the other buildings and palaces in Istanbul, Dolmabahçe Palace is relatively new having only been constructed in the 1800s. Visitors can tour the ornate palace, extensive gardens and grounds, and enjoy a beautiful view of the Bosphorus. Keep in mind, photography inside the palace is prohibited.
#9. Istiklal Avenue
Istiklal Avenue, located in the city centre of Istanbul, is one of the most visited streets in the city. Over a kilometer long, the busy pedestrian-friendly avenue is lined with restaurants, cafes, boutiques, art galleries, nightclubs and theatres. When you’re tired of walking, you can hop on one of the historic red trams that runs the length of the avenue (they are the only vehicles permitted on Istiklal).
#10. Turkish Bath
Lastly, no visit to Istanbul would be complete without going to a Turkish bath, also known as a Hamam, a tradition that originally began in the Roman and Byzantine times. After a deep, exfoliating scrub of literally every inch of your whole body, you’ll leave with baby-soft, glowing skin.