İstanbul is the largest city in Turkey and the most populous city in Europe. It used to be known as Constantinople. The city straddles the Bosphorous Straits which divide the city between Europe and Asia. With a population of over 15 millions residents, this huge metropolis is home to 19% of the population of Turkey. Istanbul is not the capital of Turkey. That honour must go to Ankara. However, the history and culture of this oustanding city, with its magnificent architecture, both ancient and modern, situated on the Golden Horn where East meets West, is a magical and vibrant city that you will never forget.
If you want to know what makes Turkey tick then Istanbul has to be your first port of call when visiting the country. Learn about the history and diverse cultures that make the city, and indeed the country of Turkey, what it is today. Istanbul has been the capital of three great empires and the aim of this video is to give you an insight into its history, culture and economic clout, as well as to take an in depth look into the places that you should have on your itenerary if you are fortunate enough to visit Istanbul.
If you stay in Istanbul and want to be near the centre of the main attractions then you might consider the Sultanahmet area of Istanbul. There are plenty of good international hotels here. Istanbul was taken by the Ottomans in 1453 and has expanded out from the Galata tower and its Genoese fortifications ever since. This is the beating heart of Istanbul. Alternativley the Beyoğlu district is Istanbul’s main commercial and entertainment area. İstiklal Avenue and Taksim Square are situated in this district. Either of these locations is a good starting point to explore this wondeful city.
Istanbul has everything that you could ever want from a city. A combination of old and new, this fascinating city will provide an unforgettable experience for its visitors. It is not a city that can be seen and appreciated over a weekend. You really should spend over a week here and two weeks to even begin to give it the attention that it deserves. There is so much to see and do here. With its vibrant nightlife, colourful street life and beautiful architecture, it is one of the most diverse cities in the world. Istanbul plays host to many international film, music and theatre festivals and has over 75 museums and a number of art galleries.
Istanbul is the 5th most visisted city in the world. With world class hotels, over 100 shopping malls and 4 historic bazaars, 5 imperial palaces and a number of historic buildings and mansions, this city has it all. You can visit Istanbul at any time of the year and its airport hub and excellent transport infrastructure makes everything readily accessible to visitors.
Lets take a look at the history of Istanbul. It would have been known as Byzntion, the name it was given by its colonists in 660 B.C. The name Constantinople comes from the Latin “Constantinus” after Constantine the Great. It was Constantine who founded the city in 325 B.C. and this name remained until the 1930’s when it became Istanbul, reflecting the birth of the new nation of Turkey. There have been settlements here dating back to the 6th millenium but from 660 B.C. the Greek settlers from Megara settled here and built an acropolis along the banks of the Golden Horn. Apart from a brief period of Persian rule, the city prospered and enjoyed sustained growth. It became part of the Roman Empire having been almost destroyed and rebuilt.
When Constantine the Great became the emperor of the Roman Empire in 324 B.C. he made plans for Constantinople to be the Eastern capital of the Roman Empire. The Hagi Sofia was the largest Cathedral in the world for 1000 years and Constantinople becamse the centre of Greek culture and Christianity. Many of the churches that were built in Istanbul are still standing today. Emperor Constantine had the Hippodrome renovated and it became the centre of the city during the 5th and 6th centuries. Protected by huge city walls and a seafront it was able to withstand may attacks during the Middle Ages. It became the largest and most wealthy city in Europe.
During the Crusades the city fell under the influence of the Catholic church and it went through a period of decline. By 1250 its influence had dwindled somewhat and its military forces were weakened as it became more vulnerable to attacks. By the mid 14th century the Ottoman Turks were encircling the city limits and cutting off its supply routes. In 1453 Sultan Mehmed II captured Istanbul and made it the capital of the Ottoman Empire. The Hagia Sophia cathedral was promptly turned into a mosque and Sultan Mehmed II declared himself as the established leader of the Ottoman State, or Empire.
Under Mehmet II the city experienced a period of rapid growth and population increase. Large restoration projects, new roads, aqueducts and a massive building programme transformed the city. It would have been an impressive event to witness. The Ottomans created the caliphate in 1517 and Constantinople continued to be the capital and the caliphate for four centuries. The city flourished and by the end of the 18th century the population of the city was close to 600,000 inhabitants. Sadly the Ottoman Empire eventually fell into a period of decline and modernization was never fast enough to keep up with other European countries who were fast becoming more influential and powerful.
The Ottoman Empire joined World War I on the side of Germany and the central powers, a decision which cost it dearly. Massive shifts in populations would occur in subsequent wars in the Balkans, the East, and with the Greeks, as the Empire began to collapse. After Germany’s defeat, and the Ottomans victory at Gallipoli, the Turkish War of Independence followed under the leadership of Mustfa Kemal Ataturk who became the Republic of Turkey’s first President. Istanbul was no longer the capital of Turkey, and Ankara, much further inland, was tasked with performing this role. The city name of Constantinople was changed to Istanbul in 1930, and the birth of the new nation of Turkey began.
For a short period Turkey became very insular and turned its back on the past. Nationalist attitudes and unpopular wealth taxes on non Muslims led to the transfer of wealth away from Istanbul which had become the poor man of Europe. However, during the 1950’s the city enjoyed a rapid structural change and large public squares, boulevards and avenues based on the French model, allowed the city to expand. Since the mid 1980’s Turkey seems to have found its feet, and the city of Istanbul today reflects that new and vibrant “can do” attitude that blows away the turbulent and poor economical years of the past as it looks forward to a new and promising dynamic future.
Istanbul has one of the world’s top economies for a city. It is responsible for 30 per cent of Turkey’s Industrial output and 31 per cent of its GDP. More astonishingly, according to Wikipedia it also accounts for 47 per cent of tax revenues. The importance of Istanbul to Turkey should not be underestimated. The city is strategically placed along the Bosphorous Straits and has a large port area as well as two large airports of which, Istanbul Airport, is a huge aviation hub.
Istanbul and Taksim Square attract thousands of visitors every weekend. The city is an international banking hub and has been so since the 1980’s with many world banks having operational centres here. Each year nearly 15 million visitors come to Istanbul which makes it the world’s fifth most visited city.
Any visitor to Istanbul will be impressed by the city infrastructure. Large multi lane highways with flowers and grass lined embankments that cannot help but catch the eye. The modern buildings and aesthetically pleasing street architecture enhances the visitor experience and the hotels and restaurants of world class status can be found in abundance in Istanbul. With its art museums, shopping centres, covered markets and abundance of places to visit, Istanbul is truly unique as the city where East meets West.
Places to Visit
The top tourist attractions in Istanbul are the Aya Sofya ( Hagia Sophia ), Topkapi Palace, Blue Mosque, and Grand Bazaar. We will take a look at these first since they are the most popular attractions. Before we do this, please consider purchasing a Turkish Muze Kart ( Museum Card ) which will allow you access to many of the main tourist attractions in Istanbul. It will save you time and money.
The Aya Sofya ( Hagia Sophia )
Completed in AD 536 by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian, this magnifcent building is a testament to the technical ability of the Byzantine architects. After the Ottomans conquered Istanbul it was turned into a mosque and in 1934 it was turned into a museum by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. The Aya Sofya is a Unesco World Heritage site. Until recently it served only as a museum but it has now been turned back into a functioning mosque but the Christian artworks will not be removed and it will remain open to the public and tourists in the same way as all other mosques in Turkey are open to all. This is Turkey’s number one tourist attraction. Allow 2 hours at least.
The Topkapi Palace with its Islamic Art, beautiful courtyards lined with hand painted ceramic tiles, and its numerous ornately decorated rooms, is a magical mysterious paradise. This insight into the way the sultans lived, the harem and the military and administrative systems that kept the empire alive are displayed here for all to see. Take a step back in time and witness first hand this amazing palace which was built by Mehmet the Conqueror in the 15th century. Topkapi Palace is more than just a museum. The palace captures the essence of the empire and displays the beautiful interior of the Imperial Council chamber and the Sultan’s private rooms. There is an impressive collection of artifacts and valuable objects. Do not attempt to rush this historic complex. Allow at least half a day to fully appreciate it.
Blue Mosque ( Sultan Ahmet Camii )
The mosque gets its name from the fact that the interior of the mosque is decorated with thousands of Iznik Tiles. This is one of the most important showcase buildings for Ottoman Architecture. The Blue Mosque was built between 1609 and 1616. One of the features of the mosque is that fact that it has six minarets placing it on an equal footing with the Great Mosque of Mecca. Allow a good hour or more here. Note that there is a small Turkish Islamic Arts Museum nearby.
The Grand Bazaar
No one should visit Istanbul without visiting the Grand Bazaar. This huge covered market, surrounded by thick walls, can be accessed by one of 11 gates which take you into a massive maze of vaulted ceiling hallways with hundreds of shops and stalls selling exotic handmade products, souvenirs, jewellery and clothing. You can easily spend half a day here if you like shopping.
So having seen the top 4 attractions, all within a reasonable walking distance of each other, and all near the Sultanahmet district area, lets also take a look at what else is nearby.
Basilica Cistern ( Yerebatan Sarniçi )
Hidden underground, this impressive Basilica Cistern, is a huge hall supported by stone columns and holding a large water supply which would have been used by the Byzantine Emperors. It dates back to the 6th century and features some Medusa head carvings. Tranquil, historic and fascinating, this should definitely be on your top ten list. Allow at least an hour here.
The Hippodrome dates back to AD 203, having been commissioned by Septimus Severus and completed over a hundred years later by Contantine the Great. It would hve been the centre of Byzantine life with its chariot races and games. Not a lot remains of this once great structure apart from a section of wall. There are some ancient monuments , namely a 20 metre hight Egyptian obelisk, the Serpent Column and a stone obelisk.
Istanbul Archaeology Museum
Not far from Topkapi Palace is the Archaeology Museum which has recently been renovated. It is home to an impressive collection of artifacts from all over Turkey and the Middle East. If you want to delve in deep and discover the history of Istanbul and the Ottoman Empire then this is definitely worth a visit.
The Spice Bazaar ( Misir Çarsisi )
Actually the Spice Bazaar ( Egyptian Bazaar ) is not restricted to just spices. You can sample the best of Turkish delight or lokum as it is known in Turkish. You can see dried fruits, all kinds of nuts and herbs and a massive amount of spices. This is a popular tourist location and it can get as busy as the Grand Bazaar sometimes. The best time to visit is before mid day or late in the afternoon.
This is still within walking distance of the main tourist sites that we have seen previously. Perched on a hill over the Sultanahmet district, this mosque was built for Süleyman the Magnificent by the most famous Ottoman Architect Sinan. Having been completed in 1575, it features a 53 metre high dome.
The impressive Dolmabahçe Palace was built by Sultan Abdulmecid I in 1854. It became the main residence for the sultans who had previously resided in Topkapi Palace. It is ornate and well furnished in the European style. This is a beautiful building with a varied mix of styles including Ottoman influence.
The Galata Tower was built by the Genoese in the 14th century. This historic building is a busy tourist attraction and you can take an elevator to the top for some beautiful panoramic views of the city below. You should also make sure you take a walk across the famous Galata Bridge with its fish restaurants and numerous fisherman lining the bridge trying to catch fish.
Istiklal Caddesi and Taksim
You can’t really say that you have visited Istanbul if you missed out Istiklal Cadesi ( Independence Street ) and Taksim Square. The pedestrianized street has a railway that takes you here from near the Galata Bridge. However, most people love to take the old style tramway that runs right up to Taksim Square. The famous square is home to some top hotels, boutiques, branded shopping outlets, restaurants and cafes. The beautiful buildings and old consulates off Istiklal Street are particularly impressive.
The Maiden’s Tower ( Kiz Kulesi )
This iconic landmark is situated in Üsküdar on the Asian shore of Istanbul on a rock, or islet. Called the Maiden’s Tower it has an interesting history and has been rebuilt several times. It is now a visitor attraction with a ground floor restaurant and beautiful views of the shoreline of Istanbul just 200 metres away. There is also a museum here.
Take one of the many boat cruises along the Bosphorous. This is the narrowest strait in the world and you can leisurely sit back and enjoy the scenery of Istanbul as you sip on your Turkish coffee. Best done in the late afternoon to catch the sunset. There are many different kinds of boat cruises along the bosphorous from short quick tours to evening meals and entertainment. Ask your hotel to provide you with details of what is on offer.
It might not be the easiest place to get to but for city views this takes a lot to beat. Get there late afternoon and enjoy a tea as you sit and watch the sun set over Istanbul. Panoramic views and a tranquil atmosphere.
No trip to Istanbul would be complete without visiting the Prince Islands. We did a separate entry covering each island which can be found here: https://turkish-travels.com/2021/04/06/prince-islands-adalar/
Churches & Mosques
Other places worth seeing are the Chora Church (Kariye Müzesi), a beautiful church just outside the old city walls. It was built in the 5th century and now serves as a museum. It is famous for its two Byzantine mosaics which date back to the 14th century. In Sultanahmet there is also the Little Aya Sofya (Küçük Aya Sofya), which was built to test the architecture that was to be used in the Aya Sofya. It is used as a mosque. There are also some restored Ottoman buildings in the surrouding streets.
Rüstem Pasa Mosque in Eminönü is probably the most beautiful mosque in Istanbul. Not far from the Spice Bazaar this mosque is famous for its beautiful Iznik tiles. Also take a look at the Fatih Mosque. No surprise that this is located in the Fatih district. This is an important mosque because it was built by Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror and is the first of the Grand Imperial Mosques in Istnabul. It is also the resting place for Sultan Mehmet who is buried here.
The Carpet Museum
Before you buy a Turkish carpet why not visit the Carpet museum and find out more about Turkish carpet making and the different styles and weaves that make the carpets so sought after. There are three galleries explaining the history of Turkish Carpet making and the museum is located within the grounds of the Ayfa Sofya complex.
The Pera museum is probably the most famous art gallery in Istanbul. With its collections of Ottoman era paintings, ceracmics and Ottoman craft work, this popular museum also has regular exhibitions throughout the year.
Panorama 1453 Museum
An amazing panoramic museum illustrating the fall of Constantinople when Fatih the conqueror took over the city from the Byzantine Empire. Very realistic with sounds and beautifully detailed illustrations. If you really want to learn about the history of the Ottomans and this very signifcant achievement in their expansion, then this should be your first port of call.
Modern Turkish Art gallery with an extensive collection of Turkish modern art. There are many exhibitions here and content from local and international artists are featured throughout the year.
Orhan Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence
Orhan Pamuk’s quirky, and rather bizarre museum, is a collection of daily objects acquired from the flea markets in Istanbul over the years and now housed in this musuem. Orham Pamuk is one of Turkey’s most famous writers and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. The museum is actually based around the theme of his novel of the same name – The Museum of Innnocence.
Rahmi M. Koc Museum
This is the first of its kind in Turkey, a large museum dedicated to the history of Transport, Industry and Communications. No expense has been spared in putting together this magnificent collection which is housed in beautiful industrial buildings. Everything from items of daily life to aircraft and ships. This really is an outstanding world class museum where you can easily spend half a day or more.
Istanbul Sea Life Aquarium
There are many Sea Life centres in European cities too but this has one of the world’s largest ocean tanks. With a large collection of sharks, an 83 metre long ocean tunnel and plenty of sea life to catch your attention this is an excellent family day out and something for the kids to remember.
There are so many other museums that we havn’t mentioned here. There is always something to see and do in Istanbul. With a host of shopping malls that would not be out of place in Dubai or London, Istanbul has it all. Take a boat trip under the Bosphorous Bridge, visit the old and quirky parts of the city in Ortakoy, Balat and Bebek and don’t limit yourself to the centre of the city. Transportation is good here and everywhere is accessible.
With its large city parks, a mix of old and new, this magical city is enchanting. The city is home to the famous football clubs of Beşiktaş, Fenerbahçe and Galatasaray, and you will find that Turks are passionate about their football. Turkey has its own Formula One Grand Prix track and has hosted the F1 Powerboat World Championships.
The city of Istanbul is known for its seafood restaurants. They can be found along the shores of the Bosphorous in all the popular tourist destinations and the very best of Turkish cuisine can be experienced here. There are also numerous foreign restaurant brands that offer international cuisine.
If you are looking for night life and entertainment then head off towards İstiklal Avenue and Çiçek Pasajı with its many wine bars, pubs and restaurants. Beyoglu has a vibrant night club scene but this is not restricted to just one area of the city. Night life can also be found in Nişantaşı, Ortaköy, Bebek, and Kadıköy districts of the city.
As with any international city there will always be a few unscrupulous people wanting to help you part with your money. From the hawkers in the Grand Bazaar charging inflated tourist prices to the dodgy bars which charge over 100 Euros per drink, the unsuspecting tourist can get caught out. Keep your wits about you. You don’t need an expensive tour guide to show you around. You shouldn’t buy tickets to anything unless they are from an authorised vendor and always check the taxi metre price in your cab and beware of the shoe shine man dropping his brush and expecting you to pick it up for him! Its a trap. Trust me.