Centuries of art and history hide behind every corner in romantic Istanbul, the city that famously straddles two continents. Explore its heritage with a whirlwind tour of these top six attractions that should be on your list when you visit the immaculate city of Istanbul.
There’s perhaps no better example of Istanbul’s unique east-meets-west architectural influences than the Hagia Sophia. It was originally constructed as an Eastern Orthodox basilica in the sixth century, then became a mosque between 1453 and 1931. The dome soars 55 meters high, creating a vast interior space that is designed to awe and humble the visitor. Visit the tombs of early Ottoman sultans and view Viking graffiti in the southern gallery to get a feel for the centuries of history that have shaped this building.
The Hagia Sophia was used as a model for many other mosques in Istanbul, most notably the Blue Mosque. This is a working mosque, built by Sultan Ahmed I in the early 17th century, and it is closed to tourists when prayers are in session, so you’ll need to plan your visit in advance. The interior is lined with more than 20,000 ceramic tiles depicting over 50 different tulip designs, handmade in İznik. Gaze up toward the interior dome and you’ll note the blue tint that earns the mosque its name: more than 200 stained-glass windows let in natural light, bathing the mosque in an ethereal glow.
Galata Bridge and Tower
The Radisson Blu Hotel, Istanbul Pera is close to many of Istanbul’s scenic bridges – both the Atatürk and Galata bridges are only 1.5 kilometers away. Stroll across Galata Bridge at sunset to enjoy enchanting views of the city, or climb to the balcony at the top of Galata Tower. The bridge is often populated by fishermen on its upper level, while down below you’ll find a bevy of eateries serving freshly caught seafood and drinks well into the night.
Spend an afternoon at the Grand Bazaar, where you’ll find 5,000 shops gathered in one chaotic marketplace. The Bazaar draws over a quarter-million visitors each day, who plumb through its depths for finely woven carpets, exotic spices and glittering jewelry. The Cevahir Bedesten, or jewelry market, is where you’ll find the real rarities, including antique weapons and coins. At the end of a hard day's haggling, relax in the nearby steam baths before cooling down with a glass of freshly pressed juice.
Built by Byzantine Roman Emperor Justinian I during the sixth century to provide water to the city, the Basilica Cistern provides an intriguing glimpse into the era’s technology. If this atmospheric underground water cistern looks familiar, it might be because of its use in the 1963 James Bond film, From Russia with Love. Look out for the Medusa head, which forms the base of one of the columns.
Psst! Follow the footsteps of 007 with this James Bond tour of Istanbul!
If you only have one day in Istanbul, the lush courtyards and sea views of Topkapı Palace are a must-see. Once home to numerous generations of sultans and their many wives, you can visit the lavish harem where the sultan’s wives lived in a complex of courtyards and intricately tiled rooms surrounding a Turkish bath. Further highlights include the precious gems of the treasury, as well as the Imperial Kitchens, which boast the largest collection of Chinese porcelain outside China.