Istanbul is a major city in Turkey that straddles Europe and Asia across the Bosphorus Strait. Its Old City reflects cultural influences of the many empires that once ruled here. In the Sultanahmet district, the open-air, Roman-era Hippodrome was for centuries the site of chariot races, and Egyptian obelisks also remain. The iconic Byzantine Hagia Sophia features a soaring 6th-century dome and rare Christian mosaics.
Coveted by empires across the centuries, straddling both Europe and Asia, Istanbul is one of the world’s great metropolises. Founded around 1000 BC, the colony of Byzantium grew into the Byzantine Empire’s great capital of Constantinople and after the Ottoman conquest of the city, retained its glorious place as the heart of their empire. The city (officially renamed Istanbul after the founding of the Turkish Republic) is liberally scattered with glorious remnants of its long and illustrious history, and the sightseeing here will impress even the most monument-weary visitor.
As well as the big four (Aya Sofya, Topkapi Palace, Blue Mosque, and Grand Bazaar), leave enough time to explore the other sights. Although many tourist attractions are located in, or near, the old city district of Sultanahmet, there is a dazzling array of other things to do throughout the farther reaches of the city. Plan your trip with our list of the top tourist attractions in Istanbul.
It’s said that when the Byzantine Emperor Justinian entered his finished church for the first time in AD 536, he cried out “Glory to God that I have been judged worthy of such a work. Oh Solomon, I have outdone you!” The Aya Sofya (formerly the Hagia Sophia) was the emperor’s swaggering statement to the world of the wealth and technical ability of his empire. Tradition maintained that the area surrounding the emperor’s throne within the church was the official center of the world.
Through its conversion to a mosque, after the Ottoman armies conquered Constantinople, to its further conversion into a museum in the 20th century, the Aya Sofya has remained one of Istanbul’s most cherished landmarks.
For many visitors, sightseeing in Istanbul is as much about shopping as museums and monumental attractions, and the Grand Bazaar is where everyone comes. This massive covered market is basically the world’s first shopping mall, taking up a whole city quarter, surrounded by thick walls, between the Nure Osmaniye Mosque and Beyazit Mosque. The Beyazit Mosque (built in 1498-1505) itself occupies the site of Theodosius I’s Forum and has architecture inspired by the Aya Sofya.
Entrance to the bazaar is through one of 11 gates from where a maze of vaulted-ceiling laneways, lined by shops and stalls selling every Turkish souvenir and handicraft you could imagine, cover the area. The various trades are still mostly segregated into particular sections, which makes browsing easier. Near the bazaar’s Divanyolu Caddesi entrance is the Burned Column. This stump (still 40 meters high) of a porphyry column was set up by Constantine the Great in his forum. Until 1105, it bore a bronze statue of Constantine.
The Spice Bazaar is the place to get your foodie fix of lokum (Turkish delight), dried fruit, nuts, herbs, and, of course, spices. Much of the money that helped construct it came from the taxes the Ottoman government levied on Egyptian-made products, which is why its name in Turkish (Misir Çarsisi) means “Egyptian Market.” The Spice Bazaar is one of the most popular things to do, and at certain times of the day gets ridiculously crowded with huge tour groups from the docked cruise ships. Try to come before 11am or after 4pm.
Just next door to the Spice Bazaar’s main entrance is the stately Yeni Camii (New Mosque), which was begun in 1615 and finished in 1663 — that’s “new” for Istanbul. It is worthwhile taking a peek inside while you’re sightseeing in the area, as the interior is richly decorated with tile-work and liberal use of gold leaf.
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