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Istanbul Culture

Byzantine Glory
Istanbul Culture
A visit to Istanbul defies expectations. Marvel at ornate Ottoman-era palaces, Byzantine mosaics, and the timeless pleasure of a boat ride on the Bosphorus, but also revel in the city's contemporary art galleries, fashion-forward boutiques, and lively cafés.
By Jessica Lee , AFAR Local Expert
Photo courtesy of the Turkish Ministry for Culture and Tourism
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    Byzantine Glory
    Byzantine Glory
    During the Byzantine era, Istanbul transformed from a humble fishing port into a grandiose capital. Constantine built a city in his name, and later emperors tried to outdo him with their own architectural legacies. Ottoman works eventually replaced or recycled many of these buildings, but some of the grandest remnants of Byzantine Constantinople have survived and been preserved as museums. Hagia Sophia is Istanbul's landmark Byzantine monument, the largest structure in the world for a millennium, and still the grande dame of Sultanahmet. Just outside Istanbul's ancient city walls, even more vibrant mosaics fill Chora Church. Underground, the cavernous Basilica Cistern remains a cool (temperature-wise) and atmospheric place to admire the ancient technology and artistry of Constantinople.
    Photo courtesy of the Turkish Ministry for Culture and Tourism
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    Majestic Mosques
    Majestic Mosques
    Istanbul has more than 3,000 mosques, and depending on your location, you may hear the ezan (call to prayer) echo throughout the city five times a day. During these times, you should only enter a mosque to pray, but otherwise they are free for visitors to enter and admire. The Sultanahmet, or Blue Mosque, is the most popular and well known for its thousands of İznik tiles and six minarets. From massive architectural feats like the Süleymaniye mosque and Hagia Sophia (a museum since 1935 and originally a Byzantine church) that loom over the Old City to the more intimate and small-scale Rüstem Pasha Mosque (designed by the same master architect as Süleymaniye) near the Spice Market, you'll find many details and silhouettes to photograph.
    Photo by age fotostock
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    Modern Art and Culture
    Modern Art and Culture
    While many visit Istanbul for its ancient structures and historic palaces, contemporary Istanbul is just as inspiring and cross-cultural. Across the Galata Bridge from the Old City, bustling Taksim Square is the heart of the hip Beyoğlu district, and the pedestrian shopping street İstiklal Caddesi is its lifeline. Behind İstiklal, the Pera neighborhood has always been a cultural hub, and the Pera Museum exhibits historically significant Turkish and international art, while the nearby SALT Galata gallery hosts art discussions, installations, and films. Istanbul Modern is beloved not only for its contemporary art collection and visiting exhibitions, but also its restaurant on the Bosphorus. A pleasant day trip from the city center, the collection of Ottoman and Turkish decorative arts and calligraphy at the Sakıp Sabancı Museum, housed in a historic building, come with water views and a garden.
    Photo courtesy of Serkan Taycan/SALT Beyoglu
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    Whirling Dervishes
    Whirling Dervishes
    Sufism, a mystical branch of Islam, has a famous sect in Turkey called the Whirling Dervishes. Members follow the teachings of the 13th-century religious leader Mevlana Rumi, who preached tolerance and peace through his poetry. To achieve a trance-like oneness with God, Dervishes perform a dance ceremony that involves repetitive twirling. Attending a ceremony is a hypnotic experience. The haunting notes of the ney (reed flute) call the participants to the floor. Slow and sonorous, the spinning builds to an exhausting, dizzying whirl. Watch the spiritual ceremony at the Galata Mevlevi Museum, where you can also see exhibits on Dervish history. Sultanahmet's Hodjapasha Culture Center also stages performances several evenings a week.
    Photo by Jean-Baptiste Rabouan/age fotostock
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    Waterways
    Waterways
    Istanbul's location at the junction of two continents has made it important politically, historically, and culturally. The Bosphorus Strait is considered the dividing line between the European and Asian sides, and many visitors and residents enjoy taking a cruise along the water to where the Bosphorus opens up to the Black Sea. The Gold Horn, between the old-city area of Sultanahmet and the Galata Tower and new city skyline, has been strategically guarded from attempted sieges and is now crossed by the atmospheric Galata Bridge. When the weather is pleasant, Istanbullus love to sit by the water, especially in cafés in Ortaköy and Kadıköy. Another popular pastime is a fish dinner at the Beşiktaş Fish Market.
    Photo by B. Stroujko/age fotostock
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    Ancient Communities of Constantinople
    Ancient Communities of Constantinople
    Ottoman Constantinople was the cosmopolitan city of its day. Communities of Greeks and Armenians, European traders, and Jewish refugees who fled the Spanish Inquisition all prospered under the sultan's rule. Stroll through Beyoğlu's Pera and Karaköy neighborhoods and the districts of Balat and Fener to explore the vestiges of this Ottoman melting pot. Don't miss Fener's Church of St. Stephen of the Bulgars and İstiklal Avenue's Church of Santa Maria Draperis, and try to seek out the hidden Orthodox churches of Karaköy. To delve into the history of the city's Sephardic Jews, take Turkish Heritage Travel's excellent walking tour, which stops at the Ahrida Synagogue in Balat and the Jewish Museum in Beyoğlu.
    Photo by Tolo Balaguer/age fotostock
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    Hopping Over to Asia
    Hopping Over to Asia
    Istanbul sits astride two continents, yet most visitors confine themselves to the European shore. The commuter ferry that crosses the Bosphorus to Anatolia is the quickest way to get to the Asian side. Disembarking in Üsküdar, you can admire beautiful mosques and Ottoman architecture, including Beylerbeyi Palace, without the crowds. In Kadıköy, explore the colorful produce market where the smell of spices, fresh fish, and grilled meat wafts through the air, or have a cup of tea on the water in Moda. This neighborhood is a favorite hangout for university students, and its alleys are crammed with bars and cafés. If you want to join the fun, Kadife Sokak (aka Barlar Sokak or Bar Street) is the hub of all the action.
    Photo by age fotostock
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    Shopping in Istanbul
    Shopping in Istanbul
    A trip to Istanbul isn't complete without shopping at the hans (stores), markets, and bazaars, where bargaining is an art. The Grand Bazaar is one of the oldest covered markets and most popular tourist attractions, and it's worth going off the beaten carpet path to find the artisans who've been practicing their crafts for generations. The Egyptian Bazaar, or Spice Market, is also equal parts tourist trap and regular shopping destination for locals, and an essential stop for edible souvenirs like saffron and olive oil. For a more modern shopping experience, window-shop until you drop on İstiklal Avenue or peruse the posh boutiques of Nişantaşı. Still hoping for an ancient treasure? Try the antique shops of Çukurcuma.
    Photo by Martin Siepmann/age fotostock
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    Ottoman Splendor
    Ottoman Splendor
    The walls of Constantinople fell in 1453, and the city became the capital of the Ottoman Empire. The opulent palaces and massive mosques built for the sultans remain as their legacy of power and excess. Get a sense of the grand scale of the Turkish aristocracy at Topkapı Palace, the power base and residence of the sultans for four centuries, perched above the Old City and the Golden Horn. Up the Bosphorus, the ornate Dolmabahçe Palace was built for the last generations of sultans, who preferred a European flair over Topkapı's medieval structure. After the Ottoman Empire fell, beloved Republic founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk visited the palace often and took his final breath there (you'll see all the clocks set to 9:05, his time of death). Over on the Asian side, Beylerbeyi Palace was the summer royal residence in the 19th century, and while it's not as grand as Dolmabahçe, the crowds and admission charge are more manageable.
    Photo courtesy of the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism
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    Turkish Souvenirs
    Turkish Souvenirs
    Purchasing souvenirs is a fun part of any trip, especially in a place like Istanbul where shopping is as essential to your visit as eating baklava. How to ensure your gifts are genuinely Turkish and not mass-produced by the million in China? Seek out the shops that have been making their wares in Turkey for generations, or tap into local artists who create unique goods you won't find anywhere else. Mavi works with Turkish designers on fun T-shirts for kids and adults, and Kagithane House of Paper makes items such as nostalgic or modern notebooks and calendars. Paşabahçe is the standard for glassware, both everyday and heirloom, while Cocoon showcases vintage and handmade embroidery and textiles.
    Photo courtesy of Kagithane House of Paper