Top Attractions in Istanbul
Istanbul has been the capital city of more than one great civilization and peeling back its layers of rich history is fascinating. With roots in two continents, it’s a buzzing modern city, as well, one that wrestles with political and religious issues while remaining a place of wonder.
Sultan Ahmet, Ayasofya Meydanı No:1, 34122 Fatih/İstanbul, Turkey
Walk into Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofya) and look up to the heavens to see why so many conquerors and their respective religions claimed this basilica turned mosque turned museum as their own. Visitors will swoon over the Byzantine gilded mosaics, hanging chandeliers, purple marble columns, Islamic calligraphic slates, and tiled seraphim. The existing structure is an architectural wonder in itself, having stood the test of time since the 6th century.
Sultan Ahmet Mahallesi, Atmeydanı Cd. No:7, 34122 Fatih/İstanbul, Turkey
Adorned with more than 20,000 blue handcrafted İznik tiles, stained-glass windows, and the golden brushstrokes of a 17th-century calligrapher, the Blue Mosque is the legacy of Sultan Ahmet I (1590–1617). The young sultan audaciously wished to outdo the builders of Hagia Sophia, commissioning six minarets to match the number at Mecca’s Sacred Mosque (which now has seven minarets as a result). Today, this magnificent mosque is a place of worship for thousands who visit from around the world.
Dervişali Mahallesi, Kariye Cami Sk. No:8, 34087 Fatih/İstanbul, Turkey
According to Islamic tradition, only God can create images of holy beings, including angels and prophets. Therefore, when the Ottomans converted Chora Church into a mosque in the 16th century, they covered the 14th-century Byzantine mosaics and frescoes depicting the life of Christ and Mother Mary. Hidden behind wooden shutters were some of the finest mosaics in the world, which were restored following World War II and can now be viewed in all their glory.
Beyazıt, Kalpakçılar Cd. No:22, 34126 Fatih/İstanbul, Turkey
Soon after conquering Constantinople and defeating the Byzantines in 1453, Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II commissioned the beginnings of the Grand Bazaar to reinvigorate trade with the city. More than 550 years later, the bazaar is one of the oldest covered markets in the world, with a labyrinth of 61 streets connecting over 4,000 shops selling all manner of treasures and souvenirs, from jewelry to silk carpets. Make a beeline for Sivasli Istanbul Yazmacisi, whose quality textiles are popular with interior decorators. Looking for currency exchange shops? You’ll find the best rates in Istanbul here.
Rüstem Paşa Mahallesi, Erzak Ambarı Sok. No:92, 34116 Fatih/İstanbul, Turkey
Istanbul’s Spice Bazaar may be a global tourist trap, but isn’t nearly as rage-inducing as the squawking group tours inside the Grand Bazaar. Here, a remnant of authenticity lives on in this 17th century building, created by commission for Sultana Turhan Hatice. Visually-arresting piles of spices and Turkish delight, and rows of pushy men, make for a wild afternoon of souvenir shopping and colorful conversation. Inside the Ucuzcular stall the sellers are friendly and happy to let you browse. A bag of “love tea” ensures romance in a pot. In that vein, on my way through the bazaar, a man trotted up to me and said, “Excuse me. I think you dropped something...” I looked puzzled. He smiled and theatrically clutched his chest, "...my heart.” He probably does that for all the Westerners, but I pretended it was as real as the magic in the spices.
The lifeblood of modern Istanbul is the two-mile-long pedestrian street Istiklal Caddesi (Independence Avenue), running from Taksim Square to the Tünel train station. It’s equal parts touristy and local, commerce and culture, and strolling down the avenue to shop, dine, or just socialize is a favorite pastime of many Istanbullus. (The beloved red-and-white tram is out of service for the foreseeable future while the street gets some much-needed maintenance.) Though many complain about encroaching international chain stores and shopping malls taking the thoroughfare’s distinct character away, there are still plenty of gems if you follow the backstreets and duck into the historic passages. Don’t forget to look up: Many of the art nouveau and Ottoman-era buildings house rooftop cafés and businesses above street level.
Hobyar Mahallesi, 34112 Fatih/İstanbul, Turkey
Whether you take the ferry between Europe and Asia or trace a loop up the Bosphorus toward the Black Sea, the must-do Bosphorus cruise gives you a chance to view the city’s best landmarks from the water. The two-hour cruise from Eminönü is recommended to see the Maiden’s Tower, Bosphorus bridges, waterside Ottoman palaces, and wooden multimillion-dollar yalılar (mansions). Take a seat on the deck and enjoy the city sliding past.
Alemdar, Yerebatan Cd. 1/3, 34110 Fatih/İstanbul, Turkey
A city as ancient as Istanbul has many layers of history, and you’ll have to go below the surface to see the Basilica Cistern, the largest of the underground cisterns. Built in the sixth century for the Byzantine emperor Justinian, the atmospheric reservoir is supported by 336 columns, many of which have been repurposed from other ruins over the centuries. The Medusa-head column bases are a favorite to photograph, along with the carp that swim silently in the dimly lit waters. The cistern is located between the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia, and the best time to visit is simply whenever the line looks short, especially on a hot summer day—it’s always cooler underground.
If these walls could talk they’d recite plans for military campaigns and tales of love, lust and betrayal that make this former residence and imperial seat of the Ottoman Empire so intriguing. Walk the dazzling tile-and-mosaic-lined corridors, see the jewels the sultans wore, the baths where they washed, the rooms where they entertained, the quarters that housed their concubines, and the kitchens that created feasts for 5,000 residents.
Vişnezade, Dolmabahçe Cd., 34357 Beşiktaş/İstanbul, Turkey
This decadent palace, which overlooks the Bosphorus from the European side, holds great importance to Turkey. The late-19th-century sultans resided here and ruled the Ottoman Empire from here, and while the Turkish Republic’s capital is in Ankara, its first president, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, stayed at the palace whenever he visited Istanbul. It was here that Atatürk took his last breath, on November 10, 1938, at 9:05 a.m.—the time displayed on the palace clocks today.
This beautiful 19th-century palace on the Asian shoreline near the First Bosphorus Bridge served as a summer retreat for sultans and visiting dignitaries. Designed in a French neo-Baroque style, the palace features six halls and 24 rooms adjacent to an expansive garden. Complete with halls devoted to the harem, it is also famous for being the place of house arrest of one of the last sultans, Abdülhamīd II, who died in the palace in 1918.
Bereketzade, Galata Kulesi, 34421 Beyoğlu/İstanbul, Turkey
The medieval round Galata Tower built in 1348 has played many roles for Istanbul over the years: A watchtower for Bosphorus trade, an observation deck for spotting fires, the setting of a legendary flight across the Bosphorus, and now a tourist attraction offering 360 degree views of Istanbul. Hands down, it’s the best way to see how the city spreads across its European and Asian sides. Go for sunset, but arrive early to beat the queue.
51-53 Turnacıbaşı Cd
The Çukurcuma neighborhood, just a short walk down the hill from Istanbul’s busy İstiklal Caddesi, is an antique, vintage, and retro lover’s delight. Step onto Faik Paşa Street or Turnacıbaşı Street and you step back in time. Here, you can find eclectic shops filled with the possessions of generations of Istanbul lives. Wanderlust shoppers can expect to find modern art, antique jewelry, old and restored furniture, retro lighting, vintage clothes and shoes, well-read books, brass ornaments, coins, old photographs, and other knickknacks from the past. These are cluttered among funky cafés that stretch out to the cobblestone streets. It is one of the most enjoyable and least-touristed parts of the city, full of intriguing finds and photographic opportunities.
A multipurpose contemporary art center that opened in November 2011 in the Ottoman Bank building, Salt has a library with thousands of shelves of art publications—the most important, impressive collection in the city.—Sylvia Kouvali
Mumcu Bakka Sk.
While the banks of the Golden Horn in tourist-friendly Eminönü have plenty of fish sandwiches, stuffed mussels, and a small seafood market, most locals travel to Beşiktaş for its extensive daily fish market and surrounding meyhanes (bistros). The market is covered by a swooping triangular concrete shell resembling an airplane hangar, under which fishmongers lay out their daily catch and restaurant waiters try to lure you in for dinner. Beşiktaş is also home to one of the city’s most popular football teams, and even on non-game nights, students make it lively, particularly since Istanbul’s artisanal coffee shop boom. There’s a good cluster of spots between the market, ferry terminal, and W Istanbul.
19 Küçük Ayasofya Caddesi
Turkey has a strong textile tradition: carpets, of course, but also tapestries, pillows, and clothing. Cocoon boutique has a beautiful collection of these goods, along with embroidered suzani fabrics from Uzbekistan and Central Asia, felted wool and silk hats, and colorful travertine tiles. Also look for oya, intricate flowers made with an ancient needle-lace technique. Some pieces are vintage and others are made new for the shop, but all are fit to be heirlooms. Their showroom near the Arasta Bazaar in Sultanahmet is also a good source for olive oil soaps and cotton peştamal (towels).
Nişantaşı is the posh “Upper East Side” of Istanbul, home to the priciest designer boutiques and old-fashioned couturiers, especially along Teşvikiye and Abdi İpekçi streets. Beymen department store was Turkey’s first luxury retailer and remains a one-stop shopping destination for international and Turkish designers; take a seat outside its sidewalk café to see the fashionable set preen. For a peek at the old-money Istanbul chronicled in Orhan Pamuk’s book The Museum of Innocence, find Hak Pasajı, a shopping arcade just a few steps from the City’s Nişantaşı shopping center. Along with jewelry stores, stationers, and shoemakers, you’ll find Orlando Carlo Calumeno’s shop, a veritable treasure trove of authentic Constantinople relics ranging from French postcards of the old Pera district to museum-quality Ottoman army items.
Harbiye Mahallesi, Teşvikiye Cd. 47/A, 34365 Şişli/İstanbul, Turkey
Pick up any glass in Turkey and chances are there’s a letter P on the bottom of it, standing for Paşabahçe, Turkey’s top manufacturer of glassware and housewares. Blue-glass eye amulets (nazar in Turkish) that ward off the evil eye are sold everywhere in Turkey, but the items here are actually locally made. They range from simple, silver-dollar-size keychains to hefty, gilded wall hangings. Other souvenirs include the tulip-shaped glasses seen in every teahouse in town and ornate Ottoman-inspired vases that look like they could have been lifted from Topkapı Palace. Another contender for your collection: a piece of twisted blue-striped çeşm-i bülbül (nightingale’s eye) glass, a Venetian glassblowing technique made distinctively Turkish.
Yıldız, 34349 Beşiktaş/İstanbul, Turkey
The waterside neighborhood of Ortaköy is a favorite of locals and tourists looking to spend a lazy afternoon strolling its cobbled streets, playing backgammon over a few glasses of tea, or finding a spot for a picnic with an overloaded kumpir (baked potato). The Bosphorus Bridge, the first in the world to connect Asia and Europe since Hellenic times, is the ultimate photo backdrop, especially behind the Ortaköy Mosque when it’s lit up at night (try to see the newly restored interior during the day, when light streams through the windows and makes the chandeliers and tiles shine). Traffic can be brutal, especially in summer or around Ramadan, but it’s a pleasant 30-minute walk past old palaces turned hotels in Beşiktaş, where many ferries and buses terminate.
You may need to spend some time in Istanbul before you can really appreciate the clever design items in this shop in buzzy Karaköy, such as the simit (bagel) coasters, street sign notebooks, and tea-saucer wrapping paper. Enjoy browsing for a mix of nostalgic, whimsical, and modern gifts and souvenirs as likely to please a local hostess as they will your Midwestern grandmother. Basically there’s nothing you need, but everything you want. The shop is located in the neoclassical Fransız Geçidi arcade, built in 1860 and filled with atmospheric cafés and high-end galleries.
There’s no cost attached to one of Istanbul’s most distinctive photo ops, and the only lines are from fishing poles. Cross the historic Golden Horn via the Galata Bridge, where fishermen from every walk of life jostle for space, and tourist restaurants line the lower level (stop in for a drink if you’d like, but the food tends to be overpriced and mediocre). Galata Bridge isn’t beloved for its architecture (fun fact: It is supposedly the bridge for which the card game is named), but rather its views: Topkapı Palace and several domes and minarets in the Old City on one side, and the Galata Tower on the other.
Asmalımescit Mahallesi, Meşrutiyet Caddesi No:99, 34430 Beyoğlu/İstanbul, Turkey
A cultural hub for Turkish and international art, Istanbul Modern opened in 2004 as a permanent home for the contemporary Istanbul Biennial. The 8,000-square-foot warehouse sits along the Bosphorus next to the Golden Horn, a historically important port for thousands of years. The water views rival the exhibitions for your attention and appreciation, and the museum has an excellent restaurant and terrace to take advantage of the location. Back inside, the permanent collection shows contemporary and modern artists from Turkey, with rotating exhibitions of photography, design, and new media. The downstairs cinema has several screenings a week of films that complement exhibitions or feature distinctive work, often accompanied by panel discussions. The gift shop is one of the best places to buy unusual and beautiful souvenirs such as upcycled jewelry and kids’ coloring books of museum art.
Rüstem Paşa Mahallesi, Hasırcılar Cd. No:62, 34116 Fatih/İstanbul, Turkey
After a few days in Istanbul you will have likely heard the name Mimar Sinan (1489–1588) many times, and before long you will have seen some of the architect’s works, from the kitchens of Topkapı Palace to the city’s largest mosque, the Süleymaniye. The 16th-century architect is considered the master of classical Ottoman architecture, whose buildings are soaring achievements that built on the Byzantine goal of creating voluminous spaces under floating domes. Just slightly off the tourist trail, at a few hundred yards to the west of the Spice Bazaar, the Rüstem Pasha Mosque is a gem by Sinan that deserves a detour. You’ll get to experience the architect’s work on an intimate scale, while another highlight is the İznik tilework that was at its peak in the 16th century. In the more famous Blue Mosque, much of the tilework is high above visitors’ heads, but here it is at eye level—all the better to appreciate its details. If some of the spiritual atmosphere of other mosques is lost with the crowds of visitors, at Rüstem Pasha it is still possible to admire the blue tiles, surrounded by silence, before heading back out into the city.