Top Reasons to Visit Istanbul, Your Gateway to History and Modernity
Updated On: November 27, 2023
As once the capital of both the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires, Istanbul stands at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, captivating with its mesmerising blend of history, culture, and vibrant modernity. It is a place where the East meets the West and where ancient traditions exist in a dynamic metropolis buzzing with energy. The city’s skyline, punctuated by minarets and domes, tells a tale of empires and cultures that have left their indelible mark.
As the modern art scene thrives in Istanbul’s contemporary galleries, the chic rooftop bars continue to offer spectacular views of the Bosphorus Strait, and the city’s authentic culinary adventures await in excitement to take visitors by storm, Istanbul promises an extraordinarily sensory and unforgettable experience that will linger in your heart long after your visit.
Whether you are a history buff, a food enthusiast, or simply seeking an adventure, join us on this journey through the heart of Türkiye’s most famous city to showcase its unique ability to preserve the past while embracing the future. We will also offer a handful of insights into its historic treasures, hidden gems, and modern attractions.
Istanbul: A Historic City
Istanbul, a city with a history that spans over two millennia, is a fascinating tapestry of cultures and empires. Originally founded as Byzantium around 660 BC, it became a part of the Roman Empire in the first century CE. The city’s significance grew tremendously when Roman Emperor Constantine the Great announced it the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire in 330 CE, renaming it Constantinople.
Over the centuries, Constantinople became a thriving centre of the Byzantine Empire, renowned for its architectural marvels like the Hagia Sophia. Its strategic location on the Silk Road and as a bridge between Europe and Asia made it a coveted prize for many.
In 1453, after a prolonged siege, Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks led by Sultan Mehmed II. This marked the end of the Byzantine Empire and the beginning of a new era under Ottoman rule. The city was renamed Istanbul and became the capital of the Ottoman Empire.
Under the Ottomans, Istanbul flourished as a cultural, political, and economic hub, with the construction of many significant structures, including the Topkapi Palace and the Blue Mosque.
The city remained the Ottoman Empire’s capital until the its dissolution after World War I. In 1923, following the Turkish War of Independence, Ankara was made the capital of the new Republic of Türkiye, but Istanbul continued to be a significant cultural and economic centre.
Today, Istanbul is a vibrant, modern city so proudly and beautifully blended with its rich history. It is a city where you can wander through ancient streets, explore grand palaces, and then enjoy the modern amenities of a bustling metropolis. This blend of the ancient and the modern made Istanbul one of the world’s most intriguing cities and a must-visit destination for all types of travellers.
Top Tourist Attractions in Istanbul
As an enchanting metropolis straddling the boundary between Europe and Asia, Istanbul beckons travellers with its stunning array of sights, sounds, and experiences.
From the awe-inspiring grandeur of ancient monuments such as the stunning Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque to the bustling energy of the Grand Bazaar and Spice Market, the city will lead you through a world where every corner holds a story, every street echoes history, and every vista captivates the imagination.
So, let’s explore the treasures of Istanbul and take a glimpse into the soul of a city that has been a crossroads of civilisations for centuries.
1. The Hagia Sophia
The Hagia Sophia is an architectural marvel and one of the most significant monuments in the world. It is a symbol of the historical shifts, religious transformations, and cultural fusions that have defined Istanbul over the centuries. Its story begins back in the sixth century when it was constructed under the orders of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I.
Originally built as a Christian cathedral, Hagia Sophia played a central role in the Byzantine Empire. Its massive dome was considered a breakthrough in architectural design, and the stunning mosaics depicting Christian iconography were unparalleled. For almost a thousand years, it was the largest cathedral in the world, a central fixture of the Eastern Orthodox Church, and an engineering marvel of its time.
In 1453, right after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople, the Hagia Sophia was turned into a mosque by Sultan Mehmed II. This transformation saw the addition of Islamic features such as minarets, a mihrab, and a minbar. The Christian mosaics were plastered over, in accordance with Islamic practices of the time.
In 1935, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Republic of Türkiye, secularised Hagia Sophia, turning it into a museum in an effort to highlight Türkiye’s more secular identity.
This status remained until 2020 when it was reconverted into a mosque. However, it remains open to visitors of all faiths and backgrounds, reflecting Türkiye’s complex and multi-layered history.
2. The Blue Mosque
Located right in front of the Hagia Sophia and built between 1609 and 1616, the Blue Mosque—or the Sultan Ahmed Mosque—is a historical mosque in Istanbul, famed for its striking architecture and its significant role in the city’s cultural and religious landscape. Despite resembling Hagia Sophia in many aspects, the mosque is a prime example of Ottoman-era architecture and is still an active place of worship today.
What sets the Blue Mosque apart is its six minarets, a unique feature at the time of its construction. Traditionally, mosques had one, two, or at most four minarets, like Hagia Sophia. The addition of six minarets was initially controversial as it equalled the number in the Masjid al-Haram in Mecca, but a seventh minaret was later added to the mosque in Mecca to maintain its precedence.
The mosque’s interior is adorned with over 20,000 handmade Iznik tiles featuring tulips, roses, lilies, and other floral motifs in shades of blue and green, giving the mosque its popular name ‘Blue Mosque’. The interior is also illuminated by 260 windows, originally filled with 17th-century stained glass, allowing light to beautifully enhance its intricate designs.
The mosque has a series of domes and semi-domes, adding to its grandeur. The main dome, rising to 43 metres, contributes to the mosque’s majestic profile against the Istanbul skyline. The use of light, space, and colour inside the mosque creates an atmosphere of serenity and awe.
Apart from being a religious site, the Blue Mosque is one of the most beautiful and popular tourist attractions in Istanbul, standing as a testament to the architectural genius and artistic creativity of its time.
3. The Topkapi Palace Museum
Initially built between 1460 and 1478 by Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror, the Topkapi Palace served as the main residence and court for Ottoman sultans from the time of its construction up until the mid-19th century. In 1924, the palace was turned into a museum by the order of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.
The Topkapi Palace Museum encompasses a vast array of architectural wonders, each imbued with intricate designs and exquisite craftsmanship. Besides its four vast courtyards, the palace is characterised by the intricate tile work adorning its walls, the delicate calligraphy gracing manuscripts, and the graceful craftsmanship of a dazzling repository of jewelled objects.
The palace also houses portraits of the Ottoman sultans and their families and offers a glimpse into their personalities and legacies.
The Topkapi Palace Museum has stood as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1985, a testament to the enduring legacy of the Ottoman Empire and a captivating destination for those seeking to unravel the rich tapestry of history and culture.
4. The Galata Tower
Piercing the skyline of Istanbul’s bustling Beyoğlu district, the Galata Tower stands as an iconic landmark that has witnessed centuries of transformation. Built in 1348 by the Genoese, this majestic stone tower has served as a watchtower, a prison, and an observatory. Its presence intertwined with the city’s intricate history.
Standing at 67 metres tall, the Galata Tower offers panoramic vistas of Istanbul’s sprawling cityscape. From its observation deck, visitors can gaze upon the Golden Horn’s tranquil waters, the labyrinthine streets of old Istanbul, and the majestic silhouette of the Hagia Sophia.
The tower’s interior is a harmonious blend of Genoese and Ottoman architectural styles, housing a fascinating museum that chronicles its rich history. Visitors can explore exhibits showcasing the tower’s evolution, from its origins as a Genoese defence outpost to its transformation into an Ottoman symbol.
5. Leander’s Tower
Gracefully perched on a small islet amidst the Bosporus Strait, Leander’s Tower, also known as Maiden’s Tower—or Kız Kulesi in Turkish—was built in the fourth century BC when it served as a customs station controlling ships entering the Black Sea. Over time, it has transformed into a lighthouse, a quarantine station, and even a radio station.
The Leander’s Tower’s interior, which features a labyrinth of hidden chambers and secret passages, now houses a museum showcasing artefacts and exhibitions that chronicle its rich history, a restaurant on the first floor and a café at the top. The tower’s winding staircase offers breathtaking panoramic views of Istanbul’s skyline, the shimmering Bosporus Strait, and the vibrant cityscape that stretches beyond.
The Leander’s Tower is one of the most popular and iconic tourist destinations in Istanbul, with its enigmatic allure drawing visitors from around the globe.
6. The Grand Bazaar
Amidst the vibrant heart of Istanbul, the Grand Bazaar stands as one of the oldest and largest covered markets in the world. It is a true maze of over 61 narrow, winding streets and 4,000 shops spanning an area of 30,700 square metres, all adding to the bazaar’s charm and giving it a sense of adventure.
The Grand Bazaar is a vibrant and lively marketplace, a major centre for traditional Turkish crafts which offers a huge variety of goods, including textiles, jewellery, carpets, ceramics, antiques, and spices. It was built in the 15th century during the reign of Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror and has been in continuous operation ever since, attracting between 250,000 and 400,000 visitors daily.
In 2014, the Grand Bazaar was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, recognising its exceptional historical and cultural value.
7. Taksim Square
In the midst of Istanbul’s lively district of Beyoğlu, Taksim Square stands as a pulsating hub of energy and cultural expression, a symbol of the city’s modern identity and its embrace of diversity. The square houses the Republic Monument, a towering sculpture featuring Mustafa Kemal Atatürk flanked by his close allies and commemorating the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923.
Besides being a major transportation hub, with connections to the Istanbul Metro, the historic Tünel funicular, and a variety of bus and taxi services, Taksim Square is known for its lively nightlife, with a wide array of restaurants, cafes, and clubs, all catering to a diverse range of tastes. It also marks the start of İstiklal Avenue, a renowned pedestrian boulevard lined with shops, cafes, theatres, and historical landmarks.
Top 3 Things to Do in Istanbul
Besides visiting the attractions we mentioned earlier, Istanbul offers a wide range of amusing experiences and activities that will make your visit unforgettable and give you loads of beautiful, vibrant, and sensory memories.
Let’s explore the top three activities you must do when in Istanbul.
1. Do a Bosphorus Cruise
Istanbul is split in half by the Bosphorus Strait that runs through it, with each part of the city belonging to a different continent, for the strait is what separates Europe from Asia.
Taking a Bosphorus cruise is a must-do activity for any visitor to Istanbul. During their journey, visitors will be able to see many of Istanbul’s most famous landmarks, including the Topkapi Palace Museum, the Blue Mosque, and the Hagia Sophia. This cruise is also the best way to view monuments only visible from the sea, like the grand palaces of Dolmabahçe and Beylerbeyi or the University of Galatasaray.
The cruise typically lasts for about two hours, and there are several different companies that offer cruises. You can pick from a variety of boat options, including traditional wooden boats and modern yachts.
2. Indulge in Turkish Cuisine
Turkish cuisine is a rich and diverse tapestry of flavours, drawing inspiration from Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, and Central Asian culinary traditions. It is characterised by its use of fresh, seasonal ingredients, aromatic spices, and a variety of cooking techniques, resulting in a symphony of tastes that tantalise the palate.
Turkish cuisine showcases an abundance of mouthwatering dishes, each with its own unique character. Besides doner kebab, köfte, and meze platters, here are some notable savoury and sweet, hearty dishes to try when in the city:
- Lahmacun: This is Türkiye’s very special pizza that consists of a thin dough topped with chopped meat, onion, lemon, parsley, and spices.
- Börek: These are small bricks made from very fine wheat pancakes filled with cheese, spinach, minced meat, and potatoes.
- Dolma: Dolma are rolls of typical vine leaves stuffed with rice, spices, and lemon.
- Baklava: Maybe the most famous Turkish dessert, Baklava is made from puff pastry with crushed nuts and honey.
- Lokoum: A Turkish delight, Lokoum is a confectionery of Ottoman origin created from sugar and starch.
- Ayran: Ayran is a common drink made with liquid sheep milk yoghurt, with lemon juice, salt, and pepper. It is usually consumed with savoury dishes such as grilled meat and rice.
Some common Turkish street foods that work best as snacks while going sightseeing in the city include simit, which is Turkish bagels, grilled corn, lemon mussels, and dürüm, the Turkish version of Shawarma.
While on your journey, you must try the very well-known, dairy-free Turkish coffee as well as the typical Turkish tea, or çay in Turkish. This is black tea usually served unsweetened in small, distinct Turkish glasses.
3. Experience Traditional Turkish Hammams
Traditional Turkish hammams, also known as Turkish baths, are a centuries-old tradition of cleansing, relaxation, and spiritual rejuvenation. These opulent bathhouses have been an integral part of Turkish culture for centuries, offering a sanctuary for many to escape the hustle and bustle of everyday life and indulge in a holistic and restorative experience.
Turkish hammams typically feature a series of interconnected steam rooms and pools, each with a different temperature and purpose. The lowest chamber is the hottest, where the heat and humidity aid in deep cleansing and detoxification. As one moves through the chambers, the temperature gradually decreases, allowing the body to acclimatise and experience a more temperate steam bath.
The centrepiece of the hammam is the göbek taşı, a large circular marble slab that serves as a heated resting place.
Beyond the physical benefits, Turkish hammams offer a unique opportunity for reflection and relaxation. The tranquil atmosphere, the soothing sounds of water, and the warmth of the steam create a sense of tranquillity and well-being. The experience of being enveloped in steam and receiving a massage from a skilled ‘tellak’ can be deeply meditative and transformative, one that every tourist must try at least once.
Istanbul, a city that straddles continents and embraces the past and present, promises visitors an unforgettable journey and magic to be forever woven into the fabric of their being. From its fantastic ancient and modern structures to its delightful cuisine, the city has unveiled its many facets, each leaving visitors with a deeper appreciation for its rich cultural tapestry.