A truly transcontinental city sitting on the border between Asia and Europe, Istanbul is a once-in-a-lifetime vacation destination. Its rich history, culture, and architecture can keep visitors entertained for weeks. To get started, here are five destinations in Istanbul you won’t want to miss.
Hagia Sophia Museum
No visit to Istanbul would be complete without a visit to Hagia Sophia, one of the most famous and visited museums and monuments in the world. Dating back to the sixth century, Hagia Sophia has a remarkable history, having been originally constructed in the 530s AD on the orders of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I. Crowned with a massive dome and featuring intricate masonry, Hagia Sophia is considered the pinnacle of Byzantine architecture. It was originally used as a Christian church for its first 916 years.
However, following the conquest of Istanbul by Fatih Sultan Mehmed, Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque and remained so for the subsequent 482 years. It was then converted into a museum in 1935, following orders from Kemal Ataturk, founder of the Republic of Turkey. This means that, when you visit Hagia Sophia, you get to experience the venue’s long and storied history with its roots in both Christianity and Islam.
If you are visiting Hagia Sophia in the summer, opening hours are 9am to 7pm, while in the winter it is open from 9am to 5pm. Tickets can be purchased at the box office on site.
After you have finished your visit at Hagia Sophia, take a short walk to the Basilica Cistern, the largest of hundreds of ancient cisterns located underneath Istanbul. Also built in the sixth century for Byzantine Emperor Justinian I, the cistern occupies a site where a basilica once stood in the third and fourth centuries—hence the name Basilica Cistern.
As well as the more than 300 30-foot columns that make up the cistern, it is the Medusa heads that attract much of the attention from tourists. The bases of two of the columns feature carvings of Medusa: one sideways, the other upside down.
The Basilica Cistern has also featured in popular culture, including a scene in the James Bond movie From Russia With Love, the video game Assassin’s Creed: Revelations, and Dan Brown’s book and subsequent movie Inferno.
For all of your souvenir shopping needs, the Grand Bazaar is the place to go. One of the oldest and largest markets in the world, the Grand Bazaar features more than 4,000 shops and market stalls sprawled across 61 streets and a total area of 30,700 square meters.
The Grand Bazaar encapsulates the busy and wonderfully chaotic nature of Istanbul, with as many as 400,000 people visiting the market each day. Offering everything from Turkish sweets and delicacies, jewelry and perfume to books, clothing, and souvenirs, the Grand Bazaar is a great place to get a taste of real Istanbul.
To give you an idea of its enormous popularity, in 2014 the Grand Bazaar was rated as the most visited tourist attraction in the world, with a whopping 91,250,000 annual visitors.
Once the residence of the Ottoman sultans and the administrative and educational center of their empire, Topkapi Palace is now one of Istanbul’s largest museums. Originally constructed between 1460 and 1478 by Sultan Mehmed II, who conquered the city, Topkapi Palace maintained its central importance until the mid-19th century.
While the sultans moved to Dolmabahçe Palace during this time, Topkapi Palace remained the home of the royal treasury, the Holy Relics of the Prophet Muhammad, and several imperial archives.
Featuring an Imperial Gate, four courtyards, a complex of apartments known as the harem, sprawling outer gardens, and numerous ancient artefacts, Topkapi Palace is now one of Istanbul’s key tourist attractions. It is open every day except for Tuesdays, and tickets can be purchased from the box office on site. If you wish to visit the harem, a separate ticket is required.
The Blue Mosque
Of all of Istanbul’s iconic monuments and attractions, the Blue Mosque is the most photographed of them all. Officially called the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, the Blue Mosque was built between 1609 and 1616 and still acts as a functioning mosque as well as a popular tourist attraction.
Featuring five main domes, six minarets, and eight secondary domes, the Blue Mosque as it stands is the culmination of around two centuries of Ottoman religious architecture.
Although open to all visitors, entry to the Blue Mosque is controlled to prevent over-tourism and to preserve its sacred nature. The main door is only open to worshippers, with visitors required to use the south door to access the grounds. Open daily, the Blue Mosque is nevertheless closed to tourists during prayer hours throughout the day.
Other notable attractions
Istanbul is so old and large that there is an abundance of sights and attractions to visit—more than can be seen on one trip alone. Other notable landmarks to visit in the city include the ancient Hippodrome, which was once the center of public life during the third and fourth centuries. If you have time, you’ll also want to visit the Istanbul Archeological Museum, Spice Bazaar, Galata Tower, and Taksim Square, where much of the hustle and bustle of modern Istanbul can be found.