Palaces, Mosques, Bazaars, and More: What to See in Istanbul
A place where East really does meet West and ancient meets modern, Istanbul has a unique position straddling two continents. Turkey's largest city was considered mysterious in the days before mass air travel, yet today it remains a place people consider exotic and enchanting. Whether you are striking a bargain in a centuries-old bazaar, gazing up at the high ceiling of a great mosque, or walking along one of the world’s most important waterways, you'll wish the walls could talk, because they would certainly have some intriguing tales to tell.
Here are our deal experts' favourite places to visit in Istanbul.
Standing on an elevated spot in the Sultanahmet neighbourhood of old Istanbul, the huge Sultanahmet Mosque (Sultanahmet Camii) is one of the city's most iconic sights. Commissioned by Sultan Ahmed I and built between 1609 and 1616, it has a spectacular outline — especially when it is floodlit after dusk — due to its domes and semi domes. It also has six minarets, which caused controversy when it was built, as that was the same number the Great Mosque of Mecca had (so Ahmed I paid for a seventh minaret in Mecca). Inside, the walls are decorated with around 20,000 blue Iznik tiles, hence the building's unofficial name of the Blue Mosque, while the mosque also contains the tomb of Ahmed I, who died in 1617 aged 27. Sultanahmet Mosque is on Sultanahmet Square (also known as the Hippodrome of Constantinople).
Between the 15th and 19th centuries, the stunning Topkapi Palace was the main residence and administrative centre of the sultans who ruled the Ottoman Empire. Work started on the palace in 1459 after the conquest of Istanbul (then called Constantinople), which was the capital of the Byzantine Empire. Following the end of Ottoman rule in 1922, the palace became a museum, and today you can explore the huge complex and see how the rulers lived and ran their empire. You can visit the treasury, which displays a collection of royal arms and armour; the harem, able to accommodate up to 300 concubines; and the kitchens, where there is even a collection of porcelain that changes colour if poisoned food touches it. Other areas include the gardens, eunuch's accommodation, the imperial council chamber, the sultan's private residence, and the circumcision room.
Along with the Blue Mosque and the Topkapi Palace, the Hagia Sophia is another magnificent building on the skyline of the Sarayburnu peninsula, where the Old City is. Built almost 1500 years ago as the most important Christian cathedral of the Byzantine Empire, it became a mosque in 1453 after the Ottoman conquest, leading to the addition of the minarets that surround the building today. In the 1930s, the first president of the modern Turkish republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, ordered the Hagia Sophia's conversion into a museum, which it remained until 2020, when it once again became a mosque. The interior is stunning, and features a domed high ceiling, marble columns, and mosaics.
Situated on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, this grand waterside edifice dating from 1865 was built for Sultan Abdülaziz as a summer palace for entertaining foreign dignitaries. It was later where Sultan Abdülhamid II spent his final few years under house arrest after being deposed in the early 20th century. It contains some stunning rooms with furnishings including crystal chandeliers, Ming vases, frescoes, and impressive carpets. Rooms include a harem, a hall featuring a marble pool, the sultan's apartment, and the ceremonial quarters. Down by the water's edge are two bathing pavilions made from marble. There are some fine views across the water — which you may or may not think are improved by the looming presence of the huge Bosphorus Bridge, the suspension bridge linking two continents, which is right next to the palace. You can tour the palace with an audio guide, then head to the garden café for a glass of tea.
Charming Balat, one of Istanbul's oldest neighbourhoods, has a unique atmosphere and is a wonderful place to explore on foot. It is filled with narrow, sometimes steep, cobbled streets, which are lined with historic wooden houses — many of them painted bright colours, and some up to 200 years old. There are also many lovely cafés and restaurants, as well as small shops selling clothing (including vintage), jewellery, and art and crafts, plus markets selling fresh produce. It is one of the city's most diverse areas, and was traditionally home to minorities, including Jewish and Greek Orthodox families — among its sights are synagogues, mosques, Greek schools, and Bulgarian churches.
The James Bond films have featured Istanbul no fewer than three times, including a scene in "From Russia with Love", in which 007 descends into the Byzantine Cistern, an underground reservoir. Built in 532, after being commissioned by the emperor Justinian, it is the largest surviving cistern from the Byzantine era and could store up to 80 million litres of water. It was originally constructed to supply water to the Byzantine rulers' Great Palace, but was later left for centuries and became filled with rubbish during the Ottoman years. It was finally cleaned up in the 1980s and opened to the public. Today, you can admire the hundreds of columns that hold up the arched ceiling, all of which is illuminated, and try to spot the fish in the water.
From Sultanahmet you can cross the Golden Horn — an inlet of the Bosphorus — via the famous Galata Bridge to Beyoglu. This bustling neighbourhood is full of eating, drinking, shopping, and entertainment options, and is loved by locals and visitors alike. There are many galleries and museums in Beyoglu, including the Pera Museum, with its fine exhibition of Turkish Orientalist artworks. The area is also home to jazz clubs, arthouse cinemas, and performance venues, plus there are shops selling all sorts, including chocolate, Turkish delight, vinyl, books, homeware, and jewellery, while you will be spoilt for choice when it comes to restaurants, cafés, and bars. The main street, Istiklal Caddesi, is surrounded by 19th-century buildings, and throngs with people and trams. It leads up to Taksim Square, one of the city's best-known landmarks. You can also take a stroll around Cihangir and Galata, two of the most atmospheric areas of Beyoglu.
Turkish baths, or hammams, have been present in Istanbul since Ottoman times, when visiting one was both a social and cleansing experience. They are still popular, and some historic hammams remain in operation today. If you have a busy sightseeing schedule, it's worth taking some time out to experience a hammam — you will leave feeling revitalised with skin that is cleaner than ever. The classic treatment usually involves being soaked in hot water, then scrubbed from head to toe with a mitt to remove dead skin, followed by a foam massage. After this, you usually have the chance to relax with tea. Some of the oldest and most spectacular Turkish baths in Istanbul include Çagaloglu hammam, dating back to 1741, and Süleymaniye hammam, which first opened in the 16th century.
Bosphorus boat tours
One of the best ways to see Istanbul is to take a boat tour on the Bosphorus. It's a great introduction to the city, and you can easily get your bearings, as many of the major sights are visible from the water, including the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace, Süleymaniye Mosque, Galeta Tower, Dolmabahçe Palace, and Beylerbeyi Palace. Şehir Hatlari, the city's official ferry company, is among the operators that run tours, with routes of varying lengths available, including evening cruises. If you have time, you can take the 90-minute trip all the way to Anadolu Kavagi, close to where the Bosphorus meets the Black Sea, and have a seafood lunch on one of the many restaurant terraces that overlook the water.
Istanbul has long been an important trading centre, so it is no surprise the city offers all kinds of shopping experiences, including modern malls and designer boutiques, as well as traditional markets and bazaars. Its most famous shopping destination is the Grand Bazaar, which attracts hundreds of thousands of people a day to its more than 3000 shops, which are set out in 61 streets. The bazaar, which first opened in the 14th century and expanded over the years, is a special place, with an its arched roof and passageways adorned with decorative tiles. You can buy all sorts of items there; some areas are devoted to specific items, such as handmade carpets, lanterns, ceramics, souvenirs, and of course, fake designer goods. Whatever you buy, remember to haggle. There are also cafés where you can take a break with a glass of tea.
Before travelling, be sure to check out our travel guide to Turkey.
Indulge in Turkey's best foods
Study up on customs and safety in Turkey
Be sure you know when to visit Turkey
Dream about what to expect on a Turkish gulet cruise
Find out what to take in along the Turquiose coast
Plan what to see in Marmaris
And see our tips for the best archaeological sites in Turkey
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Nick Elvin contributed to this post.