Sitting at the crossroads of two continents, Istanbul (formerly Constantinople) is a deeply historical, cultural significant and beautifully diverse city. Home to nearly 20 million people, Istanbul has this amazing clash of old and new, east and west, Christian and Islamic. It is truly my favorite city in the world and is such a fascinating place to explore.
I spent a week there this past summer and that felt like hardly enough to see everything this amazing place has to offer. There are tons of museums, galleries, markets and historical sights to visit, so I would recommend budgeting at least a few days for your visit.
Here are my top 5 recommendations for historical sights to visit in Istanbul:
One of the most popular stops for tourists is the Blue Mosque. Known by worshipers as Sultan Ahmed Mosque, this mosque is one of the largest working mosques in the city. It is often called the Blue Mosque because of the tiles on the interior as well as the domed roofs, both of which feature the bright blue color. With our hostel right down the street, we get to pass this beautiful site multiple times a day. We can even see it from the rooftop terrace!
The views from outside in the public square are very nice, and you can get a good glimpse of the 9 domes. But once inside the courtyard (which is almost the same size as the mosque itself!), you can get an impressive and slightly imposing view of this enormous structure. Originally built as an imperial mosque, I find it amazing that this place was built in the 1600s since it still seems very modern! The minarets are beautifully detailed with carvings and scripture.
Since it is a working mosque, it is important to follow local customs and dress more conservatively, with pants or skirts past your knees, and shirts (or shawl) to cover your head and shoulders. Although very crowded with visitors, this a definite stop on the Istanbul tour. We opted not to go inside, since the wait was over 2 hours, and the overpowering smell of feet coming out from the mosque. But from what other visitors and photos describe the interior is beautiful in its mastery of simplicity. The blue tiles line the walls and impressive domes, to give this mosque is well-known name.
Turkish Hammam Visit
One of the things I was really excited to try in Turkey was a hammam. A traditional Turkish bath, these public places have been a staple in Turkish culture for hundreds of years. There are many hammam’s throughout the city and some are very historic, dating back to the 10th century. In a typical hammam, there are multiple rooms (gender separated) including a steam room with a large central stone, a washing room and a cooling room.
I opted for a historical and nearby hammam, the Aya Sofia Hammami. Although a little bit over-priced, this hammam was renovated a few years ago and is now one of the nicest spots in town. Similar to a spa, you have the option for self-service or pay for professional spa services.
I paid for the hammam services and had an attendant with me throughout the process. Not for the self-conscious, this is a full washing experience. The attendant will get up in your business, so be ready. But I felt more than comfortable with my new friend, Samrya. She started by taking me to the steam room where you essentially sweat out all of the toxins. At this hammami, I had my own washing station with a gold bowl and sink to rinse as I steamed. Samrya returned after about 20 minutes to do the traditional Turkish scrub. Wearing an exfoliating glove, she will rub you down to slough off all the dead skin on your body. Obviously the glove is rough, but Samrya was still gentle and made it an enjoyable experience.
Next came the washing portion of the experience. Using traditional oils and soaps, you get super lathered up and the attendant helps wash you down. Finally, comes the oil massage. Everyone’s favorite part, the 30 minute massage was just what I needed to relax and get my muscles back to their normal state after all the walking we’ve been doing lately. Overall, I was really impressed with my experience at the hammam. I was certainly nervous at first, but I’m that I went because I left feeling clean, relaxed and reinvigorated.
Hagia Sophia Museum
Built in the 6th century, the Hagia Sofia (Ayasofya) mosque is a staple of the Istanbul skyline and their most popular downtown tourist destination. I have been fascinated by this mosque for many years now. Originally a Ortodox cathedral, then a Catholic church, then a mosque then a museum, this building holds (quite literally) centuries of religious history in its very walls. I saw pictures of it in my high school history textbooks years ago and finally, I am lucky enough to visit in person.
As with the Topkapi palace, I highly recommend using the three-day museum pass to gain entry. You get to skip the ticket line (which today was around the block and took 2 hours!) and go right in. We went right when the museum opened at 9, and it was still pretty empty. This gave us the opportunity to explore the mosque relatively in peace.
When you walk in the main entrance, you enter into the cavernous main basilica. Restoration is ongoing, so be prepared to see some scaffolding. But it hardly detracts for the amazing size and structure of the building. This was the largest cathedral in the wold for over 1,000 years and you can certainly feel its impressiveness today. Directly in front of the entrance is the main chapel, where you see the famous Virgin & Child mosaic high in the half-dome. You are also drawn into the large plaques featuring Arabic surrounding the main cavern.
I highly recommend going to the upper gallery for an overhead view of the structure. This is also the location of the famous Christian mosaics of Jesus and biblical stories. You can also get an awesome view of the Blue Mosque, which is directly across the courtyard. Although this site is simple in its decor and embellishments (especially compared to Western European cathedrals), I think it is well worth a visit to admire the history and sheer size of the building. I loved seeing different religions coming together in one building as well as the different depictions and representatives that have been excavated.
Originally built as a guard and watch tower in the 6th century, the tower was rebuilt again out of stone in the 13th century. It is located across the Golden Horn from many of the other famous sites, giving a spectacular view of the city.
I would recommend going early in the day, as the line gets quite long as the day goes on (probably people waiting for a sunset view). It is centrally located with a tram stop at the bottom of the hill. Once at the tower, there is no need to climb the 500+ foot tower. They’ve installed a modern elevator for visitors! Up top, there are 2 restaurants and a stunning 360 view of the city. From that height, you can get a real appreciation for the size and beautiful location of Istanbul. As far as you can see in any direction is city and water. It’s quite impressive. Plus, the bird’s eye view of the Hagia Sophia & Blue Mosque ain’t bad!
Despite the crowds, we braved the huge Topkapi Palace today. Home to the Sultans of the Ottoman Empire, it is located in central Istanbul along the Bosporus and Golden Horn rivers. It features 4 gardens with the living quarters, concubines quarters and kitchens around them.
The first garden was available for public use during the empire, and features ancient trees and beautiful walkways. It also has a nice view of the Bosporus. The second courtyard was open to dignitaries, business men and other “people of influence”. With these courtyards, you start to notice more opulent details such as gilded ceilings, mosaic tiles and fountains.
Once you proceed to the third and fourth gardens, these are the ones that were exclusively used by the sultan and his family. There is a large library, gazebo and scenic overlook in these gardens. The view from the south corner is by far the best we’ve had of the city yet! Overlooking where the golden horn meets the Bosporus, you have a lovely view of the Asian side of the city, the connecting bridge as well as all the traffic on the Bosporus. Connecting two continents was an advantageous place to put a city back in the day, and that remains ever true today. There were countless cruise liners, ferries, small boats and barges transferring people and product on this river. But I digress.
If you are willing to pay a few extra dollars (or spulrge for the 3 day all-inclusive museum pass, which I recommend) you can get access to the haremm. Also know as the living quarters, this is where the palace really comes to life. You can take a walking, guided or self-guided with audio tour of the harem. It is well signed, and has signs in both English and Turkish, making it easy if you don’t want to wait for an available tour guide.
I loved peering into the maze of rooms and wandering through the small passageways. The harem contained all of the sultan’s family and concubines, which sometimes number over 500! The best part of the harem however was all of the beautiful handpainted mosaics. Throught the interior courtyards, bedrooms and hallways, you can see floor to ceiling tiles. The most impressive was obviously the sultan’s private quarters, but I was also quite impressed with the queen’s mom courtyard. It contained a mix of mosaic and murual which is one of the few times I had ever seen that. It was an interesting contrast of cultures and art coming together.