Seven Must-See Historical Sites in Istanbul

      I think cities are a lot like people: different looks, different personalities, different social and ethnic backgrounds. And also like people, some you like and some you don’t. Before my trip to Istanbul I did a lot of web-surfing and reading about the city. What intrigued me was that all those who write about this place seem to be awed by it. So I left for Istanbul with a fair amount of knowledge and some “borrowed” impressions. 

View of the Golden Horn from Galata Tower

Istanbul, Golden Horn View

      Istanbul is not an easy place to sum up. From the magnificent mosques and the daily calls to prayer, the beautifully ornate palaces and tumultuous bazaars, to the miles and miles of gorgeous waterfront views and bridges, Istanbul is undeniably a very unique and beautiful city. But one thing struck me as I was trying to outline my impressions: although I enjoyed visiting it,  Istanbul didn’t dazzle me. It didn’t make me fall in love with it. It didn’t make me feel sad because I left. Somehow, I couldn’t relate to it in any way. Istanbul has an entirely different vibe than any other Eastern European city that I’ve seen. Well, perhaps because it is just partly European.      

      You may argue that five days is hardly enough time to get a feel of a city, but I needed only a few hours to fall in love with Budapest, or Prague, or Dresden for this matter. However, I don’t want to deny this city’s great historical importance or attractiveness. Visiting it was a very unique cultural experience, definitely worthwhile.  So here are some of the things that shouldn’t be missed in Istanbul:

Hagia Sophia              

      The church turned mosque, then turned museum, Hagia Sophia (in translation the Church of Divine Wisdom) is Istanbul’s most famous and intriguing monument. It is also counts itself among the world’s greatest architectural achievements. The current church was erected on the same site of Bizantium’s acropolis where two earlier Hagia Sophia stood, but burned down during a riot. Since I already dedicated an entire post about this fascinating landmark of Istanbul, I an not going to comment any further. To find out more about it,  please read my previous post: Hagia Sophia – A Controversial Monument.  

Hagia Sophia Ground floor

Hagia Sophia

The Blue Mosque            

       Stunningly beautiful and majestic, the Blue Mosque  was build between 1609 and 1616 during the rule of Ahmed I. The Sultan was determined to build a mosque that would surpass the Hagia Sophia (at the time the most respected mosque) and therefore he chose to have it built opposite the Hagia Sophia.  


At first glance, the Blue Mosque can indeed rival with Hagia Sophia. The elegant curves and grandiose domes and minarets make for a beautiful silhouette. But if you compare the interiors, the Blue Mosque isn’t as spectacular as Hagia Sophia.                                                                 

Topkapi Palace        

      Strategically located on a promontory overlooking the Marmara Sea, the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus, Topkapi Palace was built on the same spot where the ancient city of Byzantium stood, by Mehmet the Conqueror. The Sultan didn’t spare any expense for the construction and used the most expensive and rare materials of that time. Over the course of time, various sultans added and changed different parts of the Palace.

The Imperial Gale of Topkapi Palace

The Imperial Gate, Topkapi Palace

The Final version extended on an area of 700,000 square meters and was home to 4000 people. The palace consists of a series of pavilions contained by four immense courtyards. Topkapi Palace was the official residence of the Ottoman sultans since Mehmet the Conqueror until the reign of Sultan Abdülmecid in 1853, who moved the court to the Dolmabahçe Palace. 

The Basilica Cistern      

      Considered by many “the coolest spot in town”, the Basilica Cistern is one of the hundreds of ancient cisterns hidden underneath the streets of Istanbul. It is indeed a very unusual attraction. Built in 532 under the reign of Justinian I, the immense water reservoir was was supposed to meet the water needs of the Great Palace. The cistern’s roof is supported by 336 marble columns in Ionic and Corinthian styles. Among the columns there are two Medusa heads, one positioned upside down and the other tilted on the side. 

The Hagia Eirene (Irene)      

      Hagia Eirene (in translation the Church of the Holy Peace), has a very interesting history. It is the very first church built in Constantinople, a former Orthodox church. When the Ottomans conquered Constantinople, Hagia Irene ended up enclosed by the outer walls of Topkapi Palace. For unknown reasons, the church was never converted into a mosque. 

The church was used by the Ottomans soldiers as an armory. Hagia Eirene is today a museum. Due to its extraordinary acoustics the church is also used for classical music performances.

The Dolmabahçe Palace      

      Dolmabahçe is Turkey’s biggest and most extravagant palace and Istanbul’s first European-style palace. The Palace was commissioned in 1843 by Sultan Abdulmecit Ias a cover up for the declining Ottoman Empire. Therefore, to impress the world, the building was lavishly decorated with tons of gold and a large collection of Baccarat crystal chandeliers

The design is a mixture of Rococo, Neo-Classic and Baroque art. The palace stands on the shore of Bosphorus and is surrounded by a beautiful garden.

Galata Tower      

      One of the most recognizable landmarks of Istanbul is the Galata Tower, a medieval stone tower located in Galata quarter. The cylindrical tower rises 66 meters high and provides a superb panoramic view of the city. The tower was built in 1384 as Christea Turris (Tower of Christ) and was used for many centuries as an observation tower for spotting fires.

The visitors’  access to Galata Tower is done by two elevators, but the lines are always long. However, the view from the top is very rewarding.  

      The list of great monuments and places of interest in Istanbul doesn’t stop here, but rather than loading too much information on a single post I prefer to write about them separately. So there is more coming up about Istanbul.



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25 Comments on “Seven Must-See Historical Sites in Istanbul

  1. Istanbul is one of my favorite cities. (I really liked watching “James Bond” ride a motorcycle across the roofs of the market in “Skyfall”). With a history as Byzantium, Constantinople and Istanbul (not to mention prehistoric settlements) it should be on everyone’s bucket list.

  2. Istanbul is still on our bucket list. Our son visited there and also highly recommended it. He had a little issue with a guy in a hostel with a knife—-but we won’t be staying in a hostel.

    • Thank you for your comment, Suzanne, I hope that incident will not put you off. I guess it can happen any where

  3. I love Istanbul – the last time I was there we stayed a hostel across the from Hagia Sophia and I think your first 5 sites where all within 5 minutes walk – incredible place.

  4. Aloha Anda, I agree with you on not all cities making a positive impression. The Istanbul airport layover we had was such a disappointing experience that we’d be very reluctant to return for a visit. Your photography is beautiful.

  5. Love your pictures! I was already convinced to go to Istanbul (end of the year, perhaps), but now I want to visit it even more!

    • Thank you, Vlad, for your kind comments. I enjoyed reading some of your posts too. They are all loaded with great photographs.

    • It’s good you had this opportunity, Vicki. You at least got a first taste of the city on somebody else’s money. Ha,ha,ha!

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