Istanbul Tourist Attractions
Top Tourist Attractions in Istanbul
Overall viewThe city consists of three separate elements - the old Turkish town (Eminönöü, Aksaray, Fatih), in the form of an almost equilateral triangle, which extends from the right bank of the Golden Horn to the Sea of Marmara; linked with the old town by the Galata and Atatürk Bridges, the district of Beyoglu with its suburbs of Galata and Harbiye, largely inhabited by foreigners, on the slopes between the Golden Horn and the Bosporus; and the district of Üsküdar, with its suburbs, on the Asiatic side of the Bosporus.
Istanbul is a unique and unforgettable sight with its towers and its palaces and the numerous domes and minarets of the 35 large and over a hundred smaller mosques rising above the water. Little is left of the colorful Oriental life of the old capital of the Sultans, and the people now wear European dress. Street names and shop signs are in the Latin alphabet; and the old rows of brown timber houses with red roofs and latticed kafes (bow-windows) have given place in the central areas to stone and reinforced-concrete blocks.The climate of Istanbul is marked by sharp contrasts. In the evening it is frequently cool, even in summer. Among the city's numerous birds visitors will be impressed particularly by the black kites and, on the Bosporus, the black cormorants. Dolphins are a frequent sight in the Bosporus and the Sea of Marmara.HistoryAbout 660 B.C. Dorian Greeks founded on what is now Seraglio Point the city of Byzantion (in Latin Byzantium), which controlled access to the Black Sea at the entrance to the Bosporus. In 513 B.C. the town was captured by the Persian King Darius I. During the sixth and fifth century it was a member of the first and second Attic Leagues. In 148 B.C. the free city of Byzantion entered into an alliance with Rome, and thereafter it several times lost and then regained its freedom. In A.D. 196 the city was captured and harshly treated by Septimius Severus, but soon recovered. In 324, after his victory over Licinius, Constantine I (306-37) resolved to make a second capital of the Empire.In the autumn of 326 a beginning was made with the construction of a line of town walls taking in an area which extended far to the west, and on May 11th 330 the new city was solemnly inaugurated, under the name of Nova Roma or New Rome, soon to be changed to Constantinopolis. Like Rome the new city was divided into fourteen regions, and even had its seven hills. After the division of the Empire in 395 Constantinople became the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. In the reign of Justinian (527-65) who rebuilt the city in greater magnificence after much of it had been reduced to ashes during the Nika Insurrection, it enjoyed its period of greatest splendor. Late Greek and Roman culture developed into the distinctive Byzantine culture, which found expression in the Greek language.Soon afterwards, however, the Empire was torn by domestic and external conflicts. The city was harried by the Avars and Persians (627) and by the Arabs under the Omayyad caliphs; in 813 and again in 924 it was besieged by the Bulgars; and in 907 and 1048 Russian fleets appeared off Constantinople. Finally came the catastrophe of 1204, when, following disputes over the succession to the Imperial throne, the Crusaders captured the city and founded a Latin Empire.After the Ottoman conquest of Asia Minor in the 13th century and the transfer of the capital from Bursa to Edirne (Adrianople) Constantinople was increasingly encircled by Turks. In 1453 Mehmet II Fatih (the Conqueror) took the city, which now became the Ottoman capital under the name of Istanbul. There was a great wave of building by the Sultans and Turkish grandees, particularly by Selim I (1512-20) and Süleiman the Magnificent (1520-66). Many major buildings were also erected in the 17th and 18th century During the 19th century Western influences began to make themselves felt in the city's architecture.After the First World War, in which Turkey had been allied with the Central Powers, Istanbul was occupied by the Allies. In 1922, following Turkey's victory in the War of Independence, Turkish troops re-entered the city. In 1923 the Sultanate and Caliphate were abolished and Turkey became a Republic and its first President, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, moved the capital to Ankara. In a drastic program of reform Atatürk banned the fez, the wearing of veils by women, the Order of Dervishes and polygamy and introduced the Latin alphabet, the metric system and regular surnames. The aspect of Istanbul has since then been increasingly Europeanized by the driving of wide modern streets through the old town, the pulling down of the old wooden houses and their replacement by new blocks of flats and offices, the establishment of a new commercial and business center north of Taksim Square and the development of whole new districts of the city.Istanbul made a bid to host the 27th Summer Olympic Games in the year 2000.
At the south end of the Galata Bridge in Istanbul is Eminönü Square, at the beginning of the oldest part of Istanbul. From here a beautiful seafront road, Florya Sahil Yolu, encircles Seraglio Point and runs along the Sea of Marmara to Yesilköy.
On the south side of Eminönü Square in Istanbul stands the large Yeni Cami, the New Mosque of the Sultan's mother, which was begun in 1615, on the model of the Ahmet I Mosque, for Ahmet's mother but completed only in 1663. The interior of the mosque and the adjoining royal apartments are richly decorated with tiles.
From the Yeni Cami in Istanbul a street runs southeast, passing close to Sirkeci Station (Istanbul's main station), to the Sublime Porte, once the seat of the Grand Vizier, later the Foreign Ministry and now the office of the Governor (Vali) of Istanbul province. Opposite it, at the corner of the Seraglio wall, is the Alay Köskü, from which the Sultan could watch, unobserved, the comings and goings at the Sublime Porte.A little way southeast is the Soguk Çesme Gate, the main entrance to the Seraglio, reached on the street which runs up to the right.The street ahead passes through Gülhane Park (admission charge) to an outlook terrace, with views of the Bosporus and the Sea of Marmara. To the south, below the Tulip Garden, is the Gothic Column (second century A.D.). Outside the park, near the tip of Seraglio Point, can be seen a bronze statue of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.
Cannon Gate Palace (Old Palace)
From the Soguk Çesme Gate in Istanbul we bear half right to the Topkapi Sarayi (Cannon Gate Palace) or Eski Saray (Old Palace), the old palace-city of the Sultans, built on the Seraglio Point hill, one of the seven hills of New Rome, on the site of the acropolis and the earliest settlement of Byzantion. This great complex of buildings set in gardens (now open to the public) bounded by battlemented walls and towers, consists of a number of buildings outside the main precincts (the Archeological Museum, the Mint, the church of Hagia Eirene, etc.) and, beyond these, the Inner Seraglio. Mehmet II built a summer palace here in 1468, and this was enlarged by Süleiman the Magnificent into the Sultan's principal residence, occupied by successive Sultan's until Abdul Mecid moved to the Dolmabahçe Palace in 1855.The Topkapi Sarayi is surrounded by 5km of walls. The series of open courtyards are covered with 50,00 white roses in 1593. The second court enclosed flowerbeds and roses with plane trees and cypresses give shade. In the third court is a collection of fine trees such as magnolias, box, Atlas cedar and Lagerstroemia indica, during summer there are scented flowers. The fourth courtyard contains pavilions that are surrounded with flowers, trees and shrubs.
The Archeological Museum in Istanbul has a fine collection of antiquities and is particularly well known for its collection of Sarcophagi of the Kings.
On the southwest side of the courtyard of the Archeological museum in Istanbul stands the reddish domed church of Hagia Eirene (Divine Peace), one of the best-preserved Early Byzantine buildings in Istanbul, now a museum (Aya Irini Müzesi). In 381 it was the meeting-place of the Second Ecumenical Council. During the Turkish period it became an arsenal, and more recently houses an artillery museum.On the north side of the Outer Court (to the right, the Executioner's Fountain, in front of which dignitaries who had fallen from favor were executed) is the Ort Kapi (Middle Gate; 1524), the entrance to the Inner Seraglio, the palace-city of the Sultans, which consists of a series of buildings, large and small, laid out round three courtyards. The first of the inner courtyards, the Court of the Divan, surrounded by colonnades, is the largest (150m/164yds long) and most impressive. On the right-hand side are the palace kitchens, topped by 20 dome-like chimneys. With their 24 fireplaces, the kitchens were said to serve up to 20,000 meals a day.
Hagia Eirene - Porcelain Collection
The palace kitchens of Hagia Eirene in Istanbul now house the Porcelain Collection, predominantly consisting of Chinese porcelain and faience (mostly 10th-18th century), which includes many items of outstanding quality. On the left-hand side of the courtyard is the Kubbe Alti, built by Mehmet II, with a tall tower (41.5m/135ft; 16th century, upper part 1819). This housed the Divan, the council chamber in which the Grand Vizier received foreign envoys. Adjoining the Kubbe Alti is a collection of Turkish faience.The Bab-üs-Saadet, the Gate of Felicity (to the left, a collection of textiles), leads into the second of the inner courts. Immediately in front of the gate is the Audience Chamber (Arz Odasi), a pavilion dating from the time of Süleiman the Magnificent, with a baldachin-like throne in a colonnaded hall. Beyond this is the Library of Ahmet III.
Hagia Eirene - Treasury
On the right-hand side of the court in the Hagia Eirene in Istanbul is the Treasury (Hazine), with three rooms containing treasures of inestimable value (thrones, rich garments and weapons, precious stones, pearls, vases, clocks, candelabra, writing materials, etc.). Adjoining the Treasury is a collection of splendid costumes worn by the Sultans.On the left-hand side of the court stands the Eunuchs' Mosque (Agalar Camii), now housing a library (12,000 manuscripts).
Hagia Eirene - Harem
Beyond the Treasury in the Hagia Eirene in Istanbul is the Harem (an Arabic word meaning "That which is forbidden"), the women's apartments to which only the Sultan, his blood relatives and the eunuchs had access. Part of the Harem is now open to the public (admission charge; half-hourly tours, 50 people max.). Apart from a few larger rooms, richly appointed, the Harem is a maze of narrow corridors and small - sometimes tiny - rooms, which have preserved little in the way of Oriental splendor. In imperial Turkey men might have up to four legitimate wives at a time; the Sultan was allowed seven. There was no limit on the number of concubines. Since 1926 monogamy has been enforced by law.
Hagia Eirene - Bagdat Köskü
Beyond the second inner courtyard lies the terraced Tulip Garden. On the uppermost terrace (view) is the Bagdat Köskü (Baghdad Pavilion), a domed building with magnificent tile decoration erected by Murat IV to commemorate the taking of Baghdad. Adjoining it are the Revan Köskü (Erevan Pavilion) and the Circumcision Room (Sünnet Odasi). Lower down are the Sofa Köskü (1704, a fine timber building, the Hekim Basi (Surgeon's Tower) and the Mecidiye Köskü (19th century), now a restaurant.
Sultan's Gate (Fountain of Ahmet III)
On the southwest side of the Seraglio walls in Istanbul stands the magnificent Sultan's Gate (Bab-i Hümayun), facing Hagia Sophia. Outside the gate is the Fountain of Ahmet III (1728).
Hagia Sophia has been a church and a mosque, but is today a museum. The building is a fine example of Byzantine architecture and a landmark building in Istanbul.
Northwest of the square in Yerebatan Street in Istanbul is the entrance to the Yerebatan Sarayi (Underground Palace), a huge underground cistern (now lit by electricity) built in the time of Justinian (sixth century). It is the largest of Istanbul's cisterns, 140m/150yds long by 70m/75yds across, with 336 columns set in 12 rows.
Adjoining the southwest side of Ayasofya Meydani in Istanbul extends Atmeydani (Horse Square), an open space more than 300m/330yds long which occupies part of the site of the ancient Hippodrome, begun by Septimius Severus in 203 and completed by Constantine the Great in 330. This was the center of Byzantine Court and public life, the scene of splendid games but also of factional conflicts (Nika Insurrection). Between here and the sea-walls on the Sea of Marmara (still largely preserved) were the Roman and Byzantine Imperial palaces with their churches and associated buildings.
Emperor William's Fountain
In the gardens on the northwest side of Atmeydani in Istanbul can be seen a fountain, rather inappropriate to its surroundings, presented by the German Emperor William II in 1898. Then follow, to the southwest, three ancient monuments: a 20m/65ft-high Egyptian obelisk (Dikilitas; from Heliopolis; reign of Thutmosis III, 1501-1448 B.C.) with Roman reliefs from the time of Theodosius I on the base; the Serpent Column (Burmali Sütun), the stump (5m/16ft high) of a bronze column bearing a golden tripod on three snakes' heads which was set up at Delphi to commemorate the Greek victory over the Persians in the Battle of Plataea (479 B.C.); and the so-called Colossus, a masonry column of uncertain age with a Greek inscription in the name of Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus.
Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmet Mosque)
The southeast side of Atmeydani in Istanbul is dominated by the Sultan Ahmet Mosque or Blue Mosque with its mighty dome (43m/141ft high, 23.5m/77ft in diameter) and six minarets, built by Sultan Ahmet I in 1609-16. The forecourt, with a beautiful fountain in the center, is surrounded by colonnades roofed with a series of small domes. The interior (72m/235ft by 64m/210ft), in its lightness, spatial effect and color, is one of the finest creations of Turkish architecture.
South of Atmeydani in Istanbul, near the Sea of Marmara, stands the Küçük Ayasofya Mosque, the Little Ayasofya. It was originally the church of SS Sergius and Bacchus, built in the reign of Justinian, at the same time as San Vitale in Ravenna. From the north end of Atmeydani Dian Street (Divanyolu) runs west, following the line of the old main street of the Byzantine city.
The second street along Atmedydani Dian Street from the Kuçuk Ayasofya on the left leads to the Binbirdirek (1001 Columns) Cistern in Istanbul, which dates from the sixth century (54m/175ft by 56m/185ft; 212 columns). Since 1966 it has been dry.
Along Divanyolu in Istanbul, on the second of the seven hills of New Rome (on the right), rises the so-called Burned Column (Cembererlitas, Hooped Stone), the stump (still 40m/130ft high) of a porphyry column, originally 57m/185ft high, set up by Constantine the Great in his Forum. Until 1105 it bore a bronze statue of Constantine.
Nure Osmaniye Mosque
North of the Burned Column in Istanbul, on the east side of the Great Bazaar, we come to the Nuru Osmaniye Mosque, constructed entirely of marble (1748-55).
The Great Bazaar (Kapali Carsi, covered market) in Istanbul in the depression between the Nure Osmaniye and Bayazit Mosques, is a whole quarter on its own, surrounded by a wall and entered through eleven gates, a maze of vaulted and dimly lit streets and lanes which even after a major fire in 1954 remains one of the great sights of Istanbul. The various trades are still mostly segregated into particular streets or sections of the bazaar.
To the west of the Great Bazaar, on the third of Istanbul's seven hills, Bayazit Square occupies the site of Theodosius I's Forum. On the east side of the square is the Bayazit Mosque or Pigeon Mosque, built in 1498-1505, during the reign of Mehmet II's son Bayazit. The interior, painted in Turkish Rococo style in the 18th century, is a simplified imitation of the Hagia Sophia.From the south side of the square Ordu Caddesi leads west in the direction of the land walls.
On the north side of Bayazit Square in Istanbul stands a large gate, the entrance to the University (Istanbul Üniversitesi; previously the War Ministry, Seras Kerat), on the site of the earliest palace of the Sultans. To the right of the University is the 60m/200ft high Bayazit Tower (Bayazit Kulesi, 1823), now a fire-watch tower; from the top (180 steps) there are superb views of Istanbul, finest atsunset or early in the morning (mostly closed).
Süleiman Mosque (Suleymaniye Mosque)
Below the University in Istanbul to the north, situated on a terrace surrounded by schools, baths, etc., is the Süleiman Mosque (1549-75), built for Süleiman the Magnificent by the great architect Sinan, who, under the influence of Hagia Sophia, carried mosque architecture to its greatest development; after the Selim Mosque in Edirne, the Süleimaniye is his finest achievement. The interior, dominated by its great dome (53m/175ft high, 26.5m/85ft in diameter), is notable for its harmonious proportions and unity of design (on the mihrab wall, beautiful tiles and stained glass). Behind the mosque is the burial ground, with fine türbes (tomb chapels), in particular those of Süleiman and his favorite wife Roxolana.
Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art
To the west of the Süleiman Mosque in Istanbul, in the street along its outer court, is the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art (Türk ve Islam Eserleri Müzesi), with both sacred and secular works of art.Very important rug collections are included in the collection.
A road northwest under Bayazit in Istanbul in a 300m/330yd long tunnel leads into Vezneciler Caddesi (on the left, university buildings) and Sehzadebasi Caddesi, on the right-hand side of which is the Sehzade Mosque (Prince's Mosque), an early master work by the great architect Sinan, built in 1543-47 during the reign of Süleiman and Roxolana in memory of their favorite son Mohammed; it has a charmingly decorated interior.
Aqueduct of Valens
A little way north of the Sehzade Mosque in Istanbul, between the University and the Sultan Mehmet Mosque, can be seen the imposing bulk of the Aqueduct of Valens, built in the reign of Valens (A.D. 368), frequently restored and still in use. The two-story aqueduct spans the lower ground between the third and the fourth of the city's hills, and at its highest point, half-way along its course, crosses the Atatürk Boulevard, a modern street driven through the center of the Old Town, including an area devastated by fire.
Municipal Museum (City Museum)
The Istanbul City Museum dates to the late 1930s but moved to the Fine Arts Hall of Yildiz Palace in 1988. On display are paintings, textiles, glass wear, porcelains and other items pertaining to daily life.
West of the aqueduct, on Istanbul's fourth hill, is the Fatih Mosque (Fatih Camii, Sultan Mehmet Camii), built in 1463-71 on the site of the church of the Holy Apostles (founded by Constantine the Great and rebuilt by Justinian) and almost completely rebuilt after an earthquake in 1765. It is the holiest mosque in Istanbul after the Eyüp Mosque. In the first türbe behind the mosque is the Tomb of Sultan Mehmet.
Sultan Selim Mosque
To the north of the Fatih Mosque, on Istanbul's fifth hill, stands the Sultan Selim Mosque (Selimiye; 1520-26), the plainest of Istanbul's royal mosques, built by Süleiman the Magnificent in memory of his warrior father Selim I. From the terrace there is a fine view of the Golden Horn.
At the end of Fevzipasa Caddesi in Istanbul, in the land walls, is the Edirne Gate (Edirnekapi), which was almost completely destroyed by an earthquake in 1894.
Just before the gate, on the sixth and highest of Istanbul's hills (to the left), is the Mihrimah Mosque, built by Sinan in 1556 for the daughter of Süleiman I (numerous windows).
Kariye Camii - Land walls
From outside the Edirne Gate, where Istanbul's largest Muslim cemetery is situated, there is a good general view of the land walls of Constantinople, which extend, excellently preserved for much of the way, for a distance of 6670m/7,300yds from the Golden Horn to the Sea of Marmara. With their numerous towers, large and small, they are a superbly impressive sight.The Theodosian walls, which form the main section of the circuit, were built between 413 and 439, and after an earthquake in 447 were developed into a threefold ring of defenses some 60m/200ft wide, with a height, from the bottom of the moat, of 30m/100ft. There are superb views from the top of the walls.A little way north of the Edirne Gate the line of the Theodosian walls is continued by the walls of the Blachernae quarter, originally built between the seventh and 12th century Opposite the little Kerkoporta Gate are the ruins of a Byzantine palace, the Tekfur Sarayi (10th century).
Some 300m/330yds northeast of the Mihrimah Mosque in Istanbul stands the beautiful Kariye Camii, originally the church of St Saviour in Chora (in the country), belonging to a monastery which seems to have been in existence before the time of Theodosius II. It is world-famous for its mosaics and frescos of the period of the Palaeologue Renaissance (13th-14th centuries). The date of the church and monastery has not been established with certainty. Some authorities believe that the foundation of the church may go back to the fifth century; but much of the present church was built in the late 11th century by Maria Dukaina, mother-in-law of the Emperor Alexius Comnenus. Her grandson Isaac Comnenus repaired the church after it had been severly damaged in an earthquake about 1120. The magnificent decoration of the interior dates from the 13th-14th century.
Address: Kariye Catnu Sokat, Edirnekapi, Turkey
Opening hours: 9:30am-4:30pm; Closed: Tue
The mosaics in the Kariye Camii in Istanbul, preserved almost intact in the two narthexes and fragmentarily in the katholikon (nave), cover a wide range of themes, from the ancestors of Christ to the Last Judgment. In the parekklesion (side aisle), which served as a burial chapel, are a unique series of frescos on the themes of death, resurrection and the life after death.
For a good view of the land walls of Istanbul it is well worth while driving down the road which runs outside the walls from the Edirne Gate, passing the Top Kapi (Cannon Gate) and the Silivri Gate, to the Fortress of Yedikule (Seven Towers) on the Sea of Marmara. This battlemented stronghold on a pentagonal plan was built by Mehmet II from 1455 onwards and served successively as a fortress, a treasury and a State prison. From the tower at the east corner there is a magnificent prospect of the whole of the land walls as well as the beautiful surroundings.
Dolmabahçe Palace (Museum)
From the southeast corner of Taksim Square in Istanbul Gümüssuyu Caddesi runs south and then turns northeast, passing institutes belonging to the University of Technology (on the left) and the Stadium (also on the left) to the Dolmabahçe district, with the Dolmabahçe Palace, a huge edifice in what is called Turkish Renaissance style built by Abdul Mecid in 1854, which was the main residence of the Sultans until 1918 and is now a museum; it is also used for important State visits. Also in this district are the clock-tower of the old Dolmabahçe Mosque (1853) and the Maritime Museum (Deniz Müzesi), standing a little to the northeast of the Dolmabahçe Palace at the landing-stage for Besiktas.The formal garden are punctuated with fountains, ornamental basins and 19th century planting. There are tulips and violets for spring and red salvias in summer. A large collection of trees including monkey puzzle, Chinese fir and tall magnolia grandiflora. One of the garden pool is surrounded by a circle of lime trees.
Fountain of Ahmet lll
The Fountain of Ahmet lll, set up by Sultan Ahmet lll in 1728 during the heyday of 0ttoman Rococo - is one of the finest of its kind in Istanbul. It has been restored.The elaborate fountain-house has little oriel windows with bronze grilles at the corners and a curved overhanging roof surmounted by five charming little domes, and is decorated with calligraphic inscriptions, tiles and finely worked patterns in relief. The four wall-fountains are set within niches.
Istanbul Light Metro and Tramway
Istanbul's public transportation consists of Light Rail, Trams, a Metro system, along with buses and funiculars. The Light Rail has two lines servicing large sections of the city. Historically trams were used for public transport in Istanbul and then eventually fell out of use. Trams were re-introduced to the city in modern times and are part of Istanbul's public transportation system once again.
Construction started in 1993 on the Istanbul Metro. Since that time the system has expanded and is today an important element in Istanbul's public transportation system. The metro is still in the process of expansion.
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Map of Istanbul Attractions