Istanbul is a city rich in diverse culture and history. Straddling Europe and Asia, and enjoying a unique vibe all of its own, it’s also one of the biggest cities in the world, and certainly one of its most influential, with must-see attractions, thought-provoking museums and historical monuments all over the city to enjoy.
Whether you are travelling with family, or you are taking your first solo trip, from the moment you leave the airport – after Googling “how to get from Istanbul new airport to city.” of course – you’ll find so much to entertain, stimulate and arouse here. To inspire your itinerary, here are 9 places to explore the culture and heritage of Istanbul, Turkey.
This building was one of the biggest cathedrals in the world for almost a thousand years, and it’s no wonder people from around the world travel to Istanbul to see this. In the 15th century, it was transformed into a mosque and then a museum in 1935, before being returned to mosque status this year; a colourful history, indeed. Before all of this, it was known as the centre of the Eastern Orthodox Church.
Standing tall over the city (though not quite as towering as Istanbul Sapphire, one of the world’s tallest skyscrapers), to say Hagia Sophia is enormous is an understatement. With its massive dome and walls embellished with Byzantine mosaic portraits of past emperors and representations of Christ, you can easily spend a morning or afternoon here, just taking in the majesty of the structure and its cultural significance in the country.
Topkapi Palace, a beautiful, ornate structure and museum overlooking the Bosphorus, served as the residence for the Ottoman sultans in the 15th and 16th centuries and has so much to offer visitors. Open every day except Tuesdays, the large-scale rooms and chamber houses are open to the public and wandering them is actively encouraged; pay particular attention to the conversation-starting imperial collections like the 86-carat Spoonmaker’s Diamond.
There are four back-to-back courtyards surrounded by huge walls, though there is only one accessible to the public. In the other courtyards, only official visitors and members of the court can enter the space. Topkapi Palace still upholds its original layout from four centuries ago to this day and as such, it’s a historical site you do not want to miss.
The Blue Mosque, also known as the Sultanahmet Mosque, is another historical must-see which will enlighten you on Istanbul’s culture and heritage immensely. With its instantly recognisable, iconic blue interior, it was built during Ahmed I’s reign in the 17th century and still stands still and resplendent to this day.
Each wall in the monumental mosque is embellished with 20,000 hand-painted blue tiles, and it’s a striking sight to behold, regardless of your faith. But the azure anointed walls aren’t the only reason why the interior stands out; natural light from the mosque’s 200 windows filters through in a magical, mystical way. The mosque’s six minarets, instead of the usual two, are another striking feature.
Just be cognizant of when you attend, as Sultanahmet is still a functional mosque and visiting during prayer isn’t permitted.
To take a deep dive into a very deep past in Istanbul, you have to visit Basilica Cistern, which sits underground, close to Hagia Sophia. In Turkish, the Basilica Cistern is known as Yerebatan Sarnıcı and was built in the 6th century by Emperor Justinian I. He used it to house 80,000 m3 of water and ration it out to other palaces in the area. This water system is a complex and intricate attraction with hundreds of time-honoured Ionic and Corinthian columns.
You can even go below the ground to check out some of the underground compounds. One of the most noteworthy things to see here is the two-column bases, adorned with the upside-down head of Medusa. As you pass through the columns, you’ll feel water dripping from overhead, and history all around you.
ISTANBUL ARCHAEOLOGICAL MUSEUM
This is known as Turkey’s first museum and is actually part of a collection of three (the others being the Museum of the Ancient Orient and the Tiled Pavillion), all housed in Gülhane Park, which is close to Topkapi Palace.
Founded in 1891, it’s still perhaps Istanbul’s most extensive collection of artefacts, with over a million (!) pieces to admire. It’s huge, so it’s wise to arrive early; you’ll need an entire day to get the most out of this tourist attraction.
Established in the late 19th century, the Archaeology Museum is home to Ancient Greek, Roman and Turkish artefacts. There are even some heirlooms from places like the Balkans, Africa, Mesopotamia and the Middle East. If you want to get familiar with the city (and country’s) unique, complicated past, then it’s here you should head.
Actually, let’s mention Gülhane Park in its own right, as is one of the biggest parks in the historic city, and a great place to escape to hustle and bustle of this furiously paced metropolis. Sitting proud in the city’s Eminönü district, and overlooking the Bosphorus strait and Marmara sea, the ideal time to come here is during springtime when you can see hundreds upon hundreds of tulips blooming, lending the place a hopeful, optimistic air in tune with Istanbul’s energy. The breeze coming off the water and shade lent by trees (which date back several centuries) make the park one of the best places in the city to cool off.
If you love going shopping for trinkets and souvenirs unique to a city, then the Grand Bazaar is definitely the tourist attraction for you. Indeed, Grand Bazaar is one of the world’s biggest and oldest covered markets, home to hundreds of shops dispersed across too many streets to count (60ish, actually). It’s so big in fact, that it has its own prayer rooms, police station and pharmacy. Keep in mind that when shopping here, the name of the game is bargaining and bartering; all part of the experience when visiting Grand Bazaar’s 4000 stalls and shops. Of particular interest here are Turkish teas, Turkish delight and the country’s intricate, unique jewellery and ceramics.
Treat the gourmet chef in you and indulge yourself with hundreds of stalls that sell spices, sweets, teas, dried fruits and other goods at the Spice Bazaar. Smaller than the Grand Bazaar, this shopping hub is also a great place to buy your family and friends souvenirs from your trip relating to Turkey’s incredible cuisine. It’s not just about food here; don’t be afraid to try the many traditional Turkish herbal remedies sold in the market, which are believed to help things like memory, immunity, digestion and overall health.
Finish your tour of this great market with a glass of pickle juice (yep, you read that right) in the market where locals often stop off for a reviving sup of the sour liquor. Often accompanied by balik ekmek (fish sandwiches) straight from Bosphorus, this is a refreshing, energising Turkish tradition we’d love to see become popular in the UK!
THE ‘ASIAN SIDE’
Speaking of pickle juice, another place to sample it is across the river at Meşhur Özcan Turşulari, near to the Kadikoy underground station. It’s one of the most popular pickle vendors in town and has been selling the stuff since 1935.
The Asian side (or the ‘other side’) itself is a multicultural mix of Ottoman palaces, galleries, lively cafes and bars with a hipster vibe. Be sure to explore the Kadıköy district and its cool Moda neighbourhood in particular to experience a more laid back side to Istanbul and its culture.