Touring Istanbul’s ornate houses of worship and palaces could keep history buffs and culture hounds busy for weeks, as noted by U.S. News & World Report. For those who are new to this incredible city, there are so many sights that it might at first seem dizzyingly confusing. Here is a (hopefully) helpful capsule summary of some of the highlights.
• Blue Mosque: Sultan Ahmed I was determined to build a mosque that rivaled the nearby Hagia Sophia, and most would agree that he accomplished this task—or, at least, came close. Since the early 1600s, the Blue Mosque has been quite the sight to behold, with an array of domes, semidomes and minarets (or narrow towers). It’s also one of the biggest tourist draws in Istanbul. Visitors say this mosque offers stunning architecture inside and out. It can, however, get busy, so consider arriving early. And remember, the Blue Mosque is an active religious site, so dress conservatively.
• Hagia Sophia Museum: Tourists flock en masse to the Hagia Sophia Museum for its stunning architecture, glorious interior views and historical significance. Built between 532 and 537, the building was a church for nearly a thousand years. It then served as a mosque from 1453 until 1935, before becoming the secular museum that it is today. Once the biggest cathedral in the world, the Hagia Sophia is considered the magnum opus of Byzantine architecture. Some visitors say the building is symbolic of the eclectic history of Istanbul itself, with beautiful Christian mosaics alongside brilliant Islamic calligraphy.
• Süleymaniye Mosque: Nestled within Istanbul’s historic Fatih district by the Golden Horn, Istanbul University and the Grand Bazaar, Süleymaniye Mosque is considered one of the city’s most impressive Ottoman mosques. Built between 1550 and 1557 after being commissioned by its namesake, Süleyman I, this grand structure features multiple gardens and a large dome, plus high-end finishes like mother-of-pearl window shutters, painted corbels, traditional ceramic tiles and stained-glass windows. It is just as stunning as the Blue Mosque and cannot be missed.
• Topkapi Palace Museum: Topkapi Palace served as the home of the Ottoman Sultans from 1478 to 1856 and is one of Istanbul’s most popular attractions. It officially became a museum in 1924, shortly after the end of the Ottoman era, and features brilliant architecture, manicured courtyards and extensive weaponry, porcelain, cutlery, art and fabric collections. Popular exhibits include the kitchens, the calligraphy area and the armaments room. Many also recommend strolling through the property’s gardens.
• Grand Bazaar: The Grand Bazaar is one of the biggest and oldest covered shopping markets in the world. It regularly overwhelms visitors with its 60 streets of 5,000-plus shops, each accompanied by an overzealous vendor. Products range from carpets and clothing to art and chessboards, and restaurants, cafes and even two hammams (or Turkish baths) can be found here. Despite the size and the chaos of this bazaar, shoppers say visitors will find themselves strangely at ease with the rhythm of the market, thanks in part to the friendliness of the vendors.
• Taksim Square: This is a vibrant, modern area located in Istanbul’s Beyoglu district. Scores of shops, restaurants and bars fill the surrounding streets, as well as popular hotels. The square also features notable landmarks like the Taksim Republic Monument (Taksim Cumhuriyet Aniti), which commemorates the creation of the Turkish Republic in 1923.
• Ortaköy: Visitors won’t simply stumble onto this cool enclave; located north of Beyoglu along the Bosphorus, they’ll need to take a ferry or a bus from the Kabatas tram stop to reach it. Hopping a taxi will be a necessity in the nighttime, but the journey will be well worth it. During the day, tourists can explore the narrow streets that divide a dense array of market stalls and shops. But when the sun goes down, crowded restaurants and bustling bars take over. It is a nightlife hub for Istanbul’s wealthy young people, so expect to pay dearly for that view of the Bosphorus and delicious food or drink.
Istanbul’s unique treasures await—and knowing in advance what to see is always the smartest strategy.
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