Istanbul is a bucket-list destination with so much history and culture to soak in. The fascinating history of what was once Constantinople and its unique geographical location straddling both Europe and Asia has made it a top travel destination in the world. Even if you are not a sight-seeing type of traveller, Istanbul’s sights are just too magnificent to miss. In this article, we are going to cover 15 must-visit sights in Istanbul and you’d want to save them down for your next trip to this beautiful city!
What to See & Do in Istanbul
Hagia Sophia is probably the most popular and iconic sight in Istanbul. Once a Constantinople patriarchal cathedral of the Byzantine Empire, Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque after the Ottomans took over. It served as the largest cathedral in the world for a thousand years and has been an architectural & cultural icon of the Byzantines. When Ataturk formed modern Turkey, Hagia Sophia was turned into a museum but, in 2020, it has returned its status to a mosque. Today, it is still considered one of the world’s greatest architectural works and is accepted as the 8th wonder of the world.
The Blue Mosque
Just across Hagia Sophia is the Blue Mosque. It may not seem that blue from the outside, but it’s got its name from the blue Iznik ceramic tiles used for decorating the interior instead. The mosque was originally built to rival the neighbouring Hagia Sophia, with a massive courtyard that’s deemed as the biggest of all Ottoman mosques with six minarets and elegant domes. However, it’s hard to beat the interior architectural wonders of Hagia Sophia. Outside the mosque, there are plenty of exhibitions educating people about Islam. Whether you are Muslim or not, it’s a great read to reflect on and learn about the religion.
The palace was beautiful as it demonstrated the fine heights of Byzantine architecture. It was once the residence of the Ottoman sultans and is home to an extensive collection of Holy Relics, royal treasures, and imperial archives. We’ve spent hours just walking around, admiring the museum collections, and getting lost in history. The palace also presents breath-taking views across the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn with the Galata Tower in view.
- Entry: 285 Turkish liras for Palace Museum + Harem / 250 Turkish liras for just Palace Museum
- A free audio guide is included for either ticket
- Click for Google Maps location
Basilica Cistern is the largest surviving ancient cistern located beneath the city of Istanbul. You might recognise it from movies as it has been used as a film location for the likes of Inferno, James Bond: From Russia with Love, as well as Assasin’s Creed: Revelations. Translating as “the Sunken Palace”, it features impressive marble columns, including the famous Medusa-head pillar bases, and a capacity to hold 80.000 cubic meters of water. Unfortunately, during our visit, Basilica Cistern was closed for renovations. But it’s definitely on our list when we visit Istanbul again!
- Entry: 30 Turkish liras (Museum Pass Istanbul is not valid there)
- Click for Google Maps location
It may not be as well-known as the Blue Mosque but, personally, I think Suleymaniye Mosque is a grander and better sight in Istanbul! Out of all the mosques we visited, this is our favourite. Perched at the top of the Third Hill of Istanbul, the imperial mosque offers spectacular views across the Golden Horn. Its interior draws inspiration from Hagia Sophia but is constructed in a much more simplistic way. The courtyard is breathtakingly beautiful and just outside the mosque also lies the tombs of Suleyman and his wife. If you head to the other side of the mosque complex, you’d find a still-functioning Hammam as well.
Built during the 19th century, the Dolmabche Palace is considered one of the most glamorous palaces in the world. It served as a home to the late sultans and founder of modern Turkey, Ataturk. The amount of gold, diamonds, and crystal housed in the Dolmabche Palace is blindingly flashy and certainly reflects how wealthy the Ottomans were. Lavish interiors aside, the Dolmabche Palace houses intricately designed gates that face the Bosphorus and have become a famous photo spot today. However, do note that photos are not allowed inside the palace. Compared to the Topkapi Palace, the Dolmabche very much has a distinct European touch to it that reminded us with hints of the Palace of Versailles in Paris and even a little bit of Venice’s Doges Palace.
- Entry: 120 Turkish liras for the palace only / 150 Turkish liras for palace + harem
- Click for Google Maps location
The most iconic sight in the Galata area is no doubt the Galata Tower. It is an unmissable sight in the area and was once the tallest building in the whole of Constantinople. Built as a watchtower as part of the Walls of Galata, the top balcony offers an unrivalled 360 panoramic view of Istanbul. Going in, an elevator will take you up to the 6th floor, and then it’s two storeys of stairs to get to the very top. There are also some exhibitions on the lower floors to walk you through the history of the Galata Tower and the Genoese colonisation during the Byzantine Empire.
Ortakoy Mosque is no doubt one of the most popular photo spots in Istanbul. It is perched on the waterside of Ortakoy pier square along the Bosphorus Strait with distinct views of the Bosphorus Bridge behind. Not only is it breathtaking from the outside, the Neo-baroque style architecture and stunning interiors are equally magnificent. We were gutted that we didn’t manage to visit during our trip but, without a doubt, will be the first thing on our list next time!
Istiklal Street & Taksim Square
Istiklal Street translates as ‘Independence Avenue’ and has been the city’s famous main street throughout history. It is a vibrant pedestrian street filled with shops and restaurants, and pretty much the heartbeat of European Istanbul. As pictured, a vintage tram runs along the street and leads all the way to the iconic Taksim Square. Leading up the way to the square, you’d also find the St. Anthony of Padua Church, which is the largest Roman Catholic church in Istanbul.
At Taksim Square, you’d find the Republic Monument standing right at the centre. It commemorates the 5th anniversary of the foundation of the Republic of Turkey in 1923 following the Turkish War of Independence. Today, the landmark serves as a meeting point for the city. Last but not least, the newly built Taksim Square Mosque also stands prettily beside the square.
Balat & Fener
In need of some cute photo spot? Then you must head to Balat, which is the Jewish quarter in Istanbul lined with rows of colourful houses. You can call it the Notting Hill of Istanbul if you like! Great for photos aside, it is a charming area to explore and has some cute coffee shops & local restaurants in the area. Right next to Balat is Fener, which was historically the most important Greek quarter of the city. An unmissable sight at Fener would be the Greek Orthodox High School in its striking red bricks and impressive architecture. The Church of St. George and Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople are also significant religious sights to Orthodox Christians.
- Entry: Free
- Click for Google Maps location (Balat)
Spice Bazaar & Grand Bazaar
When in Turkey, a visit to the bazaars is a must. There are two famous bazaars in Istanbul – the Spice Bazaar and the Grand Bazaar. The Grand Bazaar is older and bigger, where you can find practically anything from clothes, shoes, bags, lamps, Turkish teas, etc. Though do mind that any bags/clothes/shoes you see are all fake designer items. The Spice Bazaar, also known as the Egyptian Bazaar, mostly only sell spices, teas, sweets, and some souvenirs. For either bazaar, do be ready to haggle the prices.
Camlica Mosque is Turkey’s largest mosque and is located on the Asian side of Istanbul. It’s a little bit out of the way from central Istanbul but it’s worth the effort. Inaugurated only in 2019, the mosque is really modern but also took a lot of inspiration from classic Ottoman Islamic architecture. Need more reason to pay a visit? The mosque is also home to the new Museum of Islamic Civilizations, housing a large collection of unique artefacts that trace 1,200 years of Islamic history. Additionally, the mosque offers spectacular views of the city from Camlica Hill.
Bosphorus Bridge from Nakkaştepe National Garden
Want to get a really good look at the iconic Bosphorus Bridge? Then you should head to the Asian side of Istanbul and view it from Uskudar, which is known to have the best viewpoint for the landmark. The Nakkaştepe National Garden would be my first pick of location, which offers a really picturesque frame to capture the Bosphorus Bridge and is a park with plenty of fun activities including ziplining. Alternatively, still within Uskudar, you can take a leisure stroll from Fethi Pasa Grove to Abdullahaga Park along the coast and enjoy the panoramic view of the Bosphorus Bridge.
Kadikoy & Moda
Our impression of Kadikoy was almost like the Soho of Istanbul. It is home to the trendy Moda neighbourhood and is a very lively area filled with hip cafes, restaurants, shops and bars. Thus, it’s no surprise that Kadikoy is known as the place where all the local youngsters hang out. Not to mention that food prices are cheaper on this side of the city compared to the European side! Additionally, they also have their own version of the European’s Istiklal Street – named Bahariye Street instead – and have a vintage tram running through the street as well.
Karakoy is an up and coming area in Istanbul where you can find cobbled streets of charming cafes and the newly opened Galataport. The Galataport is a cruise ship port but has opened a new modern mall along the promenade. There are plenty of shops to satisfy your retail needs and cafes & restaurants with panoramic views of the Bosphorus Strait. You can find charming seafront cafes/restaurants, as well as lounging benches to spend the day away enjoying the view and chilled atmosphere.