It has become a cliché to describe Istanbul as the bridge between East and West. But in this case, the cliché is undeniably true. Ruled by a succession of empires and straddling both Asia and Europe, this Turkish city is a melting pot of different cultures and a place full of contradictions.
Home to a heady mix of extraordinary history, nightlife, religion, food, culture and – despite not being the country’s capital – politics, Istanbul offers tourists of all persuasions something to wonder at at every turn. But it is undoubtedly a destination that should be on the bucket list of every history buff.
With Istanbul one of the world’s largest cities, it can be hard to know where to start when it comes to deciding which historical sites to visit. So we’ve compiled 10 of the best.
1. Sultan Ahmet Mosque
Popularly known as the Blue Mosque – a nod to the blue tiles that decorate its interior – this still functioning house of worship was constructed in the early 17th century during the reign of Ahmed I, the sultan of the Ottoman Empire between 1603 and 1617.
One of the most famous mosques in the world, the building has inspired the design of many other mosques, including the Mohammad Al Amin Mosque in Beirut.
2. Hagia Sophia
There is perhaps no other building that so epitomises Istanbul’s place as the crossroads of Europe and Asia. Situated opposite the Sultan Ahmet Mosque, Hagia Sophia served as a Greek Orthodox church for nearly 1,000 years before being turned into a mosque in the 15th century during Ottoman rule of the city. It was then secularised in the early 20th century and opened as a museum in 1935.
Impressive even by modern engineering standards, Hagia Sophia was the largest building in the world at the time of its construction in 537 AD.
3. Topkapi Palace
A must-seen for anyone interested in Ottoman history, this opulent palace was once the residence and administrative headquarters of the Ottoman sultans. Construction on the palace began in 1459, just six years after the city had been seized by the Muslim Ottomans in a watershed moment that marked the end of the Byzantine Empire and dealt a blow to Christian lands.
The palace complex is made up of hundreds of rooms and chambers but only a few are accessible to the public today.
4. Galata Mevlevi Dervish Lodge
Whirling dervishes are one of Turkey’s most iconic symbols and the Galata Mevlevi Dervish Lodge is arguably the best place to see them perform the sema (the religious ceremony in which dervishes whirl) in Istanbul. Established in 1491, it was the first Sufi lodge in the city.
5. Galata Tower
Located in the cobbled district of Galata, not too far from the Sufi lodge mentioned above, this tower was the tallest building in Istanbul when it was built in 1348. Its construction pre-dates the arrival of the Ottomans to the city and it was originally known as the “Tower of Christ”.
Ironically, the building was damaged by a number of fires in the 18th and 19th centuries, despite being used by the Ottomans for spotting blazes in the city from 1717.
6. Basilica Cistern
This hauntingly beautiful subterranean chamber is the largest of several hundred ancient cisterns located beneath Istanbul. Another site that pre-dates the Ottomans, it was built by the Byzantines in the 6th century. Be sure to look out for the two Medusa heads that serve as bases for two columns in the cistern!
7. Princes’ Islands
This group of nine islands are located an hour’s boat ride from the city, in the Sea of Marmara. They take their name from the fact that the islands served as a place of exile for princes and other members of royalty during the Byzantine period and, later, for members of Ottoman sultans’ families too.
More recently, the largest of the islands, Büyükada, was where an exiled Leon Trotsky lived between 1929 and 1933.
Only four of the islands are accessible to the public but those alone provide more than enough of a treasure trove for history lovers. With all motorised vehicles (except service vehicles) banned from the islands, hors-drawn carts are the main mode off transport and these, coupled with the 19th century Ottoman mansions and cottages that can still be found on Büyükada, give visitors the feeling of stepping back in time.
In addition, there are an abundance of churches and other religious buildings to be found on the islands, including Aya Yorgi on Büyükada, a tiny Greek Orthodox church that boats beautiful sea views from its grounds.
8. Grand Bazaar
One of the oldest and largest covered markets in the world, the Grand Bazaar is a must-see for anyone who enjoys a spot of haggling. Construction of the bazaar began in the mid 15th century, soon after the Ottomans captured the city, and today it is home to more than 4,000 shops.
9. Kariye Museum
Located some distance from the lights and sights of central Istanbul, this former Greek Orthodox church is worth the effort to find. Grand – though a little plain – on the outside, the building’s interior is covered with some of the oldest and most beautiful Byzantine mosaics and frescoes to be found in the world today.
Built in the 4th century, it pre-dates Islam but is now found in one of the city’s most conservative Muslim neighbourhoods.
10. Taksim Square
The Turkish presidential palace, national assembly and ministerial buildings may all be located in Ankara, but, as the country’s largest city, Istanbul is certainly not immune to political activity. Taksim Square has played a central role in this activity, providing the setting for numerous demonstrations through Turkey’s years of independence.
Most recently, the square became synonymous with the so-called “Gezi Park protests” of 2013. These protests began in opposition to the demolition and redevelopment of Gezi Park, located next to the square, but evolved into protests that criticised the government for a variety of reasons, including grievances from those across the political spectrum.