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Istanbul Attractions

Aya Sofya, Istanbul
Aya Sofya, Istanbul ©

Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofya)

Famous for its impressive size, remarkable architecture and beautiful mosaics and frescoes, the massive ochre-coloured domed structure known as Hagia Sophia is one of Istanbul’s most popular attractions. It was commissioned as a cathedral in the 6th century and remained the most important church in Christianity for over 900 years. In the 15th century Mehmet II conquered the city and converted it into a mosque, adding the minarets and fountains. It functioned as such for the next 481 years until the founding of the secular Turkish Republic in 1934 when it was declared a museum. Hagia Sophia is one of the greatest Byzantine buildings in the world, and the vast interior, with its huge soaring dome, is extraordinary. The interior contains different features from its time as a cathedral and then as a mosque, including incredible Byzantine mosaics, icons and marble columns, a mihrab (niche indicating the direction of Mecca), and Islamic calligraphy inscriptions on the dome from the Ottoman period.

Address: Sultanahmet Square; Telephone: (212) 518 1802; Transport: Sultanahmet tram stop; Opening time: Open daily except Mondays from 9.30am to 4.30pm; Admission: 15 YTL

Istanbul Attractions

Blue Mosque, Istanbul
Blue Mosque, Istanbul ©

Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmet Camii)

The Sultan Ahmet Camii, commonly known as the Blue Mosque, with its tiers of magnificent domes and six graceful minarets is one of the most striking and immediately distinguishable structures on the Istanbul’s skyline. Constructed as an Islamic rival to the Hagia Sophia in 1609, it is one of the finest examples of Ottoman architecture and is still used by hundreds of worshippers. The interior is splendidly decorated with thousands of blue and white Iznik tiles embellished with traditional Ottoman flower patterns, and it is this special feature that gives the mosque its name. Its design of successively descending smaller domes, soaring columns and 260 stained glass windows leaves a lasting impression of graceful accord and open space. At the back of the mosque is a Carpet and Kilim Museum exhibiting antiques from all over Turkey.

Address: Hippodrome, Sultanahmet; Telephone: (212) 518 1319 or (212) 518 1330 (for museum information); Transport: Sultanahmet tram stop; Opening time: Open daily, access restricted during prayer times, especially at midday on Fridays. The museum is open from Tuesday to Saturday between 9am and 4pm; Admission: There is no charge for visiting the mosque, but the museum has a small entrance fee

Istanbul Attractions

Topkapi Palace entrance, Istanbul
Topkapi Palace entrance, Istanbul ©

Topkapi Palace Museum

The Topkapi Sarayi, built by Mehmet the Conqueror as a Sultan's Palace, consists of a sprawling collection of buildings arranged around several interconnecting courtyards. Magnificently situated on one of the seven hills of Istanbul with uninterrupted views over the Bosphorus River and the Golden Horn, it was the seat of the Ottoman Empire for almost four centuries. Home to nearly 3,000 people, it served as royal residence, harem, state administration and military barracks. One of the most popular sections is the harem, once the quarters of about 300 women who were the sultans' wives and concubines, and their children. Visitors can view the apartments, halls and terraces of the harem, and see the lavish royal bedchamber and Imperial Hall. No expense was spared in decorating the palace and exquisitely designed rooms, intricately detailed fountains and gateways, and the splendid Treasury, housing one of the greatest collections of treasure in the world, afford insight into the opulent lifestyle of the sultans of the Ottoman Empire.

Address: Topkapi Sarayi, Sultanahmet; Website:; Telephone: (212) 512 0480; Opening time: Open daily except Tuesdays from 9am to 5pm; Admission: US$10 -15 depending on exchange rate; concessions available. The Harem can only be visited on a guided tour and a separate ticket is required

Istanbul Attractions

Islamic Art
Islamic Art © flickr: linkadnan

Turkish and Islamic Art Museum

The grand 16th century palace of the sultan’s Grand Vizier, Ibrahim Pasa, today houses the Turkish and Islamic Art Museum, containing what many consider to be the finest collection of Islamic artefacts in the world. The palace itself was the finest private residence ever built in the Ottoman Empire. From its supreme position overlooking the Hippodrome, the sultan could enjoy excellent views of the celebrations in the square below. The museum is well laid out and contains more than 40,000 examples of Selçuk, Mamluk and Ottoman Turkish art, including ceramics, Koran cases, calligraphy, textiles, metalwork and illuminated manuscripts. Its antique carpet exhibit is renowned; the carpets, kilims and prayer rugs forming one of the richest and oldest collections in the world.

Address: Ibrahim Pasa Sarayi, Atmeydani 46, Hippodrome, Sultanahmet; Telephone: (212) 518 1805; Transport: Sultanahmet tram stop; Opening time: Open daily except Mondays from 9.30am to 5.30pm; Admission: 4 YTL

Istanbul Attractions

Grand Bazaar, Istanbul
Grand Bazaar, Istanbul

Covered Bazaar (Kapali �arsi)

The oldest and biggest enclosed bazaar in the world, also known as the Grand Bazaar, is one of the most enticing and mesmerizing attractions in Istanbul. Consisting of a vast labyrinth of 65 twisting streets crammed with more than 4,000 shops, teahouses, hamams (Turkish baths), mosques, storehouses and fountains. It is a fascinating experience to wander around the alleyways, looking and enjoying, or bargaining and purchasing. Here you can find almost anything, from meerschaum pipes, carpets and jewellery, to Turkish Delight, textiles, spices, clothing and hand-painted ceramics. Protracted bargaining over a cup of tea is an important institution. Built during the rule of Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror in 1461, the bazaar grew by covering an increasingly large area of shops and streets with roofs, arches and domes, and it became the centre of trading during the Ottoman period. Caravans of silk traders traditionally stayed here and rested their camels while selling their merchandise, and many of these ‘hans’ or caravanserais still exist as storehouses today.

Address: Kapali �arsi, Beyazit to Emin�n� Harbour; Transport: Tram to Beyazit, �niversite or Sirkeci; Opening time: Open daily except Sundays from 8.30am to 7pm; Admission: Free

Istanbul Attractions

Underground cistern
Underground cistern © flickr: raphael_f

Sunken Palace

Also known as the Underground Cistern or Yerebatan Saray, this eerie cavern was built by Constantinople the Great around 532 AD and is held up below ground by 336 columns. Once a set for the James Bond film, From Russia with Love, the cavern today sees tourists crossing over 2 acres of 12 inch thick water, on wooden walkways, to take in the occasional art exhibit or marvel at the intricate design on the columns themselves. There is a pleasant little café topside where the eyes can adjust over some tea.

Telephone: 212 522 1259; Opening time: 9am to 5pm daily except Tuesday

Istanbul Attractions

Galata Tower
Galata Tower © flickr: cristic

Galata Tower

Erected as a bastion for the walls of the 14th century colony of Galata, the tower offers a 360º panoramic view of the old town. Today it is a sought-after conference venue, offering fine dining at the resident restaurant and belly dancing displays in its own night club.

Address: Galata Kulesi Sokak; Telephone: 212 293 8180; Opening time: 9am to 6pm daily

Istanbul Attractions

Dolmache Palace
Dolmache Palace © flickr: kiwanc

Dolmache Palace

This second palace of the Ottoman Sultans was once the Sultan's harem and is an ostentatious interior of crystal chandeliers, the one adorning the grand hall weighing in at four tons (4,000 kg). On the exterior, the palace has an extensive and beautiful garden, yours for the strolling.

Address: Sultanahmet