Places of Interest and Things to Do in Istanbul

Information about the main tourist attractions and must-see sights in Istanbul...

Istanbul is in the northwest of Turkey and is the country's largest city. Situated on the Bosporus Strait, it encompasses a natural harbour, the Golden Horn. The Bosphorus Bridge connects the Anatolian and European sides of the city.

Istanbul's main landmarks are located on its European side, and include museums, baths, mosques, churches, palaces and towers.

Topkap? Palace (Canon Gate Palace)

The Topkap? Palace, the official residence of the Ottoman sultans, was built on the seventh of Istanbul's seven hills and is 700,000 square metres in size. Built between 1460 and 1478 after the conquest of Istanbul in 1453 by Sultan Mehmed II the Conqueror, it was the place where political issues were discussed and administrative decisions were taken during the Ottoman Period. Additions have been made to the palace since it was complete, and in 1924 it became a museum.

The complex is set inside a large garden and is surrounded by walls and towers. There are four courtyards, with the fourth courtyard being the most important because of its structure and especially fine rooms. Other places of interest within the palace are a church, mansion, and Ottoman treasury room.

There are over 80,000 artefacts including ceramics, glass, silverware, arms and armour, imperial costumes, clocks, miniatures, and manuscripts. The highlight of the museum is the Treasury Collection, which features the gold-plated Bayram Throne, the Topkap? dagger and the 86-carat Spoonmaker's diamond, as well as other objects inlaid with precious and semi-precious stones.

For an additional fee, visitors can also see the Harem section of the museum which was the residence of the Sultan's wives, children and concubines, and was guarded by eunuch slaves. The Harem includes apartments, courtyards, the Paired Pavilions with their exquisite Iznik tiles, the courtyard of the eunuchs, and the dining room of Ahmet III.

  • Topkap? Palace Museum
    At
    : Sultanahmet, Eminönü, Istanbul 
    email
    Open: summer: 09:00-19:00; winter: 09:00-17:00; closed on Tuesdays 
    Access: Take the tram from Eminönü and get off at at Sultanahmet

Dolmabahçe Palace (Dolmabahçe Saray?)

Located at the southern corner of Taksim Square, the Dolmabahçe Palace was built in 1856 by Sultan Abdülmecid at a time when the Ottoman Empire was in decline; it was thus financed with loans from foreign banks. It was the main residence of the Sultans until 1918, and Atatürk (one of Turkey’s most famous leaders), lived and died there.

The Palace is now a museum and is used for state visits. There is a large garden with fountains and ornamental basins, as well as a historic clocktower. Highlights of the Palace include the Swan fountain in the Imperial garden and the main entrance to the Palace, the Imperial Gate, which was used only by the Sultan and his ministers. The Imperial Gate is now open to visitors, who can watch performances of the Mehter band every Tuesday afternoon during the summer.

The interior can only be visited with a guided tour. There are two tours:

  1. The first tour takes visitors through the Selaml?k, which is the part of the Palace reserved for men; the state rooms and the Ceremonial Hall are found here. The domed hall was designed for up to 2,500 people. It is said that the chandelier, bought in England, is the heaviest in the world.
  2. The second tour takes visitors through what used to be the living quarters of the Sultan and the Harem.
  • Dolmabahçe Palace
    At
    : Dolmabahçe, Be?ikta?, Istanbul
    Open: 09:30-17:30; closed on Mondays and Thursdays. Only 1,500 visitors allowed per day

Golden Horn

Considered one of the world's greatest natural harbours, the Golden Horn was given this name due to a legend. According to the legend, the Byzantines threw their valuables into the river during the Ottoman conquest, making the river glisten with gold.

Once a major trading area, there were many warehouses along its shores. Nowadays, however, ships arriving in Istanbul tend to use ports in the Sea of Marmara.

Spanning the Golden Horn is the Galata Bridge (Galata Köprüsü), which is always busy with pedestrians and fishermen. The bridge was built in 1992 and connects Eminönü with Galata.

Galata Tower (Galata Kulesi)

The most famous feature on the Golden Horn is the 68m-high  Galata Tower. It was built in the Byzantine era to monitor shipping, and then became a prison and naval depot in the late 15th century. During the 18th century it was used as a watchtower for fires. It now houses a restaurant and nightclub. There is a lift to the top of the tower, which provides a spectacular view of the city.

Hagia Sophia Museum (Ayasofya Müsezi)

Built in 326 by Constantine the Great, the Hagia Sophia Museum is one of the oldest buildings in Istanbul. It was rebuilt on a larger scale in 532-37 as a church, during the reign of Justinian. By the time of the conquest of Istanbul by Sultan Mehmed II the Conqueror, the building had been converted into a mosque. It is now a museum, and there are no longer any religious services.

Its architecture and size is impressive: a magnificent central dome dominates the interior and at the time it was built, the dome was the largest in the world. There are also mosaics and ornaments on the walls. In the northern part of the Museum are five tombs of young Sultans.

  • Hagia Sophia Museum
    At: Sultanahmet Meydan? No. 1, Istanbul
    email
    Open: Summer: 09:00 to 19:00; Winter: 09:00 to 16:30; closed on Mondays
    Access: Take the tram from Eminönü and get off at Sultanahmet. A ferry leaves every 30 minutes from the Anatolian side
  • For more information about the Hagia Sophia Museum: Click here

?stiklal Caddesi (Street of Independence)

One of the busiest streets in Istanbul, it attracts visitors because of its numerous shops, restaurants, bookstores and clubs. There are also many churches, historic buildings and consulates located along the street, as well as the French School.

Closed to traffic, the entire street is serviced by a tram, which starts from the Monument of the Republic; or it can be visited on foot, which takes approximately one hour.

Saint Antoine Church

The St Antoine Roman Catholic Church, built between 1906 and 1912, is in Beyo?lu on ?stiklal Street, one of the busiest streets in Istanbul. It is open to visitors.

Suleymaniye Camii Mosque

The Suleymaniye Camii Mosque is Istanbul’s most important mosque. It was built between 1550 and 1557 by the architect Sinan, known as the grand old master of Ottoman architecture, for Suleiman the Magnificent. The mosque lies above the Golden Horn in the grounds of the Eksi Saray Palace.

It consists of 15 complexes, with many courtyards and a caravansary, which provided accommodation for travellers and their animals.

The mosque features decorations and ornaments, while its architectural geometry and the harmony of its domes is recognised as highly aesthetic. The interior is lit by more than 120 windows. Behind the mosque are the tombs of Sultans, as well as that of Süleiman the Magnificent.

  • Suleymaniye Camii Mosque
    At: Prof Siddik Sami Onar Caddesi, Vefa
    Tel: 0212 522 02 98
    Open: 08:00-20:00, except during prayers. Non-Muslims should cover their heads inside the mosque

Sultan Ahmed Complex (Sultanahmet Camii)

The Sultan Ahmed Complex is also called the Blue Mosque; to the name comes from the 20,000 blue Iznik tiles used in its decoration

It is located in front of the Hagia Sophia Museum and is one of the most famous religious buildings in the world. It was built between 1609 and 1616 during the reign of Sultan Ahmet the First. The mosque has six minarets – unique in Istanbul – which provoked hostility at the time it was built, as they were considered to be a sacrilegious attempt to rival Mecca’s architecture. The interior is lit by 260 stained glass windows, while the ceiling and walls are covered with tulip and carnation motifs. There is a marble fountain in the forecourt.

  • Sultan Ahmed Complex
    At: Meydani 21, Sultanahmet
    Open: Daily, except during prayers. Non-Muslims should cover their heads inside the mosque.

Day Trips from Istanbul

There are many opportunities for day trips near Istanbul, from lakes to historical sites, and towns.

Abant Nature Park

Abant Nature Park in Bolu, in the Marmara region, is a three-hour journey from Istanbul.

Located 33 Km from Bolu city centre, Abant is famous for its lake, and is a popular destination in both summer and winter. There are tour packages for nature lovers and trekking enthusiasts.

A?va and ?ile

Both A?va and ?ile offer historical and scenic sites.

A?va is a small town on the coast about 90 Km from Istanbul. With beautiful natural scenery, there is plenty to do and see: for example, fishing, and cycling tours. Accommodation includes motels and village homes.

?ile is a small Black Sea holiday village located on the outskirts of Istanbul, about 75 Km from the centre. It has historic ruins to visit, scenic views, and sandy beaches. The summer can become very crowded due to the numerous festivals that take place here.

Clothing, handicrafts, and traditional food are available, and the town is renowned for its coarse cotton cloth used for making clothes, which is sold in shops along the Üsküdar Caddesi. Note that credit cards may not be accepted by some shops.

One of the town’s highlights is its black-and-white striped lighthouse situated on the cliff top, built by the French for Sultan Abdul Aziz in the late 1850s. It can be visited after sunset.

  • For further information on A?va and ?ile: Click here (in Turkish)

Polonezköy

Polonezköy, in Beykoz, was originally called Adampol after Polish Prince Adam Czartoryyski purchased land here in 1842 for Polish immigrants. There are protected beech forests and the town has a rustic atmosphere, while restaurants feature traditional fish and meat dishes. Accommodation in village homes is available.

There is no public transport to Polenezköy, so a car or taxi is needed to visit the area.

Prince Islands (Prens Adalar?)

There are a number of islands in the Marmara Sea known as the Prince Islands, these are: Adas?, Burgazada, Büyükada, Heybeliada, Ka??k, K?nal?ada, Sedef Adas? and Sivriada. The islands can easily be visited in a day.

Büyükada (Big Island) is the largest and most populous. There are local restaurants, beaches and a monastery, and the only form of transport is by horse-drawn carriage. One of the island's highlights is the Monastery of St George, built on Byzantine foundations during the 20th century.

Heybeliada is home to the former Naval High School, built in 1942, and the Greek Orthodox School of Theology. Although the latter is now closed, the library remains open.

The smaller islands are more peaceful with fewer visitors; however, there are some restaurants available on these islands.

There are daily ferries and boats to the islands from most piers in Istanbul, with more boats running in the summer. Tariffs are subject to change according to the season.

  • For further information on the islands: Click here

Sülüklügöl

Sülüklügöl, famous for its fish cuisine, is a lake surrounded by forest. It is in an area of Istanbul called Adapazar?, and it takes about three hours to get there. There are trekking tours available, but no public transport.