Istanbul is a city steeped in history, and one that is very proud of its past. Visitors to Istanbul can explore a whole host of fascinating historical sites, many of which were constructed during the period that the city spent under Byzantine rule. Istanbul is particularly noted for the many excellent examples of Muslim mosques including the Haghia Sophia Mosque and the Sultanahme Mosque. The city is also famed for the Grand Bazaar, which is claimed to be the oldest shopping centre in the world. The city itself is built on seven hills, and surrounded by water on three sides. A fascinating place for visitors to Turkey to enjoy.
Istanbul straddles the Bosphorus Strait, which makes for an enchanting setting. On the western shore of the Bosphorus is Europe whilst on the eastern shore is Asia. The two sides are linked by two bridges and numerous ferries, though travelling between the two you would hardly be aware that you had just passed into a different continent!
The city is further divided by the Golden Horn, an estuary on the European side forming the northern boundary of the Sultanahmet Peninsula where the old city of Istanbul is situated. It is here that you'll find most of the popular tourist sites, such as the Blue Mosque, Aya Sofya and Topkapi Palace .
Istanbul 's old city has one of the most recognisable skylines in the world, set against the hills which surround the city and with the Bosphorus in the foreground, the huge domes and tall minarets of Aya Sofya and the Blue Mosque dominate the skyline and appear almost fairy-tale like and mystical at sunset in particular.
Old Istanbul – The Sultanahmet Peninsula
The Historic Sultanahmet Peninsula is where the old city of Istanbul is situated and it's here that you'll probably want to spend the majority of your time as several of Istanbul's most popular tourist attractions are all confined within this small area. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985 to recognise the importance of this area, and to conserve and protect it for future generations to enjoy and discover.
Aya Sofya ( Hagia Sophia )
The sheer size of this building is sure to impress you. It was in fact the largest enclosed space in the world for nearly 1,000 years. Originally built as a church in the 6 th century for the Byzantine Emperor Justinian, it was changed to a mosque in the 15 th century when a wooden minaret was added. It continued to operate as a mosque until 1932 and after renovations it was opened as a museum in 1934 and has operated as one ever since. Sultanahmet Square (0212 522 1750).
Topkapi Palace ( Topkapi Sarayi )
Topkapi Palace is again an immensely sized building, built around a series of courtyards and formed of four courts which are all extravagantly decorated. The Palace was the centre of the Ottoman Empire for nearly four hundred years. A visit to the Harem is the most popular part of the Palace though this does require an extra entrance fee and can get very busy in peak season, so expect a long wait if you arrive later in the day. Bab-i Hümayün Caddesi (0212 512 0480).
Sultanahmet Mosque ( Sultanahmet Camii )
Also known as the Blue Mosque, unlike Aya Sofya this is actually still a working mosque though you are allowed to enter provided you are not wearing shorts and your shoulders are covered, plus your footwear must be removed. Building of the Blue Mosque began in 1609 and the architecture and dominating six minarets is very impressive from the outside. Meydam Sokak, Sultanahmet (0212 518 1319).
Once the centre of the Roman and Byzantine city, this 480 metre long arena served as a stadium and amphitheatre. Nothing now remains of the structure, but the shape of the arena has been preserved by the present day park which is situated here. However, strewn around the Hippodrome you will come across a variety of ancient remnants such as an Egyptian Obelisk and the Serpentine Column from the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, whilst you sit and watch the world go by. Situated next to the Blue Mosque and the Basilica Cistern.
Basilica Cistern or ‘Sunken Palace' ( Yerebatan Saray )
When you understand that this is essentially a huge underground cistern built to supply the city with water in times of siege, you may think it's not worth paying the entrance fee to go inside, but this is actually an extremely enchanting place and is well worth the visit. It is believed to have been built by the emperor Constantine in the 4 th century, though was later enlarged to its present size by Justinian in the 6 th century and later blessed as a basilica.
You can follow the raised walkways around the cistern and watch huge fish underneath you. In one corner are two Medusa heads which are thought to have been used simply as construction material! Yerebatan Caddesi Sultanahmet
The Byzantine Imperial Palace of Bucoleon and the Sea Wall
Behind the Blue Mosque, if you walk down to the Marmara you will come across the old sea walls and the only remaining part of the Great Palace of the Byzantine emperors. All that remains is the facade which you could now easily miss. The best remaining parts of the sea walls extend along the Marmara to the right of the palace. The wall was built in the year 439.
The Grand Bazaar ( Kapali Çarsi )
No trip to Istanbul is complete without a visit to the largest covered bazaar and apparently the oldest shopping mall in the world, Istanbul's old Grand Bazaar! Situated up the main street away from the Sultanahmet District, there are numerous access points although the Bazaar can be easily missed as it's underground and not particularly obvious from the main streets.
Istanbul's Grand Bazaar contains around 4400 shops which were historically grouped together – certain types of shops in certain streets, although the same is not quite so true now. You can easily get lost, both geographically and in time, in the labyrinth of streets! Some prices may be higher than you would pay elsewhere in Istanbul's shopping malls, as they've been increased for the tourists, but the novelty is worth the little extra!
Cagaloglu Turkish Bath ( Cagaloglu Hamam )
All visitors to Istanbul must experience a Turkish Bath! This particular one is well placed for visitors to the Sultanahmet district, just up from Aya Sofya. Built in 1741, it, like most of the hamams, has separate sections for males and females and is a popular bath with tourists. Yerebatan Caddesi (212522 2424).
North of the Golden Horn
Across the Golden Horn are the newer districts of Istanbul surrounding the old settlement of Galata, which is actually as old as the old city of Istanbul.
Galata Tower ( Galata Kulesi )
The Galata Tower is a prominent landmark on the northern side of the Golden Horn and should definitely be on your list of places to visit. Built in 1348, the tower now has a modern elevator to take you to the top for the best views of Istanbul, including the whole of the historic Sultanahmet Peninsula! This is also a great place from where to get your bearings.
Galata Whirling Dervish Hall ( Galata Mevlevihanesi )
Once a hall of the dancing whirling dervishes, this building now serves as the Museum of Divan Literature , although a visit on Sundays between 3 to 5pm means you can enjoy a ‘sema dervish' ceremony. You are advised to buy tickets in advance for this as they do sell out on the day. Galip Dede Caddesi.
Istiklal Avenue ( Istiklâl Caddesi ) – the place for Istanbul shopping
This is Istanbul's most famous and popular shopping street, which is now pedestrianised except for the Historic Tramway operating from Tünel to Taksim. The Tramway is as much a tourist attraction as a useful form of transport up and down the street. The street itself is a little under 2 miles long (3km) and is lined with expensive boutiques, many of Istanbul's night clubs, cafes, patisseries, cinemas, theatres, restaurants and all manner of other shops and entertainment. When not in and out of the shops you can enjoy the 19 th century grand Turkish architecture of the building facades.
At the end of Istiklal Avenue you'll reach Taksim Square. The Square itself is huge, but other than that does not have much appeal. The closest comparison would be a very tamed down version of Piccadilly Circus. But the surrounding Taksim district is where many of the Istanbul's hotels and good restaurants are situated and it is also an important business district.
Dolmabahçe Palace is situated in Besiktas, alongside the Bosphorus. It was built in the 19 th century for the Ottoman Empire and although impressive, it is also very ostentatious. Tours are available of the various sections of the palace. In all there are 285 rooms and 43 halls here.
The Anatolian Side
Although not so frequented by tourists, this part of Istanbul is worth visiting and is very easy to get to – see the Getting Around section for more information on getting across the Bosphorus.
For tourists who did not like the over-the-top decoration of Dolmabahçe Palace, Beylerbeyi is a good compromise! Again built for the Ottoman Empire, between the years of 1861-1865, the Palace is situated under the legs of the Bosphorus Bridge. Guided tours are available in major languages.
If you're staying in Istanbul for more than a few days, a trip out to the Princes' Islands is highly recommended and will be a welcome break from all of the bustle in the city centre.
Lying off the shore of the Asian side of Istanbul, four of the nine Princes' Islands are easily accessible by ferry or catamaran from either side of the Bosphorus. The largest and tallest island is Büyükada which has the ruins of a monastery at its peak and although none of the islands have any motorised transport on them you can enjoy a ride up the hill on a horse and carriage (for a fee) or you can explore the island at your own pace by renting a bicycle.
There are some good restaurants on the island, but these will be on the pricey side and although there are hotels, these get booked up very far in advance and will also be pricey.
The islands are also the place to go to relax on great beaches, though if you're going on a summer weekend be prepared for most of Istanbul to be there too!