The city of Istanbul is the biggest in Turkey and one of the largest in the world, with estimates of its population running between 14 and 18 million people. It's a busy place, but it is also a great destination for the tourist, with eight million of them visiting the city each year. Istanbul was the capital of the Ottoman Empire for nearly 500 years, and before that, under the name of Constantinople, it was the capital of the Roman/Byzantine Empire for more than a millennium. There's a huge amount of history in evidence. The modern city is also a lively place and worth seeing even without the history.
This Entry is a highly subjective list of the 14 best things in Istanbul for a sightseer. We've ordered them by popularity and importance - the must-see sights are first, and the ones near the end are for those with a bit more time. There are a couple of other famous sights which are listed in many guide books as worth seeing, but we will offer no recommendations here for the simple reason that this Researcher hasn't yet seen them. These include the Dolmabahçe Palace, the Church of the Holy Saviour in Chora, and the Archaeological Museum.
A Quick Run Through 2,000 Years of History
Istanbul was founded in the 8th Century BC as Byzantion, a moderately successful Greek city-state. This was taken over by the Romans in the 1st Century BC and the name was latinised as Byzantium.
In 330 AD, the city hit the big time, being chosen by Roman Emperor Constantine as the capital of the whole Roman Empire. Under Constantine's direction, a new city was laid out just to the west of the old one, with new monuments, administrative buildings, shops and houses. This city was intended to be called New Rome but soon became known as Constantinople, the city of Constantine. It became one of the biggest in the world. Its position on a peninsula meant that it could be easily defended by the construction of a wall across the peninsula, which was done almost immediately during Constantine's reign. This wall was replaced a few hundred years later by a bigger set of walls further to the west, allowing the city to grow considerably and to be completely immune to invasion. The city's location at the junction of the major land route from Europe to Asia and the major sea route from the Black Sea in the north to the Mediterranean in the south made it the perfect centre of trade for the whole Empire and it became very rich.
The Western Roman Empire was invaded by various barbarians - Huns, Goths, Lombards and so on. The Eastern Roman Empire continued under Roman control. It is known by modern historians from this time on as the Byzantine Empire, but the people continued to call themselves Romans, although they spoke Greek. Over the course of a thousand years, the lands controlled by these Romans diminished gradually until eventually by the mid-15th Century there was nothing other than the city itself.
In 1453, the Ottoman Turkish Sultan Mehmet II attacked the city using giant cannons, and eventually managed to break through the walls. The Turks took over the city, rebuilt the walls and made it the capital of their Ottoman Empire. They called it Istanbul, although the name was not officially changed from Constantinople until after the end of the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans developed a new architecture, based partly on the tents and pavilions of their nomadic past and partly on the Byzantine arch-and-dome style of the Hagia Sophia and other smaller churches.
The Ottoman Empire was successful for many centuries - at its height it encompassed North Africa, southeast Europe and most of the Middle East. But fortunes change and by the 1920s it was seen as corrupt, old-fashioned and not serving the people. A rising led by Mustafa Kemal, known as Atatürk, father of Turks, ousted the old Ottoman leaders and set up a new democratic Republic of Turkey. To distance himself from the corruption of the old order, Atatürk moved the capital to Ankara in Central Turkey.
Although no longer the capital, Istanbul continued to be the trading and production centre of Turkey, and in the late 20th Century began to grow uncontrollably, reaching one million inhabitants in 1970 and about 18 million in 2010. Services are constantly being improved, with the addition of new metro systems, trams, bridges and motorways, but can never keep up with the vast population growth.
Some Practical Details
Before starting on the sights, there are a few practical details worth noting:
Although (barely) in Europe, Turkey is not part of the European Union. The local currency is the Turkish Lira (TL). At the time of writing (early 2014), the Turkish Lira is worth one third of a Euro. That is, 3 TL = 1 Euro. The Euro is accepted as currency in many places in Istanbul.
Although the local language is Turkish, nobody expects foreigners to speak it. By all means learn a few Turkish phrases (you can find some at the Istanbul entry) but you'll get by speaking only English.
Istanbul is divided by water into three sections. The Bosphorus channel, which is about 1km wide, runs from southwest to northeast and divides the European side (west) from the Asian side (east). The Golden Horn is a narrow inlet of the sea which runs west from the Bosphorus, dividing the European side into Old Istanbul in the south and Beyoglu in the north. Beyoglu is really the centre of the modern city, but most of the historical monuments are in Old Istanbul. Of the 14 sights listed here, ten are in Old Istanbul, two in Beyoglu, one on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, and one is the Bosphorus itself.
Despite being beside the sea, Istanbul can get very cold in the winter, and can be unpleasantly rainy, too. The best months to visit are probably April to September, and if you can't take the heat, keep away from July and August.
Although the people of Istanbul are very friendly and will always offer to help, the city is not a good place for disabled people. Many of these sights are totally unsuitable for people in wheelchairs.
Most of these sights are within easy walking distance of each other in the centre of Old Istanbul. For those which are slightly further away, don't be afraid to use the Istanbul transport system. It is very simple to use - you buy a red plastic token, known as a jeton, for 3 TL from a slot machine at any station. This token gets you past the barrier onto the platform. You can then travel as far as you like on the train, tram or funicular. You will have to use another jeton if you change from one form of transport to another, for example from tram to funicular.
Wherever you go in Istanbul, there will be someone close by trying to sell you a carpet. Get used to it.
Now for the sights themselves. We've classified each as Roman, Ottoman or General.
1. Hagia Sophia (Roman)
Hagia Sophia is Greek for 'Holy Wisdom' and is short for the Church of the Holy Wisdom of God. It was the biggest church in Constantinople during Roman/Byzantine times and the spiritual centre of the city; in fact it was the biggest church in the world for almost a thousand years, from its completion in 537 AD until the construction of Seville Cathedral in 1520. It was built by the order of Roman Emperor Justinian after the previous church on the site was destroyed in the Nika Riots. The design featured a daring new use of arches, spherical surfaces ('pendentives') and a dome to produce a huge enclosed space. The lower surfaces of the inner walls were faced in polished marbles of different colours, and the upper areas were decorated with mosaics showing icons - images of angels, saints and of Jesus Christ and his mother Mary, as well as Roman Emperors.
In 1453, the Ottoman Turks invaded Constantinople and took over the city. Hagia Sophia was converted to a mosque. Outside, four minarets were added. Inside, the mosaics were carefully plastered over, as much as possible without damaging them, because pictures were not allowed by Islam. Eight giant circular panels known as 'roundels' were hung high on the walls, bearing Arabic script1. These include the names of God and the Prophet Mohammed. A minbar, or ceremonial staircase, and a mihrab, or prayer niche showing the direction of Mecca, were also added.
In the 1930s Kemal Atatürk, the leader of the new state of Turkey, decided that Hagia Sophia was a piece of World Heritage, and decreed that it should become a museum and never return to being either a church or a mosque. The mosaics were all uncovered, as much as possible, and the Christian parts of the building are now visible alongside the Muslim parts.
Hagia Sophia is the number one tourist site in Istanbul on everybody's list, so it is very busy. Get there early to minimise queuing.
Once inside the main door you are in the inner narthex, a wide corridor that goes across the width of the church. Then you come to the Imperial Gate, a huge doorway into the main part of the church. Over the doorway you'll see a mosaic of Emperor Leo prostrating himself before Christ. Look out for the indentations in the floor on either side of the doorway where for a thousand years there were two Roman soldiers standing on guard - this door was reserved for the Emperor himself and the guards were to prevent lesser mortals from using it.
Inside the main part of the church, marvel at the space. Hagia Sophia is huge, and is designed in such a way as to inspire awe. There are four giant arches enclosing an enormous space topped by a dome. You may be disappointed to find scaffolding filling some of this space, because there is always repair work going on, but even with the scaffolding, what remains is still really impressive.
Unlike most Christian churches, the building is aligned on a northwest to southeast axis, with the main altar at the southeast end. This is the semicircular recess (apse) with the mosaic of the Virgin Mary and Christ Child. It also now contains the mihrab (prayer niche), as by chance the church was already almost perfectly aligned with Mecca. At the eastern corner of the building, to the left of the main altar, is a staircase to the upper level. This is where there are balconies looking down on the main area, and some of the best mosaics, including the 'Deësis' image of Christ the King, which is considered one of the finest mosaics ever made. Also watch out for the runic graffiti on one of the marble balcony rails - the Byzantine emperors had a bodyguard of giant Scandinavians known as the Varangian Guard.
On the ground floor near the northern corner is a hole in one of the pillars - legend has it that Justinian himself had a headache. He noticed that this pillar was slightly damp, so he placed his forehead against the pillar thinking it might cool his sore head. His headache was cured. Since then, visitors have sought for good luck and miraculous cures from the pillar by placing their thumb at the point where Justinian was cured, and rotating their hand through a full 360° - a feat easier said than done. Centuries of thumbs have worn a deep hole in the pillar at this point.
As you leave the church by the exit at the southwest end of the Narthex, look back above the doorway you've just come through for one of the best mosaics, showing Constantine and Justinian presenting the city and the church to Christ.
Closed Mondays. Opening hours: 9am - 5pm (1 October - 15 April); 9am - 7pm (15 April - 1 October). Last admission one hour before closing. Admission price: 25 TL. Children up to age 12 free. Closed on certain national holidays. Allow 90 - 120 minutes for a reasonably thorough visit. Nearest public transport: Tram Line 1, Sultanahmet stop.
2. Topkapi Palace (Ottoman)
The Topkapi Palace is built on the headland closest to the Bosphorus. This was the location of the original Greek city of Byzantion before the Romans expanded it. The palace was built by the Ottoman Turks when they took over the city and was the home of the Sultans, the rulers of the Ottoman Empire, for about 400 years. The palace has a unique style of architecture: Ottoman before it was influenced by the architecture of the Byzantines. It is designed as as a number of low pavilions in spacious courtyards, and rarely more than one storey high. It is supposed to recall the tents the Turks lived in when they were still a nomadic people. The palace is well designed for the hot Turkish summers with open doorways, pools of water and fountains. There are also fireplaces for heat in the winter.
There are four main courtyards in the palace, which are in a line. The first three are each entered through a monumental gate. To the left of the second and third courtyards is the Harem, the part of the palace where all the women lived. These included the Sultan's mother, known as the Valide Sultan, and a large number of women slaves kept as concubines. The Sultan's mother, if she was still alive, ruled the Harem, otherwise it would be run by the principal wife. The only males allowed into this part of the palace were the Sultan himself, his sons, and the black eunuch slaves.
Around the third courtyard are treasuries, exhibiting the Sultan's treasures. These are divided into two main sections - material goods such as diamonds, emeralds, jewel-encrusted swords, and a tiny jewel-encrusted cradle; and sacred objects - Istanbul was the capital city of the Ottoman Empire which took in most of the Muslim world, so many things important to the religion were brought to the Topkapi Palace. You'll find among other things a cast made from a footprint of the Prophet Muhammad himself.
The palace would have been a very relaxing place to visit in the days of the Empire - if you overlook the fact that some Sultans had a tendency to have people executed with very little excuse. If you were a friend of the Sultan, however, there were pleasant gardens with views over the Bosphorus strait, and cool pavilions with low cushions for seating. Everything was elaborately decorated with beautiful coloured tiles and geometric patterns.
Admission to the palace is fairly expensive by Turkish standards. The palace is 25 TL while the harem is an additional 15 TL. Given that the total price of 40 TL is only about 13 Euros, it is worth paying to see the Harem as well as the rest of the palace.
On the left in the first courtyard, inside the first gate, is the old Roman church of Hagia Eirene. This was never converted into a mosque, so it is a good example of how a typical Roman church was built. You can see inside this for an additional 10 TL on top of the admission price to the Palace. Don't bother with this unless you're particularly interested in Byzantine church architecture, as it is very plain inside - there are no mosaics or decorations, other than a single cross over the altar apse. You can also pay 20 TL to see the church without entering the Palace.
Allow two hours for a visit to the Palace. Nearest public transport: Tram Line 1, Sultanahmet or Gülhane stops.
3. Sultan Ahmet (Blue) Mosque (Ottoman)
There are many mosques in Istanbul. The two biggest of them are on this list in 3rd and 6th position: the Sultan Ahmet Mosque and the Süleymaniye Mosque. Of these, the Süleymaniye Mosque is bigger and older, but the Sultan Ahmet Mosque is prettier and easier to get to, since it is right in the centre of Istanbul beside the Hagia Sophia. It is therefore the one that most tourists go to.
The Sultan Ahmet Mosque was built between 1609 and 1616 by order of Sultan Ahmet the First. It is often called the Blue Mosque, which can be confusing in two ways. Firstly, this is a name known only to the tourists - the locals don't use this name at all. Secondly, the mosque is not blue, but light grey. The name comes from the large number of blue tiles that are featured in the decoration inside the mosque.
Visitors are welcome to the mosque, but since it is a working place of prayer there are restrictions - if you are not a Muslim, try not to visit on a Friday which is the day of prayer. Also don't enter during the five times of prayer which occur every day. These are at sunrise, midday, as the sun is descending, actual sunset and an hour after sunset. Mid-morning is a good time to visit as you are well away from the prayer times.
All visitors must remove their shoes once inside the mosque, to protect the carpets on the floor. There are plastic bags provided as you go in. Place your shoes in a bag and carry it with you, as you will be exiting by a different door. Women are required to cover their heads - if you haven't got a head-scarf, ones are provided at the entrance. Return them at the exit when you leave. Within the mosque, be reasonably quiet, in case there are people praying; you don't want to distract them. The mosque is not, however, considered a holy place. If there are no people praying, you're welcome to talk.
The design of the older Süleymaniye Mosque is copied very closely from the Hagia Sophia, and the Sultan Ahmet Mosque is a development of both of these. There are the same four arches holding up a central dome, but here the space around the arches has been opened out by a whole series of smaller domes and half domes, so that the whole space feels much more open, and there is much more light than in Hagia Sophia. The basic decoration is white with beautiful tiles in pinks and blues from Iznik in Anatolia (Asian Turkey). There are many calligraphic inscriptions on the walls, and beautiful geometric patterns.
There's a minbar, or ceremonial staircase, in every mosque, but it's worth describing here. The stairs go straight up without a turn. At the bottom is a door or curtain representing death, and at the top is another door representing entry into heaven. The stairs represent the spirit's journey up to heaven. The imam or prayer leader stands not at the top of the steps but about three quarters of the way up and reads from the Koran from there. This indicates that he is on his way to heaven but isn't there yet.
You exit from the main space of the mosque into a square courtyard which is about the same size as the mosque. This is a sort of overflow, where people can gather to join in the prayers when the mosque is full.
Visiting time: 30 minutes. Nearest public transport: Tram Line 1, Sultanahmet stop.
4. Grand Bazaar (Ottoman)
The Grand Bazaar is a giant roofed building containing a maze of tiny streets and something around 5,000 shops. It is said to serve between a quarter and half a million customers every day. Construction started in 1461 and the bazaar reached its present size by about 1600. Legend has it that it was deliberately built to be confusing, so that a customer might have to ask a shopkeeper for directions on how to get out, thereby giving the merchant a chance to extol his wares. Similar techniques are used today in the design of casinos in Las Vegas.
The Bazaar is a great place to buy souvenirs. A certain amount of haggling is expected, although the Turkish merchants are not impressed by the 'I'll give you one tenth of what you are asking' method that works so well in the Middle East. A gentler approach is needed; you might get a 50% discount on the marked prices after some discussion. And if you see a brand name you recognise at a very good price, it is almost definitely a fake. Despite this, there is plenty worth buying: spices, multicoloured chandeliers, ornate Turkish tea sets with samovar-type teapots and tall glasses, and little inlaid bowls for the serving of mezes.
Most people find the Grand Bazaar is overwhelming on their first visit - an hour of it is more than enough. On entering the Bazaar, make a note of which of the 18 numbered gates you came in by. This will make it easier to find your way out. You can always ask for directions.
Visiting time: 45 - 60 minutes. Nearest public transport: Tram Line 1, Beyazit stop.
5. Istiklal Street and Beyoglu Nightlife (General)
Istanbul isn't just about old monuments. It is a lively modern city, with its centre in Beyoglu, north of the Golden Horn inlet. The heart of Beyoglu is Istiklal Street, which is a pedestrian street stretching from Taksim Square at the north end to the Tünel funicular at the south end. There's a little old tram that runs the length of the street on a single track - this is known as the 'Nostaljik Tramvay'.
There are many restaurants and night clubs along Istiklal Street, and in the streets around it. Of particular note is the tiny Nevizade Lane to the northwest of Istiklal Street, which has the greatest concentration of restaurants anywhere in Istanbul. Most of them organise some sort of live music on busy nights.
Another thing to watch out for in Beyoglu is the Pera Palace Hotel, which was built specially for the Western visitors arriving on the Orient Express at the end of the 19th Century. At the time, there were no high-class hotels in the city. You might like to have a drink in the bar of the hotel just to experience the feel of those bygone days.
Taksim Square is the place where Turks assemble to protest, so there is always a heavy police presence there. As long as there isn't a riot in progress, you're perfectly safe there. Watch out for the monument to Kemal Atatürk in the square at the end of Istiklal Street. As of early 2014, the square is rather plain-looking, as they ripped it up to put all the traffic underground. The square is now entirely pedestrian, but is bare concrete. There are plans to pave it and make it pleasant again.
Visiting time: one hour plus time for a meal. Nearest public transport, Taksim end: Metro Line 2 - Taksim stop; Funicular from Kabatas at end of Tram Line 1; Galata end: Metro Line 2 - Sishane stop; Tünel Funicular from Kadiköy stop on Tram Line 1.
6. Süleymaniye Mosque (Ottoman)
The Süleymaniye Mosque is the biggest mosque in Istanbul and the most notable feature when looking across the Golden Horn at the old city from the north. It was built between 1550 and 1558 by order of Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent and was designed by the great Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan2. Its design follows that of Hagia Sophia very closely, with the same arrangement of arches and domes as the Great Church. It is intermediate in design between the Hagia Sophia and the Sultan Ahmet Mosque.
If you've already seen the Sultan Ahmet Mosque, you may not want to bother with the Süleymaniye Mosque as it quite similar. The same rules apply about not visiting on a Friday or during the designated times of prayer, about removing your shoes, and about women wearing head-scarfs. One great reason to visit this mosque, though, is the peaceful atmosphere. It doesn't have a constant stream of tourists through it, so it's much easier to get into the peaceful state here that the building is designed for. Whether you want to pray or just breathe it all in is entirely up to you.
The decoration of the inside of the mosque is basically white, with painted panels and calligraphy. It does not feature the elaborate tiles of the Sultan Ahmet Mosque, achieving more or less the same effect using paint.
There are many buildings around the mosque which are all part of the mosque complex. These include not just a place to pray but hostels for looking after the homeless, medical centres and schools.
Visiting time: 30 minutes plus time for contemplation. Nearest public transport: Tram Line 1 - Eminönü stop.
7. The Basilica Cistern (Roman)
The Basilica Cistern, also known as the Yerevatan Sarnici (Underground Cistern) or the Yerevatan Sarayi (Underground Palace), is an impressive piece of Roman practicality. Water was brought into the city by aqueducts, such as the Aqueduct of Valens (still standing and visible crossing Atatürk Boulevard). The water was stored in giant underground tanks called cisterns. The Basilica Cistern is the biggest of these, with a capacity of 80 million litres. It was built in 532 AD by order of Emperor Justinian. It gets its English name from a Basilica (Church) that once stood on this site. It was unknown to the invading Turks and was only discovered when stories came to light of people in the area lowering buckets on ropes into their basements and hauling up water and even fish!
The cistern has been drained and restored to its original Roman splendour. While it would by design have been full of water to the roof, the level has been reduced to only a metre or so deep, so that tourists can walk around it on raised walkways. There are 336 columns, each 8m high, holding up the roof - these appear to be left-overs from various buildings, as they are not all the same. Some have Ionic capitals, others Corinthian or Doric. A few have the spotted look that represents peacock feathers.
Two of the pillars are standing on bases carved into the heads of gorgons: fearsome, female monsters with hair of snakes who could turn people to stone with their gaze. One of the gorgon heads is upside down while the other is on its side. It is thought that these were part of some other building and were used here as convenient lumps of stone, but were put in these positions to neutralise any bad luck from using such monsters.
The entrance to the Basilica Cistern is at the north end of Sultan Ahmet Square. Admission is 10 TL. A visit to the cistern should take about 30 minutes. Nearest public transport: Tram Line 1, Sultanahmet stop.
8. The Land Walls of Theodosius (Roman)
From the time the city of Constantinople was first laid out, it needed a defence system. Being on a peninsula surrounded by deep water, it was already protected on three sides. Low 'sea walls' along the entire coast enhanced this protection. The ruins of these can still be seen in various places along Kennedy Avenue around the south coast of the peninsula.
The main concern, however, was protection from attack by a land army. In Constantine's day, a wall was built across the peninsula, but it was found that the city grew to overflow the wall and much of the city lay outside the wall. In the time of Theodosius II, a much bigger set of walls was built further out from the centre. These consisted of an outer 'low' wall of 8m (26 feet) and an inner high wall of 12m (40 feet), each strengthened by 96 towers along the length of about 6km. The towers were square, hexagonal or octagonal and were up to 20m (66 feet) in height. There was also a deep moat in front of the walls.
These Walls of Theodosius are still standing, although ruined in many places. According to a plaque at one point, they are a World Heritage Site, and rightly so. The world would be a very different place without the Walls of Constantinople. They protected the city from attack, and in doing so, protected Europe from an influx of various peoples from the East. The historian Judith Herrin said 'Without Byzantium there would have been no Europe', and it is likely that without the walls there would have been no Byzantium.
Nevertheless, this is one tourist sight you will likely visit alone. There are no bus-loads of sightseers, no interpretive centres, no shops selling souvenirs. It's not clear why this is the case. We predict that all this will change in the next decade and by 2024, the Walls of Constantinople will be one of the major tourist attractions in the world. They certainly should be.
The easiest way to get to the walls is by tram from Sultanahmet Square. Take the tram line 1 (fare 3 TL) in the direction of Zeytinburnu and get off at Pazar-tekke. This is just inside the walls. You can walk to them from there. Alternatively, you could get a taxi to the Yedikule Castle or the Belgrad Gate. In any case, you'll be free to wander along the walls and marvel at the scale of them.
Visiting time: 30 minutes wandering around the ruins, plus a round trip of about an hour to get there.
9. Bosphorus Tour (General)
The Bosphorus is the sea channel which joins the Black Sea in the north to the Sea of Marmara in the south and separates Europe in the west from Asia in the East. It is 30km long and about 1km wide, narrowing to 700m wide at its thinnest point. There are curious currents in the Bosphorus - on the surface, water flows from the Black Sea south to the Sea of Marmara, and ultimately, through the Dardanelles Strait to the Mediterranean. Since the Black Sea is fed by rivers from all over Eastern Europe, the water flowing south is less salty than the Mediterranean. At the same time, a current of denser, saltier water flows north from the Sea of Marmara to the Black Sea along the Bosphorus, underneath the southward current.
The Bosphorus experiences no tide, so houses can be built right down to the shore. It has for centuries been a prime location for expensive waterside houses (known as yali), and there are many palaces along the seafront. A boat trip up the Bosphorus is a pleasant way of spending a couple of hours if you want to rest and do sight-seeing at the same time. Tours start at the south end of the Galata bridge, joining Beyoglu to Old Istanbul. A two-hour trip will go up the Bosphorus as far as the second giant suspension bridge joining Europe to Asia.
Along the way you should see the following sights:
- The skyline of Old Istanbul, with the Topkapi Palace, the Hagia Sophia, the Sultan Ahmet Mosque and the Süleymaniye Mosque.
- The Dolmabahçe Mosque, a tall, narrow building which may remind you of R2D2 from Star Wars.
- The Dolmabahçe Palace, the 19th-Century palace of the Sultans. This looks very much like a European rather than an Ottoman palace.
- The Ortaköy Mosque, another tall, narrow building.
- The Bosphorus Bridge, the first suspension bridge joining Europe and Asia, built in 1973.
- The Rumelihisari, the Fortress of Europe, built by Sultan Mehmet II in 1451, the year before he successfully invaded Constantinople.
- The Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge, the second suspension bridge to span the channel, built in 1988.
- The Anadoluhisari, the Fortress of Asia, built by the Turks in 1393 before the unsuccessful Second Ottoman Siege of Constantinople.
- The Beylerbeyi Palace, mentioned later in this Entry as sight 11.
- There are also many beautiful big Ottoman houses. Their most distinctive architectural features are that upper floors project outwards beyond the lower floors, and that the roofs have a very large overhang beyond the building and are often supported by curved beams underneath.
Nearest public transport to start of trip: Tram Line 1 - Eminönü stop.
10. The Galata Tower and View (General)
The Galata Tower dominates the hillside north of the Golden Horn. It is a cylindrical stone tower with a conical roof. It was built in 1348 on the site of an older wooden building. The tower is much taller than it looks, being 66.90m (220 ft) in height, and makes a very good viewpoint on a sunny day.
Admission to the tower is very expensive - €6.50 - yes, Euros rather than Turkish Lira; this is intended for tourists. Nevertheless, it is worth it for the wonderful view of the city, providing the weather is good. Looking south, you can see the Golden Horn in front of you, and the whole of the old city of Constantinople laid out on the other side, with the Topkapi Palace, Hagia Sophia, Sultan Ahmet Mosque, the New Mosque and Süleymaniye Mosque clearly visible. To the left lies the Bosphorus and, beyond it, Asia. On a misty day, don't even bother.
Unfortunately, the interior of the tower was gutted by fire in the past and what's there now is modern and not worth seeing.
The Galata Tower is not suitable for disabled people. While there is a lift that brings you up the tower, it doesn't go the whole way to the top. There are three flights of steep, narrow stairs up to the viewing level, and the viewing platform itself is narrow and would not accommodate a wheelchair.
Visiting time: 30 minutes. Nearest public transport: Metro Line 2 - Sishane stop; Tram Line 1 - Kadiköy stop.
11. Beylerbeyi Palace (Ottoman)
This one is not easy to get to, being on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, just north of the giant Bosphorus Bridge. Nevertheless, the Beylerbeyi Palace is often included in organised bus tours, so you may find yourself visiting it.
The palace is a 19th-Century building intended as a Summer Palace for the Sultans. They would use it as a base for hunting expeditions - at the time, the city had not spread to the Asian side and the palace was surrounded by woodland. The style of decoration is known as 'Eclectic', which basically means a mishmash of anything from Europe or the Middle East which was popular, so you will find Syrian marquetry cabinets sitting beside French gilded Rococo tables.
The most outstanding feature of the palace is the main reception room, which features a huge pool in the middle. This would not have been used for swimming, but to cool the air in the hot summers.
Three things that you won't find in the Berlerbeyi Palace give some clue to the way the Ottoman Sultans operated:
- Heating - the Palace was only used in the Summer so there was no need for any fireplaces or other sources of heat.
- Servants' bedrooms - the servants kept bedding in giant wardrobes in one of the corridors. They would bring this out and sleep on the floor after the Sultan and his guests had gone to bed, and would be expected to be up and about before the master arose in the morning.
- Kitchens - the palace is only a couple of miles from the main Sultan's Palace of the day, the Dolmabahçe. The food was cooked there and brought across the Bosphorus by boat for each meal.
The palace is built right beside the Bosphorus, so the front bedrooms all had a lovely view of the flowing water right outside their windows. The gardens of the palace feature two elaborate bathing pavilions, one for the men and the other for the women. These resemble tents.
The Beylerbeyi Palace is not easily accessible via public transport and is best seen as part of a guided tour. Visiting time: one hour.
12. Columns of the Hippodrome (Roman)
Constantinople was set up as a new city at the same time that the Roman Empire became Christianised. The traditional sport of gladiatorial combat was not really in keeping with the teachings of the Church, so no arena was built for such combats. Instead, the existing small racing track was expanded and chariot racing became the sport of choice for the Eastern Romans. The chariot racing track was called the 'Hippodrome' (from the Greek words hippos - horse - and dromos - race). It was situated right in the centre of the city beside the Hagia Sophia.
The Hippodrome was a long narrow rectangle with a semicircular section at one end. There was seating for about 100,000 spectators. Down the centre of the race course was a wall known as the spina which separated the chariots going up the track from those coming back down. On this were erected various monuments taken from other parts of the Empire to show off the power of the Emperor.
There's virtually nothing left of the Hippodrome today - only a small portion of the semicircular wall which supported the southwest end is still visible at Kasap Osman Street. But the site was never built on, and there is still a long narrow paved space known as Sultan Ahmet Square. Three of the monuments which stood on the spina are still standing and are worth a look:
The Egyptian Obelisk was built in about 1500 BC and stood outside Luxor, Egypt. The top half of it was brought to Constantinople during the reign of Theodosius I. It was placed on a base of marble which was carved by the Romans in a style totally different to the hieroglyphs on the obelisk itself; it's amusing to see the contrast between the two styles. One of the scenes on the Roman base shows the method they used to raise the obelisk - solar power. At night, they attached ropes of leather which they soaked in water. When the sun rose, it dried out the leather, which shrank, hauling up the obelisk by a few inches. The process was repeated night after night until the obelisk was standing upright. Other scenes on the base show the chariots pulled by horses, Theodosius and his family watching the races, and the emperor preparing to crown the victor with a laurel wreath.
The Serpentine Column is a strange bronze pillar made from three pieces of bronze intertwined. These were three serpents, but the heads of the serpents were knocked off by a drunken Polish nobleman in the 18th Century. You can see one of these serpent heads in the Archaeological Museum. Originally the heads of the serpents formed a tripod base for a golden pot. This bizarre decoration was one of the treasures of the Oracle of Delphi, and was made in 479 BC from the bronze swords and shields of the Persian army defeated in the battle of Plataea.
The Column of Constantine Porphyrogenitus, also known as the Brazen Column, is a stone column built in the same shape as the Egyptian Obelisk. The column gets its name from a plaque at the base which says that the emperor Constantine Porphyrogenitus restored it in the 10th Century. It is not recorded when the column was first erected. It was originally covered in metal, hence its other name, but this was stripped off by Crusaders as booty during the Sack of Constantinople.
Another stone pillar worth seeing is very close by, although it wasn't part of the Hippodrome. This is the remains of the Milion, a four-arched monument which was treated as the official centre of the city and of the Roman Empire. It was the point from which all distances were measured, and in a sense was the centre of the Known World. All that's left of it is a single vertical pillar of stone.
The Milion is located at the base of a ruined tower just across the tram tracks from Sultan Ahmet Square and only a hundred metres from the entrance to the Basilica Cistern.
Visiting time: 30 minutes. Nearest public transport: Tram Line 1, Sultanahmet stop.
13. Spice Bazaar (Ottoman)
The Spice Bazaar, known in Turkish as the Egyptian Bazaar, is like a very small part of the Grand Bazaar, having only two streets in an L shape. It was built between 1597 and 1664 by order of Safiye Sultan, the wife of Sultan Murat III. It specialises in spices but you can also buy many other things here, such as the obligatory Turkish Delight and ornate chandeliers. If you've already explored the Grand Bazaar, you may find this just more of the same.
Visiting time: 30 minutes. Nearest public transport: Tram Line 1 - Eminönü stop.
14. The Tombs of the Sultans (Ottoman)
In the grounds of Hagia Sophia, but accessed by a different entrance, are five mausoleums. Four of them are purpose-built, while one is the converted baptistery chapel of the Great Church. The mausoleums are beautiful marble buildings which are decorated inside with coloured tiles and geometrical patterns. They hold the coffins of the Sultans and their families covered in green cloth, with cloth turbans on the coffins to show the status of those buried inside.
The tombs are carpeted inside, so you are asked to remove your shoes as you enter each tomb. Admission is free into the tombs, and you will have to go through a bag security check on the way into the enclosure.
In order from the entrance, you will find:
- The Tomb of Sultan Mehmed III.
- The Tomb of Sultan Selim II, designed by Mimar Sinan.
- The Tomb of Sultan Murad III.
- The Tomb of Princes - four sons and one daughter of Murad III.
- The Tombs of Sultan Mustafa I and Sultan Ibrahim, in the Baptistery of Hagia Sophia.
Visiting time: 30 minutes. Nearest public transport: Tram Line 1, Sultanahmet stop.
Whether you are interested in history, architecture, art, religion or even food, Istanbul is not short of things to see and do. We hope that this Entry has given you a flavour of the city and will make your visit that little bit more interesting.