Istanbul is known for its rich culture and history as the dynamic city sits on the crossroads of civilisations; where the East meets the West. Istanbul is famous for its impressive collection of churches and mosques, lavish palaces, and bustling bazaars. The city treats visitors with the most unforgettable sunsets over the magnificent Bosphorus Strait.
Here’s a guide to the top 17 things Istanbul is known and famous for and why you must visit it at least once in your lifetime.
Table of Contents
1. Seven Hills
Did you know that Istanbul was built on seven hills? The ancient city was known as the Greek city, Byzantium, and grew into prominence as Constantinople when Constantine the Great chose to develop the city as the new Rome.
Ancient Istanbul was founded on seven hills, like the Roman capital, and surrounded by strong city walls. When the Ottomans took over the city, they continued to develop the city with grandiose buildings. As you take in the city’s panoramic skyline, try to spot the peaks!
2. Hagia Sophia
Hagia Sophia is considered one of the important structures built for worship for both the Christian and Muslim communities. It’s also known as the Church of Holy Wisdom or Divine Wisdom and Ayasofya in Turkish. Its multiple names reflect its illustrious history.
Constructed as a church in the sixth century, it was the symbol of power of the Byzantine Empire. When the Ottomans took over the city, the building was turned into a mosque and the original mosaics were covered over by Islamic medallions and minarets were added.
The building continues to change and evolve so spend some time soaking in its architectural and cultural splendor and be a witness to its colorful history.
3. Blue Mosque
Istanbul is famous for its beautiful mosques and one of the most photographed buildings in the city is the Blue Mosque. Facing Hagia Sophia and dominating the skyline of the Sultanahmet Park, the Blue Mosque shines with its six minarets.
Formally known as the Sultan Ahmet Mosque, it’s famous for its stunning interior that’s decorated with over 20,000 blue Iznik tiles. Take a closer look at the hand-painted designs on the rare tiles. This beautiful mosque was the ambitious project of Sultan Ahmet I and was built by the revered architect, Sedefkâr Mehmed Ağa.
4. Golden Horn
The famed Golden Horn of Istanbul refers to the strategic horn-shaped estuary that flows from the Bosphorus Strait to the heart of the city. Golden Horn plays an important role in the growth of the city as it forms a natural defense and harbor and it’s the hub of shipping and trade.
The best place to experience the action and scenery of the Golden Horn is from the monumental Galata Bridge that connects the old Istanbul to the new districts.
5. Walls of Constantinople and Theodosius II
When Constantine the Great moved the capital of the Roman Empire from Rome to Constantinople (Istanbul), he surrounded his capital with mighty walls. The defensive walls traced the outline of the city and protected the people from invaders and external threats.
The city walls were extended and further fortified when the city was ruled by Theodosius II. While sieges and natural disasters damaged the walls, some sections of the walls were repaired and you can still see surviving ancient walls in the Old Town.
6. Bosphorus Strait
The famous symbol of Istanbul, this mighty waterway has defined the city’s past and present. Connecting the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea and separating the Asian and European continents, this strait is strategically located.
The lifeline of Istanbul, the Bosphorus has brought people, trade, and resources like fish to the city. Today, you can immerse in the beauty of the Bosphorus by hopping on a ferry that cruises along the scenic channel.
7. Topkapı Palace
Experience the lives of royalty in the Topkapı Palace. It was the opulent residence of the Sultan and the administrative and educational center of the Ottoman Empire. Walk through the imperial gates, sprawling courtyards, and grand pavilions and imagine the hustle and bustle of heydays.
A top highlight of the palace tour is the cloistered harem where you can get a glimpse into the hidden world of the Sultan’s wives and concubines and their interactions with the Sultan.
8. Istanbul Archaeological Museums
If you only have time for one museum, visit the Istanbul Archaeological Museums which houses world-class artefacts spanning Istanbul’s eventful past from the Byzantine to the Ottoman period. This vast museum consists of the Archaeology Museum, the Museum of the Ancient Orient, and the Tiled Kiosk Museum.
The most prized exhibits are the ancient sarcophagi–large, coffin-like, ornamental containers. Be awed by the intricate marble carvings depicting epic battle scenes on the Alexander the Great sarcophagus.
9. Grand Bazaar
Istanbul is known for its busy bazaars and the Grand Bazaar is the city’s oldest and largest market. The massive covered market is packed with over 4000 colorful stalls that sell everything from textiles and carpets to souvenirs.
Getting lost in the maze of shops and haggling with the shopkeepers is part of the bazaar experience. Don’t forget to pause and take in the history of the market in the midst of the shopping chaos.
10. Spice Market
Enjoy the feast of all senses in the historical Spice Market. Also called Mısır Çarşısı or the Egyptian Market, it was constructed in the 17th century as an extended part of the New Mosque. The market flourished with the booming spice trade.
Be dazzled by the kaleidoscopic mounds of spices, nuts, dried fruits, and lokum (Turkish delights), and stuff your shopping bags with Istanbul’s local produce.
11. Underground Cisterns
Istanbul is famous for being a city of surprises and it hides the ancient subterranean structures.
The underground cisterns are water reservoirs built during the Byzantine period to store water for the growing capital city. The cisterns are feats of architectural wonders as they were constructed deep underground with strong foundations of arches and columns.
Basilica Cistern, the largest surviving cistern, is open to the public and its star attraction is the dense network of 336 marble columns and two famous columns adorned with carvings depicting Medusa heads.
Another underground water chamber worth visiting is the Theodosius Cistern that provides an immersive experience with 360-degree projection mapping.
12. Süleymaniye Mosque
Süleymaniye Mosque, also known as the Mosque of Süleymaniye the Magnificent, sits on one of the highest Seven Hills. Commissioned by Sultan Süleyman I, this colossal mosque is crowned by four soaring minarets with 10 balconies, signifying that Süleyman was the tenth Ottoman Sultan.
Marvel at the ingenuity of the architecture and design as you stroll through the serene grounds of the mosque and visit the ornate mausoleums of Sultan Süleyman I and his wife Roxelana. The beautiful mosque is the masterpiece of Mimar Sinan, whom the locals called affectionately as “Sinan the Great.” The accomplished architect designed many buildings for the royalty and his tomb lies just outside the mosque.
13. Galata Tower
The medieval tower is a striking symbol of Istanbul’s new district. It has a tumultuous history that started in the Middle Ages; it was a fire watchtower, defense fort, barrack, and even a dungeon.
As you climb up the tower, learn how the building has been rebuilt and restored throughout the years. The best time to visit is before sunset as you’ll enjoy the spectacular views of the city: day view, sunset, and the sparkling city lights.
14. Pera Museum
Pera Museum is one of the best-kept secrets of Istanbul. Situated in the Tepebaşı historic quarter, this private museum showcases a vast collection of Orientalist paintings that illustrate memorable scenes and characters from the Ottoman Empire.
Check out the most famous paintings in the museum, also known as the “Mona Lisa of Turkey”–The Tortoise Trainer by the famous Ottoman painter, Osman Hamdi Bey. The museum also holds many events like film screenings and special exhibition openings throughout the year.
15. Dolmabahçe Palace
Standing proud along the Bosphorus, Dolmabahçe Palace was commissioned by Sultan Abdül Mecit I who wanted a more modern residence than the Topkapi Palace. It’s the biggest palace in Turkey and the final home of the Ottoman royalty.
Designed by imperial architects, the glamorous Ottoman-European palace was costly and led to serious financial problems plaguing the declining Ottoman Empire.
Istanbul is nestled on two continents–Europe and Asia, and you can easily reach the Asian side via a ferry across the Bosphorus Strait or the Marmaray underwater train.
Wander through Kadıköy, a vibrant neighbourhood with a lively local market, restaurants, and boutique shops. Take a dolmuş, a shared local minibus, to Üsküdar, a historic town with charming local markets and mosques.
Istanbul is famous for spectacular sunsets. The historic city is like a painting and the changing hues of the skies enhance its magnificence. Watching the sunset over the iconic city skyline and the glistening Bosphorus Strait framing the two continents is a magical experience.
The best viewing spots to enjoy Istanbul’s sunsets are the Galata Tower, Galata Bridge, and Çamlıca Hillon on the European side, and the Üsküdar waterfront and Karaköy port on the Asian side.
And that’s a wrap!
Which of these things do you love most about Istanbul? Share it with us in the comments section!