14 Epic Sites Of Istanbul You Must Visit

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HIGHLIGHTS OF THE CITY

Going to Istanbul for the first time can be a little daunting if you don’t know much about the city. It is quite unique and unlike other cities, particularly European cities. Here, I’ll guide you through 14 epic sites of Istanbul you must visit that will mesmerise you and leave you in awe of this magnificent city.

The crowded city of Istanbul, Turkey, is home to 16 million people, more than some countries, but don’t let that deter you. Istanbul is definitely one of the most fascinating cities you will ever visit, full of historical and architectural monuments, diversity of culture and interesting attractions.

The city is located on a peninsula and thus is bordered and traversed by many waters. On one side is the Sea of Marmara, which leads out to the Aegean Sea then to the Mediterranean Sea. On the other side is the Black Sea. And through the middle of Istanbul there is the Bosphorus River which is 30km long, which has an inlet called the Golden Horn.

What is most unique about the ancient city of Istanbul is that it lies over two continents, thus is known as transcontinentalThis fact alone is one of the main reasons that makes Istanbul unique and unlike any other city I’ve been to.

Many people believe there aren’t any other cities that span two continents, but there are in fact three other cities in the world that are transcontinental and they are, Atyrau in Kazakhstan, Orenburg in Russia, and Magnitogorsk in Russia also. But I digress.

Let’s dive into some of the epic sites of Istanbul right now.

Sultanahmet Mosque

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The Blue Mosque
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Inside The Blue Mosque

The Blue Mosque, officially called Sultan Ahmet Camii Mosque, was built in the Ottoman era, by order of Sultan Ahmet I (first) and named after himself. The Islamic monument was completed in 1618 and was the biggest built at that time. It has 6 minarets, unlike most other mosques which have 2 or 4 minarets. It is quite an imposing structure in the centre plaza of the city called Sultanahmet Square and popular with tourists.

The reason it is referred to as the Blue Mosque is simply because of the blue tiles which adorn its interior. Over 20,000 blue and white floral-shaped tiles decorate the inside of the dome and walls.

The Blue Mosque is included in the Historic Areas of Istanbul UNESCO World Heritage site.

The mosque is open everyday, but you can only enter when prayer times are not in session.

Entry is FREE for everyone.

The mosque is certainly worth visiting, but be sure to cover your head if you’re a female. Remove shoes also (can be carried in a bag inside).

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Hagia Sofia Grand Mosque

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Inside Hagia Sofia

Hagia Sophia, also known as Ayasofya, has a very fascinating history. This epic site of Istanbul was originally built as a Christian Basilica, called the Holy Wisdom Church, constructed in 537 AD, by the Eastern Roman Empire. Then in 1261 it became Orthodox, and then in 1433 it was converted from being a Christian place of worship to a Mosque by the Ottomans. Minarets were added and many other changes made. 

Fast forward to 1935, when it stopped functioning as a Mosque and was turned into a Museum, which pleased the people, because it was a place to bring all faiths together. Then, the current President reverted it back to a Mosque in 2020 under much controversy.

Some of the heritage of the building has been preserved. You can see Christian mosaics of Jesus, Mother Mary and angels on the walls.

Every Sultan that came to power added more features to enhance the Mosque – minarets, fountains, rooms, library.

Five Ottoman Sultans and their families are buried here.

It used to be Turkey’s most visited tourist attraction as of 2019, and is also part of the UNESCO Site of Istanbul.

It is open everyday for everyone to visit, but not during prayer times.

Non-muslims are not allowed on the ground floor where prayers are held.

Entry to this Mosque requires you to purchase a ticket.

Females must wear a head scarf. Shoes are to be removed (you can carry them in a bag).

Even though these rules need to be adhered to, it is one of the epic sites of Istanbul worth seeing.  

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Christian motifs inside Hagia Sophia Mosque
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Topkapi Palace Museum

The former residence of the Ottoman Sultans is called The Topkapi Palace. It is now a museum and one of the most epic sites of Istanbul, not to be missed.

Topkapi Palace housed all the Ottoman Sultans and their families from 1465 through to 1856. It covers an area of 350,000 square metres and is a blend of Ottoman and European architecture. The extensive gardens and courtyards are beautifully manicured.  

Valuable art and artefacts are housed here from the Ottoman dynasty, as well as weapons, shields, jewellery, clothing and more.

The most precious item at Topkapi Palace is the 86 carat Spoonmaker’s Diamond, a clear pear shaped diamond which is believed to be the third largest in the world, The jewel forms part of the Turkish Crown Jewels, but no one knows exactly where it came from originally, or how it came to be here in Istanbul. There are a number of rumours, maybe from India, perhaps from Napoleon.

The Palace is a UNESCO site and not to to be missed. Definitely one of the epic sites of Istanbul.

You must purchase a ticket to enter the various buildings and the courtyards.

The Palace is closed on Tuesdays.

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Entrance of Topkapi Palace
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Exterior of Audience Chamber of Topkapi Palace
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Inner courtyard of Topkapi Palace
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The golden throne of the Ottoman Sultan Murad III
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Inside Audience Chamber of Topkapi Palace
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Basilica Cistern

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Located under the Hagia Sophia Mosque, this ancient Basilica Cistern is a large underground water holding facility built by the Romans during the Byzantine Empire in the 6th century. Its purpose was to store water for the city. This engineering marvel, of nearly 10,000 square meters in size, was able to hold 80,000 cubic meters of water. Its 336 columns hold up a huge vaulted roof.

It is like a mysterious underground world or a subterranean palace, some call it. You can explore the eerie, dim lit cistern with colourful lighting display, whilst perusing the art sculptures from Turkish and foreign artists installed here. These figures appear to be rising up from the water, as some water is still stored here. There are walking platforms so you don’t get your feet wet.

Many other ancient underground cisterns exist under Istanbul, but this is the largest and most impressive.

Open everyday.

You must purchase a ticket to gain entry.

Don’t miss this attraction, as it is definitely one of the most epic sites of Istanbul. I was hesitant to go at first, but this turned out to be one of my favourite places in the city.

 

Grand Bazaar

Who doesn’t love a good market! There are certainly plenty to visit in Istanbul.

The Grand Bazaar in the Fatih district in Istanbul is regarded as one of the most famous markets in the world, as well as the largest and the oldest historical market in the world, in operation since 1455.

It had been established as the commercial centre of the empire for many centuries, and was renowned for the best quality goods.

This epic site of Istanbul is like a city in itself, with a whopping 4,000 shops, and  61 covered streets.

Jewellery is the specialty here, with more gold and silver than I have ever seen. Everything else you can think of is pretty much sold here as well, clothing, leather goods, carpets, lamps, ceramics, art, antiques, spices, tea, coffee, sweets, souvenirs and a whole lot  more. Don’t miss it.

Beware, you will probably get lost because it is like a maze and all the streets look very similar. Shops are grouped so that those selling the same things are together. I only stayed an hour in one section, because I was worried I wouldn’t find my way out.

Open everyday, except Sunday.

Entry is FREE.

 

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Gate of the Grand Bazaar
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Inside the Grand Bazaar

Egyptian Bazaar

Located in the Fatih district, traditionally it was a spice market, but now sells other things too, such as sweets, dried foods, nuts, jewellery, souvenirs and more. It is still a popular place for buying spices.

Nowhere near as big as the Grand Bazaar but certainly worth wandering the lanes and exploring the colourful and fragrant stores.

Open everyday.

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Bosphorus Strait

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The Bosphorus Strait is a 31 km long waterway that connects the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara, and forms a natural divide between the 2 continents of Europe and Asia.

People enjoy various activities along the Strait. But most importantly, it has always been one of the gateways to the Mediterranean Sea. 

Tourists love to experience a cruise along the Strait, which I chose to do also. I had a lovely lunch served, with live music, whilst enjoying the scenic views of the epic sites of Istanbul in between both continents. A real highlight I recommend you experience for yourself. Make sure to book online in advance.

Or you can take a Ferry from one side to the other, crossing from Europe to Asia or vice versa. It takes about 2 hours one way including stops. There are several piers on both sides to board the Ferry. You can buy tickets from the yellow vending machines you’ll see around.

Gülhane Park

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This historical park located in the city centre used to be part of Topkapi Palace, and has fountains, statues and 500 year old trees. The vast gardens are a popular place for walks and relaxing.

Gülhane Park also hosts part of the Annual Tulip Festival in Istanbul in April. I happened to be here at the right time to enjoy this gorgeous spectacle of brightly coloured blooms. 

The tulip is a traditional symbol of Turkey which began being cultivated during the Ottoman Empire. Tulips were later introduced to Europe and sent to the Netherlands and other countries.

Something like 20 million tulips bloom throughout the city each year for the festival in various parks and gardens. The festival usually coincides with Ramadan so it does get quite busy in the parks.

It is a truly magnificent sight to behold with a sea of different coloured tulips on display, making it quite an epic site of Istanbul.

The park is FREE to visit.

 

Galata Tower

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epic site of Istanbul

Located in the Galata district, the Galata Tower is a historical landmark built by Genoese traders (Italian mariners) in 1349 as a watchtower and a fortification for their walled colony. The Galata Tower once functioned as a jail as well.

Now it’s a museum, and you can climb to the top of the tower for lovely views of Istanbul. 

Open everyday.

Entry ticket required.

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Bridges

The Bosphorus Bridge was the first bridge, built in 1973, to connect two continents and it was hugely anticipated. The Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge was the second to be built which also crosses the Strait from Europe to Asia. Both are suspension bridges.
 
The Galata Bridge spans the Golden Horn, inlet off the Strait, and is a must-visit, as its the ideal place to view the city and often gets very busy with fishermen and pedestrians. You can take in sights of some of the many mosques towering over the skyline, as you watch boats and ferries pass by.
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Galata Bridge - fisherman are here all day, everyday
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View of Yeni Cami Mosque from Galata Bridge

Galataport

Istanbul has always had one of the largest ports in the region, servicing the shipping industry all around the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. Turkey’s largest port now boasts a brand new and impressive port, recently opened in 2021, and it’s enormous.

Called Galataport, it is the world’s first underground cruise port. This was our first port of call arriving to Istanbul on a ship and we were impressed by the modern welcome to the city, a port to rival any in the world.

The complex incorporates a huge upmarket entertainment and retail sector and there is a feast of restaurants to explore, plus a hotel and the Istanbul Modern Art Museum is also located here.

You’ll find open squares for people to hang out and in the evening we saw the whole port come to life with people socialising and enjoying the facilities, music, and shops.

Underground it’s another world that hides the ship terminal, immigration, customs, baggage, tour buses and hustle and bustle of a large port. In fact if there are no ships docked, it doesn’t look like a port.

The underground port terminal was inspired by the ancient cisterns below ground that are part of Istanbul’s ancient history. 

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View of port complex from ship
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Port - round sculpture by Ahmet Güneştekin, Kurdish artist

Coastal Promenade

A picturesque part of the city, newly built at the Port, very modern and contrasts with the historical sites of Istanbul.

Here you can take a leisurely stroll along the waterfront promenade and stop for a meal, whilst enjoying the views of the Bosphorus Strait and the city. An amazing spot to take in the many Mosques of Istanbul that are visible on the skyline.

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Views of the city and the Bosphorus
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New restaurants and cafes

Dolmabahçe Palace

Dolmabahçe Palace is another of the epic sites of Istanbul, built in mid 1800s by the Sultan Abdülmecid I as his residence when Topkapi Palace was no longer comfortable enough for him and his family.

Located on the banks of the Bosphorus Strait, it has been home to 6 Sultans in total over the years.

It also served as the Presidential Palace for Kemal Atatürk, the founding father of the Republic of Turkey, until 1938 when he died here.

It’s the biggest and most lavish palace in the country, and is of Ottoman and European architectural style, with 285 rooms, and decorated in crystals and gold throughout. One of the largest chandeliers you will ever see is hanging in the Ceremonial Hall.

It also houses a vast collection of carpets, porcelain and paintings from Turkish and western artists.

Now, this grandiose palace is a popular Museum for all to witness the majestic lifestyle of the Ottoman royalty during the peak of their reign. However, the huge cost of building this monument burdened the government at the time and fuelled the decline of the Ottoman Empire.

Unfortunately, no photography is allowed inside.

Tickets are required for entry.

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Palace view from main road
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View of the palace from the Bosphorus Strait
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Inside Dolmabahçe Palace
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Sultanahmet Square

Located smack in the middle of some of the most epic sites of Istanbul is this huge square where people congregate and hang out. Named after Sultan Ahmet I, after he built the Mosque in his name.

Sultanahmet Square is the open-air, Roman Hippodrome of Constantinople which for centuries was the site of chariot races and the centre of Byzantine social life.

Today it is still a place for gathering, socialising, visiting cafes and the many famous monuments and Mosques surrounding the square. Tourists spend much of their time here, as I did.

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Sultanahmet Square
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Sultanahmet Park
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German fountain commemorating WWI allies, at Sultanahmet Square
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Ancient Egyptian Obelisk in Sultanahmet Square

Please share Epic Sites of Istanbul

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7 thoughts on “14 Epic Sites Of Istanbul You Must Visit

  1. Lucia says:

    Istanbul has always been on my bucket list for some time and now that I need to fix my teeth, I think Turkey is the best place given costs in Italy are quite high, so I’ll be going to Istanbul for both my teeth and to explore as well. What a list you gave, thanks!

  2. Maddie says:

    Turkey had such fascinating architecture and history. I am truly dying to go and this made me want to go even more!! Thank you for all this info, great stuff.

  3. Jane says:

    The architecture of Istanbul amazes me. I also think visiting the cistern would be so fun, that would be my top pick from this list.

  4. Anja says:

    I love Istanbul, one of the most rewarding and exciting cities to visit! You have a good collection of sites to visit here, bearing in mind it’s a huge city, you need at least three or four days to get a good idea of the city.

    Also, if you have a stopover in Istanbul Turkish Airlines is pretty good with free tours, sometimes even free hotels, just for a taste of the city.

  5. Melinda says:

    I am hoping to get to Istanbul in a few years and this list is making me even more excited. The underground port sounds so cool! Want to go!

  6. Kay says:

    I’ve wanted to go to Istanbul for so long and this post is giving me such fomo!! I can’t wait to finally visit, I want to see all of these sites in person!

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