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Consecrated as a Byzantine basilica in 537, converted to an Ottoman mosque in 1453 and operating as a secular museum since 1935, the Hagia Sophia is deemed one of a handful of the world’s most magnificent buildings—having, in fact, topped that list for its first 1,000 years. Commissioned by Roman Emperor Justinian, whose ambition for architectural grandeur is history’s good fortune, the 6th Century landmark is famous for its enormous copper dome (a bit smaller than that of the Pantheon), almost 18 stories high, and four towering minarets, acquired in its mosque transformation some nine centuries after it was built. The interior galleries are bedecked with mosaics, frescoes, marble pillars and more. And above the nave, the underside of the dome is completely sheathed in gold tiles that twinkle like stars in the light play from the 40 windows encircling its base.
On the most prominent hilltop in Istanbul, overlooking the historic Sultanahmet Area, sits this 16th Century masterpiece—an elegant fusion of Islamic and Byzantine architecture, and one of the city’s most beloved landmarks. Commissioned by Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent and designed by the prolific architect, Sinan (who the New York Times called, “Turkey’s first “starchitect”), the mosque is modeled on the Hagia Sophia but surpasses that 6th Century beauty with its dome construction and engineering feats centuries ahead of their time. And while the mosque cuts a commanding and dramatic profile, its interior is a study in understatement. Using pastel shades and stained glass, Sinan created a tranquil place for worship. Outside in the garden, an Ottoman cemetery houses two striking and richly detailed domed mausoleums—a fitting final resting place for the sultan who presided over the Golden Age of the Ottoman Empire and his wife.
One of the more unique architectural attractions in the Old City, this underground cistern was commissioned by Emperor Justinian as a water storage-and-filtration system for supplying the royal residence. Constructed with a maze of aqueducts connected to a water source 12 miles away, the enormous space was designed to store up to 100,000 tons of water, making this 6th Century cistern a remarkable tribute to the engineering know-how of the Roman Empire, even in its waning years. Almost as remarkable, especially for a utilitarian facility, the cistern is majestically appointed with vaulted brick ceilings and 336 marble columns (hence, its nickname, the Sunken Palace). Restored in the late-1980s after centuries of neglect, the now relatively water-free subterranean cistern is open to the public—and one of the coolest places to visit (literally, in the summer).
With its cascading domes and sky-scraping minarets, the dramatic Sultanahmet Mosque is one of the most iconic sights of the Istanbul skyline. Better known as the Blue Mosque for the predominant cast of its interior tile work, it was built in the early-17th Century by order of Sultan Ahmet, who was so preoccupied with being remembered favorably that he wanted his namesake mosque (and legacy) to eclipse the architectural spectacle of the Hagia Sophia. For its design, he chose Mehmet Aga, a then relatively unknown who was a student of Sinan, the Ottoman Empire’s most celebrated architect. And Aga did not disappoint. Rivaling the mosque’s exterior appearance, the vaulted ceiling and walls of the interiors are covered in some 20,000 hand-painted blue Iznik tiles (precursor of the popular Iznik pottery), trimmed with 260 windows arranged in circular patterns and curves, creating one of the brightest and most captivating visions around.
Originally built in the 5th Century as part of a monastery, this seemingly modest brick building is, in fact, keeper of some of the most incredibly detailed and best-preserved examples of Byzantine religious art in the world. Much of the original church was destroyed in an earthquake, and most of what stands today dates to the 11th Century (with a few subsequent facelifts). Its interiors were restored in the early-14th Century, covered almost entirely with the most phenomenal collection of mosaics and frescoes (worth packing binoculars for). Some 50 mosaic panels, intricately and exquisitely detailed, depict scenes from the New Testament, including the Genealogy of Christ. When the church was converted to a mosque in the 16th Century, the artwork was covered in plaster, unwittingly protecting it for centuries, until archaeologists discovered the riches during WWII, and the church-turned-mosque opened as a museum in 1947. Take the stairs at the right of the entrance to the gallery for a wonderful unobstructed view of the space.
Think The Arabian Nights meets over-the-top Las Vegas, and that still won’t capture the wild opulence and sheer size of this palace complex. Built by order of Mehmet the Conqueror in the 15th Century, Topkapi Palace served as the court of the Ottoman Empire for nearly 500 years. Home to the ruling sultans and their families and harems, the palace was expanded over time with each ruler adding his own buildings and courtyards, contributing to the complex’s unique architectural fabric. In every case, however, the interiors were all fantastically decorated and lavishly bejeweled, as if it were a competition of extravagance. Of the many highlights, do not miss: the Rococo, four-sided Ahmet III Fountain, just before the Imperial Gate; 16th Century Kitchen Complex and 10,000-piece Chinese Porcelain Collection; sprawling Harem wing (requires a dedicated ticket); Sacred Safekeeping Room, featuring an incredible array of relics of the Prophet Mohammed; and the Imperial Treasury, where you will see more and bigger bling in minutes than you thought humanly possible, including the 86-carat Spoonmaker’s Diamond.
This small (by Turkish standards) 16th Century mosque, designed by the renowned architect Sinan, is famous for its fantastic and fantastically well-preserved Iznik tiles—those vibrant hand-painted ceramic tiles long synonymous with ancient Turkey. Honoring the Grand Vizier (the Ottoman Empire’s version of prime minister), a son-in-law of Suleyman the Magnificent and married to the sultan’s favorite daughter, the mosque’s facade and courtyard walls are punctuated with the intricately detailed tiles, but it’s the wall-to-wall ceramic panels of floral and abstract patterns inside the mosque that will totally wow you.
Located on the north shore of the Golden Horn in an historic shipyard, the Rahmi Koc Industrial Museum offers an impressive look at Turkey’s industrial past. Featuring everything (truly!) from full-size antique airplanes to vintage model trains, and famous for a collection of classic automobiles to make car buffs swoon, the museum opened in 1994 with the vast private collection of Turkish industrial magnate and philanthropist Rahmi Koc. If visiting in the summer, don’t miss the museum’s Golden Horn cruise aboard a fully restored 1936 tugboat.
Istanbul’s most important Islamic shrine and, in fact, the fourth most sacred site in the world for Muslims (after Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem), this mosque marks the burial place of Eyüp el-Ensari (called Eyüp Sultan by the Turks), a follower and close friend of the Prophet Mohammed. The current complex was completed in 1800, replacing the original built in the 15th Century on what is believed to be the site of Eyüp Sultan’s grave, but destroyed in an earthquake some 300 years later. The mausoleum, situated on the north side of the courtyard, is decorated with panels of lovely Iznik tiles (hand-painted ceramics dating to the 16th Century). Inside, the mausoleum is always crowded with worshippers at the tomb as well as at the glass container housing a footprint presumed to belong to Mohammed.
Considered something of a precursor to the esteemed and beautiful Hagia Sophia, the mosque known as Kucuk Ayasofya Camii (or, Little Hagia Sophia) started out as the Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus in the first quarter of the 6th Century. Commissioned by Emperor Justinian, it was an experiment in early-Byzantine architecture, featuring a large central dome supported by an octagonal base—a style perfected, enlarged and greatly embellished a decade later with the Hagia Sophia. The church was converted to a mosque in the 16th Century, resulting in nothing remaining of the original religious décor. It still retains a wonderful two-story colonnade running along the interior’s north, west and south sides. The columns alternate red marble and verde antique, a dark green variegated stone. Look closely to see monograms of the emperor and his wife, Theodora—still visible on many of the carved capitals.
It takes a trio of museums to exhibit the volume of recovered artifacts and ephemera from Istanbul’s past, which is not only lengthy (some 2,500 years, give or take a century) but rare, having served as the capital city for all three great Western empires. Each housed in its own building situated on a complex near Topkapi’s First Court, they comprise: the Archaeological Museum, the main section, located in a large Neoclassical building, famous for its classical statuary, ancient sarcophagi and an excellent exhibit tracing Istanbul’s history (which doubles as a great crash course for anyone lacking an encyclopedic knowledge of the region); the Ancient Orient Museum, showcasing collections from pre-Greek Anatolia and Mesopotamia and from pre-Islamic Egypt and the Arabian Peninsula, presented in a user-friendly chronological order; and the Tiled Kiosk Museum (formerly, the Museum of Islamic Art), occupying the 15th Century pavilion, one of the oldest examples of Ottoman civil architecture in Istanbul, and featuring about 2,000 pieces of pottery and slip-cast ceramics from the Seljuk and Ottoman eras, dating from the late-12th to the early-20th centuries. Wish for rain, so you can spend the day.
It’s worth a side trip to the tony suburb of Emirgan to see this jewel of an art museum located in the elegant 1920s Italianate villa, Atli Köşk (Pavilion of the Horses). The former home of prominent Turkish magnate Sakip Sabanci and his family, the museum showcases the Sabanci’s private collection of Ottoman Turkish paintings and an exquisite selection of Arabic calligraphy, spanning some 500 years and featuring rare manuscripts of the Qur’an. On the property, an annex hosts temporary exhibits, often of European masters, such as a recent Picasso retrospective that drew rave reviews. Gracing the beautifully landscaped gardens overlooking the Bosphorus are a pair of life-size bronze horses, a nod to the villa’s name. The museum is also home to Müzedechanga, one of Istanbul’s best restaurants serving Turkish-fusion cuisine.
Showcasing works of noted contemporary Turkish artists, Istanbul Modern, as it’s called, is a world-class art museum located in a huge warehouse right on the Bosphorus. Bright and airy, the museum features its permanent collection dedicated to 20th Century Turkish painters on the main floor with changing exhibits on the floor below. The museum’s sleek and stylish restaurant has a waterside terrace offering stunning views of the Old City and its breathtaking architecture.
Intended as a kind of Topkapi 2.0, the opulent Dolmabahce Palace became the new Imperial manor in 1856. A museum today, accessible only by ticketed reservation, the new Palace complex was built by order of Sultan Abdulmecid and is just as opulent as its predecessor but with a decided bent toward the ostentatious residences of European royals. (Palace of Versailles, anyone?) This departure from the fantastic Arabian-Oriental styling was Abdulmecid’s effort to present a modern and worldly image of his declining empire. It didn’t work (the Ottoman Empire was dissolved some 60 years later), but it did leave to history a dazzling architectural treasure, unique in its Neoclassical-Turkish Renaissance design with fanciful frescoes on the ceilings and interiors generally dripping with elements of Rococo, Baroque and Ottoman pomp. The tremendous crystal chandeliers alone would have made Louis VX cry. If pressed for time, stick to the main (Selamlik) section.
This large and wonderful park along the Golden Horn coast is like a Turkey-centric Disney World, showcasing over 120 scale models of the country’s most famous architectural attractions. Opened in 2003, the 650-square-foot outdoor space divides the building displays into three groups: Istanbul, the rest of Turkey and elsewhere in the former Ottoman Empire. The Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem? Here. Hagia Sophia? Blue Mosque? Topkapi Palace? Here, here and here. Quite a stunning way to interest kids in history and architecture.
Originally the Imperial outer garden of Topkapi Palace, Gülhane is Istanbul’s oldest and most expansive park, and a welcome respite within the modern metropolis. Located on the hillside below the Palace, it offers meandering walking paths, lots of noteworthy sculptures and statues, extraordinary views over the Golden Horn and Sea of Marmara and expansive greens where the locals can be found picnicking on weekends.
The square in front of the Spice Market features the Yeni Camii (meaning, New Mosque), one of the favorites of the Istanbul skyline, situated at the southern end of the Galata Bridge. Ordered built by Sultana Safiye in honor of her husband, Sultan Murad III, in 1597—so really only “new” by Istanbul standards—the mosque took more than half a century to build, due mostly to political interference. The design of this working mosque flatters both the Blue and Suleymaniye mosques, featuring a series of semi-domes ascending to one grand dome, and punctuated with two soaring and spindly minarets. The interior is really worth the visit: adorned with gold leaf, it’s decorated with hand-painted Iznik tiles and beautifully carved marble.
Created by the Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk, one of Turkey’s most famous and beloved authors, this impressive space is less a traditional museum and more a novel come to life. Based on the theme of Pamuk’s book of the same name—about Istanbul’s cultural change and challenges during the last decades of the 20th Century—the displays feature collected and commissioned works of art, plus pop-culture touchstones, that relate to and help illustrate each of the novel’s chapters.
Yet another wonderful piece of work from the esteemed 16th Century Ottoman architect Sinan—and another of Istanbul’s prominent landmarks—this mosque was ordered by Suleyman the Magnificent for his daughter, Mihrimah, in honor of her marriage in 1565. Located in the Edirnekapi neighborhood on a hill near the highest point in the city, this mosque is not to be confused with the mosque of the same name built a decade earlier in the Uskidar neighborhood, also by Sinan and also commissioned by Sultan Suleyman. (Legend has it, Mihrimah was daddy’s favorite.) Designed as a cube topped with an exceptionally high dome, the mosque, which is still in use, has windowed half-moons on all four sides, some with pastel-colored stained glass. A band of windows around the dome’s base contributes to a light-filled interior, even on overcast days. And the singular minaret is said to speak to Mihrimah’s uniqueness.
Arguably Istanbul’s most iconic Medieval landmark, the nine-story cone-capped Galata Tower was built in 1348 as the tallest structure in the city to be used as an observation site. At 54 feet, it’s no longer Istanbul’s tallest but this Romanesque-style tower still commands a presence, dominating the skyline north of the Golden Horn. Now equipped with a real observation deck, the tower’s upper balcony offers panoramic views of the city and the Bosphorus. But before taking the lift to the top for aerial views, take in the views of this timeworn stone tower from street level.
This cupola-crowned Byzantine tower, now a lighthouse with a café and restaurant on the ground floor, stands on a small islet at the southern entrance of the Bosphorus, just 220 yards from shore. Built in 1110, Maiden’s Tower has a long history of obliteration (fires, earthquakes, you name it) and has been reconstructed many times in its 900 years, with its most recent restoration in 1998 for the James Bond movie, The World Is Not Enough. And that wasn’t this Maiden’s only Bond cameo: It makes a brief appearance in the 1963 classic, From Russia with Love. Private boats travel to and from the Tower several times a day.
The picturesque Emirgan Park has a long and storied history, with many of its magnificent Cedar trees dating back to Byzantine times. Opening as a public park in the 1940s, it occupies 117 acres on a hillside and features ponds, waterfalls, three Swiss chalet-style pavilions, jungle gyms and plenty of places to picnic. There’s no shortage of jogging trails either, which may be redundant since there’s an impressive ascent just to get to the entrance gate, and once inside the hills don’t stop. Since 2005, Emirgan Park has been the site of the international tulip festival every April, and the only thing for which it might be more famous is as a backdrop for wedding portraits.
A visit to Istanbul’s world-famous Grand Bazaar in the heart of the Old City can feel a bit like time traveling back to the Middle Ages. Though some (many?) of its stalls have been given over to souvenir shops, the overall scene of the Bazaar—with 4,000-odd shops crammed into so many maze-like aisles, punctuated with boisterous, beckoning vendors—doesn’t look (or smell) so different from its heyday more than 500 years ago. Loud, wildly colorful, fragrant from teas, incense and more, the Bazaar has everything you could imagine. For the best of the wares, look for gold jewelry (the real thing), ceramics in gorgeous colors and patterns, stunning textiles, Turkish carpets and leather anything. Bargaining encouraged.
Built by Sultan Mehmet II in 1452, a year before his taking of Constantinople (the ancient name for Istanbul) and a few years before he gained the moniker, “the Conquerer,” the Rumeli Fortress, or Hisari, stands at the narrowest part of the Bosphorus on the European shore directly opposite the smaller Anadolu Hisari on the Asian side. Rumeli’s life as a military fortress was short-lived, since Mehmet’s armies captured the Byzantine capital only months later, and it went on to have many other identities—including toll booth, barracks, military prison and since 1960 a museum and open-air theatre.
The equivalent of the Vatican for Catholics, the Patriarchate is HQ for the followers of Greek Orthodoxy, worldwide. Since the mid-15th Century, shortly after Mehmet II took Constantinople, Istanbul has been the seat of the Patriarch. Prior to the Ottoman conquest, the majestic Hagia Sophia, still a basilica then, was the Patriarchate; not until the early 1600s, nearly 200 years later, did this humble complex take over as the permanent seat. You’ll notice three gates at the entrance. The one on the left leads to the courtyard of the Church of St. George, where Mass is still held daily.
Dedicated to Turkish Orientalism in 19th Century art, the Pera Museum is housed in the former Hotel Bristol, an elegant late-19th Century building designed by the architect Achille Manoussos. The hotel was renovated between 2003 and 2005, with its interior transformed into a modern-day museum. If you’re on a tight schedule, go straight to the second floor for the museum’s world-renowned paintings—some 300 works from the 17th to 19th centuries depicting everyday and royal lives of the Ottoman times. Perhaps the most beloved piece in the collection is The Tortoise Trainer by Turkish artist Osman Handi Bey. Elsewhere in the museum, a permanent exhibit of Kutahya tiles and ceramics from the 18th to 20th centuries shows their exquisite artisanship.
Considered the biggest thematic aquarium in the world, The Istanbul Aquarium Florya opened in June 2011 with all the state-of-the-art advances, bells and whistles. Over 15,000 sea and land creatures (more than 1,500 species) fill the aquarium’s 64 tanks. But what sets this aquatic museum apart is its brilliant organization: categorized into 16 far-flung geographical locations, including the Black Sea, The Dardanelles, the Aegean Sea, Straits of Gibraltar, Pacific Ocean and the Rain Forest. Touchscreens provide thoughtful information in both Turkish and English.
Situated on one of the seven hills in Istanbul, a hop-skip from the entrance to the Grand Bazaar, the large and lovely Nuruosmaniye is an 18th Century mosque and just an exquisite example of Ottoman-Baroque style with subtle influences of Hagia Sophia in its broad and high dome. Commissioned in 1748 by Sultan Mahmut and designed by architects Mustafa Aga and Simeon Kalfa, the mosque was completed seven years later by Sultan Osman III, brother and successor to Mahmut, who died just years after the mosque was started. With myriad windows topped by Roman arches, the mosque is distinctive for its use of windows as interior design. With a name meaning, “the light of Osman,” obviously after the Sultan, it could just as easily been a reference to the mosque’s light-flooded hall.
In a world where size matters, Cevahir is the largest shopping mall in Europe and the second largest in the world. Now in its 10th year, the mall boasts six retail floors with over 340 stores, many of which were the first in Turkey to sell international brands. In keeping with the shopping-as-entertainment theme, the mall can also claim 12 cinemas (several IMAX), a roller coaster, bowling alley, wave pool and concert stage, plus 50 restaurants including exclusive high-end eateries. And because it can, the mall’s 27,000-square-foot glass roof hosts the world’s second largest clock with numerals 10 feet high. Tick-tock, shoppers!
Between the tons (literally!) of intensely colored exotic spices and their wafting fragrant bouquets, it’s impossible to say which of your senses will be more excited here. Constructed in the 1660s and still operating in the same covered marketplace in the New Mosque complex, Istanbul’s Spice Bazaar was probably the largest spice-trading venue in the Medieval world. Today, it’s one of the top stops for international foodies. With close to 100 stalls selling a Turkish rainbow of spices, the market also carries caviar, dried fruit, lokum (Turkish Delight confections in jewel tones) and other exotic edibles. Tips for shopping the Spice Bazaar from Turkish-restaurant owner and blogger, Olga Irez (deliciousistanbul.com/blog): Sample before buying—to know what you like and understand the variations in price for the same spice. Follow the locals for the freshest product. Request vacuum-packing (usually free) to retain freshness till you get home. Pay in Turkish lira for the best rate.
Located on the Euro side of the city, Taksim Square is considered the heart of contemporary Istanbul—and as such is home to the seminal modern-day trappings of Istanbul’s Metro and the country’s first McDonald’s. Closed to traffic, the Square is at the far end of Istiklal Avenue, one of the city's most cosmopolitan streets known for its exclusive shops, galleries, restaurants and pubs. But Taksim Square pays homage to its roots, too, with the Monument of the Republic prominently displayed in the Square's center. The striking carved-marble structure featuring a collection of bronze statues (depicting the Republic’s founders) was inaugurated in 1928 in commemoration of the formation of the Turkish Republic five years earlier. Together with the adjacent Taksim Gezi Park—a manicured green with walking paths, park benches and the occasional decorative fountain—Taksim Square is the go-to venue for the city’s public gatherings, official parades and political demonstrations.