Often mistaken for its capital, Istanbul is Turkey’s largest and most famous city. A captivating and magical place for visitors, it sits on the crossroads between East and West - the cultural heart of the country.
The eclectic skyline is a beautiful mix of Byzantine churches, decorated mosques, and Ottoman palaces, where ancient and modern building jostle for attention. The streets are a colorful, musical place of stalls and markets, and locals following their own mix of traditions.
The meeting of the Asian and European sides of Turkey is marked by the Bosphorus strait, the bustling waterway that runs through Istanbul.
No visit to the city is complete without a trip to each of these seven wonders of the city.
Though no longer the tallest building in the city, this circular tower is a dominating presence on the Istanbul skyline north of the Golden Horn. It was built opposite the old town of Constantinopolis in 1348 by the Genoese colony. Later, when the Ottomans took over, it was used to detect fires in the city.
It has been restored and is now open to the public. Visitors can climb the 67 meters (206 feet) to enjoy panoramic vistas of the city from the cafe on top.
One of the most famous and imposing buildings in Istanbul is the Hagia Sophia museum. Hagia Sophia means ‘Divine Wisdom’, and the building was originally an Orthodox church dedicated to holy wisdom. It was the largest cathedral in the world in its day, built by emperor Justinian I between 532 and 537 AD and became the symbol of the Byzantine Empire. It remained an important seat of the Orthodox church for over 1,000 years, despite earthquakes and uprisings.
In 1453, the Ottomans conquered Constantinople (as Istanbul was once known). The sultan at the time, Mehmet II, admired the art in the Hagia Sophia and didn’t want the mosaics to be destroyed, so he ordered that the building be turned into a mosque, and that the walls be plastered over and decorated in Ottoman-style art.
The beautiful building was secularized and turned into a museum in 1935, and the original art and mosaics were uncovered. It is now one of the greatest surviving examples of Byzantine architecture.
The Bosphorus strait is a 46 km (about 25.5 miles) long body of water that stretches through the city, connecting the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara. It is a hugely significant waterway, as it separates east and west Turkey, turning Istanbul, as the largest city on its banks, into a melting pot for both cultures. It is one of the busiest waterways in the world, with ferries going back and forth, as well as commercial tankers and fishing boats. It is also one of the most charming ways to see the city, and a stroll through the waterside neighbourhoods is rich in restaurants, cafes, mosques, and markets, as well as beautiful sunset views over the strait. Ortaköy, with its famous mosque on the water’s edge, is a popular spot to take in the scenery.
At the southern entrance to the Bosphorus is the Kizkulesi (Maiden’s) Tower. It is a stunning piece of architecture in its own right, built on a small islet in the 5th century BC by Athenian general Alcibiades, in order to keep an eye on the waterway and serving as a checkpoint for goods entering and leaving.
Its name comes from a legend. The story goes that the Byzantine emperor heard a prophecy that his daughter would be killed by a snake when she was only 18. To keep her safe, he built her a tower in the middle of the water, and sent her to live there. But a snake got into a fruit basket from the city and the prophecy came true despite his efforts.
The tower was renovated in the late 1990s, and can be seen in the Bond movie The World is Not Enough. Now it also has a restaurant served by a shuttle boat and even holds weddings.
The Golden Horn is a horn-shaped estuary on the European side of Istanbul. It was once an important natural harbour where Byzantine and Ottoman fleet and commercial ships were anchored. Named after the color of the water at sunset, its main attraction is the Eyüp Mosque Complex, the holiest Islamic shrine in the city. It contains the tomb of Abu Ayyub al-Ansari as well as a plaque made of plastic, claimed to be Mohammad's footprint.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
Around the mosque are fascinating Ottoman cemeteries and tombs, with distinctive marble headstones. There are also smaller mosques and a complex of streets and stores, where you can find traditional foodstuffs and handicrafts.
No visit to Istanbul is complete without experiencing the brightness and bustle of the Grand Bazaar. It is one of the oldest covered markets in the world and is still an important place of trade and entertainment, with more than 4,000 shops dotted along 61 streets. You can buy everything from golden bangles, ‘flying’ carpets, textiles, clothes, and leather shoes to earthenware and ceramics, mint tea, strong coffee, pastries and sweets to keep you going on the way round.
Sultanahmet (Sultan’s square)
These days this square serves as a sort of open-air museum, with fragments of original buildings from the Byzantine period still standing. It was once the Constantinople Hippodrome, a social centre for the empire, where sporting events such as chariot racing took place. Surviving artifacts include two obelisks, the ‘German Fountain’ and the Spina — the middle barrier of a racecourse. After the sack of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade, the Hippodrome began to fall out of use and when the Ottomans took the city in the 1450s, they had little use for it, and it was pillaged for its stonework and most valuable pieces.