The call to prayer echoes out across the skyline dominated by minarets and centuries upon centuries of history live on in the streets. Istanbul is a city like no other. Here, east meets west, old meets new, and the modern meets tradition. With a unique position straddling the banks of the glistening Bosphorus – Europe to the west and Asia to the east – a colourful juxtaposition of influences proffers no shortage of sights to behold. Don’t miss these top five things to do in Istanbul.
Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofya)
The worn mosaics and frescoes, the marble pillars and glimmering gold gates inside the Hagia Sophia hold many a story to tell. Originally built as a Christian place of worship, which it remained for over nine centuries, it was the greatest of its time. But after Constantinople fell to the invading Turks in 1453, it was transformed into a mosque for 481 years and in 1935, opened as a museum. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it poses a fascinating fusion of Byzantine and Ottoman influences, with the original Christian mosaics still being uncovered to this day.
Blue Mosque (Sultanahmet Mosque)
One of only a handful of mosques in the world with six minarets, this 17th-century gem is majestic to admire from afar with its imposing grandeur jutting high into Istanbul’s skyline. The grand project of Sultan Ahmet I, it’s widely regarded as the city’s most photogenic building. But step inside and discover the extravagance continues: a visual feast of decorative blue Iznik tiles adorn the walls and cascading dome interiors. A place of prayer, the mosque offers beautiful insight into the daily local ritual.
It lay hidden beneath the streets of Sultanahmet for centuries but today it’s one of the city’s most atmospheric sites, shrouded in shadows and silence bar for the echo of water droplets rippling through the pools. Also known as the ‘Sunken Palace’, it’s the largest surviving Byzantine cistern in all of Istanbul, constructed by the Romans in 532 to provide water to the Great Palace. Coloured lights illuminate the 336 underground Corinthian- and Doric-style columns, many of which were salvaged from ruined temples, with two in particular standing out: decorated with carved Medusa heads.
The heart of the Ottoman Empire, construction of the impressive Topkapi Palace began shortly after the 1453 conquest of Istanbul by Mehmet the Conqueror. For the following 400 years, it was the home of sultans and their harems, as well as beautiful concubines and courtiers, until they moved to the banks of the Bosphorus in the 19th century. A sprawling hilltop complex, it poses a fascinating assembly of 400 lavish rooms scattered around small courtyards, as well as 18th century fountains, art, an armoury and the precious royal jewels.
Colourful and chaotic, this is one of the largest markets in the world and the place to practice those haggling skills. Follow the smell of exotic spices and aromatic incense through the bazaar’s maze of winding alleyways past over 4000 stalls overflowing with Turkish rugs, antiques, ceramic lamps, unique teas and jewellery. Look closer, and you’ll also discover mosques, hamams (Turkish baths) and beautiful fountains. Built in the 15th century, this magnificent stop is equally as enticing simply for the pleasure of people-watching and absorbing the character-filled ambiance.
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