Istanbul, the cultural and historical center of Turkey, is an ancient city where East meets West. The former capital of the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires, Istanbul’s transcontinental mystique attracts visitors from all over the world who come to marvel at the art and architecture, relax in the Turkish baths, visit the city’s bazaars and modern shopping centers, enjoy the vibrant nightlife, and eat the local cuisine. Home to Turkey’s largest seaport, Istanbul is a popular port of call for cruise ships carrying almost half a million passengers annually. Its rich and fascinating history makes Istanbul a “must-see” tourist destination.
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Cruising the Bosphorus Strait is great way to see some of the most popular sites in Istanbul, like the Dolmabahçe Palace, Çiragan Palace, and the Rumeli Fortress on the European side, and the Beylerbeyi Palace and waterfront mansions on the Asian side. The cruises also pass under the Bosphorus Bridge, a steel suspension bridge that connects the two continents. Sightseeing cruises of varying lengths depart from morning to night. Many include hop-on hop-off options and some of the evening cruises offer dinner shows as well. Passengers who want to cruise the length of the strait should board at the harbor in Eminönü.
Alemdar Mh., Divan Yolu Cd. No. 34, 34122 Faith/Istanbul, Turkey, Phone: +90-55-47-97-26-46
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2.Ciragan Palace Kempinski Istanbul
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Once an imperial palace, now a five-star hotel, the Çiragan Palace was built during the 19th century and was most recently renovated by the Kempinski hotel group in 2006 using the original color scheme. The hotel has hosted foreign dignitaries and world-famous musicians, actors, designers, and artists in its palatial suites. The luxury rooms and suites offer views of the Bosphorus Strait or Yildiz Park, a forest that was once the hunting grounds of the sultans during the Ottoman Empire. Visitors to the hotel and its award-winning restaurants have the option of arriving by car, yacht, or helicopter.
Ciragan Caddesi 32, 34349, Istanbul, Turkey, Phone: +90-21-23-26-46-46
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Located in the Besiktas district, the Dolmabahçe Palace has been used as a residence by six sultans and the first president of the Republic of Turkey and was an administrative center during the late Ottoman Empire. Hand-woven silk carpets cover the floors and the high ceilings are decorated with gold. One of the world’s largest crystal chandeliers hangs in the Ceremonial Hall, where important state and religious ceremonies were once held. More than 200 paintings from international artists hang on the walls of the palace. Guided tours begin every 10-15 minutes on days when the museum is open.
TBMM Genel Sekreterligi (Milli Saraylar), Dolmabahce Sarayi – Besiktas, Istanbul, Turkey, Phone: +90-21-22-36-90-00
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Also known as the Spice Bazaar, the Misir Çarsisi, or Egyptian Bazaar, is one of the largest bazaars in Istanbul. This popular marketplace has more than 80 shops that offer natural products used in food and medicine as well as souvenirs, jewelry, and textiles. Its two sections are connected by a central square where the shopkeepers can answer the call to prayer. The restaurants in and around the bazaar are popular hangouts for celebrities. The shops are open during regular business hours from Monday to Saturday with the exception of religious holidays, and exclusive shopping experiences can be arranged through the bazaar’s online reservation system.
Misir Carsisi No.92, Eminonu, Faith/Istanbul, Turkey, Phone: +90-21-25-13-65-97
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Though this passageway is no longer dominated by flower shops as it was in the early 20th century, it is still called Çiçek Pasaji, or the Flower Passage. The Istiklal Avenue site was originally home to a theater and opera house, but the original building was damaged by fire in 1870 and later replaced by the current building, Cité de Péra, which houses the L-shaped passageway. The building was restored in 1988 after part of the building collapsed. The covered arcade, with its European-style architecture, is now a foodie hotspot with rows of restaurants, wine bars, and cafés.
Hüseyinaga Mh., Istiklal Caddesi Saitpasa Geçidi 176/6, Beyoglu/Istanbul, Turkey
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This horn-shaped inlet played an important role in the defense of the city and served as a trading harbor for many years before this activity was redirected to a different port on the Sea of Marmara. According to legend, the Golden Horn was given its name for the golden light that shines on the river at sunset. The parks along its shores are the perfect place to see the sun set and enjoy the natural beauty of the area. Boat cruises, bus excursions, and walking tours are available to tourists who want to learn about its significance in the development of Istanbul.
Istanbul Ticaret Odasi Ek Hizmet Binasi Resadiye Cad. No:7 Eminönü, Istanbul Turkey, Phone: +90-21-25-22-55-55
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The Grand Bazaar is one of Istanbul’s most-visited attractions. Sixty-one streets house over 4,000 shops from which goods of all kinds are sold to locals and tourists alike. Not only is it one of the most popular attractions in the world, it is also one of the oldest and largest covered markets, dating back to the 15th century, when trade was an important part of the city’s economic success. Visitors can take the tram to the Beyazit-Kapaliçarsi stop and enter through the gates from 9 am to 7 pm every day except Sundays and bank holidays.
Beyazit Mh., 34126 Fatih/Istanbul, Turkey, Phone: +90-21-25-19-12-48
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Haghia Eirene was built in the 6th century and is one of the few places of worship in Istanbul that was never turned into a mosque. Though it is no longer used as a Greek Orthodox church, its design and construction create the perfect acoustics for classical music concerts, and the Istanbul International Music Festival holds events at Haghia Eirene every summer. The building is open to the public daily (except Tuesdays) for a small entrance fee. Located on the grounds of the Topkapi Palace, visitors can reach the location by train or tram and follow the path to the museum.
Cankurtaran Mh., Topkapi Sarayi 1. Avlu, 34122 Fatih/Istanbul, Turkey, Phone: +90-21-25-12-04-80
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9.Harem of Topkapi Palace
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For a fascinating look into life inside a harem, visitors can take a guided tour of the one at Topkapi Palace. Built as part of the palace complex, the harem housed the sultan and his family as well as the sultan’s concubines, the servants, and the eunuchs who guarded this space. Tourists will have the opportunity to see some of the 300 rooms where the residents of the harem lived and worked. Some parts of the harem are currently being renovated. A chart on the palace’s website gives guests information about which sections they will be able to visit during their tour.
Cankurtaran Mh., Fatih/Istanbul, Turkey, Phone: +90-21-25-12-04-80
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10.Hippodrome of Constantinople
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The Hippodrome of Constantinople was an arena built in the 4th century where up to 100,000 spectators could watch horse and chariot races. The arena also became a place for citizens of all classes to come together and talk about the issues of the day. When Constantinople was destroyed in the Crusades, the hippodrome fell into ruin and was never rebuilt. Today, the site is a public square, the Sultanahmet Meydani, and only a few pieces of the original hippodrome structure remain, but the road around the park follows the course of the old racetrack. A tourist information office can be found on the north end of the park.
Binbirdirek Mh., Sultan Ahmet Parki No:2, Fatih/Istanbul, Turkey
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11.Istanbul Archaeology Museum
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The Istanbul Archeology Museum is on the grounds of the Topkapi Palace and is one of three museums in a complex that houses a collection of antiquities that cover a 5,000-year period! This two-building museum is packed with art and artifacts that tell the story of the city and its heritage. The items on display are labelled in Turkish and English, so visitors can go on a self-guided tour of the museum’s collections. Turkey’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism offers a museum pass on their website that lets you skip the line at the box office and can be used at many of the museums in Istanbul.
Cankurtaran Mh. Fatih/Istanbul, Turkey, Phone: +90-21-25-20-77-41
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12.Istanbul Modern Art Museum
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Not everything in Istanbul is focused on the city’s past. The modern art museum celebrates the city’s present and future with thought-provoking exhibitions, interactive events, and educational activities for adults and children. The facilities include permanent and temporary galleries, programming space, a cinema, an award-winning restaurant, a gift store, and a library with a growing collection of resources on modern and contemporary art. Free guided tours are available on Thursdays and Sundays. The museum sits on the banks of the Bosphorus strait behind the Nusretiye Mosque. Visitors traveling to the museum by bus or tram should exit at the Tophane stop. Read more
Kiliçali Pasa Mahallesi, Meclis-i Mebusan Cad. No:4, Beyoglu/Istanbul, Turkey, Phone: +90-21-23-34-73-00
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Visitors will marvel at the engineering of these subterranean freshwater cisterns dating from the 6th century AD. The largest, the Basilica Cistern, was built during the Byzantine Empire to supply water to the Great Palace of Constantinople and the nearby buildings. The marble columns that support the cistern’s ceiling were recycled from structural ruins and other building projects. The Basilica Cistern was featured in the James Bond film From Russia with Love and the movie Inferno, adapted from the Dan Brown novel of the same name. Tourists can enter the cistern across from St. Sophia after exiting the subway at the Sultanahmet stop.
Alemdar Mh., Yerebatan Cd. 1/3, 34410 Faith/Istanbul, Turkey, Phone: +90-21-25-22-12-59
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Istiklal Caddesi is Istanbul’s answer to the Champs-Élysées. A pedestrian street lined with boutiques, art galleries, bookstores, cafés, nightclubs, and restaurants, Istiklal Caddesi sometimes sees up to three million visitors in one day! Admirers of architecture will enjoy the wide range of design styles from the 19th and early 20th centuries, while history buffs will enjoy learning about the significance of its past. In the ‘50s, the city had a difficult time dealing with a sudden wave of immigration, and the area fell into disrepair. Thanks to a neighborhood beautification project, Istiklal Caddesi is once again the place to see and be seen.
Taksim Square to Galata Tower, Istanbul, Turkey
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The Maiden’s Tower, otherwise called Leander’s Tower, has a storied history. It has served as a watchtower, prison, lighthouse, customs post, quarantine hospital, and radio station. Today, it houses an restaurant with an international menu and a bar with a 360° view of the Bosphorus. A shuttle service ferries diners from the Üsküdar coast to the tower for a traditional Turkish breakfast, a casual lunch, or a romantic dinner with live music. For those interested in learning more about the history and legends of the tower, there is also a small museum that is open during the day.
Salacak Mahallesi, Üsküdar Salacak Mevkii, Üsküdar/Istanbul, Turkey, Phone: +90-21-63-42-47-47
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For an out-of-the-ordinary experience, tourists can visit Miniatürk, a 14-acre miniature park where they will find 122 scale models of historical structures from Turkey’s past. Visitors will be amazed by the details in the craftsmanship. The park is open weekdays year round and on weekends during the summer months. Audio clips provide descriptions of each structure and are available in nine languages. In addition to the replicas, the park has a restaurant, café, gift shop, and playground. Two other small museums, the Museum of Victory and the Istanbul Crystal Museum, share the space as well.
Sütlüce Mahallesi, Imrahor Cd. 7/1, Beyoglu/Istanbul, Turkey, Phone: +90-21-22-22-28-82
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17.Minyatur’s Nautical Instruments
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Collectors of all things nautical will be delighted by the selection at Minyatur’s Nautical Instruments, a shop in the heart of the Grand Bazaar loaded with the tools of seafarers. Visitors can find the shop in the Cevahir Bedesten section of the bazaar among a cluster of antique shops. The knowledgeable owners have curated a remarkable array of antiques and welcome questions from curious visitors to this unique shop.
Beyazit Mh., 34126 Fatih/Istanbul, Turkey, Phone: +90-21-25-19-12-48
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One of the most well-known landmarks in Istanbul, the New Mosque sits on the banks of the Golden Horn near the Galata Bridge. Its many domes and minarets are a notable part of the city’s skyline. Although it is called New Mosque, it was built during the Ottoman Empire and took more than half a century to complete due to political and religious disagreements and funding issues. Despite this, it is richly decorated with mosaic tiles, gold leaf, and marble. The mosque was designed as part of a complex that includes the popular Spice Bazaar and is open daily, except during prayer times, when visitors are prohibited from entering.
Rüstem Pasa Mahallesi, Yeni Cami Cd. No:3, Fatih/Istanbul, Turkey
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19.Obelisk of Theodosius
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Though Istanbul is the current home of the Obelisk of Theodosius, this red granite column once sat near the Temple of Karnak in Luxor and was later moved to Alexandria by way of the Nile. When it arrived in Istanbul (or Constantinople as it was known at the time), it was erected on the grounds of the hippodrome, where it can be seen today, surrounded by artists, musicians, and street performers. The towering obelisk is covered with Egyptian hieroglyphs on its sides that celebrate Pharaoh Thutmose III’s victories in Syria and Greek and has Latin inscriptions on its bas-relief pedestal.
Binbirdirek Mh., Sultanahmet/Fatih/Istanbul, Turkey, Phone: +90-21-25-20-77-40
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20.Orient Express Museum
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Istanbul was once the final destination for wealthy patrons arriving by train from Paris on the famed Orient Express. This small museum in Sirkeci Station pays tribute to a time when train travel was a luxury and the railcars were designed to accommodate discerning passengers who expected comfort and class as they watched the European countryside from their curtained windows. Readers of Agatha Christie can conjure up scenes from Murder on the Orient Express as they view the memorabilia from the train that once served this popular route. Admission is free, and the museum is open Tuesday through Saturday from 9 am to 5 pm.
Hocapasa Mahallesi Ankara Cadddesi, Halil Lütfü 4. Is Merkezi K: 1 No:113,Hoca Pasa, 34110 Fatih/Istanbul, Turkey
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21.Panorama 1453 Museum
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Built on the grounds of Topkapi Cultural Park, this award-winning museum is Turkey’s first panoramic museum. Its awe-inspiring painting takes visitors on a 360° journey through the history of the Siege of Constantinople in 1453 complete with music and sound effects. A team of artists painted more than 10,000 battling figures on the inside of the museum’s dome, which can be seen from a viewing platform that follows the circumference of the room. Multi-language audio guides are available and descriptions of the epic scene are placed throughout the room on plaques that line the viewing platform.
Merkez Efendi Mahallesi, Topkapi Kültür Parki, 34015 Zeytinburnu/Istanbul, Turkey, Phone: +90-21-24-15-14-53
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Sitting atop Istanbul’s highest hill is the Süleymaniye Mosque, the second largest mosque in the city. This grand landmark is part of a larger complex of buildings that once served the religious and cultural needs of the community, including a hospital, schools, public baths, and kitchens that fed the poor. Designed by one of Constantinople’s most famous architects, Mimar Sinan, the mosque and its surrounding buildings took seven years to be completed. Many of the buildings have been repurposed as restaurants that serve a variety of cuisines appealing to locals and tourists alike. The garden behind the mosque offers sweeping views of the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus.
Süleymaniye Mah., Prof. Siddik Sami Onar cad. No:1, 34116 Fatih/Istanbul, Turkey, Phone: +90-21-25-24-64-10
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23.Sultan Ahmed Mosque
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The Sultan Ahmed Mosque is one of the most magnificent buildings in Turkey. Built to reassert the power of the empire after a staggering defeat in the war with Persia, the mosque was controversial because Sultan Ahmet I had to use municipal funds instead of the spoils of war for its construction. Nicknamed the Blue Mosque for the abundance of blue tiles that decorate the interior of the building, this active place of worship is a popular tourist destination. The mosque is closed to non-worshippers for 90 minutes after each call to prayer. Admission to the mosque is free. Things to Do in Turkey
Sultan Ahmet Mahallesi, Atmeydani Cd. No:7, Fatih/Istanbul, Turkey, Phone: +90-21-24-58-44-68
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24.Tombs of the Sultans
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Five sultans and their families lie at rest in individual mausoleums in a small courtyard behind the Hagia Sophia. These ornately decorated structures look like mini-mosques and several were designed by Mimar Sinan, the famed architect responsible for the Blue Mosque. The relatively plain exteriors don’t compare to the colorful interiors, with tiles laid out in elaborate patterns and calligraphy lining the walls. The sarcophagi are out in the open but are shrouded in emerald green cloth to protect the privacy of the families. The courtyard is in the southeastern corner of Hagia Sophia and can be accessed separately.
Sultan Ahmet Mahallesi, Ayasofya Meydani, Fatih/Istanbul,Turkey, Phone: +90-21-25-22-17-50
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Once the former residence of sultans, the Topkapi Palace is now a grand museum where visitors can see clothing and headgear; jewel-encrusted weapons; glassware, porcelain, and silverware; religious relics and illuminated manuscripts; artwork; and other artifacts from the Ottoman Empire. A marble-covered gate leads into the first courtyard, where visitors will find a museum shop that sells guidebooks for self-guided tours. Audio guides are also available. Some sections of the museum are currently being renovated, and a chart on the palace’s website gives guests information about which sections they will be able to visit during their tour.
Cankurtaran Mh., Fatih/Istanbul, Turkey, Phone: +90-21-25-12-04-80
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25 Best Things to Do in Istanbul
- Bosphorus, Photo: Courtesy of teksomolika - Fotolia.com
- Ciragan Palace Kempinski Istanbul, Photo: Courtesy of Sondem - Fotolia.com
- Dolmabahce Palace, Photo: Courtesy of muratart - Fotolia.com
- Egyptian Bazaar, Photo: Courtesy of di_ryan - Fotolia.com
- Flower Passage, Photo: Courtesy of EvrenKalinbacak - Fotolia.com
- Golden Horn, Photo: Courtesy of badahos - Fotolia.com
- Grand Bazaar, Photo: Courtesy of Ewais - Fotolia.com
- Haghia Eirene, Photo: Courtesy of muratart - Fotolia.com
- Harem of Topkapi Palace, Photo: Courtesy of Toniflap - Fotolia.com
- Hippodrome of Constantinople, Photo: Courtesy of Serg Zastavkin - Fotolia.com
- Istanbul Archaeology Museum, Photo: Courtesy of stdemiriz - Fotolia.com
- Istanbul Modern Art Museum, Photo: Courtesy of Can - Fotolia.com
- Basilica Cisterns, Photo: Courtesy of sandsun - Fotolia.com
- Istiklal Caddesi, Photo: Courtesy of Dmitry V. Petrenko - Fotolia.com
- Maiden’s Tower, Photo: Courtesy of lizcoughlan - Fotolia.com
- Miniaturk, Photo: Courtesy of Ewais - Fotolia.com
- Minyatur’s Nautical Instruments, Photo: Courtesy of Aris Suwanmalee - Fotolia.com
- New Mosque, Photo: Courtesy of borisb17 - Fotolia.com
- Obelisk of Theodosius, Photo: Courtesy of Sergii Figurnyi - Fotolia.com
- Orient Express Museum, Photo: Courtesy of dudlajzov - Fotolia.com
- Panorama 1453 Museum, Photo: Courtesy of imagIN photography - Fotolia.com
- Suleymaniye Mosque, Photo: Courtesy of sforzza - Fotolia.com
- Sultan Ahmed Mosque, Photo: Courtesy of monticellllo - Fotolia.com
- Tombs of the Sultans, Photo: Courtesy of hypnocreative - Fotolia.com
- Topkapi Palace, Photo: Courtesy of muratart - Fotolia.com
- Cover Photo: Courtesy of seqoya - Fotolia.com