There's a cliche that's often mentioned when people talk about Istanbul; it's described as being a blend of the old and the new, the traditional and the modern, where the East meets the West. Indeed, Istanbul is a city that presents many contradictions, a city that can be bustling and brash yet quiet and serene.
Through thousands of years of history, including both Christian and Islamic empires, Istanbul is an incredible centre of culture, history, and architecture. Literally straddling two continents, Europe and Asia, Istanbul is the kind of city that will amaze and inspire no matter how many times you visit.
Here, then, is a list of the best places to visit on your next holiday to Istanbul.
The Best Places to Visit in Istanbul
Climb to any rooftop terrace in Istanbul and you will probably be able to see the majestic dome and spires of the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, usually referred to as the Blue Mosque. Constructed between 1609 and 1616, this impressive building is a fully functioning mosque that has become popular with tourists of all faiths.
2. Hagia Sophia
Hagia Sophia or Aya Sofya, found next to the Blue Mosque, is another of Istanbul's most famous landmarks, and for good reason. For almost a thousand years, this imposing church was once the largest enclosed space in the world. Built in AD 537, it is considered the quintessential example of Byzantine architecture and is often cited as one of the world's most influential architectural feats. An absolute must-see in Istanbul.
3. Topkapi Palace
Once the political and symbolic hub of the Ottoman Empire, this grand palace was built in the 15th century and remained significant until the mid 19th century. Today, it's a beautiful spot in the centre of Istanbul where you can easily spend half a day wandering and learning a bit more about the Ottoman sultanate.
If you only have a few days to explore Istanbul, consider staying in a hotel in Sultanahmet; this area is home to Topkapi Palace, Hagia Sophia, and The Blue Mosque, so you'll be within short walking distance of all three major tourist sights.
4. The Grand Bazaar
The Grand Bazaar, also found in Sultanahmet, is a maze-like market filled with over 4,000 shops. Trust us, this is not the place to go for some peace and quiet. Instead, you'll find organised chaos! Head here for all of your souvenir shopping needs, including spices, jewellery, lamps, glassware, carpets, sweets, and more. Even if you're not ready to part with your hard-earned Turkish lira, it's worth a quick visit just to marvel at the sheer magnitude of the bazaar itself. Note that haggling for lower prices is expected here, so don't hesitate to do a little friendly bargaining.
The Grand Bazaar is definitely not the only place to do some serious shopping in Istanbul, though... check out our guide to shopping in Istanbul for some more suggestions.
5. The Galata Bridge
Once you've ticked off some of Istanbul's more popular places to visit, it's time to start exploring some more hidden gems of the city. One of these gems is the Galata Bridge, where, at dawn each morning, local fishermen gather to try to catch their day's keep. In the evening, head here to try the food stalls serving fresh fish.
At any time of day, the Galata Bridge offers a gorgeous view of Istanbul and also serves as a great jumping off point to explore the trendy area of Karaköy (the modern name for ancient Galata), where you'll find lots of boutique shops, cafés, restaurants, and Galata hotels. Make sure not to miss the view from Galata Tower, which was built in 1348 and stands tall over Istanbul.
6. Istanbul Modern
While there are many amazing museums and galleries to visit in Istanbul, Istanbul Modern stands out for its contemporary art. Heavily featuring Turkish art and the work of local Istanbulites, this is a fantastic way to experience the new and emerging cultures of Istanbul after soaking up the history of sights such as The Blue Mosque or Topkapi Palace. The museum also offers terrific views over the Bosphorus, so make sure to save at least a few hours to visit.
Prefer a bit more history with your art? Head to Chora Church, sometimes referred to as Kariye Museum, where you'll find some of the city's most exquisitely preserved frescoes and mosaics portraying the life of Christ.
7. Dolmabahçe Palace
Built between 1843 and 1856, Dolmabahçe Palace served as the administrative hub of the Ottoman Empire after Topkapi Palace. With unbelievably impressive architecture and design, as well as immaculate gardens, the palace is a beautiful space to spend a few hours exploring. Definitely a must-visit in Istanbul for any architecture and/or history buffs.
8. Gulhane Park
When you need a little break from the indoor sightseeing, or just want a slice of calm amid the busy city life, head to Gulhane Park. Quiet and serene, this is the perfect place to go for an afternoon walk. Those visiting Istanbul in summer will be able to experience colourful flower beds, but year-round the park offers well-kept grounds, relaxing fountains and seating areas, and even a small café to stop for a tea.
9. Cagaloglu Hamami
One of the ultimate experiences to have in Istanbul is to visit a traditional hamam or spa. Cagaloglu Hamami is one of the best of the best; built in 1741, it offers exceptional service alongside jaw-dropping architecture and a fascinating history. Don't be afraid to take the plunge and try a Turkish bath for yourself... the knowledgable staff will help you out and make you feel right at home. Make sure to check out our list of all the best spas in Istanbul!