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Istanbul. There are few places like it in the world. The hilly, sprawling city welcomes visitors with unfamiliar sights and sounds. There are million things to do in Istanbul, so first-time visitors need to be selective. These are our must see places in Istanbul.
Once known as Constantinople, Istanbul is the bridge between Europe and Asia. It straddles the Bosphorus Straits and has been at the crossroads of international trade (and travel) for millennia, including being the capital of the Ottoman Empire. It is one of the world’s most accessible Islamic countries.
First-time visitors should head to the core historical sites. While being both beautiful and important, this whole area is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Many of the top tourist attractions in Istanbul are all located in this relatively compact area.
Top Attractions in Istanbul
The Hagia Sofia
Originally built as a Christian church by Emperor Justinian I in the Constantinople era, Hagia Sofia was converted in 1453 by the invading Sultan Mehmet and the Ottomans. It is one of the most photographed buildings in the world and arguably the most photographed mosque.
The interior of the Hagia Sofia is dominated by the magnificent basilica and nave, accentuated by eight 24-foot wide medallions of Islamic calligraphy. It seems obligatory to take a photo of the medallions. But us, we were fascinated by the winged seraphims (angels in the archways), who’s faces were covered over in gold leaf when the Hagia Sofia became a mosque.
The Column of St. Gregory, also known as “perspiring column,” was a little strange. You stick your thumb in a hole and then turn your palm around. If you do this, your prayers are supposed to be answered. You also should have a large bottle of hand sanitizer, because this was just gross and a breeding ground of germs.
Meanwhile, the mosaics upstairs were incredibly beautiful and perhaps the highlight of Hagia Sofia. Tip: Despite the Lira 20 admission, there are often long lines to get into the Hagia Sofia, so arrive early.
Next to the Hagia Sofia mosque is the Topkapi Palace. Built in the 15th century, the Topkapi Palace was the ruling post for the Ottoman Empire for nearly 400 years. From 1465-1856, nearly 4,000 people claimed the palace as their home as the Ottomans ruled from Europe to Asia. Today, the Topkapi Palace Museum is a monument to Turkey’s importance for centuries.
The Golden Milestone
Over a thousand years ago, this marker was the center of the Byzantine Empire and noted distances to other parts of the Empire.
The Basilica Cistern
Nearby, the Basilica Cistern, was fascinating! Beneath the streets of Istanbul is an underground reservoir with a forest of over 300 columns that are bathed in red light. In the Cistern, visitors walk across raised wooden platforms above the water below. The depth of the water is only a couple of feet, but over the years, fish have populated the cistern, swimming into the red lights. This is one of the fascinating sights in all of Istanbul
The Blue Mosque
Across the Sultanahmet Park is the famed Blue Mosque, named for the blue tiles that adorn the mosque, but is officially known as the Sultan Ahmet Mosque. The mosque was designed by the same architect who designed the Kaaba – the holy site in Mecca. As one of the must see sights in Istanbul, we challenge any visitor not to sit on the floor and admire the amazing blue tile work in the mosque.
Other Istanbul Attractions
Outside of the historic areas, there are few other tourist attractions in Istanbul:
Arguably, one of the top tourist attractions in Istanbul is the Bosphorus Strait. And the best way to experience the Bosphorus is to take a cruise. This stretch of water is the meeting of two continents: Europe and Asia. It is also one of the busiest shipping channels in the world with thousands of vessels crossing these waters every day. There is no better way to understand Istanbul’s importance in the world (historic or contemporary) than taking a Bosphorus cruise.
The Istanbul Culinary Institute
The Istanbul Culinary Institute opened in 2007 as a training ground for young chefs in Turkey. I opted for the six-course tasting menu. The menu featured a Saros Garden cold tomato soup, then the Caprese with Saros garden tomatoes and followed by the Shrimp noodles with seasonable vegetables. It was followed by two mains – a grilled sea bass with white bean stew, tomatoes and herbs, which was followed by a duck trio (duck breast, leg confit and smoked duck).
The whole gluttonous mess was followed by a dessert sampler. As if that wasn’t bad enough, every course had a wine pairing. A meal at the Istanbul Culinary Institute is a unique and flavorful experience, and is the perfect way to experience the Istanbul culinary scene!
This pedestrian only zone is people watching at its finest. One of the top things to do in Istanbul is to stroll along the street, see others, and be seen by them. There’s a lively party atmosphere as everyone takes in the warm nights. There’s really no other way to describe this experience.