The list of the best places to visit in Istanbul may seem overwhelming at first glance. Since Istanbul was the capital of the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman empires, it has a rich cultural heritage.
In this article, I have shared detailed information about Istanbul’s museums, mosques and churches for history enthusiasts. Afterwards, you can also take a look at the best things to do in Istanbul article that complements what you’ve read here.
Best Places to Visit in Istanbul 2021
The best places to visit in Istanbul include 30 historical sites. In the first headings of the article, you can see the historical places on the European side of Istanbul. However, as you scroll down, you will also see historical buildings and districts on the Asian Side.
As a tourist guide in Istanbul for 17 years, I wanted to briefly share with you what I know. If you know little about Istanbul, I believe that this information will change your perspective on the city. I hope it will be useful to you when making your travel plans.
1. Hagia Sophia
Hagia Sophia is the most interesting structure of Istanbul with its 1500-year history. Built in 537, Hagia Sophia remained the largest temple in the world for 1000 years.
Hagia Sophia is definitely one of the best places to visit in Istanbul and it’s impossible to fit everything about it in one paragraph. However, you can find many detailed articles about Hagia Sophia on the site.
2. Topkapi Palace
Topkapi Palace was built in the 15th century. The palace, which was built after the Ottoman Empire took over Istanbul, hosted 25 sultans. The palace consists of four large courtyards and promises an excellent view of Istanbul.
Topkapi Palace is a large complex and includes the Harem Rooms. Other structures within the walls surrounding the palace are Hagia Irene Museum, Gulhane Park and Istanbul Archaeological Museum. The palace is located in Sultanahmet, the heart of the Historic Peninsula.
3. Blue Mosque
Blue Mosque is a 400-year-old Ottoman mosque and is among the best places to visit in Istanbul. The building, whose original name was Sultan Ahmed Mosque, also gave its name to the Sultanahmet district.
4. Turkish and Islamic Art Museum
Turkish and Islamic Art Museum is located right next to the Blue Mosque and complements the knowledge you have gained in the mosque with the works it has. The museum, which contains important clues about the history of Islam, is definitely worth a visit.
As the name of the museum suggests, there are objects related to Turkish history as well. You can learn about the history of Turks going back to Central Asia at the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts.
One of the most important features of the museum is that it exhibits many Turkish carpets from the Seljuk Empire to the Ottoman Empire. If you want to buy carpets in Istanbul, you can first visit this museum to get some inspiration.
5. Basilica Cistern
Basilica Cistern is a 1500 year old Byzantine cistern. The cistern, which is famous for its ancient columns and Medusa heads, is located in Sultanahmet. The cistern is adjacent to Hagia Sophia and very easy to find.
6. Grand Bazaar
Grand Bazaar is the most famous place to shop in Istanbul. Consisting of 67 streets and over 3000 shops, the Grand Bazaar is within walking distance of the historical monuments in Sultanahmet.
In the Grand Bazaar, you can find Turkish carpets, Iznik tiles, Ottoman patterned clothes, as well as sweet shops selling Turkish delight. Grand Bazaar is one of the best places to visit in Istanbul for shopping enthusiasts.
7. Suleymaniye Mosque
Suleymaniye Mosque is a 450-year-old Ottoman mosque. It was built by Suleiman the Magnificent, the most famous ruler of the Ottoman Empire. The mosque was designed by Sinan, the most important architect of the Ottoman Empire, and is the largest mosque in Istanbul.
Suleymaniye Mosque oversees the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus. Therefore, the sea view from its outer yard is amazing. Both the mosque’s yard and interior were designed in a simple way, but it is huge in terms of its size.
8. Spice Bazaar
Spice Bazaar is actually like a small replica of Grand Bazaar. However, it is a much more picturesque place since it was recently restored. In the Ottoman period, only spices from India were sold here, and this is where the name comes from.
You can find cheap clothing stores in the streets surrounding Spice Bazaar. Especially Mahmutpasha Bazaar is the shopping place of locals. The Eminonu district, where the bazaar is located, is the place where you can find the best street food in Istanbul.
9. Sehzade Mosque
Sehzade Mosque was built for the heir of Suleiman the Magnificent, who died at an early age. Located on Ataturk Boulevard, which divides the Historic Peninsula into two, the mosque is one of the best examples of Ottoman architecture.
You can see many of the Byzantine monuments in Istanbul near the Sehzade Mosque. The Monastery of Christ Pantokrator (Zeyrek Mosque) and the Monastery of the Myrelaion (Bodrum Mosque) from that period are within walking distance of the mosque.
10. Valens Aqueduct
Valens Aqueduct is a 4th-century Roman structure. Thanks to the water transportation system established by the Romans, Byzantium, which had suffered from water shortages for centuries, had water brought from Thrace.
When Constantinople was declared the capital of the Roman Empire, the city’s population increased. Istanbul, the most populous city of late antiquity, needed plenty of water. Water brought by a complex transport system was stored in cisterns.
The Aqueduct is named after a Roman emperor who died fighting the Goths in the Battle of Adrianople. Valens Aquduct is one of the best places to visit in Istanbul for those interested in Roman architecture.
11. Zeyrek Mosque
Zeyrek Mosque is a distinctive building seen in the photographs of the Historic Peninsula taken from the Golden Horn. Originally named Monastery of Christ Pantokrator, this building is actually a Byzantine church.
Consisting of three churches combined, the monastery was the third largest church in Constantinople. Byzantine emperors and families belonging to the Komnenos dynasty were buried under the structure built in the late Byzantine period.
12. Fatih Mosque
Fatih Mosque is one of the first mosques built in Istanbul. Dedicated to Mehmed the Conqueror, the first Ottoman sultan in Istanbul, the mosque is located in the heart of Old Istanbul.
On the site of the mosque was formerly the Church of the Holy Apostles, the first monumental church of Constantinople. Built by Emperor Constantine in the 4th century, this church was the burial place of the Roman and Byzantine emperors.
13. Panorama 1453 Museum
Panorama 1453 Museum has a collection depicting the conquest of Istanbul by the Ottomans. The most distinctive feature of Panorama 1453 Museum is that it has a painting measuring 2350 square meters.
In this gigantic picture depicting the siege of Constantinople we see the famous Byzantine walls, also known as the Theodosian Walls. Built in the 5th century, these walls protected Constantinople from dozens of sieges for 1000 years.
14. Fener and Balat
Fener and Balat have been one of the most popular walking routes in Istanbul in recent years. These districts, which had Greek and Jewish quarters during the Ottoman period, have a cosmopolitan structure.
During the Fener Balat walking tour, you can see historical churches, synagogues and mosques. When you get tired of walking and taking pictures, you can take a break at the boutique coffee shops opened in the neighborhood.
Fener and Balat are among the best places to visit in Istanbul for those who want to go off the tourist route. If you search the “colorful houses of Fener Balat” on Instagram before the trip, you will see that this place is a hidden gem for photography in Istanbul.
15. Chora Church
Chora Church has the most important examples of Byzantine mosaic art. Mosaics from the 14th century are still in very good condition and adorn the walls of the building. There are mosaics depicting the life of Jesus and Mary in the interior and exterior corridors.
Chora Church was converted into a mosque during the Ottoman period and renamed as Kariye Mosque. The building, which remained a museum for about 80 years during the Republican period, became a mosque again in 2020.
Chora Church (aka Kariye Mosque) is one of the best places to visit in Istanbul for those interested in art history. Here you can see the last artifacts of a civilization that no longer exists.
16. Eyup Mosque
Eyup Mosque was built where Abu Ayyub al-Ansari, one of the important companions of Prophet Mohammed, is believed to be buried. The mosque, which was built after the conquest of Istanbul by the Ottomans, is one of the oldest mosques in Istanbul.
Although Eyup Mosque is small in size compared to Ottoman imperial mosques, its architecture is quite impressive. This mosque is considered the holiest mosque in Istanbul due to the importance of the person to whom it is attributed.
17. Pierre Loti Hill
Pierre Loti Hill is named after a French poet who lived in Istanbul during the Ottoman period and was inspired by Istanbul in his works. You can go to Pierre Loti Hill by cable car from Eyup and photograph the view of the Golden Horn.
Golden Horn was the most important part of Istanbul since Ancient Greek times. In the Byzantine and Ottoman periods, the goods coming from the Silk Road were loaded on ships and exported to Europe from this port.
Miniaturk is an open air museum where models of historical places in Turkey are exhibited. This museum, which is especially interesting for children, is located in Sutluce, where the Golden Horn ends.
Miniaturk is a showcase of Seljuk and Ottoman artifacts in Turkey and all surrounding countries. In addition, you can see the reconstruction models of ancient artifacts in Anatolia. Examples of these are the Temple of Artemis (in Ephesus), one of the seven wonders of antiquity, and the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus (in Bodrum).
19. Rahmi Koc Museum
Rahmi Koc Museum is located on the northern wing of the Golden Horn in Haskoy neighborhood. The museum was designed by Rahmi Koc, one of Turkey’s leading businessmen, as Turkey’s first industry museum.
The old radios, train models, car collection and submarine in the museum attract the attention of children. For this reason, Rahmi Koc Museum is among the best places to visit in Istanbul for families with children.
20. Galata Tower
Galata Tower is a late Byzantine structure. However, it was not built by the Byzantines, but by the Genoese, the Italian trade colony in the city. The Genoese, who carried the goods of the Silk Road to Europe, lived in Galata, on the northern shore of the Golden Horn.
The Genoese were a colony with commercial privileges in both the Byzantine and Ottoman periods. During these periods, they made many contributions to Istanbul. Today, you can see many Genoese structures in the Galata neighborhood.
Galata Tower stands out as the most important Latin building in the city. You can watch the magnificent view of Istanbul from the tower, which serves as a museum today. Galata Tower is among the best places to visit in Istanbul for those interested in photography.
21. Istiklal Street
Istiklal Street is a roughly 1.5 kilometer pedestrian road stretching between Taksim Square and Galata Tower. There are Istanbul’s best cafes, cinemas, bookstores and restaurants on the street.
On Istiklal Street, there are museums such as Madame Tussauds Istanbul and historical buildings such as the Church of Saint Anthony of Padua. In addition, there are the best Turkish dessert shops and local Turkish restaurants where Istanbulites go.
22. Dolmabahce Palace
Dolmabahce Palace began to be used by the Ottoman sultans from the 1850s. The palace, which replaced the traditional Topkapi Palace, is located in the most beautiful part of the Bosphorus.
Dolmabahce Palace has a style that blends Baroque and Neo-Classical architecture with Ottoman architecture. The palace is also a symbol of the architectural transformation that Istanbul went through in the 19th century.
Ortakoy is one of the popular districts where Istanbulites go to spend time on the weekend. You can take a photo of the Bosphorus Bridge from Ortakoy Square and visit the historical Ortakoy Mosque.
Ortakoy is also home to The House Cafe, one of the best breakfast places in Istanbul. After breakfast, you can go for a walk from Ortakoy to Bebek, as the people of Istanbul do. Ortakoy is one of the best places to visit in Istanbul to see the city through the eyes of the locals.
Bebek is one of the most beautiful bays of the Bosphorus and means “Baby” in Turkish. You can take great photos and watch the Bosphorus view in Bebek, where Istanbul’s celebrities live.
Bebek is also home to some of the best fish restaurants in Istanbul. After having a great lunch here, you can take a walk to Rumeli Fortress. If you want to extend the route even further, you can walk up to Emirgan Park and visit the Sabanci Museum, one of the coolest museums in the city.
25. Bosphorus Cruise
Bosphorus Cruise will give you general information about the districts and historical monuments of the European and Asian sides of Istanbul. It is not possible to grasp what the city has to offer you without taking a Bosphorus cruise in Istanbul.
You can choose the public ferry or private tour companies to take a trip along the shores of the Bosphorus. You can be sure that you will return from both of them with the most beautiful photos you will take in Istanbul.
Beylerbeyi is one of the most beautiful districts on the Asian side of the Bosphorus. Here you can visit Beylerbeyi Palace, a 19th century Ottoman structure, and eat fish at Villa Bosphorus. (One of the most popular fish restaurants)
Beylerbeyi is also very close to Kuzguncuk, one of the most unique districts of Istanbul. After meal, you can take a walk to Kuzguncuk and visit the most cosmopolitan district from the Ottoman period.
Cengelkoy is a cozy district where many Turkish TV series were shot. You can have breakfast in this district, which is especially popular with Istanbulites, and go for a walk to discover old Istanbul.
At Cengelkoy, you can find the most delicious examples of kokorec, one of Istanbul’s famous street foods. In addition, you can taste traditional Turkish desserts at the famous patisserie Emirgan Sutis.
Uskudar is the most popular tourist destination on the Asian side, along with Kadikoy. On the coast of Uskudar, you can visit Mihrimah Sultan Mosque, an Ottoman structure dating from the 16th century. This is a building dedicated to Sultan Suleiman’s daughter.
Uskudar is one of the oldest districts of Istanbul and is home to one of Istanbul’s famous Turkish restaurants such as “Kanaat Lokantasi”. After eating in Uskudar, you can take a walk to Maiden’s Tower. The Byzantine-era tower is one of the landmarks of Istanbul.
Kadikoy is the most popular district on the Asian side for both tourists and locals. Kadikoy Fish Market is the most important stop of Istanbul food tours. Gourmet tours like “Taste of Two Continents” come here by ferry after visiting Eminonu in Old Istanbul.
Kadikoy also hosts Moda, one of the coolest neighborhoods in Istanbul. After visiting Kadikoy Fish Market, you can walk to Moda via Bahariye Street and enjoy this beautiful walking route.
Kadikoy is one of the best places to visit on the Asian side of Istanbul and your Istanbul trip will be incomplete without visiting this place.
30. Prince Islands
Prince Islands is a great alternative for locals who want to escape the crowd and noise of Istanbul. The most popular of the Prince Islands are Buyukada, Heybeliada and Burgazada. In Prince Islands you can also find some of the best beaches in Istanbul.
Buyukada is home to a historical monument visited by both Christians and Muslims, such as the Church of St. George. Moreover, there are really beautiful streets to take a walk or ride a bicycle on. The architecture of Buyukada is really brilliant and it boasts wide and spacious streets.
Heybeliada, on the other hand, is an island that offers various nice cafés and restaurants and it definitely offers a cool atmosphere. On the top of the island, the Theological School of Halki (Greek Orthodox School) is situated. The school is not in service today, but you can still visit the front yard of the school and watch Heybeliada from the top of the island.
Burgazada is also a fun island where you can also visit the house of a famous Turkish poet Sait Faik Abasiyanik and the house serves as a museum today. Compared to Buyukada, Burgazada is much quieter and you can take lots of photos among the historical houses on its streets.
Best Places to Visit in Istanbul by Serhat Engul