15 Unmissable Attractions in Istanbul

A precious mosaic from the Theotokos Pammakaristos church
A precious mosaic from the Theotokos Pammakaristos church | © G.dallorto / WikiCommons
Photo of Mariam Gabaji
Commissioning Editor3 September 2021

Once the heart of the Ottoman Empire and residing at the convergence of Europe and Asia, Istanbul is rich with history and pristine architecture. No visit to the city is complete without browsing these landmarks.

Get an authentic taste for Istanbul on a guided Old City tour as part of Culture Trip’s specially curated, small-group Turkey adventure, led by our local insider.

Dolmabahçe Palace

Museum
Map View
Turkey, Istanbul, Dolmabahce palace,
JECWTD Turkey, Istanbul, Dolmabahce palace, | © mauritius images GmbH / Alamy Stock Photo

This palace was the gubernatorial heart of the entire Ottoman Empire in the late 1800s; as a result, it’s, unsurprisingly, the most opulent building in Istanbul, occupying an area of 45,000sqm (484,375sqft) with 285 rooms. Today, it houses two museums, meaning it should be your first port of call if you’re interested in the history of Istanbul.

Fatih Mosque

Mosque
Map View
Fatih Mosque, Fatih Camii or Conqueror's Mosque, Fatih district, Istanbul, European side, Turkey
E6985F Fatih Mosque, Fatih Camii or Conqueror's Mosque, Fatih district, Istanbul, European side, Turkey | © mageBROKER / Alamy Stock Photo

Exterior design doesn’t get more flooring than with the Fatih Mosque, which pierces the Istanbul skyline with towering spires and that imposing dome. Step inside and you’ll find the tomb of Sultan Muhammad, who conquered the city in 1453, at the age of 22.

Theotokos Pammakaristos

Church
Map View
Ancient mosaic depicting Jesus Christ in Theotokos Pammakaristos Church at Fethiye Camii in Carsamba vicinity of Fatih county of Istanbul,Turkey.15 Oc
M084HJ Ancient mosaic depicting Jesus Christ in Theotokos Pammakaristos Church at Fethiye Camii in Carsamba vicinity of Fatih county of Istanbul,Turkey.15 Oc | © epic_images / Alamy Stock Photo

A former Greek Eastern Orthodox church in the heart of the city, Theotokos Pammakaristos is today a museum. Visit to be wowed by fine mosaics and ancient Byzantine-era architecture.

Phanar Greek Orthodox College

School
Map View
istanbul, Turkey - March 2018: Exterior view of the Phanar Greek Orthodox Collage in Balat, Istanbul, Turkey
2C71919 istanbul, Turkey - March 2018: Exterior view of the Phanar Greek Orthodox Collage in Balat, Istanbul, Turkey | © can yalcin / Alamy Stock Photo

It may look like a fortress looming above the historic neighbourhood of Balat and Fener, but this is actually the oldest Greek orthodox school in Istanbul. It was built in the early 1880s and still teaches a small body of around 50 students.

Kalendarhane Mosque

Church, Mosque
Map View
Kalenderhane Mosque, a former Byzantine cross-in-square or crossed-dome church from the 12th century, Vefa neighbourhood in the
DGPHB8 Kalenderhane Mosque, a former Byzantine cross-in-square or crossed-dome church from the 12th century, Vefa neighbourhood in the | © imageBROKER / Alamy Stock Photo

Another beautiful but largely unknown landmark, Kalendarhane stands out thanks to the red brick interior and was originally an Eastern Orthodox church. Later, it was converted into a mosque.

Beylerbeyi Palace

Museum
Map View
Turkey, Istanbul district of Beylerbeyi, the Palace of Beylerbeyi neoclassical style built in 1865 for Sultan Abdul Aziz on the
CN58J9 Turkey, Istanbul district of Beylerbeyi, the Palace of Beylerbeyi neoclassical style built in 1865 for Sultan Abdul Aziz on the | © Hemis / Alamy Stock Photo

One of the many beautiful palaces around Istanbul that served the leisure of the Ottoman sultans, Beylerbeyi is often overlooked because of its location on the Asian side. However, the embellished architecture, lavish décor and beautiful garden make it very much worth a visit.

Ortaköy Cami

Mosque
Map View
Ortakoy mosque and Bosporus bridge on European side in Istanbul, Turkey
GPB93P Ortakoy mosque and Bosporus bridge on European side in Istanbul, Turkey | © Boris Stroujko / Alamy Stock Photo

If you’ve ever crossed the Bosphorus Bridge and taken a long gaze at the city, then you’ve probably seen the beautiful Ortaköy Cami. It stands right next to the edge of the water and was built in 1721.

Zeki Paşa Yalısı

Building
Map View
Old historic waterfront mansion called Tophane Musiri Zeki Pasa Mansion under Bosphorus Bridge, Bosphorus Strait - Istanbul
2A3D9CY Old historic waterfront mansion called Tophane Musiri Zeki Pasa Mansion under Bosphorus Bridge, Bosphorus Strait - Istanbul | © Melih Evren Buruş / Alamy Stock Photo

The best way to see the Bosphorus mansions of Istanbul is by taking a boat tour that goes up and down the strait. On your way past the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge, make sure to take a good look at this beautiful mansion that was built by French architect Alexandre Vallaury.

Bulgarian St. Stephen Church

Church
Map View
Bulgarian St Stephen Church  also known as the Bulgarian Iron Church, is a Bulgaria
2FM8P0A Bulgarian St Stephen Church also known as the Bulgarian Iron Church, is a Bulgaria | © Yael Allevici / Alamy Stock Photo

One of the last churches in the world to be made entirely of prefabricated cast iron, the Bulgarian St Stephen Church was recently renovated and revealed to the faithful in all its ornately beautiful glory.

Çağaloğlu Hamam

Health Spa
Map View
Cagaloglu Hamam in Sultanahmet, Istanbul was built by Sultan Mahmud I in 1741 to provide revenue for the Haghia Sophia Mosque.
CN2B0A Cagaloglu Hamam in Sultanahmet, Istanbul was built by Sultan Mahmud I in 1741 to provide revenue for the Haghia Sophia Mosque. | © Claudia Wiens / Alamy Stock Photo

No visit to Istanbul is complete without experiencing the Turkish Bath and the historic Çağaloğlu Hamam is the perfect place to do so.

Grand Post Office

Building
Map View
Istanbul, TURKEY - July 17, 2019 : PTT, with history of over 170 years is one of Turkey's oldest state institutions. PTT MUSEUM  located at Sirkeci
WMXHEM Istanbul, TURKEY - July 17, 2019 : PTT, with history of over 170 years is one of Turkey's oldest state institutions. PTT MUSEUM located at Sirkeci | © Haluk Cigsar / Alamy Stock Photo

Many people who wander the historic quarter often walk past this building without a second look, but this gorgeous structure, built by architect Vedat Tek in the style of the First Turkis National architectural movement, is a gem from 1905.

Vefa Bozacısı

Cafe, Turkish, $$$
Map View
Boza at the Vefa Bozacisi in Istanbul, Turkey
BB0HMK Boza at the Vefa Bozacisi in Istanbul, Turkey | © Rebecca Erol / Alamy Stock Photo

Boza is a traditional Turkish drink made from fermented wheat or millet that is topped with chickpeas and the best place to try it is at Vefa Bozacısı, which has remained largely unchanged since opening in 1876.

Tophane-i Amire

Building
Map View
Istanbul, Turkey - FEBRUARY 27, 2017: Visitors in Tophane-i Amire, a modern exhibition hall, former cannon foundry. Victor Vasarely Retrospective exhi
HRGK9Y Istanbul, Turkey - FEBRUARY 27, 2017: Visitors in Tophane-i Amire, a modern exhibition hall, former cannon foundry. Victor Vasarely Retrospective exhi | © Koraysa / Alamy Stock Photo

A former armoury built during the reign of Ottoman sultan Mehmed II, Tophane-i Amire is where cannons and cannonballs were manufactured; it’s also why the neighbourhood is called Tophane (dwelling of the cannons). The structure now serves as an art centre, run by the Minar Sinan Fine Arts School, where exhibitions and events are held frequently.

These recommendations were updated on September 3, 2021 to keep your travel plans fresh. This article is an updated version of a story created by Mariam Gabaji

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