Amazing Historical Sites In Istanbul You Have To Visit

Photo of Andrew Ricca
9 February 2017

The successive capital of the Eastern Roman Empire and the Ottoman Empire, Istanbul has been at the center of major political events for more than 2000 years. The historic peninsula, surrounded by the waters of the Bosphorus, is home to an array of impressive monuments which bestowed glory to the former walled cities of Byzantium and Constantinople. Nearly every visit to present day Istanbul starts with a walk through the historic quarter, recognized by UNESCO for its unique architectural masterpieces. From Faith neighborhood and beyond, here’s our guide to the historical sites you can’t afford to miss.

Hagia Sophia at dusk | © David Spender/Flickr

Hagia Sophia

One of the most remarkable monuments of the ancient world, the Hagia Sophia features a particularly massive dome widely considered the epitome of Byzantine architectural expertise. For nearly a thousand years from its construction by Emperor Justinian I in 537, it served as a Greek Orthodox cathedral and the seat of the Patriarch of Constantinople until 1453. It was turned into a mosque for the next 500 years and opened as a museum in 1935 under the command of the first President of the Republic Kemal Ataturk. Today it is Turkey’s second most visited museum after Topkapi Palace and draws more than 3 million visitors yearly to its magnificent interior spaces adorned with golden mosaics, revealed following numerous restorations.

Cankurtaran Mh., Alemdar Cd. No:2, 34122 Fatih/İstanbul, Turkey +90 532 608 3001

Topkapi Palace

Map View
The Topkapı Palace was constructed in 1453 by Mehmed the Conqueror
Mehmed the Conqueror constructed the Topkapı Palace in the mid-15th century | © Jochen Tack / Alamy Stock Photo
Structured around four main courtyards and numerous smaller buildings, the Topkapi Palace has been described by UNESCO as “the best example[s] of ensembles of palaces […] of the Ottoman period.” Sitting atop Seraglio Point, a promontory overlooking the Golden Horn and the Marmara Sea, it served as the major residency of the Ottoman sultans for almost 400 years (1465–1856) of their 624-year reign and hosted numerous state ceremonies. Nowhere else in Istanbul attracts many visitors. Drawn to fine architecture, collections of calligraphic manuscripts, robes, porcelain, and some of the most significant holy relics of the Muslim world.

Basilica Cistern

Map View
The Basilica Cistern is one of the most magical buildings in all of Istanbul
The Basilica Cistern is one of the most magical buildings in all of Istanbul | © Sergey Pristyazhnyuk / Alamy Stock Photo
This subterranean marvel, located some 150 meters west of the Hagia Sophia, is another gem of antiquity commissioned by Emperor Justinian’s rule. Originally built during the 6th century to provide a filtration to the now destroyed Great Palace of Constantinople, it is the largest of hundreds of cisterns beneath the city of Istanbul and continued to supply water to Topkapi Palace well after the Ottoman conquest of 1453. The Basilica Cistern covers an area of nearly 10,000 square meters and is supported by a forest of high columns adorned with mainly Ionic and Corinthian capitals. Moderately humid and dimly lit, it is a perfect place to beat Istanbul’s summer heat.

Sultan Ahmet Mosque

Map View
Built between 1609-1616 by Sultan Ahmet I in order to assert Ottoman power, this most impressive and endlessly photographed of Istanbul’s mosques features a cascade of layered domes and cornered by six minarets adorning the city’s skyline. Its outdoor courtyard, the biggest of all Ottoman mosques, perfectly matches the size of its Blue İznik tiles covered interiors, numbering in the tens of thousands, giving it the name of Blue Mosque with which it is commonly known. Albeit a popular attraction, admission is strictly controlled since the mosque is still used for religious purposes.


Rumelihisarı, also known as Rumeli Castle, is a fortress occupying roughly 16 acres of high walls, towers, and green surroundings. Situated on Istanbul’s European side at the narrowest section of the Bosphorus Strait, it was built over the course of four months in 1452 by Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II in preparation for a final assault on Constantinople and the eventual downfall of the Byzantine Empire. Much of the interior structures have suffered considerable damage after a string of devastating earthquakes hit the city. Today, the site is open to the public as an open-air museum and frequently hosts concerts and performances in its amphitheater.

Yahya Kemal Cd. No:42, Turkey +90 212 263 5305

Chora Church

The Church of the Holy Saviour in Chora is a former Byzantine church and, in more ways than one can be thought of as the Hagia Sophia’s little sister. Like it, it was converted into an Ottoman mosque in the 16th century and later secularized as a museum. For its smaller dimensions, it is no less beautiful. Situated in Erdinekapi district, just outside of the original city walls, its interiors are covered in gorgeous medieval mosaics and frescoes dating back to 1312 and coinciding with the church’s last of five reconstruction efforts.

Ayvansaray Mh., Kariye Cami Sk. No:26, 34087 Fatih/İstanbul, Turkey +90 212 631 9241

Galata Tower

Built as part of the expansion of Istanbul’s Genoese colony in 1348, the cone-capped, cylindrical Galata Tower, or as it was called at the time, the Christea Turris, stands high above the city’s Karakoy quarter, just north of the Golden Horn’s junction with the Bosphorus. It was the city’s tallest structure for centuries and still dominates a good part of Istanbul’s skyline. The reward for waiting through long queues and an often crowded elevator climb is a 360-degree panoramic view of the historic peninsula and its surroundings.

Galata Kulesi, Turkey +90 212 244 7736