Straddling both Europe and Asia, it’s no surprise that Istanbul’s rich cultural heritage has had a huge influence on some of its most important architecture. With the minarets of around 3,000 mosques piercing Istanbul’s skyline, these places of worship are an integral part of the city. Here are the most beautiful mosques worth visiting on your trip.
Probably Istanbul’s most famous mosque, the Blue Mosque is a hugely popular tourist attraction due to its striking bright-blue tile work. The last great mosque of the Ottoman classical period, this imposing 17th-century building is best seen from Sultanahmet Park, where the mosque’s six distinctive minarets mark its presence above the treetops. The mosque also faces Hagia Sophia – an engineering marvel considered to be the epitome of Byzantine architecture.
This may not be the largest of Istanbul’s mosques, but it’s certainly one of the most beautiful. Just a 10-minute walk from the Grand Bazaar, this sublime piece of 16th-century architecture crowns the top of the Golden Horn, part of the city’s historical peninsula. It is an important building, designed by the Ottoman Empire’s most talented architect, Mimar Sinan, and created for the Ottoman’s most famous sultan, widely known as ‘Suleiman the Magnificent’. Don’t miss the ivory-inlaid panels in Suleiman’s tomb and the intricate tile work surrounding its entrance.
Also built by famous architect Sinan, this small but splendid mosque gives the Blue Mosque a run for its money when it comes to decorative ceramics. A real gem, Rüstem Paşa is covered in exquisite Iznik tiles, with no other mosque in the city using them quite so lavishly. The building was designed for Suleiman’s Grand Vizier and is set on top of a complex of vaulted shops, which were incorporated to support the complex financially, as well as physically. While it’s a little tricky to find (you’ll need to look up as it’s not on street level), it’s only a five-minute walk from the Spice Bazaar. You’ll find access steps on Hasırcılar Caddesi, or on a small street that runs north off Hasırcılar Caddesi towards the Golden Horn.
Although its name suggests otherwise, this building in the Eminönü quarter of the city actually dates back to 1663. Found at the end of Istanbul’s famous Galata Bridge, the New Mosque took more than half a century to build, due to funding issues and political turmoil, and was designed by Sinan’s apprentice, Davut Ağa. It was the last of the imperial mosques to be built, taking influences from both the Blue Mosque and Süleymaniye Mosque. The ‘New Mosque’ boasts an opulent interior decorated with gold leaf, carved marble and Iznik tiles. Its silhouette has become an iconic part of Istanbul’s skyline.
Definitely ‘new’, the Sancaklar Mosque is one of Istanbul’s most striking and unusual contemporary mosques. The radical design was created by famous Turkish architect Emre Arolat, who reimagined the usually lavishly decorated mosque as an ultra-minimalistic space. The stepped stone building is carved into the hillside, adopting the contours of the landscape, while a subterranean prayer hall offers a simple yet dramatic cave-like space in which to pray and reflect. A single rectangular minaret is the only element of the building that announces its presence from a distance.
Not so radical in design, the Ortaköy Mosque is still one of Istanbul’s most beautiful structures and is known as the jewel of the Bosphorus due to its stunning waterside location. Set in the handsome Ortaköy district, this striking Neo-Baroque mosque was built between 1854 and 1856 by the order of Ottoman Sultan Abdülmecid. The mosque was designed by Garabet Amira Balyan and Nigoğayos Balyan, Armenian father-and-son architects also responsible for the Dolmabahçe Palace and its mosque.
Şakirin Mosque is not only famous for its striking contemporary design, but also because its interior was designed by Zeynep Fadıllıoğlu – the first woman to design a mosque in modern Turkey. Built in 2009 in memory of philanthropists Ibrahim and Semiha Şakir, the mosque’s sleek metallic exterior is complemented by an equally impressive interior. Highlights include an eye-catching turquoise and gold mihrab (prayer niche) and a huge low-hanging water drop-inspired glass chandelier, symbolising Allah’s light falling on worshippers like rain.
There are two 16th-century mosques in Istanbul with the name Mihrimah Sultan Mosque – one in Edirnekapı and the other in Üsküdar – because of a tale of secret love. The story goes that famous architect Sinan could not openly express his love to Sultan Süleyman I’s daughter Mihrimah Sultan, who was already married to Rüştem Paşa, and so he built two mosques to encode a message. It is said that the sun sets between the minarets on the European-side mosque, while the moon rises from the single minaret on the Asian-side mosque, celebrating Mihrimah’s name, which translates into “sun and moon”.