These Photos Prove You Should Visit Istanbul Now

From the waterfront at Eminonu, you can see the Rustem Pasha mosque on the skyline
From the waterfront at Eminonu, you can see the Rustem Pasha mosque on the skyline | © Hackenberg-Photo-Cologne / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo of Freire Barnes
Art & Design Editor10 September 2021

The city where Asia and Europe meet is one of historical wonderment and contemporary innovation. Once known as Constantinople – and before that, Byzantium – the Turkish city is a cornucopia of cultural discovery. These photographs only scratch the surface of all the extraordinary landmarks and attractions Istanbul has to offer.

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Hagia Sophia

Once the world’s largest cathedral, the Hagia Sophia was erected in 537CE as a Byzantine basilica before it was converted into an Ottoman mosque in 1453. Still as jaw-droppingly stunning as the day it was finished, the Hagia Sophia has, since 2020, reverted back to a mosque. You can still visit, even non-Muslims, but dress appropriately.

The interior of the Hagia Sophia is spectacular | © Joaquin Corbalan pastor / Alamy Stock Photo

The Bosphorus

At 30km (19mi) long, the Bosphorus not only connects the Black Sea with the Mediterranean, but also splits Istanbul between two continents, Europe and Asia. Probably one of the most important straits in the world, this watery boundary houses numerous Byzantine and Ottoman fortifications as well as a mixture of residential homes, making it ideal for a boat trip.

A view of the Bosphorus Strait from Camlica Hill, on the Asian side of Istanbul | © Melvyn Longhurst / Alamy Stock Photo

Basilica Cistern

With so much going on above ground, it should come as no surprise that Istanbul also has some exceptionally intriguing venues below the city’s surface. Like something out of the Lord of the Rings franchise, the Basilica Cistern is an underground water reservoir just beneath the Hagia Sofia. Reached by a 52-step staircase, the 9,800sqm (105,000sqft) space houses 336 columns and has the potential capacity to store 100,000 tons of water.

The Basilica Cistern was built by the Romans | © Images & Stories / Alamy Stock Photo

Bosphorus Bridge

One of three suspension bridges over the Bosphorus strait, the recently renamed 15 July Martyrs’ Bridge links Europe and Asia. Like something you might expect to see on the Californian coast, the magnificent bridge currently holds the slot of 25th longest suspension bridge in the world. Pedestrians can no longer walk across it, but it does make for a great sunset backdrop for all the Instagram posts you’ll be taking.

The Bosphorus Bridge makes for a great Instagram post | © BAHADIR ARAL AVCI / Alamy Stock Photo

Blue Mosque

Commonly known as the Blue Mosque due to the hand-painted blue wall tiles, the Sultan Ahmed Mosque is still a functioning place of worship. A popular tourist attraction due to its phenomenal architectural design which incorporates both Byzantine and Islamic elements, the mosque is one of only three in Turkey to have six minarets – apparently the architect misheard the request for altın minareler (gold minarets) as altı minare (six minarets).

The Sultan Ahmed Mosque is lined with blue tiles | © DV TRAVEL / Alamy Stock Photo

Rainbow Steps

You’ll find these colourful steps in the arty Cihangir district of Istanbul. The wonderful story about how they came about is similar to that of the Selarón Staircase in Rio de Janeiro. Huseyin Cetinel, a retired forestry engineer painted the steps in bright colours over four days. Why? To give people something to smile about. The local government reacted rather abruptly and repainted the concrete steps grey, but soon the steps regained their colourful hue after public outrage.

City steps painted with rainbow colours | © OZGUR TOLGA ILDUN / Alamy Stock Photo

Hekimbaşi Yalisi

Once the residence of court medic Salih Efendi, the Red House is always a curious discovery when taking a river-boat ride. Painted deep crimson to indicate the home of an important civil servant, Hekimbaşi Yalisi not only adds a splash colour to the banks of the Bosphorus, but also some architectural variety.

You can take a boat down the Bosphorus and pass the Red House | © Melvyn Longhurst / Alamy Stock Photo

Cats of Istanbul

If you’re a cat person, then Istanbul is the city for you. You can’t walk two steps without encountering one of the city’s many street cats. Whether they are taking a nap on a motorbike seat, or taking shelter from the sun in a building’s doorway, cats are the unofficial symbol of Istanbul.

Cats take a nap wherever they can | © Murat An/Shutterstock

Yerebatan Caddesi

The vibrantly-coloured painted buildings on Yerebatan Caddesi in the historical Sultanahmet district will brighten your trip to Istanbul. Near the Basilica Cistern and Hagia Sophia, numerous restaurants, cafes and hotels have reinvigorated the street, whose name translates as “the avenue that sinks into the ground”, into the perfect must-visit destination to take some respite from Istanbul’s hustle and bustle.

Yerebatan Caddesi is ‘the street that sinks into the ground’ | © Hackenberg-Photo-Cologne / Alamy Stock Photo

Eminönü Fish Sandwich Boats

If you want to try a classic Istanbul delicacy then head to the Galata Bridge on the mouth of the Golden Horn, where you’ll find traditional Turkish boats selling fish sandwiches. Over a century ago, enterprising fisherman, who brought their catch from the Bosphorus and Sea of Marmara to sell by the bridge, started to cook the fish and sell it as a cheap snack.

Fish sandwiches for sale near Galata Bridge | © Hackenberg-Photo-Cologne / Alamy Stock Photo

Topkapi Palace

Built by Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror, the majestic Topkapi Palace is one of the most superb examples of Ottoman architecture with its opulent designs that adorn the walls and ceilings. The enormous Unesco World Heritage site was constantly being adapted to reflect each reigning Sultan’s tastes, making it a truly unique piece of history and a must-visit experience while in Istanbul.

The domed ceiling of the Topkapi Palace | © Chris Willson / Alamy Stock Photo

Galata Tower

Like something out of a fairytale, the Galata Tower pierces Istanbul’s skyline with its conical cap. It’s the perfect place to get an unrivalled view of the city and now it has a restaurant and bar on the upper floors.

For the best views in town, head to the Galata Tower in Beyoglu | © Luciano Mortula / Alamy Stock Photo

Trams

In a huge city such as Istanbul, there are multiple transport options, but the restored 19th-century tram on İstiklal Caddesi are a great way to get around, not necessarily for efficiency but for nostalgic novelty.

The trams aren’t the speediest way to get around but they do score well on the nostalgia stakes | © kerenby / Alamy Stock Photo

Süleymaniye Mosque

In a city that can boast over 3,000 mosques, you could be forgiven for thinking that you might get bored at the sight of them. But with such variation, each mosque tells a story. Overlooking the Golden Horn, the beautiful Süleymaniye Mosque is the city’s second largest. Built by the the famous Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan, it’s an exceptional example of 16th-century Ottoman architecture and also houses the tombs of Süleyman and his wife Haseki Hürrem.

The 16th-century Suleymaniye Mosque overlooks the Golden Horn | © Hulya Ozkok / Alamy Stock Photo

Tophane-i Amire

The grandeur of the former 15th-century cannon foundry is truly captivating. Another commission of Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror, the Tophane-i Amire has gone through various uses, from education centre to military museum. Today, though, it’s the ideal architectural location to host art exhibitions in its three cathedral-like spaces.

The former cannon foundry in Tophane-i Amire is now a modern exhibition space | © Koraysa / Alamy Stock Photo

Sakıp Sabancı Müzesi

With its picturesque views across the Bosphorus and landscaped grounds, the Sabancı University’s Sakıp Sabancı Museum in Emirgan was once the villa of the Egyptian prince, Mehmed Ali Hasan. It’s since become known as “the mansion with the horse” because of the equestrian statue by French sculptor, Louis-Joseph Daumas, in the hilltop garden. Today the museum houses a permanent collection of Turkish paintings as well as showcases temporary exhibitions by contemporary artists such as Ai Weiwei.

Sakıp Sabancı Müzesi was once the villa of an Egyptian prince | © Hackenberg-Photo-Cologne / Alamy Stock Photo

Kariye Museum

With its remarkable Byzantine frescoes, the former Greek Orthodox Church is something of a hidden Istanbul gem. Now a museum, the Chora Church is filled with an array of impressive mosaics that depict the life of Christ and the painted dome show Mary with 12 attendant angels. It’s a little piece of heaven within the original walled part of the city that can’t be missed during your trip.

The Church of the Holy Saviour in Chora

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