From the ancient walls of Byzantium to the Ottoman designs of Topkapi Palace, here are the the best historic places to visit in Istanbul!

‘If one had but a single glance to give the world, one should gaze on Istanbul.’

Alphonse de Lamartine, 18th century French writer and statesman.

Istanbul’s history spans over two millennia. Founded as Byzantium, a Greek colony, around 660 BCE, the city’s strategic location on the banks of the Bosporus Strait ensure that it’s long determined the histories of both Europe and Asia.

In 330 CE, Emperor Constantine the Great re-founded the city as Constantinople, making it the capital of the Roman Empire, and later the Byzantine Empire. It became a centre of Orthodox Christianity and culture, renowned across the ancient world for architectural sites like the Hagia Sophia, which still stands to this day.

In 1453, Sultan Mehmed II conquered Constantinople, marking the city’s transformation into the Ottoman Empire’s capital. The Ottomans built grand mosques, palaces and public buildings, blending Byzantine and Islamic influences and creating a city that looked to both the east and the west with equal intrigue.

Following World War I and the Turkish War of Independence, the Republic of Turkey was established in 1923, with Ankara as the new capital. Constantinople was renamed Istanbul, but even today, this ancient city is packed with crumbling Byzantine walls and resplendent Ottoman minarets, landmarks which speak through the ages. If you’re planning a trip to Turkey, then keep reading, as I countdown the best historic sites in Istanbul to visit.

Historic places to visit in Istanbul

Sometime in the 19th century, the French writer Alphonse de Lamartine wrote that ‘If one had but a single glance to give the world, one should gaze on Istanbul.’ For the history loving traveller with but a single city to visit, there’s no doubt that city should be Istanbul. On the many journeys I’ve made to Turkey, I’ve always made a point of stopping over in the country’s largest and most historic city; and every time, I find a new historical attraction to visit.

History is soaked into the city’s cobblestone and concrete streets. Europe and Asia might now be connected by the modern Marmaray Metro line, but amongst the towering Ottoman minarets, you can still find remnants of the Theodosian Walls built by the Byzantines centuries ago. If it’s your first time in Istanbul, I’d recommend staying in Sultanahmet, where you’ll find the core of the city’s historic sites in what is, effectively, the Old Town. Over the Golden Horn are Galata and Taksim, where the vibes are more local, but the attractions just as historic as on the other side of the water. Further afield, Istanbul’s local transport allows for easy access to Ottoman forts and Byzantine ruins along the banks of the Bosporus, making this a must visit city for history lovers.

1. Hagia Sofia

Nowhere speaks of Istanbul’s historic legacy as much as the the Hagia Sophia. Originally constructed between 532 and 537 CE under Byzantine Emperor Justinian I, it still stands as a monumental architectural achievement. For nearly a thousand years, this was the largest cathedral in the world, renowned for its massive dome and intricate mosaics.

The Hagia Sophia’s beauty left a profound impact on visitors throughout history. Nestor the Chronicler recorded that visitors in 987 AD were so awestruck by its splendour that they remarked, ‘We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth…for on earth there is no such splendour or such beauty, and we are at a loss how to describe it. We only know that God dwells there among men’.

Following the Ottoman conquest in 1453, Sultan Mehmed II converted the Hagia Sophia into a mosque, adding minarets and other Islamic features. It served as a mosque until 1934 when it was secularised and turned into a museum by the Republic of Turkey. Recently, in 2020, it was reconverted back into a mosque, a move which challenged the secular ideals of the nation as expounded by the republic’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.

The Hagia Sofia mixes Orthodox and Islamic influences. Photo credit:

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2. Topkapi Palace

A short stroll from the Hagia Sofia will bring you to Topkapi Palace, a lavish building which served as the primary residence of the Ottoman sultans for nearly 400 years, from 1465 to 1856. Commissioned by Sultan Mehmed II shortly after his conquest of Constantinople in 1453, the palace complex is a stunning example of Ottoman architecture and imperial grandeur. Inside, you’ll find a series of courtyards surrounded by lush gardens, exquisite pavilions, and opulent rooms, including the famous Harem, the Imperial Treasury, and the Sacred Safekeeping Rooms.

The palace also houses an extensive collection of historical artefacts, including Islamic relics, sultans’ garments, and precious jewels such as the Topkapi Dagger and the Spoonmaker’s Diamond. Topkapi Palace not only served as the administrative centre of the empire but also played a critical role in political and cultural life. Many an Ottoman prince met a grizzly end here when politics demanded their death, and there’s much to discover on a guided tour. Today, Topkapi Palace is a museum and a UNESCO World Heritage site, attracting millions of visitors annually.

Topkapi Palace as seen from the Golden Horn. Photo credit:

3. Istanbul Archaeological Museums

Istanbul Archaeological Museum was first established in 1891 by Osman Hamdi Bey, and has since expanded into a trio of museums located by Topkapi Palace. The site comprises three main units: the Archaeological Museum, the Museum of the Ancient Orient and the Tiled Kiosk Museum. The museum houses over a million artefacts telling the story of the ancient civilisations which ruled the city, including the Greeks, Romans, Byzantines and Ottomans.

Notable collections include the Alexander Sarcophagus and the Treaty of Kadesh, one of the oldest surviving peace treaties in the world. The Museum of the Ancient Orient features artefacts from ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Anatolia, while the Tiled Kiosk displays exquisite examples of Seljuk and Ottoman tilework. Top tip; purchase a Museum Pass for entry into Istanbul’s archaeological museums and many more museums and historical sites across the city.

The Alexander Sarcophagus. Photo credit:

4. The Blue Mosque

“The Blue Mosque was built by a megalomaniac,” I was told by local guide Gulperi Parlak on a walking tour of Istanbul. “Sultan Ahmed was a 14 year old ruler. He had an ego. There are six minarets, because the more minarets you built, the more wealth and power you held. At the time, the only other mosque in the world with as many minarets was in Mecca.”

Officially known as the Sultan Ahmed Mosque (after its 14 year old founder), the Blue Mosque was completed in 1616. The mosque was designed by architect Sedefkar Mehmed Agha, a pupil of the great Sinan, and represents a masterful blend of Ottoman and Byzantine architectural elements.

Step inside, and you’ll discover an interior adorned with over 20,000 handmade Iznik tiles in varying shades of blue, which give the mosque its popular name. The vast prayer hall, lit by 260 windows, creates an ethereal atmosphere. The central dome, supported by four massive pillars known as ‘elephant feet’, is flanked by semi-domes, while the mosque as a whole continues to function as a place of worship in the heart of Sultanahmet.

The Blue Mosque. Photo credit:

5. The Hippodrome

The ancient Hippodrome of Constantinople is now known as Sultanahmet Square. In a previous era, the square was the social and sporting centre of Byzantine life, for well over a thousand years. Constructed by Emperor Septimius Severus in the early 3rd century and expanded by Emperor Constantine the Great in 330 CE, the Hippodrome hosted chariot races, public ceremonies and political events.

The vast arena could accommodate around 100,000 spectators and was adorned with numerous monuments, including the Serpent Column from Delphi, the Obelisk of Theodosius from Egypt, and the Walled Obelisk. Although much of the original structure is no longer visible, these monuments still stand, offering a glimpse into the site’s illustrious past.

Today, Sultanahmet Square remains a fascinating historical area, with its proximity to other significant landmarks like the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque highlighting its central role in Istanbul’s history, and making it an easy must-visit for those interested in the city’s Byzantine legacy.

The Obelisk of Theodosius. Photo credit:

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6. The Basilica Cistern

One of my favourite historical sites in Istanbul is the Basilica Cistern. Known in Turkish as Yerebatan Sarnıcı, this is one of the city’s most intriguing historical sites. Constructed in the 6th century during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I, this subterranean structure served as a critical water storage facility for the Great Palace and surrounding buildings. The cistern measures approximately 140 metres long and 70 metres wide, with a capacity to hold up to a staggering 80,000 cubic metres of water.

Venture underground, and you’ll find 336 marble columns, each nine metres high and arranged in 12 rows of 28 columns. Two notable columns feature bases with the heads of Medusa, one upside-down and the other sideways, adding an air of mystery and legend to the subterranean setting. The columns were repurposed from earlier Roman buildings, showcasing the Byzantines’ resourcefulness in utilising the ruins of the ancient civilizations that came before.

The Basilica Cistern, Istanbul. Photo credit:

7. Galata Tower

The Galata Tower soars above the Golden Horn from its prominent hilltop position in in the Galata district. Originally built in 1348 when Galata was a Genoese colony, it was named Christea Turris, or the Tower of Christ. At 67 metres tall, it was the tallest structure in the city when it was constructed, and today, the tower’s cylindrical shape and conical roof remain a distinctive feature of Istanbul’s skyline.

Throughout its history, Galata Tower has served various purposes, from a watchtower for detecting fires to a prison and an observatory. One of the most famous tales associated with the tower is that of Hezarfen Ahmed Çelebi, who is said to have flown from its top across the Bosporus using artificial wings in the 17th century. Today, the tower offers panoramic views of Istanbul, providing visitors with a bird’s eye perspective of the city’s historical and modern landscapes.

Galata Tower. Photo credit: Richard Collett.

8. The Theodosian Walls

The Theodosian Walls, constructed in the 5th century under Emperor Theodosius II, were a formidable defensive system protecting Constantinople for over a millennium. These massive walls, stretching approximately 6.5 kilometres, consisted of a series of double walls with a moat, offering multiple layers of defence. The inner wall, about 5 metres thick and 12 metres high, was complemented by a slightly shorter outer wall, creating a daunting obstacle for potential invaders.

These walls played a crucial role in safeguarding the city from numerous sieges, including attacks by Avars, Persians, Arabs, and later, the Ottomans. The Theodosian Walls were renowned for their robustness and engineering sophistication, reflecting the strategic importance of Constantinople as the capital of the Byzantine Empire.

Despite breaches and repairs over the centuries (most notably during the Siege of Constantinople in 1453, when the city fell to the Ottomans), significant portions of the walls still stand today. Visitors to Istanbul can explore these remnants, particularly around the Edirnekapı area, gaining insight into the defensive ingenuity that helped preserve one of the world’s greatest cities.

Restored sections of the Theodosian Walls. Photo credit:

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9. The Grand Bazaar

The Grand Bazaar (Kapalıçarşı) is one of the oldest and largest covered markets in the world. Established in 1461 by Sultan Mehmed II, it has been a vital hub of commerce for over 500 years. The bazaar covers an area of 30,700 square metres, with 61 covered streets and over 4,000 shops, attracting anywhere from 250,000 to 400,000 visitors daily.

The Grand Bazaar offers a dazzling array of goods, from traditional Turkish carpets, jewellery, ceramics, and spices to football shirts and fitted suits. The labyrinthine layout, with its colourful arches and domed ceilings, reflects the rich architectural heritage of the Ottoman period.

Historically, the bazaar played a crucial role in the trade networks between Europe and Asia, solidifying Istanbul’s position as a major trading city at the end of the Silk Road. Today, it continues to be a must-visit destination for tourists, but I will warn you; haggle hard in the Grand Bazaar. It’s status as a tourist attractions ensures that vendors inflate their prices, and you’ll often find the same goods for cheaper outside the covered market itself, and in the surrounding shopping streets!

Inside the Grand Bazaar. Photo credit:

10. The Egyptian Bazaar

The Egyptian Bazaar, also known as the Spice Bazaar (Mısır Çarşısı), is one of Istanbul’s most vibrant and historic markets. Established in 1664 as part of the New Mosque complex in the Eminönü district, the bazaar was originally funded by taxes collected from Egypt, hence its name.

The market’s architecture features a distinct L-shaped design with six gates, leading into a colourful labyrinth of around 85 shops. These shops are packed for their exotic spices, herbs, and sweets, including Turkish delight, dried fruits, and nuts. Historically, the Egyptian Bazaar played a crucial role in the spice trade between Asia and Europe, solidifying Istanbul’s status as a trade hub.

Spices for sale in the Egyptian Bazaar. Photo credit:

11. Süleymaniye Mosque

The Süleymaniye Mosque was commissioned by Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent and constructed between 1550 and 1557 by the renowned Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan. Located on the Third Hill of Istanbul, this grand mosque complex is one of the largest in the city and a masterpiece of Ottoman architecture.

The mosque’s design features a large central dome flanked by semi-domes, reflecting both Islamic and Byzantine architectural influences. The interior is adorned with intricate tilework and calligraphy, and its spacious prayer hall can accommodate thousands of worshippers. The complex includes a hospital, school, library, and bathhouse, illustrating its role as a centre of social welfare and education.

The Süleymaniye Mosque also houses the tombs of Sultan Suleiman and his wife, Hürrem Sultan. Its elevated location offers views of the Golden Horn and Bosporus, making it a popular destination for both worshippers and tourists. The mosque exemplifies the zenith of Ottoman architectural and cultural achievements, symbolising the empire’s power across the east and west.

Süleymaniye Mosque. Photo credit:

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12. Dolmabahçe Palace

Dolmabahçe Palace, located on the European shore of the Bosporus in Istanbul, was built between 1843 and 1856 by Sultan Abdülmecid I. It served as the main administrative centre of the Ottoman Empire from its completion until 1922. The palace’s design combines traditional Ottoman architecture with elements of Baroque, Rococo and Neoclassical styles, reflecting the empire’s increasing European influence.

Covering an area of 45,000 square meters, Dolmabahçe boasts 285 rooms, 46 halls, 6 hammams and 68 toilets. Its opulent interiors are adorned with gold leaf, crystal chandeliers, and luxurious furnishings. The grand ceremonial hall, with its massive 4.5-ton crystal chandelier, is a highlight, demonstrating the palace’s grandeur and the sultan’s wealth.

Dolmabahçe Palace also holds historical significance as the place where Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey, spent his last days and passed away in 1938. Today, it operates as a museum, offering visitors a glimpse into the opulence of Ottoman court life and the early years of the Turkish Republic.

Dolmabahçe overlooks the Bosporus. Photo credit:

13. Yedikule Fortress

Yedikule Fortress, also known as the Fortress of the Seven Towers, is a historic fortification in the southwest of Istanbul. Constructed in the 5th century by Emperor Theodosius II as part of the city’s defensive walls, it was later expanded by Sultan Mehmed II following his conquest of Constantinople in 1453. This expansion included the addition of several towers, giving the fortress its name.

Yedikule served multiple purposes throughout its history, including as a treasury, a state prison and a fortress. Its strategic location near the Sea of Marmara made it a key point of defence against potential maritime invasions, while the fortress is famous for housing high-profile prisoners, including diplomats and royalty.

Today, Yedikule Fortress is a museum and historical site open to the public. You can explore its towers and walls, which offer brilliant views of Istanbul and the Sea of Marmara.

Aerial view of Yedikule Fortress. Photo credit:

14. Rumeli Fortress

Rumeli Fortress is an impressive fortification located on the European side of the Bosporus. Built by Sultan Mehmed II in 1452, the fortress was constructed in just four months to control the Bosporus Strait and prepare for the conquest of Constantinople. Its strategic location directly across from the Anatolian Fortress allowed the Ottomans to cut off maritime support to the Byzantine capital, and eventually to conquer the city.

The fortress is an impressive example of Ottoman military architecture, featuring three main towers named after Mehmed II’s viziers who supervised their construction. The tallest of these towers, at 28 metres, provided a crucial vantage point. The fortress also includes a large number of walls, gates, and smaller towers, forming a formidable defence system.

Today, Rumeli Fortress is a museum and an open-air theatre, hosting various cultural events and concerts. Visitors can explore its towers and walls, which offer stunning views of the Bosporus. The site not only provides insight into the Ottoman Empire’s military prowess but also serves as a reminder of the pivotal role it played in the fall of Constantinople.

Rumeli Fortress guards the banks of the Bosporus. Photo credit:

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15. Princes’ Islands

The Princes’ Islands are located in the Sea of Marmara, a short ferry ride from Istanbul, and they have a complex history dating back to Byzantine times. Initially, the islands served as a place of exile for disgraced aristocrats and royals, but during the late Ottoman period, they became a popular retreat for Istanbul’s wealthy residents, who built summer houses and mansions there.

Today, the nine islands are known for their quiet atmosphere, Ottoman architecture, and lack of motor vehicles. The most visited islands are Büyükada, Heybeliada, Burgazada, and Kınalıada, which are all connected to each and the mainland by regular ferries.

To visit the Princes’ Islands, travellers can take a ferry from Kabataş, Kadıköy, or Bostancı piers in Istanbul. The journey typically takes between 60 to 90 minutes, depending on the specific island and ferry route. Ferries are frequent, especially in the summer, offering a scenic trip across the Sea of Marmara. When you arrive, you can explore the islands by renting bicycles, riding in electric golf buggies, or simply walking.

The Princes’ Islands on the horizon. Photo credit: Richard Collett.

16. Maiden’s Tower

Maiden’s Tower, or Kız Kulesi, is a historic landmark situated on a small islet at the southern entrance of the Bosporus Strait. Its origins date back to ancient times, with its first construction believed to have been around 408 BC by the Athenian general Alcibiades. The tower has served various purposes throughout history, including as a lighthouse, watchtower, and quarantine station. Its most famous legend involves a princess who was placed in the tower to protect her from a prophesied snake bite, only to meet her fate from a snake hidden in a basket of fruit.

Today, Maiden’s Tower is a popular tourist destination and a romantic symbol of Istanbul. You can reach the tower by taking a short boat ride from Üsküdar or Kabataş. The tower now houses a restaurant and café, offering stunning panoramic views of Istanbul’s skyline. The experience provides a unique mix of historical intrigue and modern leisure, making it a must-visit spot for history loving tourists.

Maiden’s Tower. Photo credit:

17. Beylerbeyi Palace

Beylerbeyi Palace, located on the Asian shore of the Bosporus, is an exquisite example of Ottoman architecture. Constructed between 1861 and 1865 by Sultan Abdülaziz, the palace was intended as a summer residence and a guest house for visiting dignitaries. The palace showcases a blend of Western and Eastern styles, reflecting the Ottoman Empire’s modernisation efforts during the 19th century.

The interior of Beylerbeyi Palace is renowned for its lavish decorations, including ornate ceilings, crystal chandeliers, and European-style furniture. The palace’s rooms are richly adorned with carpets, vases, and clocks, exemplifying the opulence of the Ottoman court. The terraced gardens, extending down to the Bosporus, offer stunning views of the water.

You can access Beylerbeyi Palace by taking a ferry to Üsküdar from central Istanbul, followed by a short taxi ride. Alternatively, you can reach the palace via the Marmaray train line, getting off at Üsküdar station and continuing by taxi or bus. Guided tours of the palace are available, providing insights into its historical and architectural significance.

Beylerbeyi Palace. Photo credit: Richard Collett.

18. Ortaköy Mosque

Ortaköy Mosque, officially known as the Büyük Mecidiye Camii, is an iconic religious structure on the Bosporus waterfront in the Ortaköy neighbourhood. Commissioned by Sultan Abdülmecid I and completed in 1856, the mosque is a notable example of Ottoman Baroque architecture, designed by architects Garabet and Nigoğayos Balyan.

The mosque’s exterior features intricate stonework and two slender minarets, while its interior is adorned with delicate arabesques and large windows that allow natural light to flood the prayer hall. The mosque’s location, directly on the Bosporus, offers picturesque views, making it a popular spot for both worshippers and tourists.

To visit Ortaköy Mosque, you can take a bus or a taxi from central Istanbul to the Ortaköy district. The mosque is also accessible via the ferry services that connect various points along the Bosporus.

Ortaköy Mosque is a landmark on the Bosporus. Photo credit: Richard Collett.

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Map of the best historical sites to visit in Istanbul

Here’s a map of the best places to visit in Istanbul:

There you have it, the best historic places to visit in Istanbul! What’s going on your bucket list?