10 Must-See Historical Places in Istanbul

Istanbul is one of the unique cities of the world which functions as a bridge between Asia and Europe. The city is the only city that has been the capital of three different empires, namely the ancient Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman Empires, and it has been the center of culture, art, architecture, and politics for centuries.

Istanbul, which is one of the most important and biggest metropolises in the world, has valuable artifacts from the history of the city dating back to 3,000 years. These artifacts, which have witnessed many events throughout history and are among the masterpieces of architecture and art, are challenging the ages and are located in both European and Anatolian sides of Istanbul.

Here are the 10 most beautiful historical sites of Istanbul, from world famous basilicas to magnificent palaces, from unique towers to magnificent mosques.

1. Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia is the largest church of the Eastern Roman Empire in Istanbul and was built three times in the same place. The first church was built in 360 by Emperor Constantius (337-361). The first building, covered with a wooden roof and had a basilical plan, was burnt down as a result of the popular uprising in 404 upon the exile of the patriarch due to the disagreements between Emperor Arkadios’ wife (Emperor Eudoksia) and Istanbul Patriarch Ioannes Chrysostomos.

It was rebuilt in 415 by Emperor Theodosios (408-450). It is known that this structure had a basilical plan as well covered with a wooden roof and with a monumental entrance. The Church was destroyed during the fifth reign of Emperor Justinianos (527ası565) in the January 13, 532, during the great popular uprising aka the Nika Rebellion in history, which emerged as a result of the unification of the blues representing the aristocratic sector and the greens representing the tradesmen and merchants.

Today’s Hagia Sophia was built by Emperor Justinianos, with the signs of the two important architects of the period, Isidoros of Miletos (Miletus) and Anthemios of Tralles (Aydin). According to historian Prokopios, the construction, which started on 23 February 532, was completed in a short period of 5 years and the church was opened to worship on 27 December 537.

Emperor Justinian ordered the gathering of the most beautiful architectural pieces to be used in the Hagia Sophia by sending news to all states in his court for Hagia Sophia to be more magnificent and glomourous. Columns and marbles used in this structure were brought from the remains of the ancient cities located at Anatolia and Syria such as Aspendos, Ephesus, Baalbek, and Tarsus.

All the surfaces except the marble covered walls of Hagia Sophia are decorated with beautiful mosaics. In the construction of the mosaics, gold, silver, glass, terra-cotta and colored stones were used. The plant and geometric mosaics in the building are dated to the 6th century and the depicted mosaics are dated to the iconoclasm period (730- 842).

The Hagia Sophia was the place where the coronation of the Emperors was performed because it was the Imperial Church in the Eastern Roman Period.

2. The Blue Mosque

Because of the color of the eye-catching patterns that adorn the inner walls, the Sultanahmet Mosque also called the Blue Mosque is considered one of the most successful examples of Turkish-Islamic architecture. The building, which brings a whole new perspective to the Ottoman mosque culture with its architectural understanding, is one of the stops to be seen within the scope of the historical peninsula tour.

The religious structure, located in the list of places to be visited by travelers, was built between 1609-1616 in line with the order of Sultan Ahmet I, who is known for the importance he attached to spirituality.

The building which bear the signature of Sedefkar Mehmet Aga, considered one of the most important names of Ottoman architecture after Sinan, is the first sultan mosque built with the allowance allocated from the state treasury.

The Blue Mosque was built in the place of Ayşe Sultan Palace, which covered a large area at the sea facing part of At Meydanı. The palace, which is located in the direction of Qibla, was purchased for 30.000 gold. In the construction of the mosque, many statesmen, including the sultan, worked. In fact, the foundation was laid by I. Ahmet himself. The pickaxe which the Sultan used in the place where the foundation will be laid is now on display in the Topkapı Palace.

3. Topkapi Palace

Topkapı Palace, which is an indispensable part of the list of places to visit in Istanbul for travelers interested in history and architecture, fascinates its visitors for centuries with its glory. The construction of the Topkapı Palace, built on an area of 700,000 square meters on the eastern Roman Acropolis in Istanbul Sarayburnu, began in 1460 upon the order of Fatih after the conquest of Istanbul. The palace, which was completed in 1478, was used as an administration, education and art center of the Ottoman Empire for nearly 4 centuries.

Topkapi Palace has been used as a museum since 1924, consists of 4 courtyards and a harem section. Alay Square, located in the 1st courtyard which is the largest among the courtyards and surrounded by external service buildings, was used in ceremonies such as Friday Salute during the departure and return of the sultans.

The important buildings in the 2nd Courtyard are the Justice Palace built for the sultans to watch the city, the palace and the Divan meetings and Zülüflü Baltacılar Ocağı where the people responsible for the palace works in the Ottoman Empire stay.

In the 3rd courtyard, which is also referred to as the Enderun, the Privy Chamber and the Chamber of Sacred Relics attract the most attention. The 4th courtyard consisting of the Tulip Garden and Sofa-i Hümayun has 2 mansions built in honor of the conquests of Baghdad and Revan.

You will also have the opportunity to examine the Queen Mother Apartment, where the mothers of the sultans lived, the Sofa Pavilion, which is used as a ceremony and reception hall, the unique rooms and the sections belonging to the various groups living here.

4. Süleymaniye Mosque

The mosque was built in 1551 by Mimar Sinan in the name of Suleiman the Magnificent and was completed in 1557. In fact, it is only a part of the Suleymaniye Complex together with mosques, madrasahs, treasures, hospitals, primary schools, baths, libraries, studios, and shops.

Sinan referred to the Süleymaniye Mosque as his qualification stage work. The master architect created incredible acoustics inside the mosque with 65 cubes encircled by the dome and made it possible to pray in the mosque without any technological devices such as microphones. Mimar Sinan designed a soot room for this mosque for the first time in history and gathered all the soot in the mosque in this room in order to prevent the soot originating from the candles and oil lamps used for illumination from damaging the mosque.

This collected soot was used as ink to write many edicts and letters. The ink was so special that it was not able to be completely deleted without destroying the whole paper. There are two windows opened out of the Soot Chamber. When viewed from these windows, one can see the plates written Allah and Muhammad. Mimar Sinan put ostrich eggs in the middle of the chandeliers as a precaution for insects, scorpions, and beetles.

5. Galata Tower

Galata Tower, one of the oldest and most beautiful towers of Istanbul, was built by the Byzantine Emperor Anastasius Oilosuz in 528 as a lighthouse tower. Of course, like many wooden structures in Istanbul, he also had his share of big fires. It was rebuilt in 1348 by the Genoese as Christea Turris (Jesus Tower) by using masonry stones.

The tower fell under the Ottoman rule in 1453. The tower which is used for defense purposes until then had assigned other tasks. For example, in the 16th century it is used as the shelter of prisoners at the shipyard, and in the 18th century, the Mehteran Quarry was placed inside it to inform the midnight. In 1874 on the other hand, it was used for fire surveillance and news due to its dominant position in the city. It underwent maintenance and repair many times. Today’s shape was given with the maintenance carried out by II. Mahmut.

The tower was built in rubble masonry. The façade is made of stone. The round-arched window on the door was the watchtower of the soldiers. It is a 9-story building with a high entrance floor. The windows on the cylindrical body are round-arched with brick braiding.

The development of the last two layers immediately beneath the cone roof is emphasized by profiled moldings surrounding the cylindrical body. The building is now used for social and cultural activities. It is structurally robust.

6. Basilica Cistern

The cistern, which was built by Byzantine Emperor Justinian I in 532, was used in meeting the water needs of the Grand Palace. During the construction process, 7,000 slaves were built and the water was provided through 2 arches extending to the Eğrikapı Su Taksim Center in the Belgrad Forests, 19 kilometers from the city. The arch built by Emperor Valens was 971 meters long, where the one built by Emperor Justinianus was 116 meters long.

After the city entered into Ottoman sovereignty in 1453, the cistern was continued to be used for the water needs of the gardens in Topkapı Palace. However, the structure was abandoned after a while when the idea that it was opposite to the Islamic principles became widespread in the Ottomans.

The Basilica Cistern covers a total area of 9,800 square meters. The cistern can be used for storing up to 100.000 tons of water. The interior of the building is supported by 336 columns, each 9 meters high and 4.80 meters apart.

7. Dolmabahçe Palace

Dolmabahçe Palace, located on the shores of the Bosphorus, was built between 1843-1856. The palace was built under the orders of Sultan Abdülmecid, the 31st ruler of the Ottoman Empire. It bears the signatures of Garabet Balyan and his son Nikoğos, who are the popular architects of the period.

Another important element that makes the palace magnificent apart from its architecture is the items used in interior decoration. You can explore the furniture, curtains, carpets, and paintings that provide this magnificence as you travel through the guided tours of the rooms of the building, which by the way has the world’s largest palace ballroom.

Dolmabahçe Palace was replaced by Topkapı Palace which was thought to be inadequate by the dynasty. Dolmabahçe was the administrative center of the Ottoman Empire until 1924.

After the Ottoman Dynasty, the palace, which had all its properties as the property of the Turkish people, served as the Presidency between 1927-1949. The structure, which was kept open to the public visit for a long time, was turned into a museum-palace in 1984.

8. Rumelian Fortress

The construction of the military structure, which Fatih ordered to be built in front of Anadolu Hisarı to ensure the security of the Bosphorus started on 15 April 1452. The materials used in the construction of the fortress were brought from different parts of Anatolia such as Izmit and Eregli. The stone pieces were removed from the ruined Byzantine structures. According to the architect Ekrem Hakkı Ayverdi, approximately 300 craftsmen and 750 workers, as well as 200 transporters and boatmen worked in the construction of the fortress.

The interior of the historic building which was restored after the earthquake in 1509 and the fire disaster in 1746 was filled with wooden houses. These houses were demolished during the extensive renovation work carried out under the supervision of 3 Turkish female architects commissioned by President Celal Bayar in 1953, giving the building its former glory.

Fortress is now used as a museum and open-air theater. The theater department hosts mainly domestic and foreign music organizations in summer.

9. Maiden’s Tower

The tower, which was built on a small island, is about 18 meters high. The building, which consists of 5 floors, is the last Byzantine structure in Üsküdar District.

The tower, which was mentioned in historical sources for the first time in 410 BC, was built by Athenian Alkibiades in order to control the traffic of the ships in the Bosphorus and to get tax from them. In 341 BC, Chares placed a sarcophagus for his wife in the tower which became a significant control point thanks to the chain pulled from Sarayburnu Beach.

In the Roman period, the structure began to gain today’s appearance. The tower was completed by order of Emperor Manuel Comnenos. The historic tower, which had been ruined many times over the centuries, became the shelter for the Venetian fleet that came to save the city from the Ottoman siege in the last days of Byzantium.

Following the conquest of the city by the Ottomans, extensive renovation work was carried out. In this period, although the structure did not lose its defensive feature, it was used mainly for the performances of the Mehter Platoon.

10. Anatolian Fortress

Anatolian Fortress was built in 1395 at the narrowest point of the Bosphorus and it gives its name to the region. This fortress, which was built as an outpost on the orders of Yıldırım Beyazid, was founded on a seven-acre area.

The fortress consists of the inner and outer fortresses and the city walls. The purpose of construction is to ensure the sovereignty of the Bosphorus and protect the city from possible dangers. Even it lost its military importance over time, it is still one of the important points of the city with the expanding settlement in its surroundings.

One-fourth of the Rumeli Fortress, Anadolu Hisarı is one of the most beautiful settlements of Istanbul and is famous for its mansions.

Savaş Ateş

I'm a software engineer. I love Istanbul. I have been to 10 different countries. Istanbul is in the top 3 cities. I like to play soccer too :)

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