9 Ways to Get to Know Istanbul

From sunken ships to ancient shopping malls, here’s a look at Istanbul

By Google Arts & Culture

Written by Ryan Birol

St. Sophia Excavations by Dmitri KesselLIFE Photo Collection

Visiting Istanbul can be an unbelievably rich experience. The city is the only in the world to be divided between two continents. It has acted as the capital to three different major empires—Byzantine, Roman, and Ottoman. With a bit of digging one can begin to see just how fascinating life has been there over the years. Here are nine little known facts about the historical gem that is Istanbul.

1. Hagia Sophia
“Badass Viking was Here”

Have you ever as a kid carved your name into a tree just to simply make your mark on something? Well, that is exactly what the Vikings did in the 1500-year-old now-museum, once-mosque, once-church that is the Hagia Sophia. The inscription reads “Halfdan carved these runes”. The inscription can be found on the right side of the Upper Gallery.

St. Sophia Excavations Dmitri Kessel (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)

2. Dolmabache Palace
The Ottoman Empire Shows Its Brawn (In Gold)

What do you do when you’re on the brink of extinction? Go into deep denial and build one of the most lavish palaces in the world. That’s exactly what the Ottomans did. To cover up the fact their empire was in decline they constructed Dolmabache Palace which was meant to portray a sign of unrivaled wealth.

Dolmabahçe Palace and Mosque (Mid-19th Century) by Robertson & BeatoPera Museum

Dolmabahçe Palace and Mosque Beato, Robertson, James Robertson Mid-19th Century (From the collection of Pera Museum)

The Dolmabache Palace featured 285 rooms, 44 halls, 68 toilets, 6 bathhouses, fourteen tons of gold decorating the ceilings, and the world’s largest collection of Bohemian and Baccarat crystal chandeliers.

Dolmabahçe Palace Imperial Gate (Mid-19th Century) by Robertson & BeatoPera Museum

Dolmabahçe Palace Imperial Gate Beato, Robertson, James Robertson Mid-19th Century (From the collection of Pera Museum)

3. Topkapi Palace
The Sultan’s Harem

Before Dolmabache Palace was built in the mid-19th century, Topkapi Palace was the main digs of the Ottoman Empire. It plays host to the most famous collection of harems in the world.

A look inside one of the Harems at Topkapi Palace

While harems are typically now viewed as one-dimensional, the truth is they played a large role in educating women to the point there were phases of the Ottoman Empire where critical decisions stemmed from women in the harem.

Women Drinking Coffee (First half of the 18th Century) by Jean-Baptiste VanmourPera Museum

Women Drinking Coffee Jean Baptiste Vanmour First half of the 18th Century (From the collection of Pera Museum)

4. Galata Tower
One Man’s Flying (Scientific) Feat

In the 17th century, a man by the name of Ahmed Çelebi decided on one fine day that it was a great idea to strap wings to his back, leap from the top of the Galata Tower, and fly over the Bosporus. After his success he was named Hezârfen, which translates to “thousand sciences”.

Istanbul by James BurkeLIFE Photo Collection

Istanbul James Burke (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)

To experience how truly daunting this could have been, check out the Street View of the Bosporus. Looking straight ahead the tip of the Galata tower can be seen.

Street View of Bosphorus

5. The Grand Bazaar
An Ancient Shopping Mall

Walking through the Grand Bazaar can initially be fulfilling as the fast paced energy of commerce and bargaining fills the 4,000 shops that line its 550-year-old passages. That’s probably why close to 100 million visitors seek it out annually.

As one spends more time getting lost in the labyrinth of the Grand Bazaar, you begin to realize there is more to it than what is on the surface. Have a look for yourself and explore using the Street View. See what kind of secret alleys you can discover and the riches you can see.

Street View of the Grand Bazaar

6. Sultanahmet Peninsula
Tulip Mania

Sultanahmet peninsula, also referred to as the “Historical Peninsula”, plays host to the Hagia Sophia, Grand Bazaar, the Blue Mosque, Topkapi palace, and the Cisterns. For eleven months of the year these unbelievable feats of ancient civil innovation steal the show. But for the month of April the tulip festival takes center stage. Tulip mania spreads across the peninsula and it begins to make sense why the tulip is so ingrained into Turkish culture.

Istanbul by James BurkeLIFE Photo Collection

Istanbul James Burke (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)

To get an idea of how important tulips are, the Blue Mosque is covered with over 50,000 distinct blue and white tiles. Within those 50,000 tiles there are 50 distinct tulip designs similar to the ones in this picture.

Detail of tile panel (17th and 19th centuries) by UnknownShangri La Museum of Islamic Art, Culture & Design

Detail of the panel,  Unknown 17th and 19th centuries (From the collection of Shangri La Museum of Islamic Art, Culture & Design)

7. Maiden’s Tower
The Emperor’s Daughter Gets Her Own Room

In the middle of the Bosporus sits a small tower with a large allure. The story goes that a Byzantine Emperor was given a prophecy that his daughter would be killed by a venomous snake. Out of fear he built this tower where no one could reach her. But death still did reach her as she was killed by a snake in a delivered fruit basket.

Kız Kulesi, Galata and Fındıklı Residential Areas (Late 19th Century) by Pascal SébahPera Museum

Kız Kulesi, Galata and Fındıklı Residential Areas, Pascal Sébah, Pascal Sébah, Late 19th Century (From the collection of Pera Museum)

8. Istiklal Street
The Red Fox Trots Quietly at Midnight

Istiklal Street, lined with its endless restaurants, bars, shops, and art galleries is graced by quaint red street trolleys, much like those in San Francisco. Hop on and off wherever you like. While today the street can come off as inviting and cozy, it was anything but during WW2. Thanks to Turkey’s neutrality and overall central geopolitical nature, Istiklal and the greater neighborhood of Beyoğlu acted as a hotbed for international spies from axis and ally superpowers.

Trams in Beyoğlu, Istanbul, Beyoğlu'nda Tramvaylar, Istanbul (2004/2004) by Nuri Bilge CeylanBorusan Contemporary

Trams in Beyoğlu, Istanbul, Beyoğlu'nda Tramvaylar, Istanbul Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2004/2004 (From the collection of Borusan Contemporary)

The tram tracks and the respective trams that line Istiklal have become iconic to representation of the Beyoğlu neighborhood.

Istiklal Avenue (2013/2013) by Erdal İnciBorusan Contemporary

Istiklal Avenue, Erdal İnci, 2013/2013 (From the collection of Borusan Contemporary)

9. Bosporus Straits
A Seafloor Museum

The Bosporus is by far one of the most stunning straits of water to this day. But it holds more significance than just aesthetic quality. Due to playing host to maritime expeditions and trade for thousands of years the passage has seen its fair share of maritime disasters. For example, in 1960 two oil carrying ships collided, spilled 18,000 tons of oil and caused fires that burnt for weeks. Compare that to the more recent excavations, which discovered Neolithic dwellings that date back to 6,000 BCE when water levels were much lower in the Bosporus.

Istanbul Rest by Stan WaymanLIFE Photo Collection

Istanbul Rest, Stan Wayman (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)

Can you imagine peeking out your window and catching a fleeting glance of an illegal warship passing through a sliver of moonlight? Indulge your imagination and take a virtual tour of the Bosporus yourself.

Street View of Bosphorus

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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