The Top 9 Places To Visit In Istanbul

From sunken ships to ancient shopping malls, explore the surprising stories behind Istanbul's famous sites

Istanbul is an amazing place to travel. It has a rich and diverse history, is the only city in the world to be divided between two continents, and has acted as the capital to three different major empires— Byzantine, Roman, and Ottoman. Dig a little deeper and you can see just how fascinating life has been there over the years. Here are 9 lesser-known facts about the historical gem that is Istanbul.

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

1. Hagia Sophia

“A Badass Viking was Here”

As a kid, did you ever carve your name into a tree just to leave your mark on the world? You’re not alone. This is exactly what the Vikings did in the now 1500-year-old museum, once mosque, once church, that is the Hagia Sophia. The inscription scratched on the right side of the upper gallery reads “Halfdan carved these runes”. The "I woz here" of ancient times.

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

2. Dolmabahçe Palace

The Ottoman Empire Shows Its Brawn (In Gold)

What do you do when you’re on the brink of extinction? Go into denial and build one of the most lavish and expensive palaces in the world, of course. This was the Ottomans’ logic. To cover up the fact that their empire was in decline, they constructed Dolmabahçe Palace, which was meant to give the illusion of unrivaled wealth.

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

The Dolmabahçe 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.

3. Topkapi Palace

The Sultan’s Harem

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

While harems are typically now viewed as one-dimensional, the truth is that they played a much more complex and important role in Ottoman society. For example, their role in women’s education got to the point where there were phases of the Ottoman Empire where critical decisions stemmed from women in the harem.

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 as “thousand sciences”.

Istanbul, James Burke (From the LIFE Photo Collection)

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

5. The Grand Bazaar

An Ancient Shopping Mall

Walking through the Grand Bazaar gets the blood racing, with the fast-paced energy of commerce and bargaining that fills the 4,000 shops that line it’s 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 that is the Grand Bazaar, you begin to realize there is more to it than first meets the eye. Have a look for yourself and explore using Street View. See what kind of secret alleys you can discover.

6. Sultanahmet Peninsula

Tulip Mania

Sultanahmet Peninsula, also referred to as the “Historical Peninsula”, is home to the Hagia Sophia, Grand Bazaar, 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 becomes clear why the tulip is so ingrained into Turkish culture.

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

To get a sense of the importance of tulips, take a look at the designs in the Blue Mosque. The mosque is covered with over 50,000 distinct blue and white tiles, within which there are a total of 50 distinct tulip designs, similar to the ones seen in this picture.

Detail of tile panel, Unknown creator, 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 big 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 found her in the end: she was killed by a snake hidden in a delivered fruit basket.

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, where you can 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 central geographical location, 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 Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2004/2004 (From the collection of Borusan Contemporary)

Today, the tram tracks and respective trams that line Istiklal have become iconic in representations of the Beyoğlu neighborhood.

9. Bosporus Straits

A Seafloor Museum

The Bosporus is one of the most stunning straits of water in the world. But it’s not just pretty, it also has a long and storied history. Playing host to maritime expeditions and trade routes for thousands of years, the passage has seen its fair share of maritime disasters. For example, in 1960, two oil-carrying ships collided, spilling 18,000 tons of oil and causing a fire that burnt for weeks. Compare that to more recent excavations that discovered Neolithic dwellings under the water that date back to 6,000 BCE.

Istanbul Rest, By 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 for yourself.

Words by Ryan Birol
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