Istanbul’s Top 7 Historic Gems

East meets West in Istanbul, Turkey’s vibrant capital city along the Bosphorus. Istanbul’s diverse and unique landmarks shine with great cultural and historical significance.

Apr 15, 2024By Allison Kimsey, MA English Ed, MA Secondary Ed, BA Journalism

istanbul top historic sites


Istanbul is a city begging for exploration. History seeps out of the city with every step you take and hides on every street corner. Istanbul is one of the few cities in the entire world to be intercontinental; it’s a true bridge from East to West. The city’s unique geographical position has made it historically significant as a crossroads for many civilizations and it was once the capital of the Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman Empires. The best historical sites in Istanbul are hard to nail down in a city that has been crucial for millennia, but here are some of the must-sees.


1. The Bosphorus Strait 

bridge bosphorus istanbul
The Bosphorus Strait, photo by the author


Arguably the most crucial landmark in Istanbul is the Bosphorus Strait. Wars were fought over this stretch of water, and the historic fervor is warranted as it is one of the busiest waterways in the world. This strait is the boundary separating Europe and Asia, and is a reason why Istanbul has always caught the eye of famous rulers, dating back to Constantine the Great.


There are countless ways to take in the Bosphorus Strait’s history, from lovely rooftop bars or restaurants, to scenic strolls along it. One unique way to admire the waterway is by taking a cruise to soak in the scene. Ambling down the Bosphorus by boat is the best way to really get a sense of its physical expansiveness. A sunset cruise lets you see Istanbul transition from day to night in all its glittering glory.


istanbul river at night
View over Istanbul, photo by the author


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If perhaps you are prone to sea sickness, consider taking in the stunning Bosphorus by going to one of the city’s newer additions — Galataport. Perfect for wandering near the water, Galataport  mixes the past and the present. The innovative space successfully fuses heritage buildings with innovative retail and restaurant offerings.


2. Basilica Cistern

basilica cistern
The Basilica Cistern, photo by the author


The Basilica Cistern is one of the world’s more unique historical sites. This ancient building, located near the famed Hagia Sofia Mosque, is easy to miss, but completely unforgettable. The subterranean cistern was built during Byzantine Emperor Justinian I’s reign and supplied water to the city for hundreds of years. With its sheer size, it is unbelievable that this structure went unnoticed for almost one hundred years in the 16th century.


Having only recently reopened in July 2022—following renovations—it is a can’t miss sight-seeing option in Istanbul. The cistern is a marvel of ancient technology that will have you asking yourself “How did they even build this?” The renovations have turned the Basilica into more than just a cistern; it is also a museum that showcases ancient artwork and contemporary installations. If you happen to find the time, the Basilica Cistern has a unique night offering dubbed “Night Shift,” where the cistern becomes an evening concert venue.


3. The Grand Bazaar

bazaar entrance istanbul
The Grand Bazaar, photo by the author


No trip to Istanbul is complete without a trip to experience the hustle and bustle of the Grand Bazaar. When you think about history, shopping is not usually the first thing that comes to mind. But this is no ordinary marketplace; it is one of the oldest and largest in the world. It was first opened in the 15th century by Sultan Mehmed II to stimulate the economy just after the Ottomans took over Constantinople.


The Grand Bazaar is a magnificent feast for the senses, and a massive structure filled to the brim with anything and everything your heart desires. The Bazaar is an excellent place to buy jewelry, dry goods, leather bags, carpets, and other Turkish handicrafts. However, its expanse also means it can be an overwhelming experience. Getting to the Bazaar in the morning, or before 5 pm, will allow you to experience this historical site at its calmest. If you’re looking for a restaurant to enjoy while inside the Bazaar, check out Havuzlu. It was the first restaurant ever opened in the Bazaar in 1959. It is the perfect respite after a long stroll inside the historic Bazaar with moderately priced and delicious Turkish fare.


4. Topkapi Palace Museum

topkapi palace istanbul
Topkapi Palace, photo by the author


Splendors abound for visitors to the Topkapi Palace Museum, with treasures as far as the eye can see. Beautiful gardens, ornate buildings, and more gold than you’ve ever seen await you. Topkapi Palace was the home and headquarters for the Ottoman Sultans for nearly 400 years. The Sultans grew up, lived in, and ruled from these grounds. The Palace’s 70,000 square meters (750,000 square feet) is divided into four courts, including the must-visit Harem section and Imperial Treasury. The Harem section is fascinating as it gives visitors a glimpse into the private lives of the Sultans, their mothers, wives, and concubines, as well as the palace eunuch guards who lived there. This part of the palace has important architectural significance, showcasing Ottoman styles from the 16th to the 19th century.


The singular most extravagant part of the Palace is the Imperial Treasury, which houses the lavish treasures of the Ottomans. The most stunning piece in this collection is the 86-carat “Spoonmaker’s Diamond,” the fourth largest of its kind in the world.


5. Hagia Sophia 

istanbul hagia sophia
The Hagia Sophia, photo by Mark Konig, Source: Unsplash


The Hagia Sophia is arguably one of Istanbul’s most significant pieces of architecture. First built as a Christian Church in the 6th century, it has undergone several transformations throughout the years. It has been a church, a mosque, a museum, and a mosque again. The Hagia Sophia reflects the region’s religious shape-shifting, making it a must-visit historical site in Istanbul.


The building contains some astounding mosaics that art historians consider the ultimate source of Byzantine art from the time after the Iconoclastic Controversy. The controversy occurred during the 8th and 9th centuries and centered on a dispute over the use of religious images.


The structure that stands today is essentially unchanged from its inception, a testament to its architectural importance. The architecture itself is stunning and was never emulated by other Byzantine architects, making it a truly one-of-a-kind structure. If you want to visit the historic site, be mindful that it is a functioning mosque, and women must wear a head covering. It is best to visit earlier in the day and avoid Friday afternoons.


6. The Blue Mosque 

blue mosque at sunset
The Blue Mosque, photo by Fatih Yürür, Source: Unsplash


Istanbul’s Blue Mosque is probably its most famous architectural feature. It caused quite a stir when it was initially built, as several Ottoman palaces had to be razed to make room for it. The beautiful building is still a functioning mosque and was built to signify the Ottoman transition to Islam. Its official name is the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, as it was constructed during Ahmed I’s rule, and the grounds also include a mausoleum to the ruler. Sultan Ahmed I envisioned the mosque rivaling and surpassing the Hagia Sophia.


The mosque received its famous blue moniker because it is decorated with thousands of beautiful blue Iznik tiles. Although the mosque’s architecture is not deemed as impressive as the Hagia Sophia it is not without its unique features. The mosque is the only one in Istanbul with six minarets, towers built near mosques for the call to prayer, which sparked controversy at the time. Before the Blue Mosque, the only mosque to contain six minarets was the Prophet’s Mosque in Mecca, and many criticized the Sultan for his ego. He later remedied this by paying for a seventh minaret in Mecca.


It is easy to visit the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia on the same day, as they are nearby. The Blue Mosque does not require any admission fee, but there will likely be lines. It is an operating mosque and is open every day except for Fridays, when the mosque is closed to non-Muslims for prayers until noon. Be aware that entry also hinges on prayer times each day.


7. Galata Tower

galata tower
Galata Tower, photo by Mehmet Bozgedik, Source: Unsplash


Galata Tower, located in the Beyoglu neighborhood, is one of the oldest towers in the world and was once used as a fire watch tower. While the current Galata tower is not the first one, this tower has stood in the city since 1349, and is only part of the tower’s unique history. In the 17th century, a man named Ahmed “Hezarfen” tested one of the world’s first flights by leaping from the tower wearing bird-like wings.


The historic tower is a fantastic sightseeing opportunity as it has been a museum since 2020 and contains one of the city’s best views from its 360-degree observation deck. The surrounding neighborhood makes for a perfect day in Istanbul, with many exciting shopping opportunities and delicious restaurants nearby. The tower is open until at least 11:00 pm each evening, making it an excellent spot for a historical adventure at night.

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By Allison KimseyMA English Ed, MA Secondary Ed, BA JournalismAllison is a teacher and writer who earned a journalism degree from the University of Arizona and worked in one of the largest newsrooms in the southwestern United States before entering education. After earning her master's from Columbia University, she moved internationally to teach in Southeast Asia, where – when she’s not writing – she’s teaching students how to write. She’s a traveler and a seeker who loves to see how other people live in this wild world. Oh, and she loves dogs, particularly her little Yorkie.