If one had but a single glance to give the world,
one should gaze on Istanbul.
— Alphonse de Lamartine, 1835
The only city in the world to span two continents, fascinating Istanbul has long entranced travelers as a bridge between Europe and Asia, Islam and Christianity, Occident and Orient. Serving as a capital for the Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman Empires—and situated at the crossroads of human history on the Bosphorus Peninsula between the Balkans and Anatolia, the Black Sea and the Mediterranean—Istanbul boasts thousands of cultural sites dating from the sixth millennium BCE to the present day. Its masterpieces include the sixth-century Hagia Sophia, the sixteenth-century Süleymaniye Mosque, and the seventeenth-century Blue Mosque, all in the oldest parts of the city collectively designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985. Istanbul endures as the cosmopolitan heart of the Republic of Turkey, its financial center, cultural hub, and most populous city. Any visit to Turkey must begin here.
Wander along the Bosphorus as the ezan—the Muslim call to prayer—melts away in the first light of the dawn, and watch seagulls chase the public ferries carrying students and workers from the Asian to the European side. Board a ferry and take in the palaces and traditional wooden houses all along the riverbanks. Marvel at the enormous dome of the Hagia Sophia and the architectural wonders of the Süleymaniye and Blue Mosques. Walk leisurely through the Sultanahmet Meydanı—site of the Hippodrome of Constantine—and gaze in wonder at the Obelisk of Thutmose III, brought from Egypt by Theodosius the Great in the fourth century. Stroll the gorgeous grounds of the Topkapı Sarayı, luxurious home to the Ottoman Sultans for more than five centuries. Revel in the myriad shops and stalls of the Grand Bazaar, one of the oldest and largest covered markets in the world, with sixty-one streets and more than three thousand shops. End your day one of Istanbul’s mouth-watering restaurants, enjoying Turkish cuisine at its finest.
One of the greatest surviving examples of Byzantine architecture, the Hagia Sophia (literally the Church of “Holy Wisdom”) has served as the seat of the Orthodox Patriarchy of Constantinople, a mosque, and (currently) a museum. The sixth-century historian, Procopius, marveled at the Hagia Sophia’s massive dome, rich mosaics, and marbled pillars: “The mind rises sublime to commune with God, feeling that he cannot be far off, but must especially love to dwell in the place which he has chosen.”
Beautifully situated on the site of the old Byzantine acropolis, Topkapı Sarayı (literally “Palace of the Canon-Gate”)—the largest Ottoman building complex—served as home to the Ottoman emperors for more than five hundred years. Built by Mehmet the Conqueror beginning in 1453, the palace is divided into five distinct courts: royal bakeries, a hospital, the imperial mint, and servants’ quarters in the first court; the seat of the Imperial Council, a mosque, the records office, stables, and the entrances to the harem in the second; the Audience Chamber, library, safe-keeping rooms, and royal treasury in the third court; and residential quarters for the Sultan and his princes, as well as the royal harem, in the fourth.
Easily Istanbul's most photogenic building, the Blue Mosque (or the Sultan Ahmet Camii) was, as its formal name suggests, the grand project of Sultan Ahmet I (reigned 1603–1617), whose tomb is located on the north side of the site. Built partly on the site of the ancient Hippodrome of Constantinople, the mosque's wonderfully curvaceous exterior features a cascade of domes and six slender, fluted minarets.
The Hippodrome was the social and entertainment centre of Constantinople. Today the pleasant park on which it stood contains the 26m high Egyptian Obelisk, or Dikilitas, which stands in the northern section, was commissioned by Pharaoh Thutmose III
Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar (Kapalı Çarşı, literally “covered bazaar”) is one of the oldest and largest covered markets in the world and remains an integral part of daily local life among city residents and visitors alike. With sixty-one covered streets, more than three thousand shops, five hundred stalls, and eighteen fountains, the Grand Bazaar attracts between 250,000 and 400,000 visitors each day.
Hundreds of ancient cisterns lie hidden beneath the streets of Istanbul. The Basilica Cistern is one of Istanbul’s most unique tourist attractions. Also known as the “Sunken Palace,” the Basilica Cistern was originally constructed in 532 (during the reign of Justinian I) as a water reservoir to provide water to the Great Palace and nearby buildings.
Housing a treasure trove of gorgeous Byzantine mosaics and frescoes, the Holy Savoir of Chora Church (now a museum) is not to be missed. Originally known as the Church of the Holy Savior Outside the Walls to reflect its site beyond the walls constructed by Constantine the Great (the Greek chora or khora refers to land beyond the settled metropolis), the initial fourth-century structure has been replaced by buildings dating from the eleventh, twelfth, and fourteenth centuries.
As the first European-style palace built during the Ottoman period, the Dolmabahçe Palace boasts a neoclassical exterior and a decadently luxurious interior. More rather than less was certainly the philosophy of Sultan Abdül Mecit I (reigned 1839–1861), who decided to move his imperial court from Topkapı to a lavish new palace on the shores of the Bosphorus.
Crowning one of Istanbul’s seven hills and dominating the Golden Horn, the Süleymaniye Mosque is the city’s grandest and most beautiful, an exemplar of classical Ottoman architecture at its finest. Commissioned by Sultan Süleyman I (known as “The Magnificent”), the mosque and its surrounding buildings were designed by Mimar Sinan, the most famous and talented of all imperial architects.
Also known as the Istanbul Strait, the Bosphorus forms one part of the boundary between Europe and Asia and is recognized worldwide as a symbol of Istanbul. Forming the only direct passage between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, the Bosphorus has long been of great commercial and strategic significance.