10 must see historical places in Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul is an amazing city and just as you’d expect it blends its history with the cultures and religions that met at this crossroads of civilisation.  If you’re visiting the city and have a heart for the historic sites and don’t want to miss any then here are our favourite must-see historical places in Istanbul that you really shouldn’t miss!

Which historical places in Istanbul should you not miss?

I’ll be honest with you here, when you’re in Istanbul you can’t help but fall over all of the amazing historical sights.  There’s so many!  For us, it was our first taste of non-European culture so it was an amazing place to wander and learn but even if it’s your 10th visit I know you’ll adore all the sites on this list!  Some date as far back as the Romans and they go forward as far as the 1800s and all are unique places and very different.  I hope you enjoy your time in the city – I can’t wait to go back one day myself!  I really adored Istanbul.

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historical things to do in Istanbul

Hagia Sophia

byzantine hagia sophia historical site istanbul

One of the most impressive and oldest buildings in Istanbul is the Hagia Sophia, originally built as a Greek Orthodox church and it dates all the way back to 537 AD. At the time it was built it was actually one of the largest buildings in the world.

When Constantinople, as Istanbul was known, was conquered by the Ottoman Empire in the 1400s it was turned in to a mosque.  Many of the Christian icons and relics were destroyed or plastered over and replaced with Islamic minarets and other features which of course gives the building an amazing feel to it today.  It remained a mosque until the 1930s when it was turned in to a museum and it has been so until this day.

We visited the museum on our trip a few years ago and it was one of our favourite days out – fairly inexpensive and a definitely one if you’re at all interested in the Byzantine or Ottoman history.

If you want to buy tickets in advance for Hagia Sophia and miss any queues then I recommend getting tickets here.

Blue Mosque

historic blue mosque Istanbul Turkey

Directly opposite the Hagia Sophia is the Blue Mosque and it’s really hard to imagine that it’s not always been there by its side.  In fact, the Blue Mosque has only been around for the past 400 years (Built in 1616) compared to 1000 years that Hagia Sophia stood on her own before that.

Also known as Sultan Ahmed Mosque for it was built in the time of Ahmed I, and also contains his tomb, it’s still a functioning mosque today and leads a call to prayer, attracting locals to worship.  It’s an amazing, beautiful building and so impressive in stature.

Even though it’s a working mosque it’s ok to visit outside of worship times and it’s free to do so.  You’ll need to remove your shoes and cover your head also, and of course, be dressed appropriately.  I do recommend going inside as it’s just such a stunning building.  If you don’t get chance then just being around the gardens outside and listening to the call to prayer and watching people head there is pretty awe-inspiring too.

If you’d like a guided tour of the Blue Mosque then this one comes highly recommended (and also includes Hagia Sophia).

Galata tower

galata tower istanbul medieval

An impressive tower and looking like something straight out of a fairy tale, Galata tower is not something that you’d perhaps imagine when thinking about the architecture or history of Istanbul.  I certainly had never heard of it before we went!

It was built in 1348 and at the time of it being built, it was the tallest structure in Istanbul.  Called the Tower of Christ by the Genoese who lived in the area and who built the structure it’s a really nice example of Romanesque architecture.

You can climb the tower and from the top, you can get amazing views over the city and of the Bosphorus river – my tip for you is to try and avoid sunset time.  We, unfortunately, went at this time and it was not only busy with long queues but once we got to the top people didn’t particularly want to lose their prime spot for photos and so moving around the top was tricky.  I Imagine in our Instagram fuelled age it might be even worse nowadays!

Grand Bazaar

Grand Bazaar Istanbul historical market

Considered one of the oldest covered markets in the world a trip to the Grand Bazaar has to be on anyone’s list!  It’s amazing to think that this covered market was built in medieval times and dates to the 1400s when it began.

It attracts so many people these days but it’s still more than just a tourist attraction.  It employs thousands of people and it’s the place to go if you want to do a bit of shopping!  Rugs, lamps, clothes, spices, sweets – you’ll find it all here.

If you want to visit and miss the crowds then go first thing in the morning.  That’s what we did but I’ll admit I did find it missed the busy atmosphere that I was expecting – perhaps go a bit later on if you want the full experience!

Spice market

Busy Spice Market in Istanbul

Another historic market, this time near the river area is the Spice Market.  It was built later than the Grand Bazaar in 1660 using money from when Egypt was part of the Ottoman Empire (check) and as such, it has another name of the Egyptian Bazaar.

It primarily sells spices so if you want to get that heady smell that you imagine a spice market will bring this is certainly the place to come!  Again, like the Grand Bazaar time your visit to your preferences – if you don’t like crowds then come early.  We hit upon this one later in the day and the contrast with our Grand Bazaar visit was striking!  So much busier as you can see in the photo above and what I was expecting!   Combine it with a visit to the Galata bridge, a trip along the Bosphorus or even a wander along to the Galata tower if you have time.

Basilica Cistern

basilica cistern istanbul attractions

This was one of the most interesting things for us to see in Istanbul.  It’s a cistern, a receptacle for holding water, built under the city of Istanbul.

It had been used in many films and the one that inspired my husband to visit was that it was used in a James Bond film – From Russia with Love.  It’s a really atmospheric place to visit and it just amazes me that it’s so old!  It was built way before many of the other sites on this list- in the 3rd or 4th century.  It provided fresh, filtrated water to the palace from the 1400s into modern times.

You can skip the queues with a ticket bought online here.

Million Stone

Istanbul, Turkey - September 11, 2014: The Milion was a mile-marker monument erected in the early 4th century AD in Constantinople. It was the starting-place for measurement of distances for all the roads leading to the cities of the Byzantine Empire and had the same function as the Milliarium Aureum of Rome.

The Million Stone is what remains of an old archway from the Roman-Byzantine Empire.  It was where all distances to Roman empire cities were measured from and there is a sign displaying distances to places all over the world alongside the stone.  There’s also a wooden walkway with more cities and distances written on them.

It’s one of those sights that if you don’t know to look for it you may well pass it by.  We actually really loved seeing this one – funny how some sights really make a lasting impression on you!

The Million Stone is just around the corner from the Basilica Cistern and very close to both the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque so one to include if you’re in the area anyway.

Topkapi Palace

Topkapi Palace Istanbul sights

Now, this is one that we didn’t visit ourselves although we did enjoy the wonderful gardens all around.  If you don’t get the chance to visit inside it’s still worth a wander and explore!

The palace itself was the administrative home to the Sultans and was built in the 15th century.  The Sultans moved out in the 1800s to the Dolmabahçe Palace (below) but it was still a really important building and served as a treasury and library.

Like the Hagia Sofia, it was turned in to a museum at the end of the Ottoman rule in 1923 and has been so ever since.  You can see examples of Ottoman clothing, weapons and every day objects too so if that is your interest it’s definitely worth a look at.  They have a sacred relics room too, but note if you are visiting and want to see it – you’ll need to be wearing appropriate clothing – no shorts, tank tops, short skirts or strapless tops.

The museum is separate from the Harem and you’ll need different entry tickets.  I really recommend a tour (see below) as it’s so big and so much to learn!

Get a fast track ticket here which includes a guided tour as well if you want to really learn all there is to know about the palace.

Suleymaniye Hammams

Turkish Baths Hammams Istanbul

Now there are many Turkish baths in the city of Istanbul of course and the Suleymaniye Hamam is one that has an interesting history.  This particular bath in the historic old town was actually built in 1557 and still is run as a bath today.  This one was built for Suleiman the Magnificent, the sultan at the time, and there’s a story that if you bath in these waters would be cured of their ills.

If you can take a look at these places as there is so much history in the walls – and of course enjoy the tradition of a Turkish bath yourself!  I’m afraid I couldn’t get my family to entertain it!

Dolmabahçe Palace

Dolmabahçe palace

You might see this palace from a Bosphorus cruise if you do one and be intrigued by the stunning architecture on display.  The Dolmabahçe Palace was built for the Sultans as they felt that the Topkapi Palace wasn’t quite the right contemporary style for them.

It was built in the late 1800s and so is one of the newest historical sites on this list, but it’s an impressive one all the same.  You can visit inside the palace if you want, it’s a little out of the way of the main sights in the centre of the city, but if you have time and can explore further afield it’s recommended.  Otherwise, you can do as we did and enjoy the beautiful view from the river!

A tour that includes this palace can be found here.

Istanbul guided city tours

If you’re heading to Istanbul and would like the convenience of a tour that will show you all that you want to see you’re in luck!  You can choose between group tours or maybe even a private tour tailored to what you are interested in.  If you want to be a bit more independent then the hop on hop off buses are a great idea and can help if time is a bit tight.  Here are some of the best-rated tours from Get Your Guide – click on any of the images below to find out more.


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Things to do in Istanbul, Turkey if you love historical sites! From mosques to medieval towers and markets there's so many places to add to your Istanbul city itinerary.
Things to do in Istanbul, Turkey if you love historical sites! From mosques to medieval towers and markets there's so many places to add to your Istanbul city itinerary | Blue Mosque | Hagia Sofia | Basilica Cistern | Grand Bazaar

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Kirsty Bartholomew

Kirsty Bartholomew is a travel expert and has been getting lost around the world for over 30 years and writing about it for over 10 of those. She loves to help people explore her favourite places in Scotland, England and beyond. She cannot stay away from historical sites.

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