Istanbul Province Points of Interest
When looking at the Istanbul province points of interest, the list runs into hundreds that would take many months to explore. This isn’t a surprise, given it is Turkey’s most prominent city, despite not being its capital. Many reasons exist for the vast wealth of attractions that also make it the top-visited place in Turkey. Some are the art, culture, nightlife, shopping, and social scenes. The city never stops, and artisans from all over the world find sources of inspiration on every corner.
Ultimately, though, its historical timeline plays a large part in its fame. Events that happened in this city shaped the course of history across the world and in other countries. The Byzantine and Ottoman empires also ruled from this province; hence its royal connection is undeniable, even though neither exists no more. The area sits on the European and Asian continents, and all the attractions spread out, so for this article, we focus on the must-see and most important for those who are short on time.
Istanbul Province Points of Interest
1: Sultanahmet District
This historic neighbourhood, the tourism industry’s beating heart, is always on every first-time visitor’s list to visit. Sitting in Fatih district, and known as the old city, many landmark buildings within it hold UNESCO world heritage status. An excellent place to start is the 17th-century Blue Mosque, former royal home of worship for Ottoman sultans. Across the square is the magnificent Hagia Sophia that, in its heyday, was the world’s largest domed building.
Around the corner, a full morning is needed to tour Topkapi Palace and its harem, from where the sultans lived when they first captured Constantinople in 1453. Other sites within this district include the Istanbul Archaeology Museum, underground Basilica Cistern that Mark Twain visited and the old hippodrome, where the famous Nika riots took place. Read more about the Sultanahmet district here.
2: The Grand Bazaar
Sitting a short walk away, the Grand Bazaar is the most visited shopping mall in Turkey. However, forget about your modern, sleek architecture with current day brand names because the Bazaar is all about taking a trip down memory lane. As Turkey’s oldest and largest market, the maze of alleyways and shops means most first-time visitors get lost, but this is fun, as you discover quirky shops, antique stalls, souvenirs hubs and much more. Remember to practise your Turkish bartering skills but while you are emptying your purse, also look up and around at the old architectural styles stemming from Ottoman days.
3: Galata Tower, Taksim Square and Istiklal Avenue
From the old to the new city, head away from the Bazaar, across the Golden Horn via the Galata Bridge and arrive at the tower with the same name. The 67-metre Genoese landmark seems out of place but use the lift to reach the top floor viewing point for a fantastic panoramic view. From there, head inland, and uphill to arrive at Istiklal Avenue, with the iconic red tram, that is the longest street in Turkey leading up to Taksim Square and the famous monument with the same name that is a meeting place for locals.
Istiklal Avenue holds many modern shops but also delightful places to explore like the Galata Whirling Dervish Museum, Flower Passage, Saint Anthony of Padua Church and in Beyoglu’s back avenues, French street, the Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk, and quaint antique shops in Cukurcuma neighbourhood.
4: The Bosphorus Shores of Istanbul
The Bosphorus Strait, Turkey’s most important shipping lane, has throughout history witnessed many empires’ fights, win and lose control over it. These days, life is more peaceful, and for first-time visitors, is an ideal opportunity to get to know the small neighbourhoods and significant landmarks that form part of its history. Rather than walk the shores, we recommend a sightseeing Bosphorus cruise.
Either book an excursion ticket which includes dinner and music, but they are often held at night. So, we jump on board a local ferry that is a time-honoured method of getting around from Asia to Europe. Heading up and down to stop at different villages, they pass major landmarks like Rumelihisari Castle and Yali mansions. These old mansions, under protected status dated from Ottoman times, are Turkey’s most expensive real estate market properties with some fetching upwards of 100 million euros or more. More about exploring the Bosphorus.
5: Interesting Ottoman Palaces
The Ottoman empire certainly left their mark on Istanbul, and it is noticeable on every corner. One exciting way to learn more about them, their traditions and culture and eventually their demise is to explore their palaces. Topkapi, as mentioned above, is the main one, but also take a slight detour to see Dolmabahce Palace in the Besiktas district. This was their last home and former seat of power before they were exiled from the newly formed Turkish republic. The extravagance inside is outstanding from crystal-lined staircases; gold leaves on the ceilings, pure silk carpets and a large chandelier given by Queen Victoria. Other Ottoman palaces include Beylerbeyi, Kucuksu, Yildiz and if you have the cash, spend a night in the renovated Ciragan that is now a five-star luxury hotel.
6: Princes Islands: A Point of Exile
Sitting off the sea of Marmara coastline, the Adalar Princes’ Islands were a point of exile for royalty who had done wrong. These days, no-one must face a lonely existence because their focus is now tourism. Consisting of Buyukada, Heybeliada, Burgazada, Kinaliada and five smaller islands, the first is the most famous. At weekends, locals and tourists arrive by ferry to enjoy strolling the traffic-free streets lined by huge Ottoman mansions, known for their timeless architecture no longer used. If walking is not your thing, get around by renting a bicycle or jumping on the horse and cart. Due to their location, they are not a year-round tourist destination but instead favoured in summer only.
7: Miniaturk: Where Time Stops
Covering 60,000 square meters, Miniaturk brings together rich architectural heritage from cultures of every civilization that ruled these lands from Rome and Byzantium to Seljuks and Ottomans. Opened in 2003, visitors can see tiny scale models of major landmarks from around Turkey. Think caravansaries, complexes, madrasas, bridges, stations, piers, castles, ramparts, tombs, mosques, churches, synagogues, palaces, mansions, obelisks, monuments, sculptures, places of natural beauty like the fairy chimneys of Cappadocia and Pamukkale, and two of the world’s seven ancient wonders that were located in Turkey; Halicarnassus Mausoleum, and Artemis Temple. This countrywide tour within a few hours leaves you wanting to know and travel more.
8: Istanbul Aquarium
All visitors have fun here thanks to an interesting setup and 17 themed sections. Using interactive games, films, and visual graphics, this fun learning experience encourages kids to get to know species inhabiting the world with us. Species to see include, but are not limited to, red-bellied piranhas who detect blood from 2 kilometres away, the lemon shark that never sleeps. The Russian sturgeon often farmed for its caviar, clownfish, a poisonous sea creature, the Gentoo Penguins, and a 2.5-meter anaconda. Themes range from the Pacific waters to the Amazon rainforests and those who fancy themselves as a daredevil can even sign up for swimming lessons with certain fish.
9: Arnavutkoy and Bebek
Not to be confused with the district of the same name near new Istanbul international airport, Arnavutkoy, on the Bosphorus shores, is a delightful change from the central city’s hustle and bustle, and easily accessible by ferries. Locals often head here and to neighbouring Bebek at the weekends for rest, relaxation and to watch the world go by. Both Arnavutkoy and Bebek have stellar reputations for Bosphorus shore restaurants serving fresh fish and seafood. Both are in Besiktas, a more affluent area to live, hence don’t be surprised to see the odd flash car here and there. Otherwise, stroll the back streets to find the old part of both villages and the iconic wooden mansions that often feature on postcards. If exploring villages are your passions, here are several more recommended places to visit.
Also of Interest
As mentioned before, the list of Istanbul province points of interest is endless. However, for more inspiration or advice on where to go, see our Istanbul area guide and blog. In it, we talk about where to go, what to see, where to eat and much more. From activities for budget-conscious people to splashing the cash out, there are many ideas.