The most populous city in Europe has played one of the most important roles in human history, mainly because it’s located in both Europe and Asia as it straddles the Bosphorus strait.
Istanbul was founded as Byzantium in 657 B.C. and renamed Constantinople after Roman Emperor Constantine the Great turned it into the new capital of the Roman Empire in 330 A.D.
Since then, the largest city in modern-day Turkey served as the Imperial capital of the Roman/Byzantine (330–1204), Latin (1204–1261), Byzantine (1261–1453), and Ottoman (1453–1922) empires.
Yes, this immense city with a population of over 15 million inhabitants breathes history, something reflected in the countless amazing structures that you can visit.
In this article, you’ll discover some of the most famous buildings in Istanbul, one of the richest cities in the world in terms of cultural heritage.
1. Topkapi Palace
One of the most astonishing palace complexes in the world can be found in the historical heart of the city known as the Fatih district.
Construction of the Topkapi Palace started shortly after the Fall of Constantinople in 1453 and was continuously extended the following centuries.
It was built as the main residence of the Ottoman Sultans, as well as their administrative headquarters, a purpose it served during the 15th and 16th centuries.
The entire complex consists of 4 main courtyards and a large number of buildings, including an extensive harem for the female partners of the Sultans.
To give some reference to the sheer size of the entire complex, the Imperial harem alone features over 400 rooms, an astonishing figure.
The buildings were turned into an enormous museum in the year 1924 and it has served this purpose ever since. It’s one of the most popular tourist attractions in Istanbul and a must-visit location when you’re in the city.
Official website: Topkapi Palace Museum
2. Hagia Sophia
An equally famous building in Turkey’s capital is located just a few hundred meters to the south of the Topkapi Palace, the world-famous Hagia Sophia.
The building is officially known as the “Hagia Sophia Holy Grand Mosque” since its conversion from its original purpose.
The Church of Hagia Sophia was converted into a museum in 1925 and only recently reverted to a mosque in 2020. This was considered to be a controversial move by the Turkish government to put it euphemistically.
The original Byzantine structure was built in the year 537 A.D. and was the largest church in the eastern Roman Empire and the first to integrate a full pendentive dome, a dome roof on top of a square room.
The structure has been an icon for the city of Istanbul since its construction in the 6th century and has been the most-visited tourist attraction in Turkey for many years.
Official website: Hagia Sophia
3. Galata Tower
One of the lesser-known events in the history of the city is the fact that a Genoese colony was established here, and they left behind one of the most famous buildings in Istanbul.
The Republic of Genua was a maritime republic in Europe between the 11th century and 1797 and they expanded their territory in Constantinople.
They built the Galata Tower in 1348 which they named “Christea Turris” or “Tower of Christ.” It ended up being renamed and used as a tower to spot fires in the city during the Ottoman Empire.
With a height of 62.59 meters (205.3 feet), it was the tallest structure in the city at the time in the 14th century.
Today, the observation platform near the top of the fascinating tower is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the area, mainly because it provides astounding views of the entire city and its surroundings.
Official website: Galata Tower
4. Süleymaniye Mosque
Did you know that Istanbul is referred to as “The City on the Seven Hills?”
On one of these elevated spots known as the “Third Hill,” we can find another incredible landmark in the city known as the “Süleymaniye Mosque.”
The mosque was commissioned in 1550 by one of the most famous Sultans of the Ottoman Empire known as “Suleiman the Magnificent.”
Just 7 years later, in 1557, the enormous mosque complex was officially inaugurated and was the largest mosque in Istanbul for exactly 462 years. It was only recently surpassed by the even bigger Çamlıca Mosque in 2019.
Apart from being one of the most important mosques in Istanbul, it also houses the mausoleums of the man who commissioned it and his wife, Suleiman the Magnificent and Hurrem Sultan.
Official website: Süleymaniye Mosque
5. Grand Bazaar
If you want to shop until you drop, then you can while you’re in Istanbul, right in the city’s historical heart.
One of the most astounding covered markets you’ll ever come across is called the “Grand Bazaar,” a complex of 61 covered streets that feature over 4,000 shops.
The market covers an area of 30,700 square meters (330,452 square feet) which makes it one of the biggest covered markets in the world.
With anywhere between 250,000 and 400,000 daily (!) visitors, it’s considered to be one of the most-visited tourist attractions in the entire world as well.
6. Ciragan Palace Kempinski
Visiting amazing palaces that were built by emperors hundreds of years ago is an amazing experience. Staying in one is quite something else.
In Istanbul, you have this opportunity because the final palace to be constructed by the Ottoman rulers has been transformed into a 5-star hotel.
The palace complex is located on the European side of the Bosphorus strait and is called the Ciragan Palace Kempinski. It was built between 1863 and 1867 and the lavish interior was completed in 1872.
The palace was quite dilapidated in the 1980s and was completely renovated in the early 1990s. Today, it’s one of the most fascinating hotels in the world which is run by the Kempinski Hotels chain.
If you want to stay here, however, you’ll need to put up quite some cash. The Sultan’s Suite costs over $35,000 per night and the other rooms aren’t exactly cheap either.
Official website: Ciragan Palace Kempinski
7. Blue Mosque
The Blue Mosque is officially known as the “Sultan Ahmed Mosque,” a reference to the man who commissioned this amazing structure in Istanbul in the early 17th century.
The mosque was built between 1609 and 1616, a rough period during the reign of Ahmed I. He ordered the construction of the building to emphasize his power, even though he didn’t manage to win any war that he fought.
This means that he didn’t hold back in terms of the scale of the building. It features six minarets, 5 main domes, and 8 secondary domes, features that turned it into one of the most astounding buildings in Istanbul.
The building got its name from both the blue tiles that adorn the interior and the blue hue that shines through the windows because of these.
8. Basilica Cistern
The Basilica Cistern is one of the numerous ancient cisterns that were built in antiquity. All of these are now located below the modern-day city of Istanbul.
This particular cistern is located in the historical heart of the city about 150 meters (490 feet) southwest of the Hagia Sophia and is the largest of its kind in the city.
It was built during the reign of Justinian I (482-565), the Byzantine Emperor between 527 and 565 A.D. He was also the man who initiated the construction of the Hagia Sophia and his reign was considered to be a very prosperous period in the Eastern Roman Empire.
Today, the Basilica Cistern is a popular tourist attraction and little water is stored here to preserve the structure. Walking inside a 6th-century water storage facility is quite an experience, that’s for sure.
9. Grand Çamlıca Mosque
The Grand Çamlıca Mosque is the largest in Turkey and is located in the eastern part of the city. It’s a recently-built structure of which the planning started in 2000.
The Turkish government spent approximately $110 million on this megaproject, an astounding figure. The result is one of the most amazing buildings in Istanbul that was completed in 2019.
The building was designed by two female architects and was inspired by both Ottoman and Islamic architecture. It can hold up to 63,000 people at any given time and up to 100,000 people when a calamity occurs.
It’s one of the most prominent landmarks in the area, especially because its dome reaches a height of 72 meters (236 feet) and the 6 minarets a height of 107.1 meters (351 feet).
10. QNB Finansbank Tower
Istanbul is home to both ancient buildings and modern structures. Many of the city’s most amazing skyscrapers can be found in the Levent neighborhood in the northern part of the city.
One of the most fascinating buildings in the financial business district in Istanbul is called the QNB Finansbank Tower, the headquarters of the Turkish bank with the same name.
The modern building was completed between 2011 and 2014 and although it only reaches a height of 169 meters (554 feet), its remarkable design featuring a sloping façade makes it one of the most beautiful structures in the area.