Let's be clear: there are many more experiences beyond those gathered here which are essential when in Istanbul. Travelers should explore the spice-fragranced warren of the Grand Bazaar, luxuriate in an Ottoman-era bathhouse, and delve into the Istanbul Archaeology Museum, among much else. But here we introduce the city's grand historic sites that compose a mesmerizing palimpsest of Byzantine, Roman and Ottoman history: five exquisite primary sources that will transport you back into a succession of historical worlds.
Photo by Herve "Setaou" BRY/Flickr.
This extraordinary piece of subterranean construction was built by Byzantine architects in the 6th Century C.E., to supply rapidly growing Constantinople with drinking water. It's a cool, shadowy, mysterious space, the roof supported by 336 columns arranged in 12 rows, beneath which fish flit through murky water. It was built using stone wrested from ruined buildings, and visitors who explore closely will stumble across some extraordinary sights: a pair of beautifully carved upside-down Medusa heads stare out from the base of two columns, while a column near the center is shaped like a teardrop. This remarkable space once contained 80,000 cubic meters of water which reached the cistern through a network of aqueducts 20 km long.
Rising pale and imposing atop Istanbul's third hill, the Süleymaniye Mosque is the most striking feature on the city's historic skyline. It brings together two of the Ottoman Empire's most loved and lauded figures: Süleyman the Magnificent (1494-1566), the immensely powerful Sultan who presided over the Empire at the very height of its influence; and his chief architect, Sinan, who preserved Süleyman's magnificence in a series of sublime structures. Inside this one, Sinan's design combines a vast sense of space with an arresting simplicity, creating an awe that has little intricacy in which to confine itself, while the small touches of ornamentation, such as the fine İznik tiles in the mihrab (or the prayer niche) and the stained glass windows, are truly beautiful. Alongside this interior, the mosque's walled complex contains a great deal else to explore, including a hospital, a library and a hamam.
The Topkapi Palace, residence of the Ottoman Sultans for 400 years, is an immensely evocative space that draws you into the metallic clatter and silken rustle of the Empire's private life. It consists of four lush green courtyards dotted with luxurious kiosks, enclosed by buildings that fulfilled a wide variety of functions: a library, a mint, a hospital, a glittering treasury, bakeries and mosques. Alluringly, the Palace was also the home of the Sultans' wives, who lived in the famous harem; despite the word's connotations in English, this actually means little more than "family quarters", and consists of several exquisitely tiled rooms around an opulent Turkish bathhouse. This is all surrounded by five kilometers of stone walls and situated on a hill offering sublime views over the Sea of Marmara, the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn. The palace was converted to a museum following the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the ascendancy of the secular Ataturk, and contains large collections of porcelain, robes, weapons, shields, armor, Islamic calligraphic manuscripts and murals.
Photo by szeke/Flickr.
Built in the early seventeenth century, the Blue Mosque draws on two centuries of Ottoman design, and particularly on the work of Süleyman's architect Sinan. Six minarets flank the main building, which consists of one main dome and eight secondary domes. It continues to function as a mosque now, which means there are five occasions every day when, visitors may be turned away. Once inside, with shoes off and hair covered, visitors will see an interior that is much busier and more opulent than the Süleymaniye Mosque from which it develops. The walls are papered with 20,000 tiles made at Iznik, a town fabled for its artisan ceramics, composing over fifty variations on a tulip motif. Light falls through 200 beautiful stained glass windows and flickers from ornate chandeliers holding candles and ostrich eggs. Outside, in a corner of the complex, a smaller building houses the tomb of Sultan Ahmed I, who oversaw the mosque's construction.
Photo by David Spender/Flickr.
The Hagia Sophia embodies in one building the range of epochs and styles that makes Istanbul such a uniquely rich and fascinating city to visit. It was built in the sixth century as an Eastern Orthodox Basilica, a symbol of the Roman Empire's return to strength; briefly became the world's largest Catholic Cathedral in the thirteenth century; and was turned into a mosque in 1453, once Mehmet the Conqueror had seized the city from the infidel. In precariously secular modern Turkey, it functions as a museum, where visitors can admire with secular distance the great domed ceiling, the galleries of glittering mosaics, and the many other designs and details that each reveal something about the building's resonant past. New exhibitions open frequently; in recent years, these have included the tombs of several early Ottoman sultans, and a display of fine carpets in the former mosque's soup kitchen.