What is now called Asian Istanbul was probably inhabited by people as early as 3000 BC. Eventually, in the 7th century, Greek colonists led by King Byzas established the colony of Byzantium, the Greek name for a city on the Bosphorus. Byzas chose the spot after consulting an oracle of Delphi who told him to settle across from the “land of the blind ones.” Indeed, Byzas concluded, earlier settlers must have been deprived of their sight to have overlooked this superb location at the mouth of the Bosphorus strait. This proved an auspicious decision by Byzas, as history has shown Istanbul’s location important far beyond what these early Greek settlers might possibly have conceived. Byzas gave his name to the city: Byzantium.
In the early 100’s BC, it became part of the Roman Empire and in 306 AD, Emperor Constantine the Great made Byzantium capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. From that point on, the city was known as Constantinople.
The mid 400’s AD was a time of enormous upheaval in the empire. Barbarians conquered the western Roman Empire while the Eastern, also called the Byzantine Empire, kept Constantinople as its capital. In 532 during the reign of Justinian I, antigovernment riots destroyed the city. It was rebuilt, and outstanding structures such as Hagia Sophia stand as monuments to the heights Byzantine culture reached.
The attribute that made the city so desirable, its incomparable location for trade and transport between three continents, was also its nemesis. For the next several hundred years Persians, Arabs, nomadic peoples, and members of the Fourth Crusade (who for a time governed the city) attacked Constantinople.
Finally, in 1453, when Constantinople was so weakened by almost constant invasions and battles, the Ottoman Turks led by Sultan Mehmet II were able to conquer the city. Renamed Istanbul, it became the third and last capital of the Ottoman Empire. It was the nerve center for military campaigns that were to enlarge the Ottoman Empire dramatically. By the mid 1500’s, Istanbul, with a population of almost half a million, was a major cultural, political, and commercial center. Ottoman rule continued until it was defeated in WWI and Istanbul was occupied by the allies.
When the Republic of Turkey was born in 1923 after the War of Independence, Kemal Ataturk moved the capital to the city of Ankara. The city of Istanbul has continued to expand dramatically and today its population is over 15 million and increases at an estimated 700,000 immigrants per year. Industry has expanded even as tourism has grown. It continues to be a city that creates its own history at the meeting point of the two continents; Europe and Asia.
Some of the interesting districts of the city are: Sultanahmet, Haydarpasa, Uskudar, Eyup, Galata, Pera, Ortaköy, Taksim, Eminönü, Fatih, Balat, and The Bosphorus. Princess Islands are a popular summer resort for local people.
Istanbul, a city with millennia of history behind it, is today home to some of the world’s best museums. In recent decades, the city has also built up a reputation as a hotbed of modern art. Several museums have opened their doors to the public, adding to the already dizzying array of exhibitions. Whether it’s ancient artefacts, contemporary sculpture or high-concept literature you’re interested in, Istanbul’s museum scene really has something for everyone.
Hagia Sophia Museum
One of the most impressive structures in the world, the Hagia Sophia Museum was once a Byzantine church, 916 years before the conquest of Istanbul by Sultan Mehmed II. It was later converted into an Ottoman mosque before becoming a museum in 1935. Inside, visitors will find giant discs with Islamic inscriptions hanging next to dazzling Christian mosaics built into the domes and walls. Located in the Sultanahmet district (across from the Blue Mosque), it is a must-see, meaning it’s also one of the most crowded, so go early. While public museums in Turkey usually close on Mondays, Hagia Sophia recently began admitting crowds on this day as well to accommodate even more visitors.
Sadberk Hanım Museum
Housed in a converted 19th-century mansion on the shores of the Bosporus Strait, the Sadberk Hanım Museum is a little-known cultural treasure that contains an impressive collection of artefacts (some 18,000 pieces) from the Anatolian civilisation. Dating from prehistoric times to the Byzantine era, some of the collection’s most beautiful pieces include woven Ottoman textiles and a world-class selection of İznik tile art going back to the 16th century. Relatively unknown even among Istanbul residents, the museum is a great way to take in some history and get away from the crowds. Sadberk Hanım is open on weekdays only.
Dedicated to modern and contemporary art, the Istanbul Modern has been an important part of the city’s art scene since 2004. While the institution’s Karaköy exhibition space undergoes a major renovation (expected to be completed in 2021), visitors can head to the beautiful Union Française building in Beyoğlu, where it has taken up temporary residence. It’s a minute’s walk from the renowned Pera Palace Hotel in the heart of downtown, and previous notable exhibitions have included British sculptor Tony Cragg’s Human Nature (2018-2019) and Fantastic Machinery (2013), which showcased the work of artists such as Jean Dubuffet and Robert Rauschenberg. Make sure you go early to beat the crowds.
The Quincentennial Foundation of Turkish Jews
Located at the Neve Şalom Synagogue Complex in Beyoğlu (just a short walk from Galata Tower), this museum is a living chronicle of Turkey’s Jewish population, containing photographs and videos that detail the long contribution Turkish Jews have made to the country. The museum itself is separated from the neighbouring synagogue by a glass barrier, allowing visitors a glimpse into modern Jewish practices. The museum café is known for cooking up excellent Sephardi cuisine for visitors to try. For security reasons, you may be asked to show your passport at the entrance. The museum closes on Saturdays.
Sakıp Sabanci Museum
Head here to see one of Turkey’s best collections of historical art
Istanbul Toy Museum
Founded by Turkish poet Sunay Akın, the Istanbul Toy Museum is a great place for families and history lovers to see toys dating back to the 1700s. The museum takes visitors on an unexpected historical journey through the time periods in which the toys were produced, from World War II to modern day. Located in the laid-back residential neighbourhood of Göztepe on the Asian side of the city, the museum regularly offers children’s activities and other creative events. Like most museums in the country, it is closed on Mondays.
Designed by Achille Manoussos in 1893, the building housing the Pera Museum is an integral part of Istanbul’s architectural heritage. Situated in the heart of the central Taksim neighbourhood, it has hosted several past exhibitions featuring artists like Rembrandt, Frida Kahlo, Picasso and more. Pera’s permanent collection includes a fascinating weights and measures section, which contains commerce-related objects from various Babylonian, Roman and Anatolian civilisations. The museum’s painting collection features one of the most famous works in the Orientalist tradition, Osman Hamdi Bey’s The Tortoise Trainer (1906-1907). Closed on Mondays, the highly popular museum is free to visitors on Fridays from 6pm to 10pm.
Right next to the Hagia Sofia is one of the most magical buildings in all of Istanbul. The Basilica Cistern is a large underground water reservoir. The cistern holds 336 columns, with two of them shaped with Medusa heads. As legend has it, Medusa is one of the gorgons of Greek mythology and was used to protect this great building. At the Basilica Cistern, you have an opportunity to dress up as a sultan or a Turkish princess and have your photo taken against this mystical, stunning backdrop.
Istanbul Archaeology Museum
This museum is actually made up of three units: the Istanbul Archaeology Museum, the Ancient Orient Museum and the Tiled Kiosk Museum. They are all worthwhile, but visitors should start with the first, which contains over a million artefacts from every corner of the Ottoman Empire. Important pieces include the sarcophagus of Alexander the Great and objects from pre-Islamic Arabia, Egypt and Mesopotamia. Located in the heart of the tourist district next to Gülhane Park, the museum is one of Istanbul’s best and most popular. Closed on Mondays, there is no parking available, so take the T1 Kabataş-Bağcılar tram line to get there quickly.
The Museum of Innocence
Nobel Prize-winning author Orhan Pamuk opened The Museum of Innocence in 2012, a few years after his novel of the same name was published. The novel details life in Istanbul over a 50-year period, and focusses on wealthy protagonist Kemal Bey’s love for his distant cousin, a beautiful shopgirl called Füsun. The museum presents the everyday items that its main characters used, wore and collected in the story, including a collection of over 4,000 cigarette butts smoked by Füsun. For those who have read the book, its final pages contain a ticket that serves as a valid museum admission pass. Located in Central Beyoğlu, the museum enables visitors to see Istanbul from the lived perspective of its inhabitants, and is a truly unusual experience.
With its long history at the center of empires, Istanbul offers a wealth of historic and religious places to take in. The bulk of these ancient monuments, dating back to Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman periods, including the Hagia Sophia, Topkapı Palace, Sultanahmet Mosque (Blue Mosque), and Basilica Cistern are located around Sultanahmet Square, while some others are dispersed throughout the peninsula of old city, such as Church of St Savior in Chora (Kariye Müzesi), entire inside of which is covered by mindblowing frescoes and mosaics. An impressive section of mostly intact Theodosian walls, which mark the full length of western boundary of the peninsula, is right next to this particular church.
North of the peninsula of old city, across the Golden Horn, is Galata, crowned by the Galata Tower. Istanbul Modern, with its exhibitions of contemporary Turkish art, is on the nearby waterfront of Karaköy. Another sight of religious significance close by is the Galata Whirling Dervish Hall of Sufi Mevlevi order, just north of the Tower. Further north is the Istiklal Avenue, Istanbul’s prominent pedestrian street running from near Galata Tower to Taksim Square, the central square of whole city.
Heading west rather than north from the old city brings you deeper into the banks of the Golden Horn estuary. A neighbourhood perhaps well worth a visit here is Eyüp, to visit city’s holiest Islamic shrine and just to see what daily life in Ottoman Istanbul was like. On the opposite shores of the Horn, in Sütlüce is the Miniaturk, the first miniature park in the city, with models from around the former Ottoman Empire.
North of Taksim Square is New Istanbul, main business district of the city. If venturing out to this direction, don’t forget to check out Military Museum, where Ottoman military music concerts (Mehter) are held every afternoon. Most of the skyscrapers of the city are located in the north of this district, around Levent and Maslak, with a totally different skyline from that of the old city. However southern reaches of the very same district has some fine neo-classical and Art Nouveau buildings from the turn of the 20th century, around the neighbourhoods of Osmanbey, Kurtuluş, and Nişantaşı. Just east from here, with a little drop in elevation as you approach the shore, is the banks of Bosphorus, that is lined by pleasant neighbourhoods full of waterfront mansions (yalı) and a number of waterside palaces where you can admire what money could buy in times gone by.
Across the Bosphorus to east is Asian Side, centred around the historical districts of Kadıköy and Üsküdar, and perhaps best symbolized by Maiden’s Tower, located at about the halfway between these districts, on an islet just off the shore. Bosphorus and Marmara coasts of this half of the city is characterized by quite picturesque neighbourhoods, overlooked by Çamlıca Hill, one of the highest hills of the city which has a view of much of the rest of the city as well, with a cafe and a pleasant park on its summit.
Southeast of the city, off the southern coast of Asian Side are the Princes’ Islands, an archipelago of nine car-free islands, characterized by stunning wooden mansions and pine groves.