18 February 2014 by Alex Stewart
Uniquely, Istanbul stands astride two continents, Europe and Asia. As if this spectacular location wasn't enough, the city also lays claim to having been capital of consecutive Christian and Islamic empires, a role that has left Istanbul with a staggering range of attractions ranging from Byzantine masterpieces to formidable city walls and the domes and minarets of the Ottoman mosques and palaces that dminate the city skyline. Below we round up the essential sites to see in this exceptional city.
Emperor Justinian had the Hagia Sophia built in an effort to restore the glory of the Roman Empire. Completed in 537 it stood as the greatest church in Christendom until the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453. The city's conqueror, Mehmet II, soon set about converting the church into a mosque, which is how it remained until Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey, proclaimed it a museum in 1935. The interior, with its magnificent domed ceiling, is so sublimely beautiful that many seeing it for the first time are quite literally stunned into silence.
Built between 1609 and 1616 and decorated with more than 20,000 ceramic blue tiles, the Blue Mosque - or the Sultan Ahmed Mosque as it's officially known - was commissioned by the young sultan to rival its neighbour, the Hagia Sophia. With its large main dome, six minarets, enormous courtyard (the largest of any Ottoman mosque) and 250 stained-glass windows, its dazzling beauty and near-perfect proportions are clear for all to see.
Home to the Ottoman sultans for around 400 years, the vast Topkapi Palace takes at least half a day to explore in detail and guided tours come highly recommended. Be sure to visit the Palace Kitchens, home to one of the largest collections of Chinese porcelain in the world; and the Harem, which contrary to popular imagination was not a place of debauchery but the centre of the imperial family. The standout highlight, however, is the Treasury, home to such wonders as the jewel-encrusted sword of Suleiman the Magnificent, the throne of Ahmed I, and the fifth-largest diamond in the world, an 86-carat rock shaped like a teardrop.
The ultimate bargain-seeker's paradise, the labyrinthine Grand Bazaar is one of the oldest covered markets in the world, comprising more than 4,000 shops and several kilometres of crowded laneways.Hippodrome
Under both Byzantine and Ottoman rule, the Hippodrome was a focal point of the city, with both emperors and sultans adorning it with statues from the far reaches of the empire. It famously held Byzantine chariot races between teams of 'greens' and 'blues', each representing opposing political parties.
The city's main thoroughfare and the bridge between Europe and Asia, the mighty Bosphorus runs from the Sea of Marmara all the way to the Black Sea. A cruise is a great way to explore the famous waterway. Highlights include the grandiose Dolmabahçe Palace; Çiragan Sarayi, once home to Sultan Abdul Aziz and now a luxury Kempinski hotel; the waterside residences built by the Ottoman aristocracy and foreign ambassadors in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries; and the famous Bosphorus Bridge, the fourth-longest suspension bridge in the world.
Although not as large as Topkapi Palace, the Archaeology Museum should not be missed. Highlights include artefacts from the ancient Greek and Roman worlds as well as others from Anatolian civilisations dating back to the 6th century BC.
Museum of Turkish & Islamic Arts
A fine collection of art and ethnography lies within the former palace of Ibrahim Pasa, brother-in-law and grand vizier to Suleiman the Magnificent.
Built by Justinian in 532, this underground cistern is 65m wide and 143m long. Its roof is supported by 336 columns ranged in 12 rows, creating a space that once held 80,000 cubic metres of water. Following raised wooden platforms through the eerie lair, look out for the two upside-down Medusa heads in the north-west corner.
Jewish heritage sites
Turkey has had a Jewish community since at least 1492 when Sultan Beyazit II offered sanctuary to the Jews expelled by the Spanish Inquisition. Notable synagogues in Istanbul include the Neve Shalom Synagogue in Karaköy, the Ahrida Synagogue in Balat (the oldest and probably the most beautiful in the city), Ashkenazi Synagogue near the Galata Tower, and the Etz Ahayim Synagogue in the waterside suburb of Ortaköy.