Not sure what Istanbul is famous for? Worry not. Istanbul is Turkey’s most popular destination, and that is thanks to the number of things and attractions it is famous for.
Generally speaking, Istanbul is known for its history, culture, and cuisine. It is situated on two continents, Asia and Europe, and has a unique blend of western and eastern traditions. The city is home to some of the world’s most famous mosques, palaces, and churches, as well as being an important city during the Latin, Byzantine, and Ottoman Empire.
The city has so much to offer that we have decided to write this article on the things Istanbul is famous for. Hopefully, this post will convince you to visit one of our favorite cities in the world and discover everything it has to offer!
Planning a trip to Istanbul last-minute?
Make sure you book your tours, places to stay, and airport transfers ahead of time to ensure availability!
Here is our recommended airport transfer in Istanbul:
- Airport Shuttle From Istanbul Airport (IST) or Sabiha Gocken International Airport (SAW) (Super affordable!)
Here are our recommended tours in Istanbul:
- Luxury Bosphorus Cruise At Sunset (A must-do In Istanbul)
- Whirling Dervishes Show (Unique experience!)
- Historical Turkish Bath Experience
- Istanbul Food And Culture Tour
Here are our recommended places to stay in Istanbul:
- Magnuara Palace Hotel (Gorgeous hotel in the historic centre!)
- Pera Palace Hotel
- Cheers Hostel (Budget hostel near the Blue Mosque!)
What Is Istanbul Known For?
1. Grand Bazaar And Its Endless Shopping Opportunities
If you are a shopaholic, you’ll love the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul. It is known as one of the oldest and largest covered markets in the world, with over 60 streets and 4000 shops. In fact, many even call the Grand Bazaar the first modern shopping mall in the world!
The Grand Bazaar has a rich history, dating back to 1455 when it was first established by Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror. It was constructed as a trading center where merchants can sell their products and raise funds for the Hagia Sophia, which is arguably the most important landmark in Istanbul.
The Grand Bazaar is the perfect place to purchase some souvenirs in Istanbul. You’ll find anything from Turkish rugs and Turkish lamps to Turkish delight and Turkish coffee.
If you are into shopping, don’t miss out on the Spice Bazaar next to the Grand Bazaar. It sells more spices, herbs, teas, and other edible items but it is an experience on its own.
If you are shopping in the Grand Bazaar or Spice Bazaar, make sure you haggle! Otherwise, you’ll end up paying much more than you’re supposed to.
2. Also Being Called Constantinople
One of the most interesting facts about Istanbul is that its name is very new. Matter of fact, if you are flying from Greece to Istanbul, you’ll see that the name shows up as Constantinople on the dashboard.
Istanbul was known as Constantinople under the Crusaders and Byzantine Empire. Even after the Ottomans took over Istanbul, the city still had the name “Constantinople.” Gradually, the name Istanbul became more and more common among the locals.
Eventually, Constantinople became Istanbul under the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, officially establishing the Republic of Turkey (and getting rid of the Ottoman Empire).
3. Hagia Sophia
There is perhaps nothing more famous in Istanbul than Hagia Sophia, one of the oldest buildings and the religious center of the city throughout its history.
Built in 537 by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I, it served as one of the most revered Greek Orthodox Christian churches in Constantinople. However, under the Ottoman Empire, the cathedral was converted into a mosque. It served as a museum for some time under the Republic of Turkey but recently opened up as a mosque again.
Though the religion changed throughout history, Hagia Sophia remained one of the most historical and religious sites.
When visiting Hagia Sophia, make sure you take some time to admire the 108 ft (33 m) diameter dome. It was one of the biggest at the time it was built, a spectacular feat in engineering. You’ll see beautiful Byzantine architecture and some Christian mosaics (if they are not covered), as well as intricate Islamic calligraphy!
4. Biggest City Across Two Continents
Perhaps one of the most well-known facts about Istanbul is its unique geographical location. Istanbul is the biggest city in the world that spans two continents – Europe and Asia. The Bosphorus Strait through the city and divides it into two sides.
Though you cannot walk from one continent to another, you can take a ferry to do that in only 15 minutes. There’s also the Marmaray rail line that could do it faster!
The best way to experience Istanbul’s unique geographical location is to take one of the Bosphorus cruises. You’ll get to see the city from a different perspective and admire the beautiful Bosporus Bridge that connects Europe and Asia, as well as some of the most impressive waterfront palaces in Istanbul!
5. Cats Everywhere
You might have heard that Istanbul has a lot of cats. And it’s true! You’ll see cats roaming around in the streets, sleeping on the stairs, or just chilling in front of a shop.
The cats are so ubiquitous that there’s even a cat cafe in Istanbul where you can drink your coffee surrounded by cute felines.
No one knows why there are so many stray cats in Istanbul. Some believe that cats were introduced during the Ottoman times because their houses were wooden and attracted a lot of rats. The cats were there to alleviate the issue.
Some people believe that cats are prevalent in Istanbul because they are animals that are revered in the Islam region. They are considered the “quintessential pet” by Muslims.
Either way, the cats are one of the most charming aspects of Istanbul.
6. Blue Mosque
Though not as historic as the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque is one of the most famous attractions in Istanbul, and for good reason. The Blue Mosque is the first mosque in Istanbul to receive 6 minarets, which at the time was a huge honor.
Though some believe that the six minarets at the Blue Mosque were a mistake by the architects, it is nonetheless an achievement and a beautiful sight to behold.
The mosque was built between 1609 and 1616 by Sultan Ahmed I. It was to show the wealth and empire of the Ottoman Empire, which at the time people were having doubts about. Sultan Ahmed I wanted something that would compete and complement the grandeur of the Hagia Sophia.
And it totally worked! The Blue Mosque is one of the most beautiful places in Istanbul. The exterior is imposing and massive, and the interior is adorned with 20,000 handmade Iznik tiles. These tiles are blue, which is how the Blue Mosque received its iconic name.
7. Delicious Food
One of the biggest reasons to visit Istanbul is for its delicious Turkish food. Though part of the country is in Europe, its cuisine is very different from typical European food.
From kebabs to mezes, there are endless options for satisfying your taste buds. One of my favorite dishes is lahmacun, a thin crusty flatbread topped with minced meat and vegetables.
Don’t forget to try Turkish Tea and coffee, two of the most popular beverages in Istanbul. Turkish Tea is quite delicious and bold, but Turkish coffee is quite unique and not everyone will like it. However, they are both definitely worth a try.
If you are out enjoying the nightlife in Istanbul, don’t forget to try raki, the national drink of Turkey.
Lastly, you cannot forget about baklava, a Turkish dessert filled with layers of filo dough and nuts and drenched in syrup!
Read More: Best Street Food In Istanbul And Where To Find Them
8. Galata Tower
The Galata Tower is one of the most iconic buildings in Istanbul’s landscape. It is situated in the Beyoğlu district of Istanbul and rises 62.59 m (205 ft) above the ground, contrasting starkly with the other buildings around it.
The Galata Tower was built by the Genoese colony in Constantinople in 1348. At the time, it was the tallest building in Constantinople and served as a watchtower. It can see all the ships and possible invaders that were coming from the Bosphorus Strait, making it one of the most valuable pieces of fortification for the Byzantine city.
Under the Ottoman Empire, the Galata Tower changed to a dungeon and eventually a fire tower. Nowadays, it is a museum and the most famous observation deck in Istanbul. From the observatory, you can see all of the historic center of Istanbul, the Golden Horn, the Bosphorus Strait, and even parts of the Asian side of Istanbul.
9. Topkapi Palace
One of the most famous buildings in Istanbul is the Topkapi Palace. It served as the primary residence of the Ottoman Sultans for almost 400 years. It is a large complex with many different buildings, all of which were used for different purposes such as housing the harem, the treasury, the mint, and more.
The Topkapi Palace was constructed in 1453 by Mehmed II, just after he conquered Constantinople. It was expanded upon greatly over the years and reached its final form in the 19th century.
Nowadays, the Topkapi Palace is a museum that is open to the public. It houses many different exhibits on the history of the Ottoman Empire as well as religious artifacts from around the world.
The Harem is one of the most popular parts of the Topkapi Palace. This was the section where the Sultan’s wives, concubines, children, and mothers lived. It was a secluded part of the palace that was off-limits to everyone except for those who lived there and the eunuchs who guarded it.
Though there is an additional entrance fee to visit the Harem, it is a price worth paying. The interior of the Harem is lavishly decorated with Iznik tiles, stained glass windows, and carved wooden ceilings. It is a stunning display of Ottoman architecture!
10. Turkish Baths
No list of things Istanbul is famous for would be complete without mentioning the iconic Turkish baths. These baths, called hammams, are an important part of Turkish culture and date back to the Ottoman Empire.
Inspired by the Roman Baths, the hammam is a place where people would go to relax, socialize, and get clean. In the past, most homes did not have their own bathrooms, so the hammam served as a public bathhouse.
Though it is no longer a place where people go to get clean, the hammam is still an important part of Turkish culture and an excellent place to relax. There are many different hammams around Istanbul, each with its own unique architecture and decor.
If you want to experience a traditional Turkish bath in Istanbul, make sure to visit one of the famous hammams in Istanbul such as Cağaloğlu Hamam or Hurrem Sultan Hammam.
Read more: A guide to Turkish Baths for women
11. Istiklal Street
Istiklal Street is one of the most famous streets in Istanbul. It is a 1.4-kilometer long pedestrian street that connects Taksim Square with Tünel Square. This street is lined with boutique shops, cafes, restaurants, and so many things to see.
It is estimated that nearly 1 million people stroll up and down Istiklal Street daily. You can imagine – the atmosphere of this iconic Istanbul Avenue is vibrant and lively.
Originally named the Grand Rue de Pera, Istiklal Street was the main street of the Beyoğlu district in Ottoman times. It received its current name after the Turkish War of Independence. The name “Istiklal Avenue” actually translates to “Independence Avenue” in English.
One of the most iconic features of Istiklal Street is the red, old-fashioned tram that runs up and down the street. It is one of the two heritage tramlines in Istanbul.
12. The Capital City of The Byzantine, Latin, And Ottoman Empire
Istanbul has been one of the most desirable cities in the history of time. Its unique geographical location was a gateway to western Europe and Asia. Consequently, many empires and civilizations in the past fought to take control of Istanbul, such as the Byzantine, Latin and Ottoman Empire.
Though no longer the capital of the modern Republic of Turkey (Ankara is), Istanbul is still one of the most popular destinations in Turkey. The city’s richness in culture, history, and architecture are simply unparalleled.
13. The City on the Seven Hills
Istanbul has the nickname “City on the Seven Hills”, thanks to the first ruler of Constantinople, Constantine the Great. The city received that name because he was trying to model the city after Rome, which was also built on seven hills.
The nickname is fairly accurate for Istanbul, as the city has so many hills. It can make sightseeing difficult, but it means that visitors have some of the most beautiful vistas in the city.
14. Bosphorus Strait
The Bosphorus Strait is a narrow waterway that connects the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara. It runs through the city of Istanbul and is one of the reasons that made Istanbul so desirable.
It is an important shipping route as it is the only waterway that connects the Black Sea to the Mediterranean. Whoever controls Istanbul controls the Bosphorus Strait and hence all trade in the Black Sea.
But perhaps what the Bosphorus Strait is most known for is that it separates Europe and Asia. On the western side of the strait is Europe, but once you get onto the eastern side, you are in Asia!
Istanbul is known for its vibrant tulip gardens, with fields of colorful blooms dotting the city’s parks and public spaces. The tulip, originally from Central Asia, was brought to Istanbul by the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century and quickly became a symbol of luxury and power.
Unlike what many people believe, Tulips are not from the Netherlands but Turkey instead!
Today, Tulips can be seen everywhere in Istanbul during the springtime, from small pots lining the streets to massive displays at notable gardens like Emirgan Park and Gülhane Park. Visitors can even attend the annual International Istanbul Tulip Festival, where over seven million tulips are on display.
In addition to their beauty, tulips hold special significance in Turkish culture!
16. Camlica Mosque
Camlica Mosque is one of the newest additions of mosques in Istanbul. However, this isn’t just any mosque, the Camlica Mosque is the biggest mosque in Turkey! Built in 2019, the Camlica Mosque is one of the most unique religious buildings in Istanbul.
It combines traditional Islamic elements and modern architectural techniques, making it a truly one-of-a-kind mosque. The complex is also home to an art gallery, library, and conference hall.
Situated on Camlica Hill in the Uskudar District, visitors can have stunning panoramic views from the mosque! You can even see the Bosphorus Bridge, one of the longest suspension bridges in the world that connects Istanbul’s European side and Asian side.
Make sure you don’t miss this hidden gem when visiting Istanbul!
17. Water Cisterns
Istanbul has a long history of utilizing water cisterns for collecting and storing rainwater. These underground reservoirs were often built by the Byzantine emperor Justinian in the 6th century, with some still functioning today.
One of the most famous water cisterns in Istanbul is the Basilica Cistern, located under the city’s historic basilica. This massive structure holds over 100,000 cubic meters of water and is supported by 336 marble columns.
Visiting a water cistern in Istanbul offers a unique glimpse into the city’s rich history and ingenuity in solving its practical needs. The atmospheric atmosphere and impressive engineering of these structures make them a must-see for any visitor to Istanbul.
Famous Istanbul FAQs
What Are The Most Famous Landmarks In Istanbul?
The most famous landmarks in Istanbul are Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, Grand Bazaar, Galata Tower, Galata Bridge, Sultanahmet Square, and Istiklal Street.
Is Istanbul Worth Visiting?
Istanbul is one of the most unique places in the world. Not only does the city have an enchanting history and delicious food, but it is beautiful and full of stunning architecture. Istanbul is definitely worth visiting!
If you are not sure what Istanbul is known for, we sure hope that you do by now. This Turkish city is one of the most amazing cities in the world, so make sure you visit at least once in your life!
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