Unmissable landmarks of Istanbul
They may be the first images that come to mind when thinking of Istanbul; attractions and clichéd spots every tourist needs a photo next to, much like the Eiffel Tower or the Statue of Liberty. Or they could be the place you organise to meet up with your friends. Either way, they’re famous for a reason, and Istanbul’s most well-known monuments and iconic edifices are deeply linked to the city’s stories and its psyche.
Such is Istanbul’s Blue Mosque, built by Sultan Ahmet in the early 17th century. Though perhaps not as blue as one might imagine, it’s nevertheless one of the city’s most breathtaking religious landmarks. Its six minarets caused much scandal during its time, as the only other mosque in the world to have the same number of minarets was the Haram Mosque in Mecca. In an effort to keep the peace, the Blue Mosque’s architect was sent to Mecca to construct an additional minaret for their mosque. The Blue Mosque is at its most beautiful during Ramadan, when ‘Mahya’ – special messages of goodwill in the form of coloured lights- adorn it and other Istanbul mosques.
Opposite it stands the Hagia Sophia, at one time the largest cathedral in the Christian world and one of the world’s greatest examples of architectural genius. Completed in 537AD after less than six years construction, its walls were used as one giant canvas. First covered in icons, mosaics and frescoes, when the Ottomans conquered Istanbul they plastered over the Byzantine art and replaced it with their own. These days, it’s Istanbul’s most popular museum, and considerable efforts have been made to uncover the Byzantine (and restore the Ottoman) art.
An enduring symbol of Ottoman might, Istanbul’s Rumeli Fortress was constructed in an incredible four months in an effort to help capture Constantinople by controlling the movement of ships along the Bosphorus. It was later converted into an Ottoman prison and is now a popular Istanbul events venue.
No longer just a bridge, but also a place to fish, drink, eat and puff away on a Turkish water pipe, the Galata Bridge is one of the city’s most photographed structures. Spanning the Golden Horn, it connects the historical peninsula to Beyoglu and the rest of the European side. For a truly photogenic moment, stroll over the Bridge at sunrise or sunset and enjoy a 360-degree view of Istanbul’s shimmering waterways.
Site of much legend and intrigue, the Maiden’s Tower, situated on a tiny islet off the coast of Uskudar, has a history dating all the way back to 341AD when the first structure existed here. First used as a customs office, it later served as a prison and cholera quarantine hospital before being restored in the year 2000 and converted into one of the most scenicIstanbul restaurants.
The first bridge to connect Europe and Asia, the Bosphorus Bridge is the 16th largest suspension bridge in the world. Completed in 1973, it sums up all of Istanbul’s East-West clichés. Closed to pedestrians, it’s only possible to cross it once a year during the Intercontinental Eurasia Marathon.
One of the oldest monuments to grace Istanbul, the Egyptian Obelisk in Sultanhamet’s Hippodrome dates all the way back to 1490BC. Brought to Istanbul in the 4th century AD by a Roman emperor, this colossal obelisk reaches a height of almost 26 metres. Egyptian symbols coat its shaft while its Roman base is covered with reliefs which depict people observing chariot races in action.
Recreated on perhaps a few too many souvenirs, the Galata Tower is one of the oldest towers in the world, though it was rebuilt several times throughout its history. It’s been used as a dungeon and fire tower, though these days it’s a popular spot to watch a Turkish Orient Show from the onsite restaurant. Its conical roof lends it a fairytale quality.
One of the newest icons to be erected in Istanbul is the Sapphire Tower, now the tallest building in Turkey. Set up on one of the city’s many hills, it reaches a height of 261 metres and there’s a viewing terrace which enjoys some of the best views imaginable.
Some Istanbul local meeting points:
One of the Asian Side’s best loved monuments, The Bull was constructed in Paris in 1864 before being brought to Germany and gifted to the Commander-in-Chief of the Ottoman Army by Kaiser Wilhelm II. This mighty bronze structure was shuffled around the city before taking up residence at Altiyol (Six Ways) in 1976. To see The Bull at its most lively, come here on match days when Fenerbahce football fans descend on the area in droves.
Opposite the ferry terminals in Besiktas, the great statue and tomb of legendary Ottoman admiral Barbaros Hayrettin Pasa is hard to miss. And if ever you happen to be there when the Turkish Navy is about to depart on an operation, they’ll fire a cannon shot in its direction as a way of honouring Barbaros and his impressive contribution to Turkey’s naval history.
Further into Besiktas Centre close to the fish market, the largest of two eagle statues stands as a tribute to the district’s football team, Besiktas J.K, whose symbol is the mighty bird.
And while Istanbul’s most famous and busiest street, Istiklal Street, is rumoured to have close to 3 million people traverse it each day, locals usually meet friends outside the gates of the historic Galatasaray High School, opposite Tunel Station, or by the Republic Monument in Taksim Square, which was built to commemorate the foundation of the Turkish Republic.
The true beauty of Istanbul’s monuments and icons lies in their ability to remind us of important moments in the city’s history - of its triumphs and achievements, or of elements of its popular culture. Clichéd or not, it’s hard not to love them (and sneak a quick photo when your friend’s back is turned…).
Some of the best views imaginable
"If at some point you don't ask yourself, 'What have I gotten myself into?' then you're not doing it right" - Roland Gau