What Is Istanbul Known For?
Istanbul is the largest city in Turkey. Often mistaken as the country’s capital (it’s actually Ankara), this magnificent history-laden city is the bridge between Europe and Asia. But, what exactly is the city known for?
Istanbul is known for many things but, it’s history is one of the top things it is known for. Once the eastern capital of the Roman Empire which gave rise to the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires. People have been inhabiting this space of land for more than 8,000 years continuously. The picturesque monuments are constant reminders of the city’s unique past, and they contribute to the city’s current unique blend of scenery. Ornate worshipping centers, busy museums, and exquisite food scenes are other signatures of the city.
In this article, I’ll go into a bit more detail on the major things Istanbul is known for.
Istanbul Has an Incredible Shopping Scene
Istanbul is one of the most prominent centers of trade and commerce around the world. Many merchants, locals, and tourists come in from all over Turkey and different parts of the world to fill the high streets in search of exotic items. From jewelry to décor-ware, you can trust the Istanbul shops to deliver.
You can’t discuss the Istanbul shopping experience without a mention of The Grand Bazaar. This is a large network of indoor souks and street markets with decades of rich history behind it. It was already a melting pot of commercial activity as far back as the 15th century.
There are more than 5,000 shops spread over 60 streets. Here, you’re sure to find unique Turkish specialties, souvenirs, jewelry, and more. If you’re looking for the famous Turkish rugs, you can find the best ones here.
The Spice Bazaar is another one that helps give Istanbul its bustling reputation. It’s a colorful covered shopping complex not too far from the Grand Bazaar. With more than 85 shops here, you can be sure of finding almost everything. Looking for nuts and dried fruits? You’re sure to find some of the best here!
The Hagia Sophia Is a Popular Cultural Site
Once upon a time, this colorful architectural masterpiece was a church. It became a mosque later on and was later converted to one of the most visited museums in the world. In 2019, around 3.7 million people visited the Hagia Sophia.
Now back to being a mosque again, people visit the museum to glimpse the tiles, calligraphy, mosaics, and the Sultan’s lodge. Seeing the interior of the Hagia Sophia in person is a bucket list item for many tourists.
The Blue Mosque Is a Stunning Historic Site
In Istanbul, the Blue Mosque is a part of the very fabric of the city. It’s a historical mosque that owes its name to the magnificent interior décor, which chiefly features blue tiles on the walls. The mosque was constructed between 1609 and 1616 by Sultan Ahmed I during his reign.
The mosque is also home to a hospice, and you can see the tomb of the founder. It’s located in the old city, making it the perfect starting point for a day of sightseeing. Like other mosques in the city, you can visit at any time during the day, as long as you stick to the dress codes.
The Ancient Hippodrome and Walls of Constantinople
The Hippodrome of Constantinople in the Sultanahmet Square (just a short distance from the Blue Mosque) is another exquisite architectural masterpiece that draws tourists to Istanbul. Constantinople was the capital of the Byzantine Empire, so this colorful edifice has a lot of history behind it.
In those days, chariot and horse racing were popular sports held in the Hippodrome. Now, you can still find some of the relics from that era. Many tourists take a picture under the Obelisk of Theodosius while at the Hippodrome.
The Walls of Constantinople were a strong attraction in Istanbul until the late 19th century, when they were dismantled. However, some parts of the walls remain intact to date. The Tower area of the wall is one of the most popular attractions in the city.
The Amazing Views From the Galata Tower
The balcony of the 220ft-high (67.05 m) Galata Tower gives you some of the best views of Istanbul. The tower is on the North Bank of the Golden Horn, across the mouth of The Bay of Istanbul. The tower gives you a comprehensive view of the city, especially the Bosphorus. You can also get a panoramic view of Old Istanbul.
Before 1960, the Galata Tower was used as a watchtower by the city’s firemen, but now, it’s open to all comers. However, the tower is only accessible during the day, and you’ll need to adhere to safety protocols.
Istiklal Avenue Has Fantastic Local Shops
While some regard the Grand Bazaar as the main hub of Istanbul, it’s hard to overlook Istiklal Avenue, where more than three million people visit every day. It’s a 1.4 km (0.86 mi) long pedestrian walkway where you can find a little bit of everything from cafés to boutiques and cinemas to nightclubs.
If you ever run low on medication while in the city, you can count on the pharmacies here to have a refill. If the 1.4-kilometer (0.86 mi) trek doesn’t appeal to you, you can hop on the streetcar to take in the sights and sounds of the Istiklal in relative comfort—especially if you can get some Lokum (Turkish Delight).
The Topkapi Palace Is Majestic and Awe-Inspiring
Among the many iconic sites in Istanbul, the Topkapi Palace should be high on your list if you’re looking for a memorable tour. It’s an exotic delight loaded with ancient history. From the ornate treasures to the colorful mosaic tiles, it’s the perfect way to peer into the past and catch a glimpse of the Ottoman Empire.
Do you have some time to read while out on tour? You can visit the palace museum to find a collection of books that detail the history and culture of life in the region between 1478 and 1856.
The Topkapi Palace was the administrative hub of the Ottoman Empire, so it was home to several Ottoman Sultans. It was also home to the palace concubines (housed in the Harem). It’s an excellent way to go back in time. However, if you choose to take the palace and the Harem tour, you have to pay separately to see each of them.
Istanbul Is Renowned for Its Exquisite Cuisine
If you’d like to give your taste buds an unforgettable experience, Istanbul’s cuisine offers an excellent opportunity. Since the city is a melting pot for Asian, Middle Eastern, and Mediterranean cultures, the food scene perfectly captures it all.
I’ve talked about lokum (Turkish Delight), which is the main snack or dessert here. However, the city offers a lot more. Mezes and kebabs are very popular. You can also count on your dishes to feature lots of nuts, fresh vegetables, beans, and meats. Yogurt is another heavily represented food you’re sure to find wherever meals featuring bread and meats are served.
Simit and Döner are two of the most popular entries you’re sure to find on the street food scene. The former is a kind of bread closely related to a bagel, while the latter is a special delicacy made from lamb meat. Residents and tourists love to combine these two.
Do you like strong coffee? The cups served in Istanbul are strong enough to power your tour of the city. The aslan sütü better known as Raki is another drink you should try. The name translates into lion’s milk. It’s made from the anise plant and has a licorice flavor. This is a clear alcohol, but when you add water it turns from clear to a milking color.
When looking for dining establishments, you can find everything from the traditional bars and restaurants (known as Meyhanes) to high-end restaurants manned by highly qualified chefs. The Meyhanes are everything you’d expect from a local bar—loud, busy, and lots of alcohol. The restaurants serve a very good range of world-class food.
The food scene isn’t quite authentic in the tourist-heavy areas, though. So, you should avoid eating in the Sultanahmet area especially. For an authentic taste of the Istanbul cuisine without paying through the nose, consider going further down into Beyoglu and similar parts of the city.
While out in the areas inhabited by locals, you’ll get invited for a meal by different families. Sit in for one of these if you can! Tabbouleh salad and sweet tea are two main fixtures in these meetings.
It’s Famous For Its Exciting Nightlife
Istanbul is popular for its buzzing nightlife. Be prepared to hit on all sides by loud, dance-inducing music and flashing lights reflecting off the surface of the seawater. Many clubs and restaurants come alive in the night across the town. If you’ve still got some energy left after your exertions during the day, you can go into any of these clubs at night for some fun.
Alternatively, you can also relax outside the venues gazing into the picturesque view of the illuminated Istanbul skyline. All the attractions look great at night as well.
Do you want to see some popular celebrities? Ortakoy is a part of the city they favor for their night fun. The district was a fishing village in the past, but these days, it’s been transformed to an upmarket chic environment, with lots of bars and clubs dotting the waterfront.
The Galata Bridge and Bosphorus Are One-of-a-Kind
Cruising the Bosphorus River is an excellent way to experience the split between Europe and Asia first hand. The river connects the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara, providing tranquil views of Istanbul’s historic forts from a distance. You’ll also find wooden houses built during the Ottoman Empire and enjoy the views of the suspension bridges connecting the continent (Bosphorus and Faith Bridges).
You can also get closer to the Bosphorus by walking the Galata Bridge. In addition to the Bosphorus, the Bridge also gives you great views of the Blue Mosque and the Golden Horn. While walking the bridge, you’ll run into friendly fishermen always willing to chat and also find some cheap, great foods. The delicious fish sandwich is one of the best you’ll find!
Hookah Smoking Is Central to the Social Scene
There aren’t many cities around the world that can rival Istanbul when it comes to the proliferation of hookahs. Also known as waterpipe or Shisha, you can find dozens of Hookah lounges across the city. The hookahs here are flavored tobacco smoked through a water pipe.
Hookah smoking has gone from a status symbol in the 17th century to a staple you can find almost everywhere. The lounges also have great food and drinks for when you want to mix things up.
Commuter Ferry Trips Make Sightseeing Convenient
Many people take the local commuter ferry to go from the European side of Istanbul to the Asian side. It’s the perfect way to cross two continents without having to go through customs. The cruise is one of the most scenic, as the North and South shores are powerfully breathtaking. Are you looking for treats to take on the cruise? You can find some Turkish Delight in Kanlica, home of thick yogurt and honey.
Traditional Hammams Offer Much-Needed Relaxation
This is the local name for the edgy Turkish Bath. It’s one aspect of the Ottoman Culture that’s remained intact over the years. The bath parlors are designed artistically, with huge marble slabs and lots of intricate drawings.
Inside one of those, you can enjoy a steam bath or a rejuvenating massage. You can also choose to get both! Some people avoid the bath because it involves stripping down and allow strangers to deliver some vigorous scrubbing.
However, if you’re comfortable with a massage, you won’t have any problems with the bath—except for the slight discomfort from the vigorous scrubs.
Other Facts About Istanbul
- It has been inhabited for over 8,000 years.
- The city was only named Istanbul in 1930.
- It snows in the winter across Istanbul.
- Istanbul locals love cats and feed them but never allow them into the home.
- Built in 1875, the Istanbul metro is the third oldest in the world.
Now that you know the various things Istanbul is known for, you can understand why it’s a hugely popular tourist destination. The great attractions and enthralling experience make an Istanbul holiday one you’re sure to remember.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the sheer number of attractions and things to do, you can consider working with guides who can create an easy-to-follow plan. However, you can sideline them and save some extra cash by prioritizing and engaging in as many activities that interest you as possible. Can’t cover everything? You can always go back!
Be sure to check out Strolling Through Istanbul here for a guide to the city.