Istanbul, the former capital of both the Byzantine Empire and the Ottoman Empire, boasts a fascinating history dating back thousands of years. From ancient ruins to 16th-century masterpieces, here are some of the must-see UNESCO World Heritage–listed sites and landmarks in Istanbul.
Sarayburnu is a strategically significant promontory between the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus. Home to the famous Topkapi Palace and Gulhane Park, Sarayburnu attracts visitors keen to admire sweeping views over the coastal scenery.
Fifteenth-century Topkapi Palace was once home to the Ottoman sultans, and today houses one of Turkey’s largest museums. Treasures within include 13th-century Japanese porcelain and weaponry used by the Ottoman army. Topkapi Palace is featured on most Istanbul walking tours.
Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofia)
The first Christian cathedral in the Roman Empire, Hagia Sophia dates back to the sixth century. This extraordinary building has played the role of basilica and imperial mosque during its lifetime and today houses a museum. Its interior showcases Byzantine mosaics and marble ornamentation, and shines a light on 10th-century Roman leaders including Emperor Alexander.
Sultan Ahmed Mosque
Widely known as the Blue Mosque, the Sultan Ahmed Mosque has been a site of Islamic worship since 1616. With 13 domes and six minarets, the mosque is a standout on the Istanbul skyline. Visitors can explore the mosque on guided tours and admire treasures including the blue Iznik tiles that cover the ceiling.
For generations Hagia Irene served as an Eastern Orthodox church, and today is a popular museum and concert hall. It sits within one of Topkapi Palace’s courtyards, behind Hagia Sophia, and hosts to classical music concerts and art exhibitions.
Built in the 12th century, the Zeyrek Mosque is a fine example of Byzantine architecture and one of the largest of its kind in Istanbul today. With recessed brickwork, colored marble, and ancient mosaics, the Zeyrek Mosque showcases the architectural styles of Constantinople from the 12th to the 15th centuries.
Designed by acclaimed Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan, the Suleymaniye Mosque takes pride of place on the Third Hill. One of the biggest mosques in the city, it was completed in 1558 and still welcomes visitors. Skip-the-line tours allow travelers to bypass the entry lines.
Little Hagia Sophia
Once a Greek Eastern Orthodox church, Little Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque under Ottoman rule. The exterior features architectural techniques attributed to the builders of Constantinople, while the inside of the building boasts a spectacular two-story colonnade with dedications to past emperors and patron-saints.
Walls of Constantinople
These defensive stone walls once encircled Constantinople (present-day Istanbul), helping protect the city from attack. Today, visitors can walk uphill from the Ayvansaray neighborhood to see what remains of the walls. Nearby attractions include the old church of the Holy Saviour in Chora—now the Kariye Museum—with its mosaics and paintings.