The European side of Istanbul
The European side of Istanbul is divided into two main parts: to the south is the old city centered on the Sultanahmet district, where the most famous tourist and cultural attractions of the city are located, while to the north are the areas of Taksim and Beyoglu , the hub of the modern city.
Fatih is one of the oldest and most visited neighborhoods in Istanbul. The three main areas of Fatih are Sultanahmet, where a large part of Istanbul’s most historic sites are located, Eminönü, where one of the city’s main ports is located, and the Fatih district itself, an area known for being more conservative and seat of the University of Istanbul.
Many of the main monuments of the city are located in this historical area, which was the center of Byzantium, then of Constantinople, then of Ottoman Istanbul. According to archeologists, the first settlements of the site, strategically placed at the entrance to the Golden Horn, date back to the fourth millennium BC, but the documented history begins only around 667 BC. When the Greek colonist Byzas founded Byzantion at Punta del Serraglio (now home to the Topkapi Palace). Arrived here in 324 AD Constantine transformed the port into the shining Constantinople, the new capital of the Roman Empire (330). In 1453, when the Ottomans conquered the city, they left the marks of their secular and religious power everywhere.
Today it is the main tourist area of Istanbul thanks to some of the most beautiful cultural attractions in the world.
In your itinerary you cannot miss a visit to the Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofia), one of the most incredible religious structures in the world, the largest Byzantine church the world has ever seen that was transformed into a mosque. It has been a museum since 1935, however, since 24 July 2020 the symbolic monument of Istanbul has been converted from a museum into a mosque. The museum, however, remains active and travelers will be able to enter, but only in times when prayer is not held, to admire its interior.
The Blue Mosque, officially known as Sultan Ahmed Camii, was built between 1609 and 1616. The part that is accessible to tourists is quite small but the sumptuous dome and intricate tiles will leave you speechless.
Topkapi Palace is located right next to the Hagia Sophia and constitutes another stunning piece of Ottoman majesty, architecture and style. it was built in 1465 and served as a royal residence from 1478 until 1853. Subsequently, it became the accommodation for officers before being converted into a museum in 1924.
The stunning Basilica Cistern (Yerebatan Sarnici), also known as the Sunken Palace, sits deep below Sultanahmet and dates back to the 6th century. Built by the Roman emperor Constantine and enlarged by Justinian, it has over 300 columns.
Also not to be missed is the Hippodrome (At Meydani), originally a chariot racing stadium, today it is a quiet park, the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts (Türk ve İslam Eserleri Müzesi), the Sirkeci Station (Sirkeci Gari), the fascinating eastern terminus of the Orient Express, the Archaeological Museum (Arkeoloji Müzesi), the Cağaloğlu Hammam (Cağaloğlu Hamamı), one of the most famous and characteristic Turkish baths in the city and, finally, Soğukçeşme Sokağı, steep cobbled street between Hagia Sophia and the outer walls of Topkapi Palace, lined with splendid Ottoman mansions that belonged to merchants.
Eminönü is located on the southern shore of the Golden Horn and is home to one of the main ferry ports.
In 1453, after conquering Constantinople, Muhammad II chose this area at the Greco-Roman forum tauri (bull’s hole) as the first nucleus of a new model-city based on Islamic principles with mosques and medrese (religious schools), charitable institutions , accommodation for travelers and a Spice Bazaar, which would have served to finance all these initiatives.
Also known as Egyptian Bazaar (Mısır Çarşısı), the market was built in 1660 as part of the New Mosque complex. It is called Egyptian because it was originally financed with taxes on imports from Egypt. Also visit the Rüstem Paşa Mosque (Rüstem Paşa Camii), a splendid mosque built by Sinan in 1561 and the New Mosque (Yeni Cami), commissioned in 1597 by Safiye, mother of Muhammad III.
You will then stroll through steep alleys full of stalls that descend through Tahtakale to the Eminönü harbor front. The lively area is worth a visit to the mosques, markets, Byzantine warehouses and street vendors selling everything from pretzels to counterfeit watches. Ferries leave from the docks for the city: traffic is very intense on the dual carriageway that runs along the coast.
Among the best things to do in Istanbul is certainly a cruise on the Bosphorus. Ships depart every hour from the port of Eminönü and make a 2-hour round trip to the Asian side. The trip passes through several places that also appeared in the James Bond film, in particular the Kücüksu Palace and the Maiden’s Tower.
It is the neighborhood behind Sultanahmet. It is part of the old core of Istanbul and is home to many mosques, Ottoman structures, picturesque architecture and the University of Istanbul.
The first stop is at the Grand Bazaar (Kapali Çarşı), one of the first institutions created by Muhammad II after 1453. In addition to covered streets full of shops and stalls, all the services for tourists are found: cafes, restaurants, lounges. tea shops, fountains and ATMs. several han, originally inns for travelers, are now home to workshops and small factories.
Then continue with a visit to the Süleymaniye Mosque (Süleymaniye camii), built for Suleiman I in 1550-57 and designed by Mimar Sinan, one of the greatest architects in the history of the Ottoman Empire. it is the second largest and most opulent mosque in the city. Suleiman and his wife Roxelana are buried here, while the great Miman Sinan lies outside the main complex in a tomb designed and built by himself.
Also not to be missed is the gigantic Fatih Mosque (Fatih Camii). Made in Baroque style, it is the third building erected on the same site: the first was the church of the Holy Apostles (where various Byzantine emperors were buried, including Constantine). On the remains of the church, Mohammed II built the first great imperial mosque in Istanbul destroyed by an earthquake in 1766. Today’s mosque, built in the 18th century by Mustafa III, houses the tombs of Mohammed II and his wife Gülbahar Hatun.
On a steep rise north of the Golden Horn, opposite the old city of Stanboul, Beyoğlu’s “new city”, formerly called Pera, that is, “beyond”. In fact, the new area has been home to settlements for over 2000 years. In the early Byzantine period, Jewish merchants resided in Pera, then, at the end of the 13th century, the district of Galata was donated to Genoese merchants as a reward for helping the Byzantines to steal the city from the Crusaders.
In the Ottoman era, the European powers established embassies and trading centers here, thus transferring the commercial hub of Istanbul from the Grand Bazaar area. Today Beyoğlu is the heart of the European city, with streets (such as İstiklâl Caddesi, pedestrian area) lined with consulates, churches, elegant bars and trendy shops.
Galata is one of the most picturesque districts of Istanbul. Small streets make up the bulk of this old quarter with a European touch but an oriental style conveyed by the many shisha bars and typical Turkish tea houses.
Part of the larger Beyoğlu district, Galata is clearly identified by the historic Galata Tower, which overlooks the old cobblestone streets and neoclassical buildings. The 70 m high, 11 storey stone tower was built in 1348 by the Genoese, important trading partners of the Byzantine Empire, as part of the Galata fortification. The lift leads to a panoramic loggia, a nightclub and a restaurant on the top floor, from which you can enjoy splendid views of the Golden Horn and the city, including the Galata bridge (Galata Köprüsü), from which to admire a beautiful panorama over the city, especially at sunset.
Stroll along the Galip Dede Caddesi, the ancient road of the Ashkenazi Jews, today the music street with tiny music, record and sheet music shops as well as the home of Turkish cymbals.
Visit the church of Saints Peter and Paul (Sen Piyer Kilisesi), where mass is celebrated in Italian every day, the ancient Bazaar of Galata, the bohemian Asmalı Mescit Sokak or the French Way (Cezayir Sokağı), a narrow alley with cafes , restaurants, art galleries and even gas lamps that recreate the French atmosphere of late 19th century Beyoğlu.
Then continue to the Mevlevi Monastery (Mevlevi Tekkesi) in Tünel, belonging to a Sufi sect of Islamic mystics dating back to the late eighteenth century. Today it is the museum of the Whirling Dervishes (Mevlevihane Müzesi).
Karaköy is located on the northern coast of the Golden Horn and borders on Galata. An area teeming with nightlife with countless local restaurants, bars and nightclubs.
Visit Kilic Ali Pasa Mescidi Sokak street, a small alley where you will be spoiled for choice in terms of entertainment.
Also try the historic Tünel Cable Car: 573 m long, it is a funicular that climbs the steep slope from the Galata Bridge to Beyoğlu, starting from the northern shore of the Golden Horn. It was completed in January 1875, making it the second oldest underground train in the world, behind the London Underground.
Taksim Square (Taksim Meydanı), the busy heart of modern Beyoglu and the adjacent Gezi Park are the main transport hubs, hotels, shops, restaurants, bars and nightclubs in Istanbul.
Istiklal Caddesi is one of the main shopping streets in Istanbul that stretches for over 3 km from Taksim Square to the Galata Tower. Buzzing with shoppers during the day and a hub of entertainment at night, you can find anything here at any time. There are also countless back streets and small alleys around it. Even though the street is pedestrianized, you can take the tram and walk it along its entire length.
Visit the Church of Saint Anthony of Padua, the largest Roman Catholic cathedral in Istanbul in the center of Istiklal, and the Pera Museum, which is housed in a former luxury hotel (Bristol Hotel), which opened as a private museum in 2005 and now one of the best cultural institutions thanks to the various works of art present.
Cihangir is among the trendiest, bohemian, young and liberal districts of Istanbul. Located between Taksim Square and the Bosphorus, it is a meeting point for students, artists and young professionals.
Cihangir, which means “conqueror”, takes its name from the son of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, ruler of the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century. Today Cihangir presents itself with a mix of 19th century buildings with colorful stucco facades and an eclectic combination of galleries, elegant boutiques and lively nightlife and trendy.
Over the years the neighborhood becomes much more modern and sophisticated thanks to the extremely characteristic alleys, parks and squares, where artists, writers and intellectuals flock to the various cafes and outdoor terraces to talk and have a good drink.
Beşiktaş is located a short distance from Taksim, one of the districts of Istanbul that most fascinates tourists, once the center of Ottoman late-imperial life. It is a maritime district that opens directly onto the Bosphorus, which houses numerous historic buildings but also modern gratacciels One of the most important centers of the city for its convenient location and its great accessibility by public transport.
Visit the Dolmabahçe Palace (Dolmabahçe Sarayı), an imposing imperial palace that became the residence of Atatürk. In 1853, Sultan Abdül Mecid I moved his family and the seat of the youth from Topkapı to this European-style palace on the shore of the Bosphorus.
A few steps from the neighborhood harbor you will find the very interesting Museum of the Navy (Deniz Müzesi), which houses numerous testimonies of Ottoman seafaring art, including a ship that the emperor used during the First World War.
Continue with a visit to Yildiz Palace (Yıldız Sarayı) and its beautiful Star Park (Yıldız Parkı), a beautiful green area where the Imperial Porcelain Manufactory is also located.
Also not to be missed is the Ortaköy district, a pretty village near the Bosphorus bridge with many cafes, restaurants and clubs on the shore and a craft market held on weekends.
The Şişli district is considered the most exclusive area of Istanbul thanks to its luxury hotels and shopping centers. One example is Istanbul Istanbul Cevahir, the largest shopping mall in Europe with over 300 stores selling local and international brands. The complex also has numerous restaurants and cinemas. But Şişli is not just this.
Visit the Atatürk Museum (Atatürk Müzesi), a small museum explaining the life and works of the founder of Turkey, the Ihlamur Palace (Ihlamur Kasrı), one of the former Ottoman imperial residences now converted into a public museum, and the Istanbul Military Museum (Askerî Müze), founded to commemorate 1,000 years of Turkish military history in 1936. It is one of the largest military museums in the world due to its history and military equipment.
Among the many cultural attractions is the Teşvikiye Mosque: completed in 1854, it stands out for its neo-baroque architecture, a style imported from southern Europe that demonstrates all the admiration of the Ottomans for European buildings.
Finally, visit the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit (Saint Esprit Kilisesi), one of the main Catholic churches in Istanbul that embodies the diverse artistic and cultural heritage of the city. The Baroque building was completed in 1846 and was designed by the Swiss-Italian architect Giuseppe Fossati.