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  • Writer's pictureHarry Prance, MA

A Short History of Istanbul (& 59 Cultural Attractions)



Istanbul, formerly known as Byzantium and later Constantinople, is a city straddling two continents – Europe and Asia – and serves as Turkey's cultural and economic hub. With a rich history dating back thousands of years, it has been a key centre for various civilisations, including the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires. Renowned for its stunning architecture, such as the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, Istanbul seamlessly blends the ancient with the modern, offering a captivating tapestry of diverse cultures and influences.


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History of Istanbul

The Birth of Constantinople

Byzantium, a dusty, fly-infested Greek fishing village, seemed an unlikely location in which to build the new capital of the Roman Empire when Emperor Constantine chose it as the site of Constantinople in the 4th century. But by bridging the continents of Europe and Asia, this spot would remain at the beating heart of world politics, the capital of not one but two colossal empires, the Byzantine (or Eastern Roman) and the Ottoman, which successively dominated most of Eastern Europe and the Middle East for one and a half millennia. And the city’s history didn’t end with the collapse of the empires that built it: modern-day Istanbul is a thriving megalopolis with over 15 million residents, newly constructed skyscrapers piercing the sky alongside the minarets of the city’s time-honoured mosques.

Byzantine Splendour

When it was first built, this ‘New Rome’ had a problem: it lacked history. However, Constantine and successive Byzantine emperors made up for this by quickly filling the new city with the most conspicuous treasures of the Roman, Greek and Christian world. In the middle of the giant Hippodrome, where the city’s famous chariot races took place and the emperor addressed his people, was placed the prized loot of the empire: the sacred serpent column from the oracle at Delphi, the famous bronze horses now housed in St Mark’s Basilica in Venice, and the obelisk of the Pharaoh Thutmose III from Egypt. When they weren’t looting the gems of older cities, Byzantine emperors were busy building the fabric of a city unparalleled in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages for sheer size and grandeur. The Hagia Sophia, the great cathedral of the empire, built in the 6th century by Emperor Justinian, was the largest church in the world for almost a millennium.

Dark Period and the Fourth Crusade

In the 7th and 8th centuries, Constantinople entered the doldrums. Successive Arab invasions stripped the Byzantine Empire of its wealthy territories in North Africa and the Middle East and in the 670s laid siege to the capital itself. In the 8th century, Iconoclasm, when the church controversially banned the use of religious images, brought the Byzantine Empire to the point of civil war. But the arrival of the Macedonian dynasty in the 9th century saw a rebirth of Byzantine culture, and they and the Komnenoi dynasty after them reshaped the empire: reconquering much of the Balkans, building new churches and beautifying old ones – almost all of the most famous mosaics of the Hagia Sophia come from this period. Western visitors were often in awe of the richness and technological sophistication they encountered here. Liutprand of Cremona records how the emperor’s throne was decorated with golden birds that twittered individual songs, and guarded by gilded lions that could roar and beat the ground with their tails. When he received visitors, the emperor’s mechanical throne would rocket high into the air, compelling them to look up at him floating above.

But this renaissance was brought to an abrupt end in 1204 when the city was sacked by the Venetians during the Fourth Crusade. They pillaged, looted and stole many of the most famous statues and relics. For 60 years, a Latin (or Western European) emperor ruled in Constantinople and what little remained of the Byzantine Empire was ruled from elsewhere. Eventually the Palaiologos dynasty reconquered Constantinople but the Byzantine Empire never recovered its former glory and in 1453 Sultan Mehmed II the Conqueror marched into the city, rode to the Hagia Sophia in triumph and invited an imam to proclaim the Islamic creed and convert the great cathedral into a mosque.

Ottoman Renaissance

Under the Ottomans Istanbul was reborn – they built new palaces and mosques, the Grand Bazaar, and restored the streets and aqueducts. Ottoman Constantinople possibly reached its apogee under Süleyman the Magnificent: this cosmopolitan emperor was tolerant and artistic – people of many faiths and ethnicities lived side by side in this true world city and his government was outward-looking. Ottoman Istanbul’s connections with Europe were fluid and frequent: Süleyman the Magnificent even invited Michelangelo to submit plans for a new bridge to span the Golden Horn!

Decline of the Ottoman Empire

But by the end of the 19th century the Ottoman Empire was riddled with problems. The sultanate had made enormous efforts to modernise: railways were built across the empire and, on disembarking from the famous Orient Express, a Victorian tourist would have found all of the amenities to be expected in any major Belle Époque city – universities, museums, telephones, trams and electric lighting. However, none of this could prevent the tide of change from sweeping away the old order – nationalist movements robbed the country of its possessions in the Balkans, and the Great Powers occupied territories like Egypt and Arabia. The end of the First World War was the final nail in the coffin: the Ottoman Empire, which had joined the German side, signed a treaty in 1920 that meant it lost almost all its territory. The empire’s collapse was fraught with violence and atrocities were committed against Armenians and Greeks.

Istanbul in the Modern Era

The foundation of the Republic of Turkey in 1923 under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the father of the nation, saw the country’s political capital move to Ankara. However, throughout the political turmoil of the 20th century, Istanbul remained the cultural and commercial hub of the country, as well as the home of Turkey’s writers, artists and intellectuals. Nearly two thousand years after its foundation, after sieges, plagues and wars, crooked emperors and visionary sultans, the city thrives and expands once more, and the skyline of Istanbul viewed from the Bosphorus remains one of the most extraordinary sights in the whole world.

Istanbul's 59 Top Cultural Attractions

Embarking on a deep dive into the cultural fabric of Istanbul could be quite a task, given the city's richness in history, art, and architecture. To make this endeavor manageable and truly enjoyable, we've compiled an exhaustive resource - a list of 59 standout cultural attractions in Istanbul. Spanning from captivating museums and iconic structures to bustling squares and monumental sites, this list offers an essential blueprint for those wanting to uncover the city's vibrant cultural pulse. Here, then, is your ultimate guide to Istanbul's cultural marvels.

The Museum of Innocence

Aqueduct of Valens

Basilica Cistern

Column of Marcian

Istanbul Archaeological Museums

Kariye Mosque

Little Hagia Sophia

Museum of Great Palace Mosaics

Pammakaristos Church

Cistern of Theodosius

Walls of Constantinople

Zeyrek Mosque

Aydos Castle

Topkapi Palace

Blue Mosque

Gülhane Park

Hagia Irene

Kılıç Ali Paşa Hammam

Sultanahmet Square

Hagia Sophia

Dolmabahçe Palace

Atatürk Museum

Süleymaniye Mosque

Galata Tower

Bayezid II Mosque

Beyazıt Square

Column of Constantine

Golden Horn

Şehzade Mosque

Bosphorus Bridge

Çemberlitaş Hammam

Eyüp Sultan Mosque

Fatih Mosque

Galata Bridge

Galata Mevlevihanesi

Grand Bazaar

Haydarpaşa Station

Laleli Mosque

Mihrimah Sultan Mosque

Spice Bazaar

Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts

New Mosque

Nuruosmaniye Mosque

Pera Museum

Rüstem Paşa Mosque

Rahmi M. Koç Museum

Sokollu Mehmed Paşa Mosque

St Stephen of the Bulgars

Yavuz Selim Mosque

50. Arter


Beylerbeyi Palace

Çağaloğlu Hammam

Çamlıca Tower

Maiden's Tower

Naval Museum

Salt Galata

St Anthony of Padua

Tiled Kiosk

Yıldız Palace

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