Istanbul darwish experience

The Mandarin Oriental Guide to Istanbul’s Seven Must-see Sights

Design & Culture

From gilded Ottoman palaces to the dreamily tiled Blue Mosque, here’s our guide to the greatest historical sights in Istanbul.

The past is never far away in Istanbul, a fabled crossroads between east and west, where the Byzantines, Romans and Ottomans all held sway. There are domed mosques with kaleidoscopic tiles, magnificently gilded palaces, mosaics, marble monuments and crumbling remains, including the once-mighty hippodrome. Struggling to know where to start? Head for Sultanahmet Square, flanked by the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia, then work your way through our pick of Istanbul’s famous sights. The clued-up concierge at Mandarin Oriental Bosphorus, Istanbul can also help plan your next adventure, whether it’s a waterfront cruise, masterclass in Turkish Art, or tour of the Old City’s colourful, clamorous bazaars.

1. Hagia Sophia

This sixth-century cathedral-turned-mosque is one of the city’s wonders – a minaret-edged masterpiece on a hilltop above the Bosphorus. Ordering the first reconstruction of Hagia Sofia, Emperor Justinian inaugurated the freshly restored church in 537. As one of the most paramount mosques in the world and an architectural marvel, Hagia Sofia was adjusted similarly to the culture of the empire of that time. Featuring its delicate Byzantine artwork and Ottoman engravings, the grandeur Hagia Sofia mesmerizes all visitors with its magnificence. Join the crowds craning up at the soaring central dome, flanked by four feathered angels, or hunt down the Old Norse graffiti, etched into a marble parapet by a bored Viking marauder.

2. Topkapı Palace

Prepare to be dazzled by this Ottoman palace, where all-powerful sultans once held court. It’s Istanbul’s exquisitely gilded answer to Versailles, with its glittering treasury, ornate frescoes and pavilion-dotted gardens – once lit, for decadent parties, by tortoises with candles on their backs. A visit to the harem, meanwhile, is worth every extra lira, spanning colonnaded courtyards, showstopping Iznik tiles, and the grandest of marble baths.

3. Basilica Cistern

This Byzantine cistern is one of a kind – an underground, cathedral-like affair supported by hundreds of stone pillars. It made a cameo in From Russia with Love when Bond boated through, though even its aesthetic walkways are headily atmospheric. Dodge the drips and look out for carp swimming in its silent depths. Even more eerie are a pair of snake-haired stone medusas, scavenged from an earlier temple and used as column supports.

4. Grand Bazaar

Any self-respecting round-up of Istanbul’s main sights must include the Grand Bazaar, built in the 15th century, when the city was still Constantinople. These days, it’s a breathtaking mix of artisan treasures, from hand-woven vintage kilims, via refined piece of jewellery via Turkish slippers, miniature paintings, brass tea pots and exquisitely embroidered shawls. To navigate it like a local, sign up for MO’s Old City shopping tour, which will take you straight to the finest traders, craftsmen and coffee kiosks.

5. Blue Mosque

In the centre of old Istanbul, there’s no missing the Blue Mosque, with its six gold-tipped minarets and graceful, dove-grey domes. Its name comes from the thousands of tiles inside, intricately painted with tulips and pomegranate flowers. Overhead, look out for the ostrich eggs on its glittering chandeliers, said to emit an odour that keeps web-weaving spiders away. It’s closed during prayer time, and the usual codes apply: covered heads for women, no shoes and modest clothes (if not, you’ll be loaned a robe).

6. Istanbul Archaeology Museums

Close to Topkapı Palace, this trio of newly renovated museums houses all manner of treasures, from Roman mosaics and Iznik tiles to panels from the gates of Babylon. Don’t leave without seeing their star piece, the Alexander Sarcophagus, carved with rearing horses, battling warriors and feats of manly derring-do. Romantics, meanwhile, will appreciate the world’s oldest love poem, inscribed on a clay tablet in around 2000 BC.

7. Beylerbeyi Palace

In summer, overheated sultans retreated to this Baroque palace just across the Strait from Mandarin Oriental Bosphorus. Built in 1861, it’s a suitably opulent affair, set behind a snowy marble façade that’s guarded by stone lions. Inside, it’s a vision of Ottoman excess: think Ming vases, Baccarat crystal chandeliers and a fountain in the hall. Outside, there are domed pavilions and a charming garden café, with parasol-shaded tables around a tranquil pool. Ask the MO Concierge to arrange your boat trip across.