Back in the ’50s and again in the ’90s, the song “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” became an international hit.
“Istanbul was Constantinople,
Now it’s Istanbul, not Constantinople,
Been a long time gone, Constantinople,
Now it’s Turkish delight on a moonlit night.”
The original song was composed by songwriter Jimmy Kennedy and bandleader Nat Simon, written on the 500th anniversary of the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans.
Early Istanbul history
The history of Istanbul goes back 8,500 years. When the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great made Byzantium the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire in 306, the city, later renamed Constantinople, thrived and prospered under his rule.
Due to its convenient location ideal for trade and transport, Constantinople was an easy target. Throughout the years, Nomadic people, Persians, Arabs, Turks and even Crusaders tried to conquer Constantinople. In 1453, invaders were finally successful; that year Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Empire.
In 1923, the Republic of Turkey was born. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founding father of the republic, moved the country’s capital to Ankara. He also renamed Constantinople “Istanbul,” the name deriving from a Greek phrase (Is Tin Poli) meaning “in the city.”
Famous Istanbul sites
Roman Cistern (Yerebatan Sarnıcı)
The Basilica Cistern is one of Istanbul’s most surprising tourist attractions. This huge underground hall, supported by 336 columns in 12 rows, once stored the imperial water supply for the Byzantine emperors.
Constantine the Great started the Cistern, but Emperor Justinian finished it in the 6th century. They used recycled materials from earlier classical structures for many of the columns here. The Basilica is famous for its Medusa head sculptures. The Basilica is also an amazing place for concerts — if you’re lucky, you’ll hear opera or classical music in this magical place.
Hippodrome (At Meydanı)
The ancient Hippodrome started construction in the year 203 and was completed by Constantine the Great in 330. The Hippodrome was the public center of Byzantine, hosting sports and chariot races.
Today, however, not much of Hippodrome is left standing. It’s been reduced to a small section of gallery walls on the southern side. But to preserve its rich history, the park where the Hippodrome once stood is now home to a variety of monuments. For example, the fountain on the northwest side was a gift to the Ottoman sultan by the German Emperor William II in 1898.
Three ancient monuments also stand in the southwest section: a 20-meter high Egyptian obelisk (from Heliopolis), the Serpent Column brought here from Delphi by Constantine and a stone pillar originally clad in gold-covered bronze plating. Sadly, in 1204, soldiers in the Fourth Crusade stole the plating.
Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmet Camisi)
Commonly known as the Blue Mosque today, this beautiful mosque was Sultan Ahmet I’s grand architectural gift to his capital. The mosque gets its nickname from its tens of thousands of blue İznik tiles. The mosque is one of the finest achievements of Ottoman architecture.
Built between 1609 and 1616, this mosque caused a furor throughout the Muslim world. It originally had six minarets — the same number as the Great Mosque of Mecca. As a peace offering, Sultan Ahmet I gave a seventh tower to Mecca.
A perfect way to spend a day in Istanbul is wandering amid the gardens between the Blue Mosque and the Aya Sofia. Not only are the gardens gorgeous, you’ll get to see Istanbul’s magnificent domes. Come at dusk, as the call to prayer echoes out from the Blue Mosque’s minaret. It’s a religious experience you won’t want to miss.
Topkapı Palace (Topkapı Sarayı)
First built by Mehmet the Conqueror in the 15th century, the sultans of the Ottoman Empire ruled from this glorious palace until the 19th century. The vast complex is a dazzling display of Islamic art. Opulent courtyards lined with intricate hand-painted tile-work connect decorated rooms, all surrounded by battlements and towers.
There is much to explore at Topkapi Palace. The Harem (where the Sultan’s many concubines and children would spend their days) is a must see. The Third Court, which contained the sultan’s private rooms, displays an impressive collection of relics of the Prophet Muhammad.
The Sacred Safekeeping Room is also the home of the Imperial Treasury. You’ll be bedazzled by all the gold and glittering gems. Be sure to set aside at least half a day to see Topkapı Palace — you’ll need it!
Dolmabahçe Palace (Dolmabahçe Sarayı)
The sumptuous, ornate Dolmabahçe Palace was built by Sultan Abdülmecid I in 1854, replacing Topkapı Palace as the primary residence of the sultans. The formal gardens feature decorative fountains, ornamental basins, and blooming flower beds.
Inside, the sheer splendor of the Turkish Renaissance style is equally dazzling. The interiors mix Rococo, Baroque, Neoclassical and Ottoman elements. Embellished with enormous crystal chandeliers, French-style furniture, and dazzling frescoed ceilings, Dolmabahçe Palace symbolizes the height of Istanbul’s wealth and culture.
Ortaköy Mosque (Ortaköy Camisi)
Mahmut Ağa, the son-in-law of Grand Vizier Ibrahim Pasha, built this mosque as a homage to Ottoman Sultan Abdülmecid. It served as the Grand Imperial Mosque when it was completed in 1855. Designed by the famed Armenian architects, Garabet Balyan and his son Nigoğayos Balyanl, whowere also responsible for the nearby Dolmabahce Palace.
Must-visit Istanbul museums
Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofya)
When the Byzantine Emperor Justinian entered his church for the first time in 536, he cried out, “Glory to God that I have been judged worthy of such a work. Oh, Solomon, I have outdone you.”
Hagia Sophia was Emperor Justinian’s pride and joy. It was a statement to the world about his empire’s wealth and technical ability. It was converted into a mosque by the Ottoman Emperor in 1453, and today it’s a newly-renovated museum.
Istanbul Archaeology Museum (İstanbul Arkeoloji Müzesi)
This famous museum complex brings together a staggering array of artifacts from Turkey and throughout the middle east. Also, don’t miss the fascinating “Istanbul Through the Ages” exhibit in the main Archaeology Museum!
Modern Art Museum of Istanbul (Istanbul Modern Sanat Müzesi)
Istanbul is more than just its history! This cutting edge art gallery holds an extensive collection of modern Turkish art. If you want to see what’s happening in Turkey’s contemporary art scene, this museum is by far the best place to go. There’s also a stylish café with knock-out views across the Bosphorus. The museum is a great place to get coffee or a bite to eat before hitting more of the city’s sights.
Galata Tower (Galata Kulesi)
Built in the 14th century, the Galata Tower is one of Istanbul’s most recognizable landmarks. Though it used to be a watchtower and a prison, now it’s a museum. The top balcony is the perfect place to get a panoramic view of Istanbul.
Grand Bazaar (Kapalı Çarşı)
The Grand Bazaar is where everyone comes to shop. This massive indoor market is the world’s first shopping mall. It takes up a whole city quarter, surrounded by thick walls. A maze of vaulted-ceiling laneways, shops and stalls sell every Turkish souvenir and handicraft you could imagine.
The Adalar, or Islands, is made of nine small islands about 10.5 miles southeast of Istanbul in the Sea of Marmara. Byzantine emperors would punish troublesome princes by sending them here — earning the place the nickname the “Prince Islands.” During Medieval times, the Adalar became home to a number of monasteries. It was the ideal location away from the bustle and temptations of the city.
In the 19th century, thanks to steamships and ferryboats, the four largest islands — Büyükada, Heybeliada, Burgazada, and Kınalıada — became summer resorts. Istanbul’s wealthy families built elaborate Victorian summer cottages along the narrow streets, making this the perfect vacation spot.
Featured image by petekarici via iStock