Istanbul is Turkey’s largest city and the pivotal meeting point between continents; here you can literally spend the morning in Europe and the afternoon in Asia with just a ferry ride separating the two. The former imperial capital, which once housed consecutive Christian and Islamic empires, now delivers a heady mix of the old and new in a modern European city that celebrates glorious relics from the past. Exploring everything Istanbul has to offer is almost impossible but there are several architectural and historical highlights newcomers won’t want to miss.
Completed in 1478, Topkapi is the oldest and largest surviving palace, home to the Ottoman sultans for almost 400 years. Now a prized museum, with a view of the Bosphorous and the Golden Horn, this UNESCO World Heritage site is a vision of opulence and a window into the world of the Ottoman court. Another of the most visited museums is Hagia Sophia, which was first commissioned by the Byzantine emperor Justinian as a church and then converted into a mosque. Close by in the main square, the beautiful Blue Mosque (officially known as Mosque of Sultan Ahmet), dominates Istanbul’s skyline with its towering domes and six slender minarets.
Shopping enthusiasts will love Istanbul’s eclectic retail offerings and nowhere captures the imagination quite like the Grand Bazaar. This vast covered market comprises 61 streets and over 5,000 shops selling jewellery, handpainted ceramics, carpets, embroideries, spices, leather and antiques. It topped the list of the world’s most visited tourist attractions in 2014 with 91,250,000 annual visitors.