A city that has stood for thousands of years at the center of empires, Istanbul is unassailably a premiere cultural destination, exhibiting the best of everything that Turkey stands for even though it has been without capital status for nearly a hundred years. Once an outpost of the Greeks (Byzantium), this city served as the heart of the Roman world for nearly a thousand impenetrable years, falling finally to the Ottomans after it was all but abandoned in the 15th century. Many Christian and Roman landmarks were then repurposed to serve the Muslim population, while the subsequent years served to build the original city into a metropolis that would stand until present times as both a forerunner of Turkish progress and a symbol of its storied past. If that isn't enough to inspire your curiosity, we don't know what is.
The majority of travelers will begin their cultural excursions in the old city of Sultanahmet, whose four sides were once impregnably guarded by the Bosphorus River, the Golden Horn estuary, the Sea of Marmara, and the ancient city defenses (which, in large part, still exist). There are a huge number of attractions around central Sultanahmet Square, including two of Istanbul's most famous, the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia, both of which are locked in a heated duel of minarets from across Sultan Ahmet Park. The Blue Mosque still serves its intended purpose and therefore requires sensitivity to prayer times, while the Hagia Sophia is currently a museum and is available throughout the day if you're looking to browse its incredible interior. The Topkapı Palace, for centuries the home of Ottoman emperors; the Basilica Cistern, a 6th century walkway lined with long-standing pillars; and the Istanbul Archaeological Museum, which boasts a collection of artifacts culled from far beyond modern Turkish borders, are all within proximity of Sultanahmet Square. The Cemberlitas Hamami and the gargantuan Grand Bazaar a half a dozen blocks west are also highlights of the area, while mosques like Zeyrek and Süleymaniye round out an immense selection of classic Turkish sites.
The old city is merely one of a considerable heaping of districts and neighborhoods worth checking out in this massive city. Across the Golden Horn in Beyoglu, many fall prey to the consumer parade of Istiklal Avenue and also catch Whirling Dervish performances at Galata Mevlevihanesi. There are innumerable destinations along the Bosphorus River that you can glimpse in passing on a cruise, but we suggest seeking out the hookah bars (nargiles) in Tophane, the artsy cafes of Ortaköy, and the Asian side's Kadıköy, whose Bağdat Caddesi rivals any street on the European side and whose distinct yellow balloon provides some of the best views of the city.
There's so much more to Istanbul than we can touch on here. It is one of the most unique cities on Earth. Where else can you encounter Greek, Roman, and Ottoman history as it straddles two continents? Turkish baths, whirling dervishes, great mosques, hookah bars, bazaars, modern skyscrapers, doner kebabs, and so much more are touched upon in far more detail in our related pages. Take a look and get a little inspiration for an Istanbul adventure.