By Lauren Swainston Pinegar

One of the most historically significant cities in the world, Istanbul has been the capital of various empires. It has also been known by a variety of names, including Byzantium and Constantinople. A historic center for both Ottoman and Byzantine architecture, Istanbul conveys a feeling of being preserved in time.

Istanbul continues to amaze visitors with its stunning architecture, ancient landmarks, and engaging culture. The relics of ancient empires provide a glimpse of the grandeur that must have existed in their day. It is clear to see why Jenni Reimann, a German traveler who frequently visits Istanbul, always “feels like [she’s] in a different world” when in Istanbul.

From tales of sultans and ancient towers to bustling bazaars and exotic foods, this former capital of Turkey is the perfect backdrop for your own tales and adventures. Matthew Martin, an American studying the Middle East, says, “For anybody interested in Islamic or Byzantine history, Istanbul is a place you can’t afford to miss.” As you visit these historic sites, the city’s cultures and traditions will come to life. Its history is much more enthralling than anything you’ll find in a textbook.

Kiz Kulesi (Maiden’s Tower)

First built by an Athenian general around 400 BC, Maiden’s Tower is surrounded by legends about its name. A popular tale paints the story of a sultan who tries to save his daughter fated by an oracle to die on her eighteenth birthday.

To protect his daughter, the sultan trapped her in a tower (the Kiz Kulesi) surrounded by water. On her eighteenth birthday, the maiden was unharmed and seemed to have overcome her destiny. Her elated father brought her a fruit basket to celebrate her victory over death. However, when she reached into the fruit basket, a snake bit her and she died, ironically fulfilling her fate.

As Reimann says, “everyone will discover their own favorite story” or Istanbul legend.

The body of water surrounding the tower is the Bosporus Strait, a beautiful narrow neck of water that divides the European continent from Asia. “The scenery along the Bosporus is unlike anywhere else,” says Angie Bond, who is living in Istanbul with her husband and son. Sit for a refreshing drink while discussing your favorite tales at either the café or the restaurant in the tower. Hire an inexpensive boat to go to and from the tower. “The Bosporus is the heartbeat of Istanbul,” says Martin. “You can’t really go there without seeing it.”

Take a free stroll through and find anything from vegetables, fruits, nuts, and cheeses to jewelry, shoes, bags, and toys. Photo by Sara Walk

Grand Bazaar and Spice Bazaar

Located in Sultanahmet, this vast area is lined with more than 4,000 shops and is one of the oldest covered markets in the world. The Grand Bazaar is most famous for its jewelry, spices, pottery, and leather products, so most everyone will find something worth haggling over.

The Spice Bazaar, also located in Sultanahmet, is almost as big as and possibly even more sensory than the Grand Bazaar. Walking down the aisles, you can see vivid shades of red, orange, yellow, brown, and green. The exotic smells lead you on a tour down each colorful row.

The Spice Bazaar also speaks to the legacy of trade in Turkey as the center for spice trade in Istanbul both anciently and currently. “You can get any spices you can think of, and the smell is unbelievable,” says Reimann. The Spice Bazaar, like the Grand Bazaar, is connected to a mosque that is open for exploration.

Topkapi Palace

This palace primarily housed the Ottoman sultans for 400 years. After a brief visit, you will immediately gain an appreciation for the sultans’ pristine taste in architecture and decor. “The courtyards were built with love and attention to detail,” Reimann says.

This palace, which offers clear views over the Bosporus to the Asian side of Istanbul, houses some of the holiest relics of the Muslim faith, including the prophet Mohammed’s cloak and sword. Tours are offered for those who want to get a full rundown of Topkapi Palace history.

Forty windows illuminate the central dome of Hagia Sophia. Photo by Sara Walk

Hagia Sophia

For nearly a thousand years, the Hagia Sophia was the largest cathedral in the world; it later became a mosque. “If your time is limited in Istanbul, stay with the mosques and museums,” Martin says. “Those are the true beauty of Istanbul.”

This structure now serves as a museum that represents Turkey’s tradition of imperial change. Its massive dome and idyllic Byzantine architecture leave a lasting impression on visitors from around the globe.

Be sure to look up once you’re inside—the interior is covered with breathtaking black- and gold-hued mosaics depicting scenes and iconography from early Christian theology, as well as stylized images of triumphant monarchs.

During the Hagia Sophia’s transition into a mosque, most of the mosaics were covered with plaster or painted over, but through decades of careful recovery, many have been restored to their former beauty.

Blue Mosque

This awe-inspiring structure, aptly nicknamed for its interior blue-tile mosaics, is officially titled the Sultan Ahmed Mosque. It was first constructed in the seventeenth century and still retains its original function as a place of worship today. Visit the mosque at dusk to see it fully lit and gleaming in the twilight. The size of the mosque brings to mind the grandeur and glory of heaven. As Reimann puts it, “You can feel the religion in there.” Just remember that visitors are expected to remove their shoes before entering the mosque, as it is considered a holy place.

The ancient city of Istanbul offers a remarkable walk through time that will tap in to all of your senses. No matter where you wander or what you’re after, your time in Istanbul will be well spent.