Monumental: Istanbul’s Dazzling Architecture

Steeped in history and diversity, Istanbul is an architectural paragon

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John Cavacas

The soaring Hagia Sophia reflects different periods in Istanbul’s history

Istanbul makes all the latest travel hot lists, for good reason. Domed mosques, topped with fairy-tale minarets, anchor scores of neighborhood squares where prayer calls echo down cobbled lanes. Boats of every size navigate the Bosporus Strait, where old men crowd bridges to drop fishing lines and gossip, while along the shores, cafés serve thimbles of thick Turkish coffee.

This Silk Road terminus can sometimes feel as chaotic as exotic. Istanbul residents complain about the crush of traffic and the gaggles of tourists increasingly drawn to a rejuvenated world capital. Still, Istanbul has managed the transition from a city of 7 million residents in 1990 to today’s metropolis of over 15 million far better than other boomtowns like Beijing. Some landmarks have been compromised, but the city’s astonishing architectural endowment remains unrivaled in depth and diversity.

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The issues of heritage and development will be examined in depth at the Istanbul International Architecture and Urban Films Festival (, which runs from Oct. 1 to 7. Scores of films, on architectural integrity and urbanization, will be shown around the city for free.

If you can’t get to any screenings, you can ponder many of the same topics simply by wandering around this real-life museum of enduring monuments. Hint: many key attractions can be visited using a special museum pass (, which offers three-day entrance for about $40. Here are some of the don’t-miss sites, old and new.

Hagia Sophia
One of the world’s oldest, most spectacular Christian churches, the Hagia Sophia ( reflects all the tumultuous historical change in this crossroads capital. From its dedication in A.D. 360 until 1453, this was mostly a major Greek patriarchal cathedral of Constantinople, as Istanbul was called until 1930. For nearly 1,000 years, it was also the world’s biggest church. During the 13th century, it was converted into a Roman Catholic cathedral by the Crusaders. Then, for another five centuries, from the mid-1400s to the 1930s, it was a mosque. Few other religious structures can claim such a lengthy service to so many different faiths.

Davide Monteleone / VII

Hagia Sophia still serves the wider public good. Since 1935 it has been a museum. Its pink exterior is beautifully alluring, surrounded by flowers and fountains. Inside, it offers a marvelous mélange of vaulted arches and religious icons, including restored angels, soaring over Muslim scriptures. Even children will be entertained, spotting some of the world’s oldest graffiti, carved into the walls by ancient Viking invaders.

Topkapi Palace
Istanbul abounds with exquisitely preserved palaces, offering wonderful insight into the sybaritic lifestyles of the imperially favored. But as an eye-watering example of Ottoman Empire opulence, the Topkapi Palace ( ranks first among them, and is found right in the heart of the old city.

For four centuries, until the sultans retreated to cooler estates along the Bosporus in the mid–19th century, this was the seat of the Turkish empire. The grounds and much of the interior—including the massive harem quarters and huge kitchens that could serve over 6,000 meals per day—are open to visitors, so plan to spend much of a day exploring them and the spacious courtyards, with their wealth of artistic treasures and intricate murals. The Chinese porcelain collection is among the world’s largest, with over 10,000 pieces.

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Galata Tower
Galata Tower (, also known as the Tower of Christ to the Genoese colonists who built it, is one of the best-known architectural features of Istanbul and, at nine stories high, is reportedly the largest medieval tower still open to visitors. It has had a rich history, serving as lighthouse, fortress and watchtower. Perched just to the north of Pierre Loti Hill, it remains the center of the ancient Galata neighborhood, which is a favorite for tourists, crammed as it is with cafés and boutiques. The lines to the top of the tower are long, but the wait is worth it; a circular walkway around the conical top offers panoramic vistas of the city and far beyond.

Kanyon Center
Most of the architectural attention in Istanbul focuses on the preservation and conversion of old buildings, but one knockout exception is Kanyon Center (, an innovative office, residential and shopping complex.

This modern metal-and-glass construction, the brainchild of architecture firm the Jerde Partnership, seems to snake through downtown Istanbul like a canyon—locals describe it as looking like it was carved out of the cityscape by a giant lathe. There are 26 floors of offices and residences, with most of the public facilities—including luxury shops, a multiplex cinema, trendy cafés and popular sports bars—concentrated on four scintillating stories. Worth visiting if only for the people-watching opportunities and endlessly unique views.

Basilica Cistern
There are hundreds of ancient water tanks nestled under Istanbul, many open to tours, but the Basilica Cistern (which Turks call the Sunken Palace) is the mother of them all. Located just outside Hagia Sophia, it dates back to the 6th century reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I and owes its opulent form and decorations to its origin as a Roman basilica.

In recent years, this sprawling water tank has been illuminated with somewhat cheesy colored lights, but they cannot dispel the eerie sense of wonder as you encounter, in the underground mist, ornate columns and carvings, including a massive carved Roman head of Medusa. If the interior seems familiar, that’s because you might recognize it from the paddling scenes in James Bond’s From Russia with Love. Incidentally, Istanbul’s architectural marvels are headed back to the silver screen: 007 was there in April and May, utilizing its imposing cityscape, both ancient and contemporary, for his latest adventure film.

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