11 Surprising Facts about Istanbul

When looking at facts about Istanbul, the whirlwind of information portrays this exciting city's story with elegance and pride. As Turkey's most powerful city, Istanbul's streets, neighbourhoods, and buildings reign supreme. Most people know Istanbul's history as a capital-ruling centre for the Byzantine and Ottoman empires. Still, from the humble roots to today, this transcontinental city now earns fame across the globe for tourism and real estate. From day to night, this fascinating city captures people's attention repeatedly by combining historical landmarks like Imperial mosques, Hagia Sophia and Ottoman Turkish baths with the new, modern face of business, property and the economy. Indeed, this is not a city to underestimate, and on every corner, there is always something new to learn.


Facts About Istanbul That Prove the Global Worth

1: Istanbul is NOT the Capital City of Turkey

Many foreigners still assume, that Istanbul is Turkey’s capital city, but it isn’t. Ankara is. Moving the capital city from Istanbul to Ankara was done in 1923, because the location in central Turkey was more strategically placed for governing and administering the country. Ankara is also further away from Turkey's borders, therefore reduce vulnerability to external threats.

The move from Istanbul to Ankara symbolised breaking from the Ottoman Empire's legacy, as Istanbul (then called Constantinople) had been the capital for centuries. Atatürk wanted to emphasise Turkey's transformation into a modern, secular, and independent nation. So, while Istanbul remains Turkey's largest city, Ankara is the political and administrative centre. (More about the move of Turkey's capital city.)

2: Murder She Wrote and the Orient Express

Celebrated British author Agatha Christie wrote her famous novel, Murder on the Orient Express, while living in the Pera Hotel. The main character, Hercule Poirot, whilst riding the historical Orient Express train from Istanbul to Paris, famously solves a murder. The 19th-century Orient Express was born when a Belgian entrepreneur, Georges Nagelmackers, founded the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits (CIWL) to provide luxurious and comfortable train travel across Europe.

Over the years, the Orient Express had several routes. Still, the most famous ran from Paris to Istanbul, passing through cities such as Strasbourg, Munich, Vienna, Budapest, and Bucharest. This route allowed travellers to experience Europe and Asia's diverse cultures and landscapes. As air travel became more popular, the Orient Express declined in passenger numbers, and ceased to operate in 1977. It was the end of an era.

3: Large Diamonds and Islamic Relics of a Prophet

Istanbul holds the world's fourth-largest diamond. The Spoon-makers diamond, held within high-security conditions at the Topkapi Museum, is stunning. The real story of how the Topkapi Palace acquired it is unknown. However, local legends say a fisherman found the jewel on the shoreline and, unaware of the treasure he held, sold it for three spoons, hence the name. He then sold it to Ottoman royalty. Topkapi Palace also houses the relics of Muhammad, the greatest prophet of Islam. Stored in the Holy Mantle Chamber, the Ottoman Sultan Selim first acquired them in 1512 and then Mehmed the 3rd brought them to Topkapi Palace in 1595.

Topkapi Palace

4: Old Subways and Trams

The 19th-century underground funicular railway system between Karakoy and Beyoglu is the world's third-oldest subway. Measuring 554 metres long and originally consisting of two wooden car trams, the travel time is just 1.5 minutes. Istanbul's well-developed tram network serves as an integral part of public transportation. Many people just think of the iconic electric tram line that runs along the famous Istiklal Avenue to Taksim Square. But there is another famous red tram that operates in Asian Istanbul.

Additionally, modern tram routes like the T1 line from European Kabatas to Bagcilar pass through significant areas like Sultanahmet (for historical sites like the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque) and Eminonu. Istanbul expanded tram networks and improved public transportation infrastructure to address traffic congestion and environmental concerns. They are also treasured in areas with narrow streets and historical sites, where large vehicles are impractical.

Istiklal Tram

5: Most Popular Tourist Destination in Turkey

MasterCard Global Destination Cities Index often rates Istanbul in the list of top visited places worldwide, making this a melting pot for international visitors. The location on two continents is partly credited for the popularity, as Turkey’s most visited tourist destination. The city ranks with Tokyo, Barcelona, Rome, and Milan, thanks to the historic centre and must-visit attractions like….

Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque: The Hagia Sophia, a historic masterpiece and popular attraction was a former cathedral, mosque, museum and now mosque again. Hagia Sophia's breathtaking dome and previous Christian mosaics make this building an iconic landmark. Meanwhile, the Blue Mosque sitting across from it, earns fame for the stunning blue tiles and six minarets. The Blue Mosque also stands next to the famous Egyptian Obelisk.

Topkapi PalaceOnce the home of the Ottoman Empire, Topkapi Palace showcases Ottoman architecture, opulent courtyards, and many artefacts, including the famous Topkapi Dagger and Topkapi Diamond.

Grand Bazaar and Spice Bazaar (Kapalıçarşı): This historic covered market, the world's oldest and largest, is a labyrinth of shops and stalls offering everything from carpets and jewellery to spices and ceramics but also a popular tourist attraction. Meanwhile, the spice bazaar, also called the Egyptian Bazaar, sells spices, Turkish delights, teas, and souvenirs.

Basilica Cistern (Yerebatan Sarnıcı): This underground cistern, featuring hundreds of water cisterns, rows of ancient columns and dim lighting, offers mysterious and atmospheric experiences. The cistern was famously featured in the James Bond film, from Russia with Love, and it also impressed Mark Twain who visited while on his international travels.

Dolmabahce Palace: Another magnificent palace in Istanbul and a must-visit attraction, Dolmabahce boasts impressive Baroque and Neoclassical architecture. The opulent rooms and gardens reflect the second residence of Ottoman sultans after they left Topkapi Palace and before their empire was disbanded.

6: Istanbul Sits in Both Europe and Asia

Istanbul is the world's only city that spans two continents: Europe and Asia. Famous European districts include Fatih, home to many iconic landmarks, including the Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, and Topkapi Palace. Meanwhile, Beyoglu is famous for Istiklal Avenue, lined with shops, restaurants, and entertainment venues. European Istanbul is also home to Galata Tower and Taksim Square, while the Sisli district features modern shopping centres like Cevahir Mall and the famous Istanbul Cevahir Shopping and Entertainment Center. Over in Asian Istanbul, Kadikoy boasts vibrant street life, markets, and cultural events, and neighbouring Uskudar boasts beautiful historical landmarks, including mosques and Ottoman-era buildings.


7: The Turkish Population is the Biggest in Turkey

In the Byzantine and Roman years, the terms of population fluctuated, with estimates ranging from 100,000 to 500,000 people. When the Ottoman court ruled from Topkapi Palace, the populated city housed 700,000 to 1 million people. Just before the 20th century fall of the Ottoman Empire, the population declined due to World War I, the Turkish War of Independence, and the population exchange between Greece and Turkey. But after the Turkish Republic's founding in 1923, Istanbul's growing reputation saw migration from all over the country.

By the mid-20th century, Istanbul's population had exceeded 1.5 million. Urbanisation, industrialisation, new significant roads and migration from rural areas contributed to this growth. By the 1980s, Istanbul's population had surpassed 5 million, eventually reaching 15 million by the early 2020s, making Istanbul a highly populous city. In addition, Istanbul is home to many famous people, including Orhan Pamuk, the most widely sold Turkish author, and Turkey’s richest families and billionaires’ own homes here.

8: Ancient Empires Galore

The stories of empires and Istanbul always capture people's attention. They are like soap operas as we get addicted to the tales of greed, power, lust and education. Istanbul doesn't disappoint, thanks to the city's colourful history. Humble beginnings started in the 7th century BCE when Greek settlers called the city Byzantium. In later centuries, Romans ruled, and in the 5th century, the town became the Byzantine Empire's capital city. In the 7th century and 8th century CE, Constantinople faced attacks from the Persians and Arab Muslims. Around the 12th century, Greek speakers called the city Istinpolin.

In the 15th century, under Mehmed the Conqueror, the Ottoman Empire captured the walled city, and installed Ottoman imperial courts. Cracks started appearing in the 18th century, and by the 19th century, the Ottoman Empire faced significant territorial losses and internal reforms as Istanbul underwent modernisation efforts. In the 20th century, the Ottoman Empire transitioned into the Republic of Turkey under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. The days of conquering empires, and rivalry is over, but this doesn’t deter from Istanbul’s historical charm.

9: Shopping Malls are Big Business

Did you know there are roughly 400 shopping malls in Istanbul? Even though they still like bustling markets, the enchanting city of Istanbul is a favourite destination for Turks, thanks to enormous shopping malls. Istinye Park, a luxury shopping and lifestyle complex in upscale Sariyer in European Istanbul, excels in innovative design, incorporating a central park, water features, and outdoor seating areas to drink Turkish coffee.

Zorlu Center, an ultra-modern complex, combines shopping, entertainment, culture, and cultural events, concerts, and exhibitions. The Mall of Istanbul offers extensive shopping options, a large indoor ice-skating rink, a cinema complex, and diverse food courts. While Optimum Outlet in Atasehir in Asian Istanbul attracts many bargain hunters. Cevahir Istanbul, in upmarket Sisli, often called Cevahir Mall, is one of Europe's largest shopping malls. (These are just a snippet of the mall experience but find out more in our article about shopping malls in Istanbul.)

Shopping malls in Istanbul

10: King of the Turkish Economy

Istanbul, Turkey's largest city, rules the country's economy as the financial, industrial, and commercial hub. Having previously been listed as a fast-growing metropolitan economy, key sectors include finance and banking, manufacturing and Industry, and trade and logistics. Tourism highly adds to Istanbul's economy and foreign direct investment comes from real estate, finance, and manufacturing by international companies and investors.

Indeed, the Turkish saying goes that the whole country would follow suit if Istanbul were to collapse. Despite challenges, Istanbul's economy still grows and drives Turkey's overall economic performance. The Turkish government has also promoted Istanbul for entrepreneurship and innovation, aiming to foster knowledge-based business and attract talent and companies from abroad. The opening of Istanbul finance centre is also the icing on the cake.

Istanbul Finance Centre

11: Ottoman Empire City of Tulips

The 16th century connection between Istanbul and tulips still shines through in architecture, arts, culture, and tourism. Their cultivation and appreciation became popular during Sultan Ahmed III’s reign. Tulips symbolised opulence and luxury during the Tulip Era, also known as "Lâle Devri" in Turkish, which lasted from the late 17th to early 18th century.

The Ottoman elite were particularly fond of tulips, and they were often depicted in art and textiles. Istanbul and other cities in Turkey celebrate spring with annual tulip festivals. These festivals feature displays of vibrant tulips in various parks and public spaces. The Istanbul Tulip Festival, held in April, attracts many locals and tourists, because they symbolise love, renewal and beauty in Turkish culture.

Tulip Festival


12: International Flights from Istanbul Airport

Istanbul International Airport, officially called Istanbul Airport (IATA: IST), is Turkey's main international airport and one of the world's largest. Often called "Istanbul New Airport" to distinguish the prominent air travel hub from Istanbul Atatürk Airport, the previous primary airport, Istanbul International Airport sits on the European side, in Arnavutkoy, near the Black Sea coast, 35 kilometres northwest of Istanbul's city centre.

The airport was designed to handle large volumes of passengers and aircraft, which the older Istanbul Atatürk Airport couldn't cope with. The vast terminal complex, covering 1 million square metres (11 million square feet), handles millions of passengers annually, with plans for future expansion. Istanbul airport offers vast networks of domestic and international destinations, with numerous airlines operating flights to and from Istanbul, and has received awards for design and innovation, including prestigious "Five-Star Global Airport" awards from Skytrax. Indeed, this airport has paved the way for global aviation hubs to follow. (More about airports in Turkey.)

Istanbul Airport

13: Camlica: Europe's Tallest Building

If high-rise buildings and amazing panoramic views are your idea for fun, visit Camlica Tower, Istanbul's and Europe's tallest towers. More extensive than the Eiffel Tower, Camlica has an observation deck at the top, giving off stunning views of this incredible city. The primary purpose of Camlica Tower is to serve as a telecommunications tower, housing broadcasting equipment for radio and television stations. It was constructed to improve the broadcasting infrastructure in Istanbul. However, the height of 369 metres and those fantastic views have brought it fame and a couple of world records. A fun fact is that the architecture was inspired by the tulip flower, resembling the Ottoman connection to Istanbul. Additionally, elevators on each side reflect the two sides of the Bosphorus.

14: Most Popular Place for House Sales

So, since Istanbul is the most populated city in Turkey, you would be forgiven for thinking that they have run out of land to build on. But no. Istanbul is Turkey's most popular place for domestic and foreign house sales, and the growth looks set to continue. At the turn of the century, Istanbul planned to get everyone out of ghetto districts. Now, modern lifestyle residences have started to spring up on the outskirts. Featuring communal facilities like gardens and pools, they have proven successful with Istanbul house buyers, including foreigners looking to cash in on Turkey's real estate through a citizenship investment scheme. This fact demonstrates that despite Istanbul's former fame and glory, the future will also see many changes.

Also About Istanbul

If you have enjoyed our facts about Istanbul, our blog about this glorious city and other places in Turkey will be interesting. Discussing all topics from tourism to house sales, business and history, the blog is crafted by our local experts. This article also discusses the famous Bosphorus Strait, mainly credited with giving Istanbul global importance. You might also like to learn about the famous Bosphorus bridges that also contribute to interesting facts about Istanbul.



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