Istanbul en route for second-most visited European city

Istanbul is set to become Europe’s second-most visited tourist city after London.

An annual league table has placed Istanbul at fifth place for global visitor numbers, a jump of two places from 2014, when it was ranked seventh. This year, 12.6 million people will visit Turkey’s largest city, according to the report.

With annual visitor numbers rising by around 11 percent, Istanbul is expected to overtake Paris for the number three spot.

“Istanbul has a much higher growth rate than Paris,” said the report for the Mastercard Global Destination Cities Index. “If these two cities continue to grow their international visitors’ numbers at the current rates, in four years Istanbul will overtake Paris to become second-ranked in Europe.”

London is the world’s most popular tourist destination, with 18.8 million overnight international visitors expected this year, a six percent rise on last year and 600,000 more than Paris, who took second place. Visitors to London will spend £13.2 billion this year, splashing out on attractions like The London Eye and Madame Tussauds. London has taken the top spot for five out of the last seven years.

The annual study analyses figures from tourist boards, historical visitor flows and projected growth data from previous years. Bangkok is at second place globally, with 18.2 million visitors expected this year.

Visitor numbers

1 London 18.82m 6% increase on last year
2 (2) Bangkok 18.24m 8%
3 (3) Paris 16.06m 3.2%
4 (4) Dubai 14.26m 8%
5 (7) Istanbul 12.56m 11.4%
6 (5) New York 12.27m 3.5%
7 (6) Singapore 11.88m 3%
8 (8) Kuala Lumpur 11.12m 5.6%
9 (9) Seoul 10.35m 5.2%
10 (10) Hong Kong 8.66m 3.5%

So what’s the big deal?

Istanbul is packed with historical sites, cultural attractions, great restaurants and a dizzying array of activities.

Let’s check out the most popular things to see and do in Istanbul.

The Grand Bazaar

Not only is the Grand Bazaar the most popular destination in the city, it’s also the most visited destination on the planet, with 91.25 million visitors recorded in 2013 - that’s 250,000 visitors each day.

Located in the Old City, the colourful, bustling market began life as a small warehouse, built by Mehmet the Conqueror in 1461.

Now, it’s one of the largest markets in the world, with 61 covered streets and more than 3000 shops and stalls. From that single warehouse, it’s grown to encompass a huge area, spreading out over lanes which were gradually covered, swallowing small shops whole and turning the market into a labyrinthine structure full of artisan goods like ceramics, jewellery, carpets, as well as imported items.

Take your time. Block off half a day and expect to drink a lot of tea as you hunt down bargains.

Read more about the Grand Bazaar here.
Grand Bazaar Istanbul

Topkapi Palace

Home to generations of sultans - and the source of many a colourful story - Topkapi’s history is almost as intriguing as a tour around the building itself.

Built by Mehmet the Conqueror (who you’ll remember was also behind the original Grand Bazaar) in the 15th century and added to over hundreds of years, the palace was home to Ottoman leaders and their wives - who were generally hidden from society - until the 19th century.

Visitors can explore the sprawling palace, getting a glimpse into a life long gone, and learning about the intrigues and espionage that went on behind its walls.

Gaze upon the opulent jewels lining the treasury, enjoy the beautiful garden pavilions and learn all about what actually went on in the Harem (clue: it’s probably not what you think!).

Read more about Topkapi Palace here.
Topkapi Palace Istanbul

The Blue Mosque

Arguably Istanbul’s most beautiful building, The Blue Mosque was the brainchild of Sultan Ahmet I, who ruled at the beginning of the 17th century.

The sumptuous exterior curves of the mosque draws visitors’ eyes upwards to its slender minarets, and inside you can see the tens of thousands of blue Iznik tiles that give the mosque its unofficial name.

After you’re done exploring the prayer space and the large courtyard, you can pay Ahmet I a visit - his tomb is on the north side of the site, on the Sultanahmet Park side.

Read more about the Blue Mosque here.
Blue Mosque Istanbul

Basilica Cistern

Atmosphere and antiquity combine in this intriguing subterranean tourist attraction. Commissioned by Emperor Justinian in 532 AD, the cistern is the largest surviving Byzantine cistern in the city.

Designed to service the Great Palace and the surrounding buildings, the cistern could hold up to 80,000 cubic metres of water, which were pumped in from 20km of aqueducts from a Black Sea reservoir. It’s almost impossible to believe that such a grand structure could be forgotten, but forgotten it was, when the Byzantine emperors left the Great Palace for the Palace of Blachernae in 1081. It wasn’t rediscovered until 500 years later, when a scholar researching antiquities was told by residents that they were able to mysteriously obtain water - and fish by way of their basements. The cistern became a dumping ground for all sorts of rubbish - including dead bodies - until it was renovated in 1985 and opened to the public.

Visitors walk along raised wooden platforms, getting dripped upon by the vaulted ceilings. Look out for the carp swimming beneath you. Many of its 336 columns were salvaged from temples, adding to the grandeur of the impressive structure.

Read more about the Basilica Cistern here
Basilica Cistern


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