If Istanbul is famous for anything, it’s the city’s many mosques. These intricately decorated structures dot the cityscape, standing as a testament to the enduring power of inspiring architecture. And between the mosques’ striking facades, gorgeous interiors, and captivating histories, no trip to Istanbul would be complete without visiting some of these iconic buildings.
So, to truly experience everything that Istanbul has to offer, you’ll need to explore the city’s mosques. In that light, we’ve put together a quick introduction.
Other names: Sultanahmet Camii and Sultan Ahmed Mosque
Best-known feature: Its hand-painted blue tiles
Located near: Hagia Sophia
Even in a city full of religious buildings, the Blue Mosque manages to stand out. For one thing, it’s Istanbul’s only mosque with six minarets (tall towers with balconies, where individuals used to go to issue the call to prayer). Most mosques have just two or four minarets, and this was only the second mosque in the world to have six. Today, Turkish Muslims transmit the call to prayer over loudspeakers, but the minarets still retain their symbolic significance and architectural appeal.
More interesting, though, are the hand-painted blue tiles that give the mosque its name and beautify its walls. Specially ordered from the nearby city of İznik, the 20,000-plus tiles depict geometric patterns, flowers, fruits, and trees, and along with the stained-glass windows, add to the Blue Mosque’s magic. The vast interior, which can accommodate up to 10,000 people at once, also features other lavish decorations, like calligraphic inscriptions and colorful carpets.
Finally, at just a short walking distance from the Hagia Sophia, the mosque’s location sets it apart, too. Be sure to give yourself adequate time to explore this historic area!
You do not have to pay to enter the Blue Mosque, but you should note that you won’t be allowed inside during any of the five daily prayers. If you’re visiting on a Friday, it’s especially important to avoid stopping by at midday, when worshippers pray together as a congregation. Plan ahead, and don’t be surprised if you have to wait in line before entering the mosque.
Best-known feature: Its massive size
Located near: Grand Bazaar
Commissioned by Süleyman the Magnificent, and built by famous architect Mimar Sinan, this mosque has an illustrious history. Süleyman wanted to fashion himself as a “second Solomon,” meaning (among other things) that he viewed urban development as an important part of his legacy. Together, he and Sinan carried out construction projects all around the city, modeling their principal mosque after the Hagia Sophia. However, the Süleymaniye Mosque improves on the Hagia Sophia’s design in certain ways, including its incorporation of large windows that admit more natural light into the structure.
With subtle ornamentation and few İznik tiles, this mosque’s decor is relatively simple, but it still manages to strike visitors with a sense of awe. And despite the structure’s huge size, Sinan manipulates both light and space to draw eyes up toward the domes, to make the building feel almost weightless.
Over the years, several events — including a 1660 fire and a 1766 earthquake — have damaged the mosque, but the building has been fully restored. It’s now one of the most famous sights in Istanbul, and it’s easy to see why.
Just like the Blue Mosque (and, in fact, all other mosques), the Süleymaniye Mosque is closed during prayer times. Visitors do not have to pay to enter; however, the mosque both accepts and encourages donations. You’ll find this structure just northwest of the Grand Bazaar.
Rüstem Pasha Mosque
Best-known feature: Its İznik tiles
Located near: Galata Bridge and Yeni Cami Mosque
What this mosque lacks in size, it makes up for in artistry. It has just one minaret, and its patron (a grand vizier named Rüstem Pasha) and architect (Mimar Sinan) intentionally made the building small to avoid competing with the newly completed Süleymaniye Mosque.
But when it comes to İznik tiles, only the Blue Mosque rivals this structure. At the Rüstem Pasha Mosque, these colorful, patterned ceramics line both the exterior facade and the interior walls. The entire mosque appears blue, and even the mihrab (the niche in the wall that indicates the direction to Mecca) is decorated with the tiles.
Although the Blue Mosque is larger, many insiders actually prefer visiting the Rüstem Pasha Mosque. Its off-the-beaten-path location guarantees that fewer travelers explore this building, ensuring a calmer experience than you might find at Istanbul’s major mosques.
When looking for the Rüstem Pasha Mosque, remember that its builders wanted it to look more subdued than other structures in the city — and as a result, it’s not easy to find! The building is located on Hasırcılar Caddesi between Kızılhan Sokak and Mahkeme Sokak, and visiting it is well worth the search you’ll have to undertake to find it. Good luck!
Other names: Prince’s Mosque
Best-known feature: Mausoleum of Süleyman’s son, Mehmed
Located near: Süleymaniye Mosque
Of the dozens of mosques eventually built by Mimar Sinan, this was the very first one commissioned by Süleyman the Magnificent. The sultan wanted a grand building to commemorate the life of his favorite son, who died in 1543, and Sinan did justice to the important project. With its open, airy floor plan, the mosque’s interior is striking, although the decor is fairly simple. It’s clear that, even though this was Sinan’s first imperial commission, the architect was already extremely talented.
Elsewhere in the complex, you’ll find a few mausoleums — and while their presence isn’t extraordinarily unique, these mausoleums are particularly significant. The largest and grandest contains the tomb of Süleyman’s son, and the others are home to the tombs of two important viziers. The mausoleums are well-preserved and include many beautiful features, including İznik tiles and stained glass windows.
You’ll find the Şehzade Mosque just a short walk southwest of the Süleymaniye Mosque. Since it was the first mosque built by Mimar Sinan for the imperial Ottomans, history buffs might be particularly interested in visiting this building, although it should also appeal to anyone with an eye for good architectural design.
Other names: New Mosque
Construction: 1597-1603; 1660-1663
Best-known feature: Its many domes and semi-domes
Located near: Galata Bridge and Spice Bazaar
This mosque isn’t quite as new as its nickname might suggest. It’s a product of the 17th century, and it took the effort of two queen mothers (mothers of the sultan) to build it. The initial construction began in 1597, but stalled after the sultan died and his mother consequently fell from power. Before long, the builders abandoned the site.
Years later, in 1660, a large fire ravaged Istanbul and damaged the Yeni Cami’s deserted structure. As a result, then-queen-mother Turhan Hatice decided to restore and complete the mosque, a project that only took a few years. She also ordered the construction of the Spice Bazaar, which is part of the mosque’s complex; today, it’s still one of the most popular markets in Istanbul.
The mosque’s interior is richly decorated with İznik tiles, calligraphic inscriptions, and marble arches. As you look up at the ceiling, you’ll easily spot the large central dome, as well as the striking smaller domes and semi-domes that support it.
Although Yeni Cami is unmistakable at its location near the Galata Bridge, it’s not as popular with tourists as many other mosques are. So, if you’d like to have a quieter experience while visiting one of these important buildings, you’ve found it!
Going near Galata Bridge during your stay in Istanbul? You’ll find Yeni Cami at its southern end. Venture inside to see the unbelievable interior, and take a moment to enjoy the peaceful atmosphere while you’re there.
Other names: Büyük Mecidiye Camii
Best-known feature: Its location
Located near: Bosphorus Bridge
Not only is this the newest mosque on our list, but it also boasts the most picturesque setting. This neo-Baroque beauty was built on the shores of the Bosphorus, and with the Bosphorus Bridge just to the northeast, the mosque-bridge combination provides one of the best photo ops in Istanbul.
Although the mosque is small, it’s also ornate and well designed — and, on top of that, the entire structure was recently restored. Whether you venture inside or just admire the exterior from a distance, you’re sure to agree that this is one of the most understated mosques in the city.
The easiest way to access the mosque is by taking a bus straight to this part of the Ortaköy neighborhood. But don’t forget that you can also see the mosque (from its best angle) during a cruise down the Bosphorus. The choice is yours — and you can’t go wrong.
Wondering what else you should know about Islam before visiting Istanbul? Check out our guide to respecting this religion while visiting Turkey.
Cover photo by Serkan Guzey