hagia sophia in istanbul

Istanbul Itinerary: Sultanahmet District

Istanbul, formerly known as Constantinople, is the only city in the world that straddles two continents, Europe and Asia.  The city of 14 million people is the largest city in Europe and one of the most visited in the world. 

Istanbul is split into three areas by bodies of water.  The Bosphorus Strait separates the European side and the Asian side.  The European side is further split into two by the Golden Horn.  North of the inlet is Beyoĝlu (New Town) while south is the historic area, Sultanahmet.

Public Transportation in Istanbul

Though spread out, all the sections may be reached on a variety of public transportation which includes trams, subways, buses, and ferries.  It is best to purchase an Istanbul Kart card if riding public transportation more than six times.

The Instanbul Kart card may be purchased at any of the yellow machines near the stations for 6TL, about $1USD.  Only one is needed for five people as it may be rescanned at the turnstile for each person.  While the yellow machines are only in Turkish, the card is easy to purchase and to add money on it.  Most importantly, the machines do not provide change or take change for the Kart card, so have appropriate small bills. 

For example, I inserted 10TL for my card which gave me the card with 4TL loaded on it.  4TL is generally more than enough to take a single ride which is discounted with the use of the card.  Transfers within 2 hours are also discounted.

Museum Pass for Istanbul

In addition to purchasing an Istanbul Kart card, if visiting several sites, it is also worth buying the Museum Pass.  There are a variety of options for the Museum Pass which include tours, a pass just for Istanbul, and a pass for Turkey.  I purchased the basic Museum Pass for Istanbul for 250TL (price has since gone up).  This pass provides access to twelve places of interest including Hagia Sophia and Topkapi Palace, which are must sees.

Visiting only Hagia Sophia, the Topkapi Palace and one other museum virtually pays for the pass which also offers skip the line entry.  Though there were not any lines in the shoulder season, I found the Museum Pass useful, and it encouraged me to pop in a few sites I would have never visited otherwise. 

audio Tour Apps

Another good trick is to download the Topkapi Palace and Hagia Sophia audio tours on the Istanbul Welcome Card App.  Do not pay for the card! Just download the free app for the audio tours.

Where to Stay in Istanbul

Given most of the historic sites in Istanbul are located in Sultanahmet, this is the most convenient area in which to stay.  There are a plethora of hotels and restaurants from which to choose, and as a result the pricing is reasonable.  Having said that, it definitely feels more touristy than New Town or the Asian side.

I stayed at Hotel Centrum.  I’m certain there are better places, but for $60 per night and only a 10 minute walk from the major sites, it was worth a few consolations.  The late night parties at the neighboring restaurants on the weekends definitely warranted ear plugs. And the bed was about as hard as concrete. But the staff was friendly and the cleaning very good. 

In addition the buffet breakfast on the sixth floor was very good relative to the other places I visited in the Turkish countryside. It included the usual Turkish choices such as cheese, cucumber, tomato, olives, fruit, bread and a variety of spread along with limited hot choices. Even the seagulls liked it.

seagull for breakfast in istanbul

Tea and Mezzes

Of course tea was available as it is served at any time of day and night.  The Turkish claim there is no caffeine, but it is black tea, so think twice before drinking it after dinner.  While tea is generally offered for free at restaurants, many times breads, spreads and even bottles of water are set on the table like they are complimentary, but they are not.  So decline them or be prepared to pay if they are not included.

Top Places to See in Istanbul

Above are just a few tips about visiting Turkey before I delve into the top sites to see in Istanbul.  As I mentioned, Istanbul is separated by water into three sections.  This post will cover only Sultanahmet and the surrounding area which takes about three leisurely days to explore.

Not a fan of crowds, I visited the most popular places right when they opened and then sprinkled in a few other sites before the much busier afternoons.

Being only steps away from the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, and the hippodrome, I visited these places my first morning in Istanbul.

The Blue Mosque

The Blue Mosque was constructed between 1609 and 1616 during the rule of Ahmed I.  While its name in Turkish is Sultanahmet Camii, it is called the Blue Mosque due to the blue tiles which decorate the interior.  The mosque includes Ahmed’s tomb, a madrasa and a hospice.

Its interior beauty draws many tourists, though it is an active mosque, thus certain rules must be followed.  Visitors must visit outside of praying times, wear appropriate clothing including a head covering for women and remove their shoes.

While I visited in shoulder season, there was no queue in the early hours.  Having said that, the mosque is currently being renovated, so there is not much to see inside.  Regardless, IGNORE the people that ask if you are going to the Blue Mosque, as they will take you some place else to shop.  I got asked this question every day I was in the area.

the blue mosque in istanbul

Hagia Sophia

Across the picturesque, giant plaza from the Blue Mosque is Hagia Sophia.  The Hagia Sophia which means holy wisdom takes place of two previous churches; one built by Emperor Constantine in 360 and another built in 415 by Theodosius II.  The Hagia Sophia was constructed between 532 and 537 by Justinian I and operated as church for years before it was converted into a mosque after the conquest of Istanbul by Sultan Mehmet the Conquerer in 1453.

hagia sophia in istanbul

Now a museum, the Hagia Sophia is best known for its dome.  Standing 56 meters high by 32 meters wide, it was the largest in the world for nearly 1,000 years.  There are also many other interesting decorations and symbols in the museum as it features a mix of several religions through renovations over thousands of years. 

hagia sophia interior

For example, the angels remain, but their faces are covered, as Islamic tradition does not allow human images.  In addition, there is a Wish Column where people stick their thumbs into hole and rotate their hand around it to make their wish come true.

angel with no face in hagia sophia
no face

One of the few Roman roads left today is a ramp which leads visitors to the second floor that includes Viking graffiti, leaning columns struggling to hold the weight due to earthquakes, and the Empress’ Lodge where the first ladies of the Byzantine Empire sat.

Hagia Sophia is a very interesting place.  Be sure to download the audio guide by Istanbul Welcome Card before visiting for more details.

The Hippodrome

The Hippodrome of Constantinople was an open-air venue used for public events during Roman times.  Today it is known as Sultanahmet Square which features historical obelisks and columns.   

Theodosius the Great brought the Obelisk of Thutmose III from Egypt to the hippodrome.  He had the pink granite monument cut into three pieces to transport.  The top portion still stands on the marble pedestal on which it was originally placed.  

Obelisk of Thutmose III in istanbul

The Walled Obelisk, constructed in the 10th century by Emperor Constantine Porphyrogenitus, used to be covered in guilded bronze plaques.  The Latin troops of the Fourth Crusade, however, took them.  Now only the stone column survives.

walled column in istanbul

The Serpent Column, previously the Tripod of Plataea, was cast to celebrate the Greek victory over the Persians during the Persian Wars in the 5th century BC.  Constantine later moved the Tripod from the Temple of Apollo at Delphi to the hippodrome.  Though only the base survives at Sultanahmet Square, pieces of the serpent heads may be seen at the Istanbul Archaeology Museums.

serpent column in istanbul

Istanbul Archaeology Museums

Speaking of the Istanbul Archaeology Museums, the complex includes multiple buildings and a courtyard with a café.  This is a museum I wouldn’t have visited without the Museum Pass.  Almost one entire building features sarcophagi, including that of Alexander the Great.  The other buildings feature mosaics, tile work, mummies, and other ancient artifacts.

alexander the great sarcophagus

Great Palace Mosaics Museum

I stumbled across the Great Palace Mosaics Museum which is another museum on the Museum Pass that I would not have otherwise seen.  I really enjoyed seeing massive pieces of mosaics from the Great Palace of Constantinople.  The works of art date back to the Byzantine period.

great palace of mosaics museum in istanbul

The Bazaars

The Grand Bazaar

In addition to several museums, there are countless bazaars across Istanbul.  Of course the biggest one is called the Grand Bazaar.  With 61 streets and over 4,000 shops, the Grand Bazaar is one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world.  The maze of shops attracts 250,000 to 400,000 people a day.

the grand bazaar in istanbul

Once inside, vendors will invite visitors into their stores with the lure of tea.  The stores feature everything from rugs, lights, Lokum dessert, clothing, tile work, jewelry, dishes and the list goes on.  The easiest way to find an exit out of the maze of covered streets is to pay attention to natural light and different temperatures!

the spice bazaar in istanbul

Book and Spice Bazaar

The book bazaar and the spice bazaar are also nearby.  But honestly, it felt like street after street could have been a bazaar.  There are stores everywhere in this area.

The Arasta Bazaar

Finally, the Arasta Bazaar is behind the Blue Mosque. This bazaar was renovated in the late 80’s and early 90’s. It is smaller and quieter than the Grand Bazaar. Due to it’s convenient location, it is a nice alternative for shoppers who want rugs, handicrafts or souvenirs that may have limited time in Istanbul.

Suleymaniye Mosque

Not far from the Grand Bazaar is Suleymaniye Mosque which provides fantastic views of Istanbul, the Cape Horn Inlet, and the Bosphorus.  This mosque was completed on the order of the Sultan Suleyman in 1557.  It includes 4 minarets as Suleyman was the 4th Sultan of the Ottoman empire with ten hanging porches as he was the 10th caliph of the empire.  Next to the mosque is Suleymaniye’s Mausoleum amidst other graves in a walled enclosure.

view from suleymaniye mosque in istanbul
people praying in suleymaniye mosque

The entrance to the mosque is decorated with an owl feature and inside ostrich eggs hang from the chandeliers to reduce the smell of smoke.  I wouldn’t have noticed these two things without a guide pointing them out which makes the mosque much more interesting.

owl entrance to mosque in istanbul

Basilica Cistern

Other attractions in this part of Istanbul include cisterns.  I visited two; the Basilica Cistern and Theodosius Cistern.

The Basilica Cistern is very close to the Sultanahmet Square. It is not included on the Museum Pass and the entrance fee is 30TL or around $5.

The Basilica Cistern was constructed in the 6th century AD by Justinian I. It was used as a water filtration system for the Great Palace of Constantinople. After the Ottoman conquest, it provided water to the Topkapi Palace.

basilica cistern in istanbul

The cistern is a little eerie and chilly, but very cool (no pun intended). It has the capacity to hold 100,000 tons of water! While most of the marble columns are similar with Ionic or Corinthian style heads, there are a few that stand out.

One columns with carved swirls and consistently wet is known as the Crying Column. It was built for the hundreds of slaves who lost their lives during the cistern’s construction.

crying column in basilica cistern

Another area in the cistern features two columns with Medusa Heads as bases. It is unknown where the Medusa Heads came from, but they are used to protect the cistern.

medusa head in basilica cistern

Theodosius Cistern

The second cistern I visited, Theodosius is just a bit farther from Sultanahmet Square, and it is free to enter. This cistern was built between 428 and 443 by Theodosius II and was used for the city water supply.

Now it is well lit and features art with music playing in the background. Don’t be fooled by the modern structure which encompasses the entrance. I passed right by it the first time.

theodosius cistern in istanbul

Column of Constantine

Nearby the cistern is the Column of Constantine which was constructed by Constantine the Great in 330 AD. The original structure included a statue of Constantine which succumbed to weather in 1106 AD. Some years later the statue was replaced with a cross which was removed by the Ottomans after the fall of Constantinople. Now all that remains is a scorched column that survived earthquakes and a fire in 1779.

column of constantine in istanbul

Topkapi palace

Of all the places to see in Istanbul, along with Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace is a must see. Fortunately, the Museum Pass includes this site as well.

The Topkapi Palace is around the corner from Hagia Sophia. The palace was constructed by Sultan Mehmet in the mid to late 1400’s after the conquest of Constantinople. Thereafter, Ottoman sultans ruled Istanbul from this palace for the next 400 years.

Now, the palace operates as a museum. The complex includes three court yards, a harem and terraces surrounded by several buildings. The first and outer courtyard includes the Executioner Fountain, where executioners used to wash their hands after capital punishment, as well as the Hagia Irene Church.

Hagia Irene

Hagia Irene is the only surviving example of a Byzantine church with its original atrium. Having said that, it is under restoration and requires an entrance fee for visitors who don’t have a Museum Pass, so ask about its condition before paying for entry.

hagia irene in istanbul

The second courtyard includes the Imperial Council, the Tower of Justice, the Clock Collection, the Treasury and Armory, the Palace Kitchens and more.

I found the buildings on the left which house old guns, swords, and the fourth largest diamond in the world to be far more interesting than the buildings on the right which displayed kitchen items, porcelain collections, and tea services. But all are worth a visit.

The Harem

I explored the buildings in the second court yard after I visited the Harem whose entrance is also in this court yard. It requires an additional entrance fee, and I recommend paying it.

Getting there first in the off season, afforded me the luxury to explore the entire area by myself! I literally visited all the baths, the Queen Mother’s private apartment, the elaborate Imperial Hall and the Golden Road all alone. The guards hadn’t even gotten all the lights turned on in the corridors yet. How lucky I was! See these two 10 second videos: Imperial Hall and Golden Road

imperial hall in topkapi palace harem

Many of the buildings surrounding the third court yard were under renovation but the Library of Sultan Ahmet III and the Audience Chamber were open. While everyone is different, I still preferred the buildings on the left in the second courtyard, and the terraces which come last.

The terraces offer nice views of Istanbul and are dotted with pretty pavilions, a free-standing walk-in closet, and even a circumcision room. Definitely an eclectic mix!

pavillion at topkapi palace in istanbul

Fountain of Ahmed III

Outside of the Topkapi Palace are the Fountain of Ahmed III, Sogukcesme Street, and the Gülhane Park.

The fountain is an octagonal pool inside a kiosk where people gathered for free water or sherbet in the 1700’s from the attendant who stood inside.

fountain of ahmed III in istanbul

Sogukcesme Street

Sogukcesme Street is best known for the historic wooden houses which line it. The street is one of the few plaes where Ottoman era houses may be seen. It connects the fountain to the nearby entrance of Gülhane Park.

sogukcesme street in istanbul

Gülhane Park

Gülhane Park used to be part of the outer gardens of Topkapi Palace. Now it is an expansive, historic park with flowers, benches, and a play area. In addition it features Goth’s Column which dates back to the Roman times. While I visited in early March, storks nested in its tall trees, so remember to look up too.

gulhane park in istanbul

There are so many places to see in Istanbul that it takes at least three days at a leisurely pace just to explore the Sultanahmet section and another two days to visit New Town to the north and the Asian side to the east.

I found Istanbul to also be a study of contrasts. Modern buildings tower over historic sites. Women dress from fully covered to the latest styles. Mosque call to prayer echo early in the morning as late night revelers are returning home. The City of Istanbul offers something for everyone. ETB

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Beth Bankhead

Former public finance professional turned travel photographer and blogger.

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