The heart of historic Old Istanbul is the perfect place for sightseeing. Historic and artistic gems combined with a beauty beyond description invite you on a journey back in time. Get a museum pass to save some money and discover Sultanahmet, a wonderful treasure between two continents, to feel the rich culture of Turkey.
Byzantine emperors loved to spend the afternoon at the chariot races and this rectangular arena was their favorite venue. Hippodrome used to be the center of Constantinople and is the ideal place to start your sightseeing adventure. Although the building no longer stands, some of the obelisks and sculptures still remain. Take a stroll to see some beautiful stonework and watch people passing by.
This is one of the most significant examples of classical Turkish architecture and most famous monument of Turkish and Islamic art. Constructed in the early 1600s, Sultan Ahmet Camii is the only mosque originally built with six minarets in the whole country and will definitely impress you from the outside. Once you enter it, you will immediately notice the 20,000 blue tiles that decorate its domed ceiling, which along with blue hand-drawings explain why it is also called Blue Mosque. Enjoy the stunning interior, take a look at the mihrab and the piece of sacred stone from Mecca. Be aware that since hundreds of Muslims still use the place for daily prayer and worship, admission is controlled so as to preserve the sacred atmosphere. Use the south door according to the signs and dress yourself with the special slippers and head coverings you will find at the entrance.
A large palace that used to be the major residence of the Ottoman Sultans for almost four centuries was later converted into a museum. Topkapi is a guarded complex with hundreds of rooms and chambers and contains important holy relics of the Muslim world such as Muhammed’s cloak and sword, Islamic calligraphic manuscripts, and Ottoman treasures. Be aware that since Topkapi is also a neighborhood in Istanbul, any bus or tram labelled “Topkapi” heading there will not take you near the palace. Take a ride to Sultanahmet instead and before leaving, do not miss the spectacular views over the Bosporus from the fourth court.
Currently visited as a museum as well, the Basilica Cistern, also known as the “Sunken Palace” or Yerebetan sarayi is a giant underground cistern built by Justinian to supply water in cases of siege. Learn about its unusual history, walk along its raised wooden platforms, bring some food for the enormous fish you will see swimming below your feet, discover the impressive Medusa statues, and let the eerie atmosphere stimulate your senses.
A highly significant building both in terms of historical and aesthetic value, this was the first institution in Turkey to be organized as a museum. If you enjoy tracing the past, Istanbul Archaeological Museum is a must-see. Explore its striking collections with a wide range of pieces such as archaic Roman marble sculptures, sarcophagi uncovered during the Sidon excavation, Sumerian tablets, and pieces of the wall of Babylon. After you finish your tour, relax at the lovely garden.
If you’re interested in Islamic Art, this will be among your favorite spots. Formerly the palace of Ibrahim Pasha, the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts is filled with carpets, rugs, calligraphy and pottery. After a look at the beautifully displayed exhibits, go to the Ethnographic Museum downstairs to learn about the everyday life of Turks and their ancestors.
Located at Arasta Bazaar, this museum hosts the pavement mosaics of the Byzantine period, unearthed at the site of the Great Palace of Constantinople. Enter the gate into Byzantine royal life to view the stunning artwork featuring scenes from everyday life, hunting, and mythology.
After you exit the Mosaic Museum, you will find yourself in the heart of Sultanahmet’s miniature version of Grand Bazaar. The wooden-facade shops offer everything from jewelry, ceramics, and souvenirs, while most of them specialize in carpets and textiles. It’s a great alternative if you don’t want to spend much time in larger, chaotic marketplaces.
Sightseeing and shopping will probably make you feel tired. Spend an hour at one of the historical Turkish baths, called hamam, to relax before exploring the nightlife of the city. Since most of them are located around Sultanahmet, all you have to do is pick one and enjoy an unforgettable experience.