It doesn’t matter whether you will be in Istanbul for a couple of days or a couple of weeks – the one neighborhood you are absolutely certain to visit is Sultanahmet, the neat little area at the tip of the historic peninsula where the city first sprang to life. This is where the vast majority of the big-ticket attractions can be found: Topkapı Palace, Aya Sofya (Hagia Sophia), the Sultanahmet (Blue) Mosque, the Aya Sofya Hürrem Sultan Hamamı (Turkish bath), the Yerebatan (Basilica) Cistern, the Hippodrome, the Archaeological Museums, and the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts.
This is a jam-packed sightseeing area par excellence. Although there are plenty of shops, restaurants, and bars, many are pretty run-of-the-mill, catering for tourists on rushed trips and tight budgets. In contrast, some of the city’s finest and most interesting hotels, including the Four Seasons Sultanahmet, the Ottoman Hotel Imperial, Yaşmak Sultan Hotel, Burkçin Suites and the Ayasofya Konakları, can be found in Sultanahmet, offering their guests not just superb views from their roof terraces but also easy access to the attractions. More hotels to suit all budgets can be found in neighboring Cankurtaran.
Sultanahmet in history
When the Greek colonist Byzas first founded Byzantium, the settlement that was to become Constantinople and then Istanbul, he chose the tip of the peninsula that juts out into the Bosphorus and the Sea of Marmara. It was here that the Byzantines built their Great Palace, the remains of which lie beneath modern Sultanahmet and pop up occasionally, and most unmissably, in the Great Palace Mosaics Museum, beside the Arasta Bazaar; and it was here that the Emperor Justinian had the great church of Hagia Sophia built in 537. When the Ottomans captured the city in 1453 they were keen to emphasize continuity with the past, so Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror began work on what became Topkapı Palace on the same site originally chosen by Byzas.
It wasn’t until the 17th century that the area acquired its modern name, when Sultan Ahmed I commissioned Sedefkar Mehmed Ağa to build the great mosque facing Hagia Sophia that still bears his name (although it’s much better known to visitors as the Blue Mosque). Aside from the new Sabancı Merkez Camii in Adana, it’s the only mosque in Turkey to feature six minarets.
Sultanahmet continued in importance through until the 19th century, when the artist and archaeologist Osman Hamdi Bey commissioned the main building of the Archaeological Museum in the grounds of Topkapı Palace. At that time an imposing Palace of Justice closed off the east side of Ayasofya Square, with a prison round the corner in the building that now houses the splendid Four Seasons Sultanahmet Hotel. The site is slated to become an Archaeological Park although legal problems have delayed its opening.
Visiting Istanbul’s mosques
There’s a bit of etiquette around mosque-visiting that it’s good to be aware of. Most importantly, everyone must remove their shoes before setting foot on a carpet. Women should cover their heads, shoulders and knees. Ideally men should also be modestly dressed. To help, mosques often keep a supply of scarves and wraps by the door for visitors, who are welcome except during prayer times.
What to see in Sultanahmet
If you only have three days to explore the area you should probably head first for the collection of kiosks, courtyards, and gardens that make up Topkapı Palace, allowing a minimum of four hours to see the highlights. Most people will want to make straight for the Treasury to gawp at the sultans’ egg-sized rubies, emeralds, and diamonds, as well as thrones and cradles made entirely from gold. Romantics will love the Harem, the lavishly decorated private quarters where the sultans’ concubines and children lived under the ever-watchful eye of their eunuch guards. Allow time to admire the hall displaying the sultans’ kaftans, and the kitchens with their extensive porcelain collection. The view of the confluence of the Bosphorus and the Sea of Marmara from the İftar Canopy, where the sultans used to break their fast during Ramadan, is absolutely magical.
Just steps away from the palace, Hagia Sophia was the largest church in the world at the time that it was completed in 537, and it is still one of the most splendid with its soaring dome and glittering Byzantine mosaics. After exploring it, pop round to the side of the building to admire the tombs of some of the sultans of the Ottoman Golden Age. The Halı Müzesi (Carpet Museum) is open to visitors in the İmaret (soup kitchen) that was added along with the minarets when the church was turned into a mosque in 1453.
In the corner of the square facing Hagia Sophia is the Ayasofya Hürrem Sultan Hamamı, the city’s single most spectacular Turkish bath, designed by Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan for Roxelana (Haseki Hürrem), the much-loved wife of Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent, in 1556. Behind it stands the splendid, soaring pile of grey marble, tumbling domes, and minarets that is the Sultanahmet (Blue) Mosque, still very much in use today, although tourists are welcome to admire its tiled interior outside of prayer times.
Running alongside the Blue Mosque is the Hippodrome, where Byzantine chariot races once attracted a fanatical following. Walk down its spine to admire Kaiser Wilhelm’s Fountain and the Egyptian Obelisk, and then cross the road to visit the marvelous Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts, housed in a 16th-century palace.
Off the west side of Sultanahmet Square is the Yerebatan (Basilica) Cistern, one of Istanbul’s most unexpected and yet most romantic attractions: a vast vaulted space held up by 336 columns that once acted as an underground reservoir. Don’t miss the upside-down Medusa’s head reused as a column base, proof that the builders regarded fine old Roman sculptures as no more than chunks of reusable building material.
Istanbul’s take on the British Museum is the Archaeology Museum, off the path running down from Topkapı Palace to Gülhane Park. The oldest part is the Çinili Köşk (Tiled Pavilion), dating back to the 15th century and containing a superb collection of Turkish ceramics. In the main building the finest exhibit is probably the splendid Alexander Sarcophagus, brought here from Sidon in the days when Lebanon was still part of the Ottoman Empire. The sarcophagus dates from the 4th century BC.
On the south side of the Blue Mosque, the Arasta Bazaar is Sultanahmet’s most interesting shopping street, with a string of tiny boutiques selling everything from antiques to contemporary ceramics. Two particularly interesting shops to look out for are Jennifer’s Hamam, which sells hand-woven towels and bathrobes sourced from all around Turkey; and Cocoon, which sells colorful modern takes on the ancient art of felt-making.