Alternatively titled – What to see when visiting Sultanahmet – the good and the bad.
We loved, loved, loved Istanbul and want to remember every moment of our time there. But it’s such a big city with so much to see and do (and eat!) – where to start?
There’s no better place to start than Sultanahmet, the most touristy part of Istanbul. Tourists flock here for a reason, as most of Istanbul’s main sights are here. And wow – these aren’t your average tourists sights, but some of the most spectacular places you’ll ever see. For the most part.
Without further ado – the good and the bad of Sultanahmet. Starting with the best.
Our favourite: Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya).
Let’s start with the best, and for us that was Hagia Sophia. One of our favourite places to visit in Istanbul, Turkey, the World. We loved it so much we paid to visit twice.
Originally constructed as an Eastern Orthodox cathedral in 532, it was converted to a mosque in 1452 by Mehmet the Conqueror, and then later, converted into a museum by Mustafa Ataturk in 1935. Church, mosque, museum – whatever it’s purpose, Hagia Sophia is one stunning building.
When you step inside the main hall, you are dazzled by the huge domed ceiling, the sparkling chandeliers and Islamic texts on the walls. Despite there being renovations on one side of the inner hall during our visits, it was still easy to enjoy the stunning architecture and atmosphere.
On the balcony level you can see some beautiful frescoes and mosaics that have survived the years, as well as view the main hall from above.
The prettiest (and the busiest): The Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmed Mosque).
Possibly the most photographed building in Istanbul, the Blue Mosque is definitely worthy of its many accolades. With six minarets, the biggest courtyard of any Ottoman mosque, and a huge inner hall that can hold over 10,000 worshippers, it definitely leaves an impression.
The Blue Mosque is without question a stunning building to visit. But it’s also incredibly touristy and as there isn’t that much room to move about inside, for us it did lose some of it’s charm, having to share it with so many other people.
The Most Spectacular: The Topkapi Palace.
This palace is one of the most opulent and stunning Ottoman sites in Istanbul (and possibly the world). Mehmet the Conqueror started work on the Topkapi Palace in 1435 and the end result is staggering. To give you some idea of it’s size, at its peak the palace slept over 4,000 people, as well as functioning as the main seat of power for the Ottoman Empire.
The palace was the main residence of various sultans for over 400 years. There are so many amazing rooms to visit, in both the palace itself (the working part of the building), as well as the Haram (the living quarters of the sultans, their families, wives and concubines).
We spent over half a day here as there was so much to see. Along with the amazing buildings, opulent stained glass, gold-detailing and hand-painted Iznik tiles, the site also contains other important items for visitors. Not only can you see the world’s fourth-biggest diamond, but also important holy relics of the Muslim world including Mohammed’s cloak and sword.
There are many stories and rumours about the sultans and their families. Apparently, at any one time it’s said there were as many as 300 (yes 300!) concubines living in the residence. Sound crazy? What about 112 children? “As popular belief would have it, the Harem was a place where the sultan could engage in debauchery at will (and Murat III did, after all, have 112 children)” – Lonely Planet, Turkey.
The Best Mosque: Süleymaniye Mosque.
While we understand the hype around the Blue Mosque – we much preferred the Süleymaniye Mosque (otherwise known as the Magnificent Mosque). The largest mosque in the city and the most visible, perched at the top of the hill in Sultanahmet (see our top picture), it has beautiful views back across the Bosphorus.
The inside is beautiful and glimmers under the glowing lights of the huge chandeliers. The space is huge, spectacular and a lot more atmospheric than the Blue Mosque.
During our visit we even saw a couple having their wedding photos taken.
The Most Bizzare: Basilica Cistern.
One of the more bizarre tourist sites in Istanbul – this is one of the oldest and most beautiful (and maybe only?) cistern you’re ever likely to see.
There are 336 columns in the cistern, including 2 medusa heads, and a maze of walkways above the water throughout the site.
The sound of dripping water is constant as carp lazily swim in the shallow water below. Soft music and lighting adding a slightly tacky and touristy vibe to the visit it perhaps doesn’t need. An interesting place to visit, but in our view, not essential.
The Most Overrated: Grand Bazaar and Spice Markets.
Our two biggest disappointments of Istanbul – the grand bazaar and the spice markets. Perhaps because in my mind I was imagining exotic old-worldly places, which these days they are not.
The Grand Bazaar is one of the oldest and largest covered markets in the world, with 61 covered streets and over 3,000 shops.
If you’re looking for souvenirs, gold or leather and you like shopping and/or haggling, then you’ll probably love the Grand Bazaar. We’d seen the same souvenirs in the shops all around Sultanahmet, so a short visit was enough for us.
The Spice Markets are located near the Eminonu docks and are another fun visit, but again a quick visit was all we needed here.
The Most Disappointing: The Archeological Museum.
Actually three museums in one, here you’ll find the Archaeological Museum, the Museum of the Ancient Orient and the Museum of Islamic Art.
We visited the museum towards the end of our two month stay in Turkey and had high hopes that the museum would tie together everything we’d seen and learnt throughout the country. It didn’t.
If you have an interest in archeological items, then this museum will be for you. If, like us, you go to museums to learn more about history, then this might not be for you. We felt the pieces here were poorly displayed and explained, and so we lost any appreciation for what we were seeing.
Not to be completely negative, the rooms showing sarcophaguses were a highlight.
Notable Mentions: All the other mosques.
I think mosques are stunning buildings and there are so many other mosques in Sultanahmet open to visitors (as long as you are dressed appropriately). All gorgeous inside and worth stopping for a few minutes.
Phew – that was a long post. Congratulations if you made it this far. This isn’t even an exhaustive list of all there is to do in Sultanahmet. We didn’t make it to the Rustem Pasha Mosque, which people rave about, or the Chora museum, as it was undergoing renovations, and many more. But that’s OK.
We know we’ll be in Istanbul again one day.