Built from AD532 to AD537 during the reign of the Byzantine emperor Justinian, Hagia Sophia, with its enormous dome, was an architectural feat by the standards of its day; it is still astoundingly impressive. Filled with beautiful mosaics depicting religious figures and Byzantine emperors, it was Byzantium’s most holy site. Hagia Sophia, which means ‘church of the holy wisdom’ in Greek, was in continuous use as a church up until 1453. When the Ottomans took over Istanbul, the church was converted into a mosque by Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror. In 1935 it was made a national museum.
Hagia Sophia, Aya Sofya Meydanı, Sultanahmet, +90 (0)212 522 1750
A must-see while in Istanbul, Topkapı Palace was home to generations of Ottoman sultans from the mid-15th to mid-19th centuries. Built on a promontory overlooking the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn, the palace was the sultan’s official residence and the seat of government, where the sultan’s viziers met to discuss matters of state. Take a tour of the Imperial Harem, a series of elaborately decorated interconnected rooms which were the living quarters for the many women and children in the sultan’s household. On display in the Treasury are the Ottoman jewels, including the famous Topkapı dagger and the 86-carat Spoonmaker’s diamond, while the former kitchens are now home to one of the world’s best porcelain collections. Also allow time to visit the Chamber of Sacred Relics, which houses some of the most important Muslim religious relics.
Babıhümâyun Caddesi, Sultanahmet, +90 (0)212 512 0480
Sultanahmet Camii, built from 1609 to 1616 during the reign of Ahmed I, is one of the most stunning examples of classical Ottoman architecture. It has become popularly known as the Blue Mosque because of the prominent use of blue in the more than 20,000 Iznik tiles that decorate the interior; it is also famous for being the only mosque in Istanbul with six minarets. Although it has become one of Istanbul’s top tourist attractions, the mosque is still in active use and remains an important place of worship.
Sultanahmet Camii, Sultanahmet Meydanı, Sultanahmet
Built in the sixth century by the Byzantines, this underground cistern could store some 100,000 tons of water and was therefore one of the city’s primary water reservoirs for centuries. Make sure to check out the famous Medusa-head and ‘weeping’ columns, which were most likely recycled from other Byzantine monuments. Restored and opened to tourists in the 80s, the cistern featured in the 1963 James Bond film From Russia with Love and the 2009 film The International.
Yerebatan Sarnici, Yerebatan Caddesi 13, Sultanahmet, +90 (0)212 522 1259
In use since 1461, the Grand Bazaar is Istanbul’s most famous and historic shopping centre and was the predecessor to today’s malls. The bazaar is a maze of covered streets lined with 4,000 shops selling jewellery, carpets, antiques, leather items, clothes, handcrafted products and souvenirs. There are also places to eat and services such as barbers, banks and a post office. A visit here is an essential aspect of any trip to Istanbul; be prepared to do some serious bargaining, especially in the high tourist season.
Grand Bazaar, Beyazıt, +90 (0)212 519 1248
Located on the shore of the Bosphorus above the Golden Horn, Dolmabahçe Palace was built between 1842 and 1856 and was home to most of the sultans from 1856 to the end of the Ottoman Empire. Its design incorporates Baroque, Rococo and Empire styles along with traditional Ottoman architecture, making it vastly different from the Topkapı Palace. After the establishment of the Turkish Republic it became the occasional residence of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Visitors can see his bedroom, which has been preserved as it was when he lived there.
Dolmabahce Palace, Dolmabahçe Caddesi, Beşiktaş, +90 (0)212 236 9000
The Istanbul Archaeological Museum houses an incredible collection of archaeological finds from a number of eras, spanning from the ancient Near East up to the Ottoman period. Highlights include the Alexander Sarcophagus (a 4th century BC stone sarcophagus adorned with carvings of Alexander the Great), significant Greek and Roman statues and a vast collection of Hittite cuneiform tablets (cuneiform is the earliest known writing system). Also on display is the world’s oldest peace treaty – the Kadesh treaty from the 13th century BC. The Çinili Köşk building showcases an impressive collection of Turkish ceramics, while the museum grounds have a lovely garden dotted with stone statues and other ancient fragments.
Archaeological Museum, Gülhane Park, Gülhane , +90 (0)212 520 7740
Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts
The Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts presents visitors with an excellent collection of cultural and religious artefacts from Turkish, Ottoman and earlier periods. These include rare carpets, ancient Korans, Islamic calligraphy, Turkish and Persian miniatures, and metalwork and stonework going back to the Seljuk period. The ethnography section displays items such as handicrafts and nomadic tents that bring to life traditional Turkish and Anatolian culture. The museum is housed in the splendid 16th-century Palace of Ibrahim Pasha, grand vizier to Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent.
Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts, Atmeydanı 46, Sultanahmet, +90 (0)212 518 1805
Although Kariye Museum is further off the beaten path than most of Istanbul’s other historic sites, it’s worth the trip as it has some of the best Byzantine mosaics in the city. The building was erected in the late 11th century as a church. However, most of its brilliant mosaics date to the early 14th century and depict Biblical scenes. The church became a mosque during the Ottoman period and, after extensive restoration work, was turned into a museum in 1952.
Chora Church (Kariye Museum), Kariye Camii Sokak, Edirnekapı, +90 (0)212 631 9241
With an imposing location on top of one of Istanbul’s seven hills and boasting a soaring dome, the Süleymaniye is Istanbul’s largest and most impressive mosque. Designed by the Ottoman empire’s most famous architect, Sinan (1489-1587), in honour of Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent, it is considered one of Sinan’s masterpieces. The mosque was part of an extensive building complex that included a hospital and Koranic schools. It also provided a soup kitchen, which has been converted into a restaurant. The ornate tombs of Süleyman and his wife Roxelana are located in the garden behind the mosque.
Süleymaniye Mosque, Prof. Sıddık Sami Onar Caddesi, Beyazit