Though it's name has changed over the years, the importance of Byzantium, Constantinople or Istanbul as it has been known through the centuries, hasn't. Its past is reflected in the wonderful buildings and monuments that still stand today.
Many of these places were built during the Ottoman Empire, from 1423-1923. The Topkapi Palace, the Blue Mosque, Süleymaniye Mosque, the Grand Bazaar, Rüstem Pasa Mosque and Dolmabahçe Palace are all fabulous examples of Ottoman architecture. The Hagia Sofia is from the Byzantine era (33AD - 1453 with a break from 1204-1261) as is the Basilica Cistern and the Hippodrome.
Except for the Dolmabahçe Palace, all are found in the historical area of Sultanahmet or nearby, which is where we will be exploring.
Planning to visit Istanbul in low season? This guide to winter in Istanbul might be helpful.
Historical Istanbul's Main Sites
Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofya)
The greatest example of this changing history would be the wonderful Hagia Sophia or Aya Sofya as it is known in Turkish. Once a Greek Orthodox Church then a mosque and finally a museum, it is one of the world's most beautiful and important monuments.
The original church on this site was built by Constantine the Great in 325AD. Damaged, rebuilt and then destroyed again in 532AD, it was finally rebuilt by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian 1 in 537AD. It remained a Greek Orthodox church until the Ottoman Turks conquered the city in 1454, renaming the city Istanbul and converting the church, Hagia Sophia to a mosque, now known as Aya Sofya.
At this time, the beautiful Greek icons, bells and altars were removed. Minarets, a chandelier, Islamic medallions and a Mihrab (a niche pointing to Mecca) were added. Thankfully the amazing mosaics on the second floor were plastered over and not removed.
In 1923, after World War 1, Turkey became a republic but it wasn't until 1935 that its leader, Mustafa Ataturk, converted the mosque to a museum.
This is a sight not to be missed in Istanbul. Don't forget to go up to the second floor to see the beautiful mosaics from the 11th Century. The best known is the Deësis Mosaic which depicts a triumphant Christ flanked by the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist.
Not far from Hagia Sophia, the Basilica Cistern was also built by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian 1 in 532AD to store water for the nearby palaces. With its 336 columns that were salvaged from old ruins, the underground cistern is quite something to behold. Walk through the cistern to the back to look for the medusa heads at the base of the columns there.
You may not notice the last of the city's Byzantine structures in this area, the Hippodrome, but as you walk across from Hagia Sofia and the Basilica Cistern to the Blue Mosque you are walking over this famous racecourse where chariot races were often held. It was the centre of Byzantine life in its day.
Today only three of its many obelisks and statues remain. The central obelisk, The Obelisk of Theodosius, was bought from Egypt by Theodosius in 390AD. Don't miss the carvings at the base of the obelisk that depict Theodosius and his family and guards watching the chariot races.
Topkapi Palace was the home of the Ottoman sultans during the 15th to 19th centuries. Four courtyards with beautiful gardens and fountains surround a multitude of buildings.
A glimpse into the lavish lifestyle of the sultans can be seen when when you visit the Harem with its beautiful rooms tiled with exquisite 17th century Iznik and Kütahya tiles. An additional fee is required for this but it is well worth it.
Across the courtyard, the Imperial Treasury is a treasure trove of objects decorated with precious stones, pearls, diamonds and gold. Don’t miss the stunning 86 carat pear shaped Spoonmaker's Diamond and the Topkapi Dagger with its emerald encrusted hilt.
In this courtyard is also the armoury, the Hall of the Privy Chamber and the Throne Room where the Sultan received his guests. Walk to the end of the garden for a fabulous view over the Sea of Marmara.
Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmet Camii)
Built in the 1600s facing Hagia Sophia, the Sultanahmet Imperial Mosque, known as the Blue Mosque, stands proudly. With its six minarets and many domes, it is quite a sight. Inside the walls are lined with the fabulous blue iznik tiles that give it its name.
Enter through the courtyard to get the feeling of the size of the mosque but you will then have to go to the northern door for entry. You must be suitably dressed with your head covered. Scarves are available if you don't bring one with you.
Standing on one of Istabul's seven hills, the Suluymaniye Mosque offers fabulous over Istanbul and the Golden Horn. Minar Sinan, Istanbul's famous architect of the day, designed the building according to instructions from Suleyman 1. He wanted the mosque to offer all the public services that included a soup kitchen, hamam, and hospital.
The tombs of Suleyman1 and his wife are in the courtyard with wonderful tile work on them. The streets around the mosque are just as fascinating with many nearby old wooden ottoman houses being restored.
Grand Bazaar (Kapali Çarsi)
This wonderful and chaotic covered bazaar, is the heart of the old city. I defy you not to get lost here as you wander the maze of alleyways that branch out from the oldest central area of the market.
You will find carpets sellers in one alleyway, leather products in another. Of course there are many souvenirs to glaze over as you look for the real treasures!
If a refreshing tea is is needed after the constant haggling, head to the Fez Cafe in the centre of the market for a welcome break.
Spice Market (Misir Çarsisi)
The Spice Market is a visual and sensory feast. As you wander the length of the covered market, stalls displaying large mounds of coloured spices, some familiar, others not so familiar, will tempt you to stop and look. Other stalls are full of every flavour of turkish delight or lokum as it is known here.
There's tubs of dried flowers, herbs, fruits and nuts. Saffron is a good buy. If you do buy any spices, ask for the bags to be sealed. Outside, along the western side of the market, you will find a fabulous array of cheese for sale.
The queue you see nearby will lead you to one of Istanbul's best known coffee suppliers, Kurukahveci Mehmet Efendi.
Rüstem Pasa Mosque
Hidden in a small alleyway not far from the Spice Bazaar is my favourite mosque, The Rüstem Pasa Mosque. Even before you enter the mosque, you will notice the panels of Iznik tiles on the facade. Inside the mosque, beautiful Iznik tiles also cover the walls. Designed by Mimar Sinan for Rüstem Pasa, the son in law of Suleyman the Magnificent, this was his way of showing off his wealth.
It is a very peaceful mosque, one in which you will want to stop and take in these breathtaking tiles.
There are two stairways that take you up to the Mosque. Look for the signs for these on Hasircilar Caddesi and near the corner of Mahkeme Sokak. The mosque is closed at Prayer times.
Note: the mosque is closed in 2017 whilst it undergoes restoration.
Chora Museum (The Church of the Holy Saviour in Chora)
Our last museum and another that shouldn't be missed is about 20 minutes from Sultanahmet, close to the old city walls.
The Church of the Holy Saviour in Chora, known as the Chora Museum, is one of the finest examples of a Byzantine Church with 14th century mosaics and frescoes. In similar fashion to the Aya Sofia, it later became a mosque and finally a museum.
Whilst you are here, wander around the cobblestone streets with their wooden Ottoman houses before taking in the view from the nearby fifth century city walls.
Helpful Information for visitors to Istanbul
- Don't rush your time in Istanbul. Seeing these sights can easily take a couple of days
- Start the days early…be at the gates of the Topkapi Palace and Aya Sofia just before opening time!
- If this is your first trip to Istanbul, this post 'An Introduction to Istanbul for the First Time Visitor' will be of great help.
- In order to save time and skip the queues at Istanbul historic sights, it's worth considering a Museum Pass or fast-track entry tickets. Browse some of the options here.
- Please check the opening days and times before you go as these can be different in summer to winter.
Visa information for Turkey
Most foreign nationals visiting Turkey require a visa. Find out more here.
Where to stay in Istanbul
Click here to browse hotels in Istanbul and check current prices .
|About the author: Jenny Freedman is the editor of A Taste of Travel where she writes about her travel and food experiences around the globe. Jenny loves visiting Turkey and rates Istanbul as one of her favourite cities in the world. You can follow Jenny on Facebook and Instagram.|
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