Istanbul is up there with places like New York, Paris and London as one of the world’s great cities. Places where each different neighbourhood is almost a separate city in its own right, and where you could spend a few months and still only scratch the surface. But what if you only have one day? Istanbul was the final stop on our cruise itinerary around the Eastern Mediterranean, and with only a limited time to explore, rather than spreading ourselves too thinly across the city, we headed straight for Sultanahmet.
Located on a peninsula, this part of Istanbul is the old heart of the city. Formerly Constantinople, it was once an entire city protected by water on three sides and city walls on the other. Today it’s only one part of modern Istanbul, but is home to some of its most famous and historic sights all within a short walk of each other. Here’s a snapshot of what you can see and do in Sultanahmet – although you’d need more than a day to see them all, you can easily combine a few to create your own one-day taster of old Istanbul.
Visit the Blue Mosque
The Sultan Ahmed Mosque – aka the Blue Mosque – is one of the most recognisable buildings in Istanbul, with its minarets visible from across the city. But when it was built in 1609 it caused uproar as it had six rather than the usual four minarets. Legend has it that the architect misunderstood the Sultan when he asked for golden (altin) minarets and thought he said six (alti), ending up with one of the world’s grandest mosques. Despite the name, it’s not actually blue on the outside, but the huge domed ceilings inside are covered with over 20,000 ornately patterned blue Iznik tiles. The soft light through the stained-glass windows and the quiet murmur of prayer make it a peaceful escape from the bustle of the city outside.
Experience a mix of cultures at the Hagia Sophia
Just across Sultanahmet Square from the Blue Mosque is another of Istanbul’s most famous buildings – the Hagia Sophia. It was originally built as a Greek Orthodox church in the sixth century but over the years it’s also been a Catholic cathedral and a mosque. Today it’s a non-denominational museum, with a mixture of east-meets-west influences that add up to make something unique and beautiful. From the Christians there’s the grand dome and Biblical mosaics (well preserved as they were hidden away when it was used as a mosque), then from the Muslims there are the hanging chandeliers and Arabic calligraphy. Added together you have a mixture of gold-tinged paintings, carvings, mosaics and delicate latticework.
Get lost in the Grand Bazaar
Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar is one of the world’s oldest and largest covered markets with more than 3000 shops. It started off as a 15th century trading post between Europe and Asia, and has spread into a labyrinth of stalls along twisting and turning narrow streets. It’s a colourful and chaotic experience, with stallholders calling out to a flow of 250,000 visitors a day. You can pick up a range of local goods, from carpets and leather to ceramics and gold jewellery. But practice your haggling skills if you don’t want to pay over the odds, and be prepared to get lost in the maze of alleys – part of the fun is seeing what you find.
See how the Sultans lived at the Topkapı Palace
The Topkapı Palace was the main residence of the Ottoman Sultans for over 400 years until the mid-19th century. At its peak it housed 4000 people with its own mosques, hospital and mint. Its now a museum, with some of the grandest rooms open to the public. Around four main courtyards you can see treasures like jewellery, calligraphic manuscripts and porcelain. You can also visit the Harem – home to the Sultan’s mother, wives and up to 300 concubines, and beautifully decorated with painted tiles and stained glass windows. The palace also has fantastic views across the Bosphorus from its gardens and terraces.
Go underground at the Basilica Cistern
An underground cistern isn’t the most obvious tourist attraction, but the Basilica Cistern is not your usual water tank. It was built for Byzantine Emperor Justinian in 552 and stored 80,000 cubic metres of water for the nearby palaces. But when the emperors relocated, the cistern was abandoned and forgotten for centuries. After a massive restoration in 1985 it was opened to visitors and is a moodily atmospheric place – and a cool refuge on a hot day. The size of a cathedral, its domed ceilings are held up with 336 carved columns. They glow in the darkness, lit with golden lights and reflected in the water below.
Take a boat trip on the Bosphorus
As it’s surrounded by water on three sides, a boat trip is one of the best ways to see Sultanahmet. The Bosphorus Strait is about 20 miles long and divides Asia from Europe, joining the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara. There are a wide range of different boat trips you can take along the Bosphorus – from public ferries to tour boats, lasting from a couple of hours to a full day. As we came in on a cruise ship we got a Bosphorus cruise on our way into Istanbul, but otherwise you’ll find boats lined up along the Eminönü docks near the Galata Bridge, so you can just find the next one leaving (or with the best price).
Watch sunset from the Galata Bridge
Linking Sultanhamet with the more modern Beyoglu area, the Galata Bridge is more than just a way of getting across the water. The current bridge was built in 1992 on the site of three older bridges. Its top level hums with constant traffic from cars and trams. But underneath there’s another level right on the water, lined with restaurants and cafes where you can eat and drink all day and night. In the daytime you can watch the fishermen and the ferries going past, and in the evening you can drink a beer or smoke a nargile as you watch the sun go down and the mosques silhouetted over Sultanhamet.
So what would you choose to do if you had a day in Sultanahmet? Or do you have other ideas I should try out next time?