Sultanahmet, Istanbul, Turkey

Ottoman-style building in Sultanahmet, Istanbul, Turkey

A Ottoman-style doctor’s surgery in Sultanahmet.

Sultanahmet, Istanbul

The Sultanahmet district is where everything touristy happens in Istanbul – museums, attractions, hotels, shops and restaurants. It’s packed with tourists, hustlers and waiters trying to get the tourists into their restaurants. Some parts are dirty, some pavements are uneven and traffic can be crazed, but it’s still got a lot of charm, it’s as safe as London or New York and there are a lot of excellent restaurants so stay here if you can find reasonable accommodation.

Eminou port, Topkapi Palace, in Sultanahmet, Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul’s  Sultanahmet peninsula and its ferry port of Eminonu, with the Topkapi Palace in prime position. Photo by Carlos Delgado.

turkey, istanbul, old sultanahmet kiosk.

An ancient Sultanahmet kiosk still in action.

Sultanahmet is the tourist hot spot in Itsanbul, a peninsula loaded with terrific old sights and encircled by water and old city walls, a region known as Constantinople 600 years ago.

This region was also home to one of the world’s earliest settlements 8, 000 years ago and  is now a World Heritage Site, containing most of Istanbul’s top attractions.  Consequently this is the place to find a convenient hotel – if you don’t don’t mind quiet nights.

Just over the water in Galata are masses of hotels and city transport is excellent so it’s no great hardship to be based there and lively nightlife will be easier to access, but beware club scams and safety.

One way to accomplish an efficient sightseeing day is to take a highly rated Istanbul Daily City Tour. Nothing to do with us!

Sultanahmet attractions

  • Topkapi Palace and Harem, home to sultans for 400 years, a lush and luxurious tour, no independent tourists permitted.
  •  Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya), an ancient cathedral/ mosque/ museum.
  •  The gorgeous Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmet Camii).
  • Museum of Islamic Art.
  • Museum of Archeology hosts a huge and fascinating collection including Sumerian tablets, parts of the wall of Babylon and the spectacular Alexander Sarcophagus, once believed to be the sarcophagus of Alexander the Great.
  • Hippodrome monolith.
  • Suleymaniye Mosque.
  • Basilica Cistern.
  • Kariye Museum (Chora Church) which is covered by incredible frescoes and mosaics and adjacent to a fine section of ancient Theodosian walls.
  • shop in the labyrinthine Grand Bazaar.
  • Take a 4 hour Turkish cooking class in the Sarnic Hotel.
  • See Turkish Dancing in costume and with live music at the Hodjapasha Cultural Center (including Belly Dancing and Whirling Dervishes).
Part of the Obelisk in the Hippodrome, Istanbul, Turkey

Detail from the Obelisk at the Hippodrome of Constantinople.

The Hippodrome (no, not a hippo race track) was the center of Roman and Byzantine Constantinople, near the Basilica Cistern, Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia. The building no longer stands, but the obelisks and sculptures from Theodosius’ era are still there.

Kariye Museum, Chora Church

One of the fabulous frescos inside the Kariye Museum, Chora Church. Photo by Jose Luiz.

Kariye Museum, formerly the Church of St Saviour in Chora, is a bit west of central Istanbul (in Kariye Cami Sokak, Edirnekapy) and offers no information about the astonishing 14thC mosaics and Byzantine frescos.

Don’t go there for a brief visit, it’s not worth it. With a good guide book or a guide plan to stay at least an hour even if it is small. Get there by tram most of the way, then jump a taxi for the last uphill bit.

Kariye gets mixed reviews from visitors. Some – possibly tourists interested in frescoes! – find it charming, though it’s not cheap to enter, some way off the beaten track and in a Muslim area that won’t appreciate underdressed women.

Basilica Cistern

the Basilica Cistern in Sultanahmet, Istanbul, Turkey

Part of an ancient water collection system built in AD 532, the Basilica Cistern, fish and piped music included!

Hamam: While you’re in Sultanahmet don’t miss a real marble Turkish bath with traditional massage.
There are various options. e. g. Sifa is cheap and cheerful but still marble; Cagalogu is a tourist haven; Sultanahmet Hamami is less touristy; Suleymaniye is uniquely mixed, so families or couples can bathe together.

The Grand Bazaar

Istanbul's Grand Bazar, Turkey

Turkey’s most spectacular souvenir space, the Grand Bazaar.

Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar is a wonderful space for window or souvenir shopping, redolent of Morocco’s Marrakesh or Cairo’s Khan el Khalili bazaar, with over 4,000 glittering shops crammed into a labyrinth of ancient covered walkways and side streets.
Parts can be touristy but it’s still a terrific place for a half day or day of souvenir shopping.

The Blue Mosque

turkey istanbul blue mosque

The Sultan Ahmed Camii, otherwise known as the Blue Mosque.

Sultan Ahmet Camii, aka the Blue Mosque, is a fully active mosque and you are free to enter but adjust your clothing if you plan to go inside – shorts, bare shoulders and shoes are not permitted inside.

Some tourists are not impressed, probably due to the masses of ‘guides’ and ‘friends’ hustling to look after anyone who looks pretty vacant. However, Sultan Ahmet is free, beautifully decorated, conveniently located and historically important to Turkey. Wander in for a few minutes at least!

turkey, istanbul, blue mosque interior

Blue Mosque interior ceiling.

Hagia Sophia/Ayasofya

Hagia Sophia, istanbul, turkey

6thC Hagia Sophia, aka Ayasofya, the world’s largest cathedral for 1, 000 years. Note the Christ figure on the right as well as Koranic inscriptions.

Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofya) in Sultanahmet Square, was constructed by command of Roman Emperor Justinian I in the sixth century as a Christian basilica and remained the largest enclosed space in the world for over 1000 years.

The Ottomans conquered Constantinople in the 15th century and converted Hagia Sofia to a mosque. Finally it was converted into a museum in 1935.

Aya Sofia is an amazing building with a fascinating history so bite the bullet and hire a guide. Choosing one will be the most stressful part of your day!

Sultanahmet Topkapi Museum

The Topkapi Palace was home to Ottoman emperors for four hundred years and is extravagantly decorated, particularly the Harem section which requires visitors to join a guided tour and costs extra, but is well worthwhile.

Apart from the elaborate, well restored decor, the museum displays Ottoman jewels, weapons, rugs, china, the Prophet Mohammed’s belongings and more. The terrace outside has panoramic views over the Bosphorus and both European and Asian sides of Istanbul.

Get there early (before 9. 0 am? ) and rent an audio or human guide, Topkapi is busy and complex! It’s not difficult to spend two or three hours there. It WILL be crowded.

Topkapi Harem ceiling, istanbul, turkey

Tourists wishing to visit the palace should not take bus or tram posted with Topkapi sign as they always go to Topkapi neighbourhood in the west of the old city near the city walls, whereas Topkapi Palace is in the east, about 8kms (5 miles) away. To visit the the palace, look for transport with signs to Sultanahmet.

Just below Topkapi is Gulhane Park a public park with lots of flowers, trees and outdoor cafés with a fine view of the Bosphorus.

However, many tourists find the palace is disappointing as you can expect large numbers of tours squeezing into quite small spaces. In addition  there are no furnished rooms, it’s a museum rather than a recreation of a Sultan’s living quarters.

Sultanahmet accommodation

turkey, sogukcesme street pension, istanbul

Pensions/Guest Houses in Sogukcesme Sok (street), behind Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace and Gulhane Park. Perfectly located if the budget permits.

turkey, istanbul, sultanahmet hotels

Various mid-range hotels in Sultanahmet.