If you thought that the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia were all that Istanbul had to offer you would be dead wrong. Istanbul, like so many of the great cities of Europe, has layer upon layer of history to discover. We spent about 4 days just exploring Sultanahmet (essentially the Old Town) and here are just a few of the things we enjoyed the most in this part of the city.
The Basilica Cistern
Built in the 6th century by Emperor Justinian, the Basilica Cistern is just one of the hundreds of Cisterns located deep below the streets of Istanbul. Measuring over 100,000 square feet in size, this cathedral-sized cistern provided water for the structures on the “First Hill” (the Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, etc.) of Constantinople and then Istanbul.
But this is no ordinary holding tank. With Corinthian and Ionic marble and granite columns (which seem to have been brought from all corners of the Roman Empire) and beautiful firebrick arches along the ceiling, the structure is an amazing place to behold. Curiously, two of the columns contain huge sculptures of Medusa (even more curiously they are aligned upside-down and sideways). Today, elegant red lighting and huge fish swimming in the 3 foot deep water just add to the mysterious feeling of the building.
We really enjoyed exploring the Basilica Cistern thanks to it’s calm atmosphere. With large suspended walkways, visitors can move around at their own pace and have lots of room (although I’m not sure how busy it may be during peak tourist season). While the site itself is tucked underground, away from the noise of the busy streets ahead. If a few moments of seclusion aren’t your thing, there are also fish that live in the few feet of water covering the cistern’s floor.
Logistics: The Basilica Cistern (Yerebatan Sarnici in Turkish) is located just 500 meters from the Hagia Sophia. It is open every day and costs 10TL. If you’re a photographer, it also presents the unique opportunity to set up a tripod, something that’s not always allowed in major attractions (or that’s what we’ve experienced anyways).
The Topkapi Palace
For over 400 years, this stunning palace was the home of the Ottoman Sultans, and today it stands as one of Istanbul’s most amazing sights. After it’s initial construction in 1459, the palace was continuously expanded and renovated for centuries, and survived both an earthquake in 1509 and a fire in 1655. At it’s peak, the palace contained a hospital, bakeries, mosques, and a mint. As a structure, it more closely resembles the Alhambra of Granada, with its complex of smaller buildings intermixed with gardens and ponds, than more traditional “palaces” like Versailles or Schonbrunn. Topkapi felt like a place of relaxation rather than a display of overt opulence.
Following the end of the Ottoman Empire in 1923, the palace was transformed in a museum. Today, the palace complex is comprised of four main courtyards and many smaller buildings, many of which are open for viewing. The museum’s collection on display includes many Ottoman treasures, Islamic calligraphic manuscripts, robes, weapons, and jewelry. Perhaps the most stunning part of the palace is the handmade colourful tiles that cover most of the structures found there.
During our week in Istanbul, the Topkapi Palace was the busiest tourist attraction we visited – likely due to the gorgeous sunny weather on that particular Saturday. While the architecture and decor is beautiful both inside and out of the palace, the large gardens make this site particularly special. It’s worth waiting for a nice day to visit (if you can) simply to spend some extra time perched on a bench overlooking the city below.
Logistics: The palace is located “behind” the Hagia Sophia – you can’t miss it. Entrance is 25 TL (plus 15 TL if you want to visit the Harem), and it is closed Tuesdays.
Formerly the outer gardens of the Topkapi Palace, this beautiful green space is a great place to escape the hustle and bustle of Sultanahmet. There’s not much to do here but relax on a bench and enjoy the cool shade of the trees.
Larger and older than the Blue Mosque, this is one of the most dominating features of the Sultanahmet skyline. Built in the 16th century, the mosque has a beautiful courtyard and cemetery. Given its proximity to the Grand Bazaar, it receives surprisingly few visitors.
The main port of Sultanahmet, Eminonu is one of the busiest centres of the city and provides a great opportunity for people watching. In addition to watching people fish, shop, and rush to board the frequent ferries, visitors can explore the nearby Egyptian Bazaar and Yeni Mosque. Or maybe visit the interesting stores selling everything from belt buckles to cabinet knobs around the Rustem Pasha Mosque (one of the prettiest in the city). One of our favorite things to do in this area was simply walk across the Galata Bridge to Karakoy. Made of two levels, this bridge has numerous seafood restaurants on it’s lower level where patrons can enjoy the catch of the day and countless fisherman spend the day hauling whatever they can catch from the top deck.
If the last few posts about sightseeing and shopping in Sultanahmet hasn’t filled up your itinerary yet, be sure to stay tuned for our tips on what to see in some of Istanbul’s unique neighbourhoods.