Istanbul’s Old City Highlights

Istanbul’s Old City is centred around the area called Sultanahmet, a small peninsula bordered by the Bosphorus Strait, the Marmara Sea, and the Golden Horn. It’s where all the most famous sights of Istanbul are located so not surprisingly there are loads of hotels, hostels, and overpriced touristic restaurants in this area. Most travellers to Istanbul will spend most if not all of their time in this area taking in sights like the Hagia Sofia, Sultan Ahmed (Blue) Mosque, Basilica Cistern, Topkapi Palace, and Grand Bazaar.

If you only have a short time in the city you can see all of following sights in just one day. They’re all within easy walking distance of each other.


The Hagia Sofia

This architectural and historical gem was first built by the Greeks in the 6th century as a church, then converted to a mosque by the Ottomans, and later converted into a museum after the Republic of Turkey was founded. The entrance fee is 25 liras (US$12.5) and in my opinion totally worth it. I chose to not join any tour groups and explore the site on my own, which took about 1.5 hours. The official website is here: http://www.ayasofyamuzesi.gov.tr/en/

The grandiose Hagia Sofia

The grandiose Hagia Sofia

Near the main altar.

Near the main altar.

The main hall

The main hall

Striking a pose.

Striking a pose.

Visitors gazing down at the main hall.

Visitors gazing down at the main hall.

The view from one of the south facing windows.

The view from one of the south facing windows.

A restored painting from the building's Christian days.

A restored fresco from the building’s Christian days.

It's just grand.

It’s just grand.


The Sultan Ahmed (Blue) Mosque

The official name is the Sultan Ahmed Mosque but most foreigners know it as the Blue Mosque because of the brilliant blue tiles that decorate the interior walls of the building. It’s the only mosque in Turkey that has 6 minarets, signifying its importance since it was commissioned by the Sultan himself. The inside of the mosque is closed to visitors during prayer times but instead of waiting in the courtyard there’s an information centre that has free 30 minute presentations that line up with the visitor opening times of the mosque. The presentations are very informative and not preachy. The only thing they try to push on you is the free tea, coffee, and cookies. Entrance to the Blue Mosque is free.

The Blue Mosque as seen from the Bosphorus Strait

The Blue Mosque as seen from the Bosphorus Strait

Couldn't squeeze all 6 minarets into the picture.

Couldn’t squeeze all 6 minarets into the picture.

The main entrance gate, on the west side of the building.

The main entrance gate, on the west side of the building.

The exquisite domed ceiling.

The exquisite domed ceiling.

Another view of the ceiling.

Another view of the ceiling.

It's by far the most popular mosque for visitors.

It’s by far the most popular mosque for visitors.


The Basilica Cistern

The dim lighting, atmospheric music, size, and underground location of this water store is a far cry from the chaos of the city above. The cistern was used as an emergency water source in case of siege during the Byzantine period. Some key architectural features include the arches and columns that support the weight of the roof and a couple of columns that have Medusa faces carved into their bases. Entrance fee is 10 liras.

Some of the many columns supporting the roof.

Some of the many columns supporting the roof.

One of the Medusa column bases.

One of the Medusa column bases.


The Grand Bazaar

It may be one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world, but these days you won’t find too many locals shopping there. It’s become a huge tourist attraction and as a result you’ll quickly see that most of the shops are peddling the exact same mass-produced products such as carpets, lamps, toys, and tea sets. Call me jaded but after about 10 minutes I’d had enough of seeing the same shops over and over again.

Cheerful sales people are all too happy to sell you the same things as the guy in the stall next door.

Cheerful sales people are all too happy to sell you the same things as the guy in the stall next door.

One of the grand entrance gates.

One of the grand entrance gates.

Of all the sights in the Istanbul’s old city, which one is your favourite?

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