This is a guest post from Anya Kay of Road Is Calling.
The Sultanahmet neighbourhood in the Fatih district of Istanbul is one of the most densely populated and lively parts of the city. Most travellers visiting Istanbul for the first time begin their acquaintance with the city streets from this area. For good reason: historically rich, with a huge number of ancient sites and museum complexes, Sultanahmet has a lot to offer to every type of traveller. I would like to tell you about the top things to see in Sultanahmet, especially if this is your first trip to Istanbul.
Hagia Sophia Mosque (Museum)
I will start this list of Sultanahmet attractions with a grand mosque which was once an Orthodox Church – Hagia Sophia. This is a place of indescribable energy and a lot of history. Even if you don’t go inside this building at least make sure to look at it from outside.
Hagia Sophia was built by the Romans as an Orthodox Christian Cathedral in 537, when Istanbul was still known as Constantinople. When the Turks captured the city, they decided not to destroy the cathedral, but to convert it into a mosque by adding minarets. It served as a mosque until 1934, but it then became a museum.
However, the Turkish government recently decided to transform Hagia Sophia back into a mosque. For you, as a tourist, it won’t make much of a difference since everyone still can visit and enjoy this masterpiece. The main reasons to see the mosque are the exquisite Byzantine mosaics, and the unique examples of Ottoman calligraphy.
The Blue Mosque – One Of The Most Famous Mosques In The World
Not far from Hagia Sophia, is one of the top sights in Istanbul, the Sultan Ahmet Mosque. People call it the Blue Mosque because of the blue tiles it is decorated with. However, a lot of visitors are disappointed because they go for the wrong reasons, expecting to find a lot of blue colours (for the most part these are in the upper galleries, inaccessible to the eye). I suggest you visit to see how magnificent the mosque looks from outside and how splendid it is inside.
Brochures with information about the history of the mosque, and a guide to its contents, are available on site. Or you can take a guided tour.
Topkapi Palace, Residence Of The Ottoman Sultans
Topkapi Palace is a place in Istanbul that witnessed many dramatic historic events. It was the main residence of the sultans for 400 years but today it welcomes tourists as a museum.
The palace is located on a huge piece of land in the very centre of the old neighbourhood. The grounds include four courtyards with gardens, gazebos, hammam, kitchen, mosque, library, harem, a huge park, and of course the Sultan’s private chambers and rooms where he met with outside guests.
These days, most of the rooms of the Palace are not furnished, but the museum holds a collection of weapons, porcelain, household items, and a large treasury. Having passed to the distant, fourth courtyard, you can enjoy the view of the Bosporus and Golden Horn Bay.
I recommend you visit only if you have a few days in Istanbul, as you need to be prepared to spend half a day or even more at the Topkapi Palace.
The Underground Reservoir Basilica Cistern
The Basilica Cistern is not the only underground reservoir in Istanbul, or even in Sultanahmet. But it is the biggest one, with an impressive design and interesting monuments inside. Built back in 306 – 337 under the Emperor Constantine, you will be intrigued by this mysterious and unusual place.
The Romans and their successors continued using the reservoir until the 16th century. Later, the Turks who seized Constantinople started to use water from the Basilica Cistern to water the gardens of the Topkapi Palace. However, with the advent of water pipes, they later abandoned it.
The local government discovered the Basilica Cistern by accident years later. Local people were catching fish at home through the cracks in their floors, and they wondered where the water was coming from! This is how the Basilica opened its doors to visitors in 1987. The entire visit there will take around 2 hours. Guided tours are also available.
Sultanahmet Meidani (Square)
Sultanahmet Square is a starting point for exploration of the Sultanahmet neighbourhood. It is also a historic area in its own right. The square that we know today used to be the ancient Roman hippodrome, a vast area that could host around 100,000 spectators at a time. These days there is not much to remind you of the hippodrome. However, there are a few ancient Byzantine and Ottoman monuments with information boards. The square now is more like a park that runs the length of the Blue Mosque complex.
Once you are there, look out for the Obelisk of Theodosius, the Serpentine Column and the Column of Constantine. And the beautiful German Fountain rises on the spot where the main northern gate of the hippodrome was located.
Great Palace Mosaics Museum
The Great Palace Mosaics Museum also dates back to the period of antiquity, and is notable for its large number of mosaics. It is based in a former palace but, unfortunately, the palace in its original form was destroyed many centuries ago. However the unique mosaics that once adorned its walls have been carefully preserved. Archaeologists found them in the part of the 20th century, and established that the mosaic remains date back to the 5th century.
Roman history lovers will find lots of information about the Roman empire in Istanbul when they visit the Mosaics Museum.
Why should the places I have described be at the top of your list, especially if you are visiting Istanbul for the first time? Because through them you’ll be able to learn about the ancient history of the city, and soak up its mystical atmosphere. (If you have more time in the city, you can explore more of the top sights in Istanbul.)