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Your Guide To Sultanahmet Istanbul, Turkey
Istanbul is one of the top holiday destinations, with a rich history, colorful culture, various tourist attractions sprinkled across the map, and delicious cuisine. And this gorgeous city is home to a one-of-a-kind neighborhood with a lot to offer; for anyone considering a trip to Istanbul soon, we highly recommend adding Sultanahmet to their itinerary.
With its cobblestone streets, traditional shops, and street vendors selling Turkish delights, spices, and souvenirs, Sultanahmet is a stunning district located in the historical peninsula of Istanbul. The district, named after the Ottoman Sultan Ahmet I, has a rich history dating back to ancient times and has been a center of political, cultural, and religious significance for many civilizations.
The area is home to some of the city’s most famous landmarks and tourist attractions, including the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, and the Topkapı Palace.
It’s hard to describe Sultanahmet, even after being there several times over the years, I can say that you can never full see it all in one trip.
In this guide, we’ll try our best and guide you through the streets of Sultanahmet and explore this unique place together. To learn more, keep reading!
A Brief History Of Sultanahmet Istanbul
Let’s begin with a brief history of the place. As previously said, Sultanahmet, commonly known as the “Old City,” is in Istanbul’s historical peninsula, the “heart of Istanbul.” The region’s long history dates to prehistoric times and has served as a political, cultural, and religious center for various civilizations.
The history of Sultanahmet can be traced back to the Byzantine Empire when the area was a vibrant commercial and cultural center. In the fourth century AD, the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great chose the area as the new capital of the Roman Empire, renaming it Constantinople. It was a prominent cultural and economic center for the empire. It was home to several significant religious and civic structures, notably the Hagia Sophia, one of the world’s largest cathedrals.
In 1453, Sultan Mehmed II of the Ottoman Empire conquered Constantinople and established it as the capital of his empire. Sultanahmet flourished as a noteworthy center of Islamic culture and education throughout the Ottoman rule. The Ottomans constructed many impressive structures in the area, notably the Blue Mosque and the Topkapı Palace, which housed the Ottoman sultans and their courts. Many other notable Islamic institutions, like madrasahs, hammams, and public fountains, were also located in the region.
Today, Sultanahmet is a significant historical landmark and a popular tourist destination, highlighting Istanbul’s rich history and culture. The district is an excellent place to learn about the city’s past, present, and future; it also serves as a testament to Istanbul’s rich cultural heritage and enduring significance in the region. The Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, and Topkapı Palace are all located in the neighborhood and are regarded as three of Turkey’s most important cultural and architectural monuments.
What Are The Main Sights To See In Sultanahmet Istanbul
Although every corner of Sultanahmet is worth exploring, there are some sights every visitor should see.
Everyone interested in history, culture, and religion should visit Hagia Sophia and discover its history, beauty, and significance for themself. Throughout history, this historic structure served as a cathedral, mosque, and museum.
Hagia Sophia was the largest cathedral in the Byzantine Empire when it was built in 537 AD. The structure is one of the finest examples of Byzantine architecture and art. Its dome, with a circumference of more than 100 feet, was an architectural masterpiece that tremendously influenced Turkish architecture. The extraordinarily rich and vibrant mosaics that decorate the large structure serve as a window into Byzantine art and culture and as remnants of a fallen empire.
Hagia Sophia’s history is also highly remarkable. It was the Eastern Orthodox Cathedral of Constantinople for about a thousand years until Mehmed II converted it into a mosque after the Ottoman Empire conquered Constantinople in 1453. Almost 500 years later, in 1935, the structure was converted into a museum by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey. However, in 2020, Hagia Sophia was restored as a mosque, ending its long and rich history as a museum and initiating a new chapter as a place of worship.
Also known as the Sultan Ahmet Mosque, the Blue Mosque is an Ottoman Mosque known for its six minarets and blue İznik tile work that covers the interior walls and gives the mosque its distinctive blue color.
The Blue Mosque is notable for its architectural style, which combines conventional Islamic and Byzantine elements. Its massive central dome, six surrounding minarets, and eight minor domes claim dominance over Hagia Sophia, which heavily impacted the building of the Blue Mosque. The structure is a monument to the skill and inventiveness of the Ottoman architects and artisans who created it, and one of the most stunning examples of Ottoman architecture.
Blue Mosque is still an active place of worship and is considered one of the most important Islamic monuments in the city. However, with its unique blend of architectural styles, history, and culture, the mosque offers an unforgettable experience to visitors of all backgrounds.
Hotels Close By
There are so many great hotels near the Blue Mosque, we stayed at one that has this view from the bedroom.
We may call Topkapı Palace the center of the Ottoman Kingdom; it was the court of the Ottoman sultans for centuries, and they ruled the entire empire from this very spot. Among other palaces in Istanbul, Topkapı is the one that influenced Ottoman history the most.
After the Ottomans took Constantinople in 1453, they erected the palace on the site of a Byzantine acropolis. It served as the Ottoman Empire’s political and administrative center and the palace of the Sultan and his court. Many notable events in Ottoman history occurred within its walls, including coronations, feasts, and diplomatic ceremonies. It also housed many imperial artifacts, and the palace’s harem was one of the most luxurious in the world.
Visiting the Topkapı Palace is an opportunity to travel back in time and experience the Ottoman Empire’s richness and majesty. Through the numerous exhibits and relics on display, the structure allows visitors to learn about the history and culture of the Ottoman Empire. Therefore, if you want to make the most of your vacation to Sultanahmet, you should add Topkapı Palace to your itinerary and allow a few hours to explore it top-to-toe.
The Grand Bazaar, one of the world’s oldest and largest covered markets, is a must-see for both shopping and tourists. Grand Bazaar was, and still is, a significant economic landmark in Istanbul.
The bazaar’s history dates back to the 15th century when Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II built it to serve as a primary market for the city’s merchants. It was more than just a place to shop; it also had cultural, social, and economic significance.
Visiting the Grand Bazaar is an excellent chance to immerse yourself in Istanbul’s unique culture and history. Walking through the bazaar is a true adventure that offers visitors an understanding of how the market has grown through time and how essential it has been to the city’s economy and culture. The bazaar is also an excellent place to buy souvenirs and gifts for loved ones, yet you may have to haggle over costs and try not to get scammed as part of the experience.
The Basilica Cistern, an old underground cistern dating back to Byzantine times, is one of Sultanahmet’s most remarkable attractions. Basilica Cistern, a fine example of Byzantine architecture, was built by Byzantine Emperor Justinian I in the 6th century AD to store water for the Great Palace of Constantinople. However, a few centuries later, the cistern went into disuse and was largely forgotten until its rediscovery in the 16th century. Nowadays, the cistern is open to visitors and is one of Istanbul’s most popular tourist attractions.
The cistern is significant in Istanbul’s history and a must-see for anybody interested in Byzantine architecture.
There’s lots of street food in Istanbul to try. From skewered meats and Turkish delights to cobs of corn and roasted chestnuts, there’s something for everyone. And, of course, no trip to Istanbul would be complete without sampling some of the delicious street food on offer.
Sultanahmet is well-known for a cob of corn and roasted chestnut sellers. Both are typically sold by vendors who set up shop in busy areas, and they’re quite affordable. The corn is cooked over an open fire, and the chestnuts are roasted on a special grilling device. The vendor will then peel back the husks or shells, making them as a tasty snack while on the go exploring the city.
In Istanbul, there’s a famous ice cream that’s quite different from what we’re used to in the West. It’s called Dondurma, and it’s made with mastic, a resin from the mastic tree. This gives the ice cream a chewy, sticky consistency that’s really unique.
If you’re in Istanbul, you have to try it – just be warned, the Turkish ice cream vendors are known to be pranksters. One such Turkish ice cream prank is a tradition in which ice cream sellers make their customers reach for a cone before pulling it away and continuing the trick over and over.
Or, as in my son’s case – they made him open his mouth for the ice cream, but he was left with nothing but paper towel in his mouth – doh!
If the hammam experience isn’t enough to thrill you, perhaps experiencing Ottoman history in this place will. Only twice have renovations been made to it: once in the 1980s and once by Sultan Abdulmecid during the Ottoman era. This hammam’s lengthy history goes back to Mehmet the Conqueror’s reign. The construction of this Turkish bath in 1454 makes it the oldest hammam in Istanbul. The first Turkish bath in Istanbul was constructed for Sultan Mehmet and his sons a year after the city of Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul) was taken over.
The least expensive package, which includes the customary body cleaning, starts at 250TL (about €22). As a result, it is among the most reasonably priced choices among the more well-known ancient baths. You can mix and match packages, although the most expensive ones might last up to three hours. It is one of the few hammams allowing couples to join the steam room. You’ll be split up when you get cleaned, but you can have some sweet apple tea together later.
Address: Kuloglu Mh., Turnacibasi Cd. No:48 Aga Hamami, 34433 , Taksim Contact: +90 (249) 249 50 27
Watch A Whirling Dervish Performance
You can watch these captivating ceremonies at many locations throughout Istanbul, but an excellent location can be reached by foot from the Sultanahmet area – the Hocapaşa Culture Center. This iconic ceremony is a spiritual, meditative dance that has been declared a UNESCO Heritage of Humanity and is one of the best things to do in Istanbul at night, even with kids (over 6-7 years). My two boys, aged five and ten, sat quietly and enjoyed it.
Hodjapasha Dance Theater is located in a converted 15th-century Turkish bath within walking distance of Sirkeci train station is where we chose for our Whirling Dervish experience.
During winter, while we visited, performances were held every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday (at 7 pm). Then beginning in March, daily ceremonies were scheduled.
Though it may look like an art performance of sorts, it is still actually a religious ceremony. I was disappointed they asked us not to take any photos (even without a flash), but I understood why. You also can not talk or leave your seat at all while the Dervishes spin – so make sure the kids go to the restroom (on the lower floor) before the starting time.
Book tickets here
Where To Eat In Sultanahmet Istanbul
Like many cities in Turkey, Istanbul offers you the opportunity to try unique cuisine at its restaurants. Sultanahmet is home to many charming cafes, restaurants, and traditional Turkish teahouses, making it a great place to spend a day or two exploring the history and culture of Istanbul. However, if you’re visiting the best district of Istanbul, you should eat at the best restaurants. We’ll unfortunately only be able to list one here.
Sultan Palace Cafe Restaurant
We were suggested to eat at this place by local friends who know the owners and workers – who verified that while not a cheap place to eat, we’d be guaranteed a proper Turkish meal. We were not left disappointed.
Easy to find, the Sultan Palace Cafe Restaurant is ona sidestreet at Alemdar, Biçki Yurdu Sk. No:1, 34122 Fatih. We were struggling with what to eat with a decent menu of options to choose from. Roko knew he wanted to try a kebab, while Vladimir was keen on a meat pide – hubby and I was scratching our heads and tossing up what to choose when the waiter made suggestions for us.
So, what to eat there? Well, I got the Iskender kebab, while the server suggested a hot and entertaining meal for Mr. Chasing the Donkey. He got the flaming testi kebab, also known as a pottery kebab.
Testi kebabs are a traditional dish from Turkey. The dish is made by slow-cooking meat and vegetables in a clay pot (testi means clay in Turkish), which helps to infuse the flavors and create a succulent meal.
The key to making great testi kebabs is to use fresh, quality ingredients. The meat is marinated overnight in a mixture of spices and yogurt before being cooked slowly over low heat for hours. This allows the flavors to really develop and penetrate the meat, resulting in a tender and juicy dish.
Testi kebabs are an ideal option for those looking for a hearty and satisfying meal and one for the IG. Vegetables such as onions, carrots, and potatoes are added to the pot, which not only adds flavor but also helps bulk out the meal. The dish is then reheated in flamed at your table – which is super fun to watch.
While there, I suggested you also try the platter of dips – meze as it’s known. It came with bread and was tasty.
Şehzade Cağ Kebap
A cağ kebap is a Turkish dish that is made of lamb, yogurt, and spices. It is said to be one of the best kebabs in the world, and it is definitely worth trying if you are ever in Turkey. The lamb is cooked slowly over a charcoal fire, and the yogurt helps to keep the meat moist and flavorful. The spices add a nice depth of flavor to the dish, resulting in a truly delicious kebab.
The best place to have one in Istanbul is at Şehzade Cağ Kebap. They offer great prices with warm and attentive service. We had four kebabs, each carved off slow-roasted meat on the coals, flatbreads, salad, tomatoes, onions, thick and creamy yogurt, salsa, drinks, and dessert for less than 600 Turkish Lira.
Visit this lovely spot off the beaten path, in some back streets, so the only downside is navigating your way there – but it’s worth it, I promise.
Loti Roof Lounge
Loti Roof Lounge is an attractive and sophisticated eatery in the ancient Sultanahmet district of Istanbul. The atmosphere is inviting and refined, and the cuisine is wide and wonderful, with many international delicacies likely to delight any palate. The restaurant provides a unique dining experience combining international cuisine, specialty cocktails, and panoramic city views.
One of the restaurant’s most valuable qualities is its proximity to some of Istanbul’s most famous attractions. A short walk away is the Çemberlitaş Hammam, one of Istanbul’s most old and significant Ottoman hammams, and the Basilica Cistern, an ancient underground chamber established in the 6th century.
Where To Stay In Sultanahmet
Istanbul provides its visitors with many accommodation options across the city. However, if you’re wondering where to stay in Sultanahmet, near the city’s most significant sights, such as Hagia Sophia or the Blue Mosque, we have a suggestion!
The Alzer Hotel, located in Istanbul’s famous Sultanahmet area, is ideal for those looking for a comfortable and convenient base from which to explore the city. The prime location opposite the Blue Mosque allows guests to experience the best of Istanbul.
With its high-quality amenities, the King Suite at Alzer Hotel is ideal for visitors looking to see Istanbul in elegance. However, the King Suite’s main selling point is its breathtaking sight of the Blue Mosque and the Mediterranean. Waking up with a view of one of the world’s most magnificent buildings and the sea is an unforgettable experience.
Now that you have this list of things to do in Sultanahmet Istanbul, we’d love to know where you’ll head to first.
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