One of the most common questions asked by tourists interested in traveling to Istanbul is whether they should stay in Old Town Istanbul (Sultanahmet area) or New Town Istanbul (Taksim area).
If you’re part of some travel community groups or platforms, you’ll notice that a lot of people favor the vibe of the Sultanahmet area not only because it’s near some of the country’s most important historical landmarks but also because it’s surrounded by beautiful neighborhoods, buildings, and bazaars.
In this post, I’ll be listing down the top five most important landmarks in Sultanahmet and Old Town Istanbul.
1. Hagia Sophia
Hagia Sophia is arguably the most important landmark in Sultanahmet. The structure was established during the reign of Justinian I, the first emperor of the Byzantine Empire, in the 6th century. It’s a symbolic structure of both the Byzantine and the Ottoman Empire.
It was originally designed as a christian cathedral for the Eastern Roman Empire but was converted into a mosque in 1453 – at the time when the Ottoman Empire was expanding. In 1934, Hagia Sophia was turned into a museum, and in 2020 Turkey’s President Erdogan announced that the iconic structure’s status has been turned back into a mosque.
Outside Hagia Sophia, you’ll find a number of licensed tour guides that will offer you differing prices for a one hour or two hour guided tour of the place. There is no entrance fee to Hagia Sophia. But women should wear headscarves and not wear any revealing clothes upon entering the mosque.
2. Blue Mosque
Sultan Ahmed Mosque also known as the Blue Mosque is another one of the must-visit landmarks in Old Town Istanbul. The monument is admired for its impressive cascading domes and six minarets, but mostly recognized by its blue tiled interior.
Since Sultan Ahmet I did not have the military prowess nor the political skill that equated to his predecessors (i.e. Suleiman the Magnificent and Mehmet the Conqueror), so he commissioned the construction of the Blue Mosque in the 17th century, to leave a legacy that symbolizes cultural dominance and prosperity.
There is no entrance fee to the Blue Mosque but there is a dress code. Women must cover their head, shoulders, and their legs when entering the place. And men must cover their legs inside the premises as well.
3. Topkapi Palace
Another one of Old Town Istanbul’s main tourist attractions is the Topkapi Palace. The Palace is an important historical landmark because it served as the residence and administrative headquarters of the sultans during the Ottoman empire for almost four centuries.
The Four Courtyards and the Harem
The Palace was constructed shortly after Sultan Mehmed II took over Constantinople in 1453, and was continually renovated and expanded by the sultans following him.
Topkapi Palace embodies 700,000 square meters of extravagant gardens, sophisticated marble work, and massive courtyards. It consists of four courtyards – and a harem, where each one served a differing purpose:
- Courtyard 1: or the outer courtyard is designed to hold ceremonies and processions
- Courtyard 2: also known as Divian Square, is the administrative center of the palace
- Courtyard 3: served as the private residence of the palace where only selected family members, servants, and approved guests could enter
- Courtyard 4: houses a number of pavilions, kiosks, gardens, and terraces
On the other hand, the Harem symbolized the “private” life of the sultan. It consists of hundreds of rooms which housed as many as 300 concubines of the sultan. This place is where the women were taught Islam, Turkish culture, language, arts, music, and make-up, among others. To read more about the interesting story of the courtyards and the harem, visit this page.
As A Museum
In 1924, Topkapi Palace was officially converted into a museum and since then, it has claimed to be the home of a number of important holy relics such as the things of the Prophet Mohammed, the pot of Abraham, the staff of moses, and the arm of John the Baptist. The scientific basis of these claims remain uncertain up to this day.
Visitors need to go to another ticket booth and pay a separate entrance fee to enter the Harem. But the Topkapi Palace is open everyday from 9:00-18:00 except Tuesdays. And the Palace is within walking distance from most of the hotels in the Sultanahmet area.
4. Grand Bazaar
The historical landmarks of Old Town Istanbul don’t end in just mosques or palaces, you can also find it in one of their biggest marketplaces – the Grand Bazaar.
Yet another one of Sultan Mehmet II’s projects, the construction of the Grand Bazaar began years after the Ottoman conquest in Istanbul in 1453. The expansion was continued during the reign of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. The purpose of the project was to provide financial resources for the establishment of Hagia Sophia.
Spanning over 30,000 square meters, the Grand Bazaar is one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world. It’s a labyrinth that contains 18 gates, seven fountains, and one mosque. It is also made up of 56 interconnecting passages and houses as many as 4,000 shops.
Shopping in the Grand Bazaar
The shops sell things like spices, dried fruits, nuts, jewelry, carpets, lamps, lanterns, and ceramics. One of the most outstanding products being offered in many of these shops though is gold jewelry. The vast amount of items and similar offerings can easily overwhelm any visitor, and the number of people convincing tourists to buy things in their store can easily come off as a tourist trap.
It’s easy to get confused (and feel lost) in this beautiful marketplace, so make sure that after you enter one shop, ask for their business card – so you can always come back once you’re done checking the prices of similar items in other shops. It’s possible to bargain with the store owners.
When we visited the Grand Bazaar, I wanted to buy a very thin, minimal-looking gold bracelet and a pendant. If memory serves me right, my husband and I entered and inquired about 20 shops. Most of them gave me prices that range from 1,800-2,000 Turkish Lira (about 100-110 USD at the time of writing).
In the end, we were able to find a shop that agreed to sell a bracelet for 1,500 Turkish Lira (about 80 usd), and a pendant for 1,200 Turkish Lira (65 usd). Both are made-up of 14-karat gold.
The Grand Bazaar is open from Mondays-Saturdays from 8:30-19:00. It’s closed on Sundays.
5. Spice Bazaar
Old Town Istanbul is also home to arguably one of the largest spice markets in the world – Mısır Çarşısı, translated as “Egyptian Market” in English, and more popularly known as the Spice Bazaar.
The Spice Bazaar was constructed in the 1600s and was built as part of the New Mosque complex. The rent from the shops is said to have provided support to maintaining the mosque, and its charitable activities.
Inside the spice bazaar, you can find a range of stores offering colorful spices, nuts, dried fruits, and Turkish Delights. You can also find an old restaurant on the second floor just above the main entrance.
The Spice Bazaar is open from 8:00-19:30 on the weekdays, 8:00-20:00 on Saturdays, and 9:30-19:00 on Sundays. However, it is closed during Islamic religious holidays and on October 29 (the Republic Day).
Aside from the important landmarks in the Sultanahmet area, you can also find very good restaurants in Old Town Istanbul. The place is packed with so many places to visit and things to do, you’ll need extra storage for taking pictures with your phone.
If you want to spend more time visiting the historical sites Istanbul has to offer, then stay in a hotel in the Sultanahmet area, and consider that Old Town Istanbul is the better choice for you.