Sultanahmet, also known as the ‘Old City’ is the most historic area of Istanbul. What was once the walled city of Istanbul itself, its entirety sits on a peninsula, surrounded by water on three sides. If it’s your first time in Istanbul, you’ll be visiting the Old City at least once, as the most famous of Istanbul’s sights are located here – from Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, to the Grand Bazaar. However, I don’t recommend staying in Sultanahmet, as the throngs of tourists and impossibly large crowds really negate the charm of the Old City.
DISCLAIMER: I normally just focus on the things to see/do/eat, but have learnt that Istanbul is really a city that requires navigation on what NOT to see/do/eat. Here’s why.
Surprisingly, Istanbul turned out to be the touristiest place I have ever been to (and that’s saying something after having been in Rome, London, NYC, etc.) A quick fact check, and Google revealed that Istanbul is the 6th most visited city in the world. We had no idea. And unfortunately, it really shows.
It may have had something to do with where we stayed, being situated in the Old City, right next to the Blue Mosque. But with only having a few days to explore, we mostly sightsaw the biggest attractions, and didn’t have much time to wander the other parts of this massive city.
Having said that, Sultanahmet is a must-see, and is perfect for a day trip. It’s completely walkable, and all the major sights are more or less grouped together. Here is what to see, and what to skip in Sultanahmet:
Get there as early as possible to avoid long lines. Once you’re inside, no amount of people will distract from the grandeur of the space.
Walk to the upper mezzanine for a closer look at the domes, and for views across to the Blue Mosque. Photos can’t do the space justice since it’s impossible to capture the size and height of the main cupola.
The Blue Mosque.
After 10 am, the line ups reach 2-3 hours just to get in to this Mosque. Although the mosaics are absolutely spectacular, there are many other mosques around Istanbul that show similarly, like the New Mosque, a few minutes away.
The New Mosque.
Although I do recommend visiting the Harem (an additional ticket purchase is required), Topkapi Palace is more crowded than the Colosseum, and we even got there earlier in the day. If you’re stay in Sultanahmet is slightly longer, than you could spend a good chunk of time here, but the earlier the better.
Built in the 6th Century, Basilica Cistern used to be the city’s largest underground water reservoir in Byzantine times. It’s an absolutely magical space, submerged in a couple feet of water with catfish gliding between the ancient colonnades. A must see!
Owned by a Canadian, this luxury Turkish towel shop uses only the finest organic threads, and the towels wear well with age, becoming super soft.
The Grand Bazaar.
A shopping experiences for all the senses. From bargaining with shopkeepers over cups of apple tea, to getting completely lost in this covered maze of endless stores, this place is unlike anything I have ever experienced before. Be sure to bargain.
The Spice Bazaar.
Sort of a smaller scale version of the Grand Bazaar, the Spice Market seems to be geared solely to tourists, with overpriced and poorly presented sweets and spices. If you happen to find yourself in the Spice Bazaar, however, make sure to stop into Develi Baklava for the best made baklava in town!
No trip to Turkey is complete without a visit to a traditional Turkish Hamam. This one dates back to the 16th century, and is among the most beautiful in the entire city. “Treat” yourself to the full body experience underneath the marbled dome punctured with star apertures. I say “treat” because it is quite the experience, and one I will never forget!
Image c/o Çemberlitaş Hamamı website.
Although Istanbul’s Old City can seem like a tourist trap, there are absolutely many worthwhile things to see and do in Sultanahmet. Just make sure to stay and eat elsewhere, which I will recommend in an upcoming post!
In the meantime, I’d love to know, have you been to Istanbul before? What did you love to see and would skip next time? Leave a comment below!