If you only have a few days in Istanbul, or even one, and wondering what to do, then the historic core walk is your best bet. Sultanahmet, the center of old Istanbul, is home to many of Istanbul’s must see sites including the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, Basilica Cistern, and the Hippodrome.
This walk is based on Rick Steve’s Istanbul guidebook. If you do not have the book you can purchase it here.
The walk begins at the park between the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia not far from the Sultanahmet tram stop. You are now standing in the heart of the…
At the center of the historic core of Istanbul is the Sultanahmet District. The old town of the city was built on seven hills. Sultanahmet is located on the first hill.
The city of Byzantium was founded here by Greek settlers. The city was prized for its strategic location, which was surrounded by water on three sides.
Today, Sultanahmet is popular with tourists who flock here for many world class sites including the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, Basilica Cistern, and Hippodrome. If you are hungry for some great Turkish food, then stop by one of the many restaurants found in the area.
To get a sense of the area, walk to Sultanahmet Park between the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia. Once you are at the park, take a seat at one of the benches. From here, you can take in all the sights, sounds, and people. The views of Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia from this spot are stunning. This area is usually busy with locals, tourists, dogs, and cats at all hours of the day.
From the water fountain at Sultanahmet Park, cross the small road and enter the beautiful…
Even with the current construction going on, the Hagia Sophia is by far one of the most amazing, beautiful, and historic buildings in the world. Over the years, Hagia Sophia has changed from a church, to a mosque, to a museum.
Hagia Sophia was built in 532 during the Golden Age of Emperor Justinian. It took over 5,000 workers and five years to complete the structure, which at the time seemed impossible. The magnificent building, and the giant dome, are without a doubt the greatest architectural achievements of the Byzantine Empire.
For over 900 years, the church also known as Megalo Ekklesia (Great Church), served as the seat of the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople.
It was not until 1453 that the church fell to the Ottomans and Sultan Mehmet. Impressed with the beauty of the building, Mehmet converted the church into a mosque. The church was converted into a mosque the day Constantinople fell.
For over 500 years, the mosque was the most important in Istanbul. Much of what you see today is from when Hagia Sophia was used as a mosque. Most of the decorations that decorated the church were removed.
In 1934, the mosque was converted into a museum.
Words cannot describe how small I felt the first time I walked inside Hagia Sophia. Even my camera could not take in all the beauty of the building which is truly a marvel of man’s ingenuity. To this day, the well preserved Hagia Sophia remains a reminder of the history of the city from the Byzantine Empire to the Ottoman Empire.
When you exit the Hagia Sophia, make an immediate right. Cross the first street (watch out for trams) and continue to reach the red and white striped entrance on the left to the…
Underground Basilica Cistern
If you are afraid of the dark, then the underground Basilica Cistern might not be the best place for you to visit. Those who are not afraid of the dark, or getting a little bit wet, will be rewarded with a unique and dark experience underneath the city of Istanbul.
After you buy your ticket, carefully walk down the slippery stairs into the cistern.
This vast dark and damp underground reservoir dates back to the sixth century Byzantine Empire during the rule of Emperor Justinian. The cistern gets it name from the basilica that once stood at this location years before.
During the rule of Justinian, the empire and Constantinople enjoyed a Golden Age. With Constantinople growing so fast, the demand for water increased. The cistern, the largest reservoir in the city at the time, was built to keep up with this demand. The reservoir can hold about 27 million gallons of fresh water.
The columns you see in front of you, 336 in total, are used to support the brick ceiling above. Many of these columns were recycled from Roman ruins.
Thanks to a walkway, you can walk around almost the entire reservoir. Before the walkway and lights were built, the cistern was pitch black and could only be accessed by boat. Watch out for dripping water as you work your way around.
From the exit of the cistern, make a right and retrace your steps back to Sultanahmet Park. On the opposite side of the park is the towering…
Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmed Mosque)
When you think of Istanbul, the first thing that comes to mind is probably the Blue Mosque, also known as the Sultan Ahmed Mosque. This mosque is quite possibly one of the most famous and beautiful mosques in the entire world.
When I first arrived in Istanbul, I took the tram from the airport to the Sultanahmet. Immediately exiting the tram station, I was a little disoriented and lost. As I crossed the street, there it was, the Blue Mosque. I stood there for a moment and stared in disbelief about how big and magnificent the mosque was, especially when it was lit up at night.
The mosque was built in only seven years from 1609 to 1616. Though mosques only required one minaret for the imam (prayer leader), the Blue Mosque was built with six. The affluent sultan built six minarets to show off his wealth.
If you are a tourist, you will have to enter the mosque to the right of the inner courtyard during visiting hours. The visiting hours of the Blue Mosque are 8:30am to 11:30am, 1:00pm to 3:00pm, and 4:00pm to 5:00pm. There is usually a line of tourists waiting to enter, but the line usually moves fairly quickly. It is free to enter the mosque.
If you wish to enter the mosque, it is recommended that you dress modestly. It is requested that you do not wear shorts that show your knees and that women cover their shoulders and head with a scarf (you can bring your own or borrow one at the entrance). Everyone who enters must remove their shoes as the floors are carpet.
When you walk inside, take a moment to take admire the beauty of the interior including all the handmade ceramic blue tiles. You will now understand why they call it the Blue Mosque. The massive dome above you, modeled after the one at Hagia Sophia, is 141 feet high and 110 feet in diameter. If you look to the corners of the structure, you will notice four giant marble pillars. These pillars support most of the weight of the building and allow for the many domes and the vast indoor space of the mosque.
Most of the prayers are done in Arabic. If you arrive at the right time, you might be able to hear the imam speaking in English or catch him taking to tourists who have questions about Islam or the mosque.
Once you exit the mosque, walk back to the inner courtyard. Walk through the main exit of the inner courtyard into the…
The long and narrow open space of the Hippodrome was once used for chariot races during the time of Constantinople. It was also here where citizens gathered (and were sometimes slaughtered) during for disputes, clashes, and uprisings.
Dating back to the 4th century, the Hippodrome was the site of many chariot races. Over 100,000 spectators would congregate here to cheer on their favorite chariot riders. Between races, the spectators were entertained by cheerleaders, musicians, and even animals.
After the chariot races went out of vogue, the square was converted into a rock quarry. Over time, the once grand racetrack fell into ruins. When the Ottomans arrived, the area was used for horseback and archery training. Over the years, the area was once again neglected. Dirt from construction sites was often dumped here. Today, the ground level of the Hippodrome is higher than during the Byzantine Empire.
As you walk around the Hippodrome, you will notice monuments from all over the world including the Egyptian Obelisk, the Column of Constantine, the Column of the Serpent, and the German Fountain. If you look closely at the base of each monument, you can see the original ground level of the Hippodrome before it was covered in dirt.
This completes the historic core of Istanbul walking tour.