The historical heart of Istanbul, Sultanahmet is densely packed with world-famous UNESCO World Heritage sites from the Roman and Ottoman Empires. This is where most travelers begin their exploration of Istanbul, and where you’ll find the widest variety of accommodation options. On both of my trips to Istanbul I chose to stay in Sultanahmet, and I highly recommend it for solo travelers and first-time visitors to Istanbul.
You can definitely see all of these things to do in Sultanahmet in a single day, but it will be a whirlwind and they will all start to blur together. Instead of spending a whole day in Sultanahmet, I suggest you break up your time here into two half-days: one for Topkapi Palace, and another for the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia. Fit in the other spots as you see fit and when the lines look short.
The Best Things to Do in Sultanahmet
For most people, a visit to Topkapi Palace is the highlight of their time in Sultanahmet. Hidden away behind the Hagia Sophia and Gulhane Park, this sprawling palace complex was built in the mid-1400s by Sultan Mehmet II, and added to over the following years by his successors. Visitors can wander through courtyards, exhibition rooms and gates, and I would recommend that you purchase the additional ticket permitting access to the opulent harem, where the royal women lived in (relative) privacy. Topkapi Palace is included in the official Istanbul Museum Kart, which is an excellent value for first-time visitors planning to visit the most famous places in Istanbul.
The Blue Mosque
You have to go inside the Blue Mosque, or the Sultan Ahmet Camii, to understand how it gets its name. Once you pass through the gates and cover yourself appropriately (scarves and wraps are provided for free, but it’s best to wear long pants or a full-length skirt, and a shirt with long or short sleeves) you can enter the interior of the mosque and see the 20,000 blue tiles that adorn the walls and domed ceilings. As a working mosque the building closes to tourists twice daily to allow Muslims to pray, and on Friday the Blue Mosque becomes particularly busy with Muslims who come to perform their Friday prayers.
On my most recent trip to Istanbul I attended one of the free educational sessions that take place in an adjacent building twice a day. The first half of the hour-long presentation highlights the history, construction and design of the mosque itself, and the second half summarizes the key tenants of Islam for those who are unfamiliar with the religion. I would highly recommend the presentation to anyone interesting in learning more about modern Islam in Turkey today.
The Hagia Sophia
There are countless ways to spell this historical site in Istanbul (Lonely Planet spells it Aya Sofya) but Wikipedia agrees with me on its English name: Hagia Sophia, or “Holy Wisdom”.
The building that you see today dates back to the 500s, when it was constructed as an Orthodox Church. It existed as a church for almost one thousand years, until the 1400s when the Ottoman Empire took control of the region and converted the building to a mosque. Another five hundred years or so passed before Turkey’s first president, Ataturk, designated the building as a secular museum in 1935, though there have been murmurs that Turkey’s current president would like to convert the building back to a mosque.
With such a contrasting and conflicted history, the Hagia Sophia is a fascinating place to visit in Sultanahmet. You’ll see elements of Orthodox Christianity and Islam, and even some graffiti left behind by a Viking visitor in the ninth century! Admission is included in the Istanbul Museum Kart.
Dating back to the fifth century, the Basilica Cistern is one of many cisterns built under Sultanahmet to capture and store water for the city’s residents. Although it has appeared in films such as From Russia With Love and Inferno (one of the sequels to The Da Vinci Code), I will always think of the Basilica Cistern as the place where Ali and Frank went on a date on the sixth season of Bachelorette, way back in 2010. There are more than 300 columns in this damp underground attraction, along with two gigantic Medusa heads tucked away in the furthest corner. It’s definitely worth a visit, and it’s a great place to escape the midday heat during a summer visit to Istanbul.
Photo via Dennis Jarvis on Flickr (all of mine were blurry!)
During the Byzantine Empire, Istanbul’s Hippodrome was the place to gather in a crowd of nearly 50,000 revelers and watch an action-packed chariot race (hippodrome, after all, comes from the Ancient Greek words hippos, or horse, and dromos, or race). Attractions here include the German Fountain, donated by Kaiser Wilhem in 1901, the towering pink Obelisk of Theodosius (dating back to Ancient Egypt in approximately 1500 BC) and the Spiral Column, now missing the three serpents’ heads that once topped it. The Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts is also located here (and is included in the Istanbul Kart – link above).
When you’re in Turkey, you absolutely have to visit a hammam, or Turkish bath. In the historic quarter of Sultanahmet, there are at least a dozen different hammams to choose from, with each varying in price, service and the amount of English spoken.
On my first trip to Istanbul I visited Cemberlitas Hamam, an ancient bathhouse built in 1584. Since Cemberlitas primarily caters to tourists, prices tend to be high, with a “traditional package” including a sauna session, scrub and short massage starting at 255 TL (as of November 2019). However, I can’t recommend that travelers pay that much for such a simple service (even if the surroundings are old and pretty).
Instead, for a comparable Turkish bath experience in Sultanahmet, I suggest that you check out Kadirga Hammam, about 500 meters west of the Blue Mosque. Here, you can have a similar treatment (sauna, full-body scrub and massage with sudsy soap) for only 75 TL. Services are available for men and women in separate hammam facilities. They don’t have a website and English isn’t spoken, but it’s easy to find via Google Maps and the people who work here enjoy guiding confused tourists through the hammam experience.
The Arasta Bazaar isn’t the best market in Istanbul, but it’s the closest to the Blue Mosque and the Haghia Sophia, and the easiest to visit if you have a short amount of time in the city. You can find all of the most popular Turkish souvenirs here, from Turkish delight (my favorites are the opaque white ones with pistachios and almonds, and I’ve never been a fan of the gummy fruit-flavored variations) to freshly-ground spices to cotton towels (called pestemals and available on Amazon if you don’t have room in your luggage – I have a whole set!) to elaborate Turkish carpets. If you’re staying at my favorite hotel (noted below) you can take the scenic route to the Blue Mosque by cutting through this market.
Where to Stay in Sultanahmet – Hotel Buhara Family Inn
One of my favorite things about traveling in Turkey is indulging in a delicious Turkish breakfast, and nothing beats a delicious Turkish breakfast with a spectacular view of the Bosporous Strait. On my last trip to Istanbul I stayed at Hotel Buhara Family Inn, where every morning I ascended the stairs to their rooftop terrace and indulged in a breakfast of fresh bread, crepes, cheese, vegetables, fruits, olives and sweets (there was meat too, but I skipped it). Served with fresh Turkish tea or coffee and a view of the dolphins frolicking in the waters below, I had to pry myself away from my morning meal to actually get out and see the city… which was easy, as almost all of the best things to do in Istanbul are just a stone’s throw (or short tram ride!) from here. As a small, family-run guesthouse, Hotel Buhara Family Inn books up quickly, so reserve your room as soon as you know your travel dates.
Where to Eat in Sultanahmet
To be honest, most of the restaurants in Sultanahmet are overly expensive and not particularly authentic, as they tend to cater more to foreign tourists than to local diners. However, there are a few gems in the neighborhood:
- Doy Doy Restaurant – A great place for a light lunch or dinner (with sunset views from the rooftop terrace). Portion sizes are moderate but prices are much lower than at most of the surrounding restaurants. There are numerous vegetarian options on the menu, including pide (Turkey’s answer to pizza) and casseroles.
- Karisma Sen Restaurant 1938 – Almost one hundred years old, this waterfront meyhane, or traditional Turkish restaurant where the drinks flow liberally, is the top choice in Sultanahmet for seafood. There are lots of vegetarian mezze on the menu as well.
- Erol Restaurant – One of the few places left in Sultanahmet where you can eat like the locals do, this cafeteria-style restaurant by the tram station has both meat- and vegetable-based soups along with side dishes like grilled vegetables, fluffy grains and fresh salads.
I recommend that you avoid the restaurants on the southeast side of the Hagia Sophia (along Akbiyik Cadesi and Kutlugun Sokak) as they are grossly overpriced and the general food quality is quite poor. You’ll never find locals eating here!
How to Get to Sultanahmet
If you’re coming from the new Istanbul airport, it’s easy to take a bus from the new Istanbul airport to Sultanahmet. Click through to read a step-by-step guide to reaching Sultanahmet by bus (including where to catch the bus, where you’ll be dropped off and how to buy a bus pass at the airport). If you’re coming from the Sabiha Gokcen Airport to Sultanahmet take a bus to Taksim and follow the instructions below (it’s a long trip though!).
If you’re coming from a different part of Istanbul, you can reach Sultanahmet by tram on the T1 line. Common originating stations include Kabatas (if you’re coming from Taksim via the funicular), Karakoy (if you’re coming from Istikal Cadesi via the funicular) and Karakoy or Eminou if you’re coming by public ferry from the Asian side.