Free Istanbul Walking Tour:
Location: Old Town Istanbul (Sultanahmet)
Cost: Free, Self-Guided (Museum and sight costs below)
Start: Hippodrome Park & Ruins
End: Restaurant Row
Walking Distance: 2 Miles
Time: 2 Hours of Walking (with all attractions around 8 hours).
Important Information: Aya Sophia & Mosaic Museum closed on Mondays; Topkapi & Harem closed on Tuesdays, Blue Mosque closed during daily prayer times which are explained below.
Fun Scale: 10 out of 10
Overview of Old Town Istanbul:
Starting as an ancient Greek settlement called Byzantium, the historic core of Istanbul as also served as the capital of the Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman Empires. These Empires each controlled huge parts of the World which led to a trove of wealth, riches, and building projects. Huge monuments and mega-structures filled the powerful metropolis which still impress visiting tourists today. While unrest and war have altered many of the core sights over the centuries, Old Town Istanbul has remained an amazing melting pot of cultures and architecture that you can’t find anywhere else. We hope you enjoy our free Istanbul walking tour!
Old Town Istanbul Walking Tour:
1. Former Hippodrome (Sultanahmet Meydani):
About The Hippodrome: The best place to start an Old Town tour is the center of ancient Constantinople at the ruins of the former Hippodrome race track. The Roman Empire conquered Greece in 149BC, but it wasn’t until 196AD that they starting building Roman structures in Byzantium. Most of the early construction projects were quite small as Emperor Septimius Severus decided only to use the Byzantium as an outpost for Roman baths. One of the only large projects the Emperor approved was the Hippodrome in 203AD because of how important chariot races were in Roman life.
Later in 324AD, Roman Emperor Constantine decided to super-size Byzantium into a renamed city called New Rome (Nova Roma) which included a huge expansion to the Hippodrome. The new Hippodrome was turned into a U-shaped stadium with seating on both sides and South end able to hold 60,000 fans. The center of the arena was lined with monumental columns & beautiful statues, the Eastside held the monumental Black Gate, and the Westside was connected to Constantine’s huge Grand Palace complex (here is a map for reference). The construction helped New Rome quickly hit its stride and Constantine officially made it the capital of the Roman Empire in 330AD. After Constantine’s death, the city was renamed Constantinople and the Hippodrome became the center of the booming capital both geographically and socially.
Over the centuries the Hippodrome recovered from the damage in both the Nika Revolt of 532AD and from Crusaders in 1204 to remain a thriving sporting center. It wasn’t until after the Ottoman’s conquest in 1453AD that the Hippodrome and neighboring Grand Palace starting falling into disrepair. The Grand Palace was eventually replaced by the gigantic Blue Mosque and the former Hippodrome was turned into the large park you see today. Most of the colossal structures of the ancient Roman Hippodrome are long gone, but the park still follows the arena’s original U-shaped path and has retained a couple awesome monuments. Before visiting Roman Era monuments make sure the check out the large German Fountain in the Northeastern corner of the park. The Fountain was a gift to the Sultan and the Turkish people from Kaiser Wilhelm II when he visited in 1901. The German Fountain may seem a little modest, but peek under the roof to reveal a beautiful gold mosaic.
Continuing further down the former Hippodrome, there are 3 main Roman Era monuments that you really need to check out starting with the hieroglyph-filled Obelisk of Theodosius. This ancient Egyptian obelisk was originally built by Pharaoh Tutmoses III at the temple of Karnak in 1450BC, yes we said BC! Rome had conquered Egypt in 30BC but it wasn’t until Constantine’s son requested all Pagan temples be closed in 356AD that items really started being moved from Karnak. The Obelisk of Theodosius before you and other items like the Lateran Obelisk was then moved from Karnak to Alexandria fairly quickly. The two obelisks stayed in Alexandria until 390AD when Emperor Theodosius moved this one to the Hippodrome and the Lateran Obelisk to the center of Circus Maximus in Rome. Today, only the upper third of the Obelisk of Theodosius remain as the rest of it was damaged in during transportation. The large marble pedestal sits on today depicts Emperor Theodosius crowning chariot game winners.
Just down from the Egyptian obelisk, you’ll see the remains of the Serpentine Column which looks like a broken twisted pipe. The Serpentine Column was originally built in 478BC in Delphi, Greece as an offering to Apollo in honor of the Greek victory in the battle of Plataea. It’s said to be made from the melted down shields of fallen Persian soldiers the Greeks defeated there. Originally the twisted pipes were the bodies of serpents whose large head held a golden tripod topped with a large golden bowl and it stood for over 800 years before being moved to the Hippodrome. The Column actually remained intact until about 300 years ago when it was plundered, but the upper jaw of one of the serpents was recently found and is on display at the Istanbul Archaeological Museum.
The final major item still remaining from the Hippodrome is the bare stone Constantine Obelisk which sits at the far Southern end. Often referred to as the Walled Obelisk, Emperor Constantine VII built this monument in the 920s in honor of the triumphs of his grandfather Emperor Basil I who rose to power after starting as a peasant. The obelisk was built with rough stone, topped with a large sphere, and covered it with gilded bronze plates showing grandfather’s victories including Epeus. Unfortunately, the adornments were stolen and melted down during the Fourth Crusade in 1204 exposing the rough stone below. Many other monuments once covered the Hippodrome grounds such as four large bronze horses from Greece which are now in front of St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice Italy.
2a. Blue Mosque (Sultanahmet Camii):
About The Blue Mosque: Built on the former grounds of Constantine’s Grand Palace, the massive Blue Mosque is stunning inside and out. If you think the sure size of the Blue Mosque is impressive today, imagine what people thought when Sultan Ahmet completed it in 1616AD after only 7 years of building. Surrounding the cascading domed architecture is a series of 6 towering minaret spires. Members who serve in leadership roles, called Imams, climb up the tall minarets to announce/sing the Call to Prayer five times a day. For perspective, the minarets are similar to a bell tower at a church ringing out before services. Although only one minaret is normally needed it is a legend that the Blue Mosque has six due to a communication problem. The Sultan wanted to show off his wealth with golden (altin) minarets, but the architect heard him wrong and thought he said six (alti) minarets. Today the minarets as they have all been fitted with modern speakers capable of projecting a single imam’s voice for many blocks so no one climbs them anymore. The sound of the Call to Prayer echoing out over Istanbul is other worldly the first time you hear it as a tourist.
Make sure to check out the vast courtyard on the Northwest side of the complex. The courtyard holds a beautiful fountain and the main tourist (non-worshipers) entrance into the Blue Mosque itself. All active mosques are closed to non-Muslims during the five daily Calls to Prayer which we touch on with etiquette tips below. As you head through the main entrance’s heavy drapery, the amazing interior of the Blue Mosque is a little overwhelming. The first thing that hits you is how the cascading dome roof makes the main room feel infinitely larger than even the massive 141 foot tall, 110-foot-wide main dome does on its own. With almost no interior walls, the weight of the huge domes is dispersed onto 15-foot-wide elephant foot columns in each of the corners of the main room hall.
After you wrap your mind around the size of the main hall, you’ll quickly understand why travelers gave it the name of the Blue Mosque. The interior is covered in over 20,000 blue tiles, and filled with light from 260 windows to create an alluring explosion of color. The French loved the shade of blue so much that they called it turquoise, meaning “color of the Turks”. The tiles are decorated with abstract patterns, geometric patterns, flowers, and trees. Muslim mosques only use figurative art and do not depict living beings as they feel it would distract from the worship of Allah as their one God. Our favorite form of art in Mosques is the elegant use of Arabic calligraphy to depict excerpts of the Holy Quran. The most predominant uses of calligraphy in the Blue Mosque appears in two round medallions high above the main worship area with the name of the Prophet Muhammad to the left and Allah to the right. Below the medallions lays the marble mihrab alter which points toward the holy city of Mecca where all Muslims face while worshiping.
Although there are five daily calls to prayer you’ll see people worshiping in the main area during all times of the day. Non-worshipers are required to always stay behind the wooden railing surrounding the main worship area. Worship services are segregated with only men allowed in the main area, while women must worship behind the railing next to the entrance. With so many wondrous elements to it, we know that your visit to the Blue Mosque will be one you’ll never forget.
Visiting Hours: Open daily one hour after sunrise until one hour before sunset. Closed to tourists starting 30 minutes prior to each of the 5 daily prayer times until the service it over. Services last around 30 minutes, but the Friday mid-day sermon may last a full hour. Best Time To Visit: Typically between 9am and Noon as it is the largest gap between services. Here is a helpful list of current prayer times for Istanbul day by day to better help you plan your time. Cost: Free. 360 degree photo: (The Interior).
2b. Tourist Mosque Etiquette: Tourists may only enter the Blue Mosque during non-prayer time through the Northwestern entrance. Here is a helpful list of current prayer times for Istanbul day by day to better help you plan your time. Modest dress is required for both men and women with your shoulders and knees covered; most major Mosques will let you borrow a wrap if you are not covered. Women must also cover their heads with a scarf which are available to borrow but you can buy your own cheaply at any market. Even during the non-prayer time, people may be praying so no running or yelling inside the mosque. Like any place of worship do not take photos of worshipers without permission. Keep in mind that non-Muslims must stay behind the wooden barrier surrounding the main worship area.
Before entering the Mosque everyone must remove their shoes at the raised platform by the door. Proper etiquette is to take off your shoe before stepping up onto the platform without letting your foot touch the ground below. This act ensures that both your feet and the platform will remain clean before entering; socks typically remain on if you are wearing any. Plastic bags are provided to bring your shoes with or you can safely leave them outside in the racks by the door.
3. Great Palace Mosaic Museum: Located inside an active bazaar, the Mosaic Museum was created when a section of a large courtyard from Constantine’s Great Palace was discovered under some shops. The first series of mosaics were found in 1933, but when they found more in 1950 they made 16 shops in the Bazaar close and started the museum. Even though they date back to 450AD, many of the mosaics are in remarkable condition and have a unique use of shading for ancient mosaics. We love how the simple depictions of everyday life from the times is illustrated so beautifully. The surrounding Bazaar is popular with locals and the Museum itself is definitely worth at least 15-20 minutes of your time. Hours: Tuesday-Sunday 9am-5pm, stays open until 7pm April-October. Closed on Mondays. Cost: 8TL. Museum Website: (HERE).
4. Sultan Ahmet Park: After taking over Byzantium, the Romans built numerous bathhouses including the huge Baths of Zeuxippus in the early 200AD. The Baths replaced an existing Greek Temple of Jupiter (Zeus) and grew to cover the entire bustling park you see today. The location was chosen for the renown quality of it springs as the Greek Baths of Achilles, also sat nearby. When Constantine moved the capital here in 330AD, he built his Grand Palace connected to the Zeuxippus Baths and filled them with beautiful statues deemed very prestigious for its time (here is a map for reference). Both bathhouses and the Palace were badly damaged during the Nika Riots of 532AD. By 700AD public bathing started to become less of a part of life in Constantinople and the baths started being used for other purposes. It wasn’t until 1556 that bathing made a comeback in here when Sultan Hürrem built the Ayasofya Turkish Baths (website) which still sit on the East side of the park. The park was later named Sultan Ahmet Park after Sultan Ahmed I, who ruled from 1603 to 1617 and further expanded construction projects.
Visiting the park today you’ll see street vendors that dress up like Sultans and tons of friendly stray dogs & cats that roam the southern benches, but our favorite is the large fountain in the center of the park. From the fountain, you’ll have amazing views of the imposing Blue Mosque from the 1600s to the South, and ancient Hagia Sophia from the 500s to the North. Where the fountain sits was in Roman times a huge Column of Emperor Justinian who was credited for rebuilding Constantinople in the mid-500s after the Nika Riots. While the busy daytime hours are enjoyable, the most magically times to take photos in the park are near both dawn and dusk as the fountain and neighboring building exteriors light up to create a postcard-perfect effect. Park Hours: 24/7. Turkish Bath: Divided by gender and requires a reservation. Is a little expensive at $100 for scrub, wash, and massage.
*Near the entrance to the next stop make sure to check out the Million Marker. It was part of a central arch Constantine built in his Roman Capitol to serve as the new mile marker zero when measuring road distances to all corners of the Empire, just like the Milliarium Aureum in Rome had done since Emperor Augustus in 20 BC…
5. Basilica Cistern (Yerebatan Sarayi): The grandest of the many underground water reservoirs in Istanbul is the ancient Basilica Cistern which can hold 27 million gallons of water! Built in 532AD by Byzantine Emperor Justinianus, the Cistern is an engineering marvel with the weight of the city above supported by a complex network of arches connecting its 336 columns in a series of 12 rows. It’s said that it took a workforce of over 7,000 slaves to originally dig out and build the vast Cistern which is large than 2 football fields. It took even more salves to complete 12-mile-long Valens’ Aqueduct that brought the water to fill the reservoirs. Moviegoers may remember the Cistern as the location for the 1963 James Bond film From Russia with Love.
The Basilica Cistern was in constant use for almost 1,000 years until the Ottomans conquered the city in 1453. Because they preferred fresh tap water over sitting water, the Ottomans all but abandoned the underground reservoirs. The new rulers decided to build their own water system and only used the Cistern to feed the Topkapi Palace gardens along with a few private homes. Going largely unused for a century, the Cistern went undiscovered by Westerners until 1544 when Dutchman Petrus Gylliuscame to Istanbul looking for Byzantine monuments. Gyllius noticed that many residents were getting their water by lowering buckets into holes in the floors of their homes and set out to explore beneath the massive city. Locals directed Gyllius to a set of walled steps near a local home where he descended with torch-in-hand to explore the small corridor below. In cramped conditions, Gyllius brought a small boat into the underground reservoir and began plotting out the columns and details of the Cistern. He later published the story of the forgotten Cistern with illustrations in a book which inspired many new travelers to come and see the magnificent masterpiece.
In 1723, 1876, and 1958 restorations took place to re-enforce failing masonry, but the modern restoration in 1985 unveiled the greatest treasures. The water level in the reservoir was lowered and 50,000 tons of mud were removed from the Cistern revealing that the massive columns are a whopping 30 feet tall! Some of the columns have Corinthian style capitals, others have Ionic capitals and 98 of them have Doric capitals. The diversity comes because they were all reused from other structures from across the ancient Byzantine Empire. One of the coolest Columns is engraved with images of eyes and tears to pay tribute to the hundreds of slaves who died building the Cistern. The removal of the mud from the 100,000 square foot space also uncovered the Cistern’s main attraction, two columns with massive Medusa heads as column bases.
The Medusa Heads, in the far Southwestern corner of the Cistern, are from the Roman Period and have amazing detail. One is sideways and the other is completely upside down. Scholars generally believe that the Heads were brought from an ancient Greek Temple of Apollo in Didyma near Ephesus (modern day Turkey). They were brought in as column bases, but placed sideways to show a change from the old Pagan religion to Christianity. In addition to the scholarly explanation, there are 3 local legends for why the Medusa Heads are sitting sideways in the Cistern. One legend says the heads were used because Medusa is believed to be one of three Gorgonas which are female monsters of the underworld. Another belief is that the heads were moved here to provide protection to the important structure. The third legend is that the Medusa heads were put here sideways so anyone who looked upon her wouldn’t be turned to stone by her gaze.
When the modern restoration was complete all of the original 52 steps down from the outside entrance were uncovered, platforms for tourists to walk on were added, an underground cafe was opened, and they found that the 4-foot-wide brick walls of the Cistern had been made waterproof with a thick layer of Khorasan mortar. The Cistern’s mysterious aura makes it one of our favorite spots in Istanbul and is not to be missed. The Cistern’s name in Turkish, Yerebatan Sarayi, literally means Underground Palace. Hours: Daily, 9am-5:30pm but stays open until 6:30pm in the Summer. Last entry 30 minutes before close. Cost: 10TL. Cistern Website: (HERE).
6a. Hagia Sophia’s History (Aya Sofya): Behind the pale pink facade of Hagia Sophia lies a dramatic black & gold interior, dim medieval lighting, and over 1,500 years of interesting history. Words almost can’t describe how your senses are thrown back in time and are confused by mixed elements of Orthodox, Islamic, and Catholic origins. Built in 537 A.D. by the Byzantines on the same spot as two previous churches, Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom) is considered one of the greatest religious buildings in the entire World. Hagia Sophia replaced two previous churches built on the same spot. The 1st was the enormous Megale Ekklesia (The Great Church), built in 360 A.D., which was destroyed in the riots of 404 A.D. The 2nd church was built in 415 A.D. and lasted until it was burned down during the Nika revolt in 532 A.D. During the revolt half the city was burned and over 30,000 people died. You can still see large marble blocks with lamb carvings from the 2nd church in pits near Hagia Sophia’s entrance.
The current Hagia Sophia was completed in 537 A.D. while most of Europe was beginning its Dark Ages and Istanbul was booming which led to over 400 years of the city being the center of Christianity. The builders spared no expense on the massive domed church and it seems that there’s marble everywhere you look. When Hagia Sophia’s 182-foot-tall and the 104-foot-wide main dome was completed, it was the largest dome in the World until the Cathedral of Florence was built 900 years later. The dome is so large that the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris could fit inside it.
As the church’s power grew riches arrived from all corners of the Byzantine Empire to Hagia Sophia from doors they believed to be made from Noah’s Ark, to large marble doors from conquered temples. Many of these riches still survive today, but the power didn’t last forever. In 1204 Crusaders overtook the Hagia Sophia and controlled it for the Roman Catholic Church until 1261. During the years of Catholic control, many of Hagia Sophia’s riches were sent to Venice Italy. Luckily the Crusaders kept many of the detailed gold mosaics of the upper gallery of the church untouched.
As if the Catholic Crusaders weren’t enough, the Ottomans took Istanbul over in 1453 and converted Hagia Sophia into a Mosque. Any images of living beings inside the Mosque were removed and all of remaining gold mosaics upstairs were plastered over. Some historians feel that the conversion to a Mosque actually saved Hagia Sophia as it had begun falling into ruin before the Ottomans took over. The Ottomans not only added the four minarets spires to Hagia Sophia’s exterior during the conversion, but also made other interesting structural changes like moving the prayer niche off center. They did actually have to move the niche because the original Christian Church was built to face Jerusalem while the prayer niche in a Mosque needs to face the Muslim holy city of Mecca. After the Ottoman Empire fell in the early 1900s and the newly formed government of Turkey closed Hagia Sophia as a worship center to turn it into a museum in 1934. During restorations, they removed the plaster on the upper gallery to reveal the previously unknown gold Christian mosaics largely intact in all their shimmering glory. The quality and detail of the ancient mosaics are some of the nicest in the world. Along with the Christian elements, some parts of the Mosque have also survived including several large decorative medallions adorned with Arabic calligraphy can be seen from anywhere in Hagia Sophia and make the cultural blending complete.
6b. Touring Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofya): The brochure you get at the entrance of the Museum has a great map and most points of interest will have an English description plate near them so learning and exploring on the fly is easy. Here are our favorite of the many points of interests by floor. Before entering Hagia Sophia check out the marble flower statue next to the fountain, it’s really cool.
First Floor Tour: After entering Hagia Sophia, the first door you walk through is the bronze gilded Nice Door which was installed in 838 A.D. The door is actually the oldest artifact inside Hagia Sophia as it is believed to be from 200 B.C. when it was made for the Pagan Temple in Antioch. Some say that the wood used for the core of the door is made out of pieces from Noah’s Ark. Past the door, make sure to notice the large mosaic known as the Donation Mosaic. It shows The Mother Mary and Jesus being offered a model of the city by Constantine on the right and a model of Hagia Sophia by Justinian to the left. Continuing to the center of the hallway you’ll find the main entrance the nave known as the Imperial Gate. Originally this entrance was used only for members of the Imperial family and above it is a mosaic showing Emperor Leon VI kneeling at the feet of God.
Once you hit the main nave of the church your jaw will drop from the pure size and old-world beauty of Hagia Sophia. After you’ve wrapped your mind around the size of the interior, head left to the massive Marble Lustration Jar. There is also a matching jar in the opposite back corner of the main nave, but this one is our favorite. The jars were originally carved the Hellenistic period and later brought to Hagia Sophia in 1580 A.D. from the ancient Greek acropolis in Pergamon, Turkey. Can you believe that each jar was carved out of a single block of marble? We find it absolutely remarkable given how huge the jars are as you can see from the photo above. Just beyond the Lustration Jar, in the far back corner of the nave is the always fun Wishing Column. You can’t miss it as it is the only column wrapped in bronze and has an obvious hole sitting right at shoulder height. It’s said that if you do a complete clockwise circle with your hand while keeping your thumb in the hole your wish will come true. Some party poopers will tell you your thumb has to come out damp for your wish to come true, but it is fun either way. See in the photo to the left how visitors over the years have polished a circle on the bronze by spinning their hands on it.
As you move to the prayer niche at the far end of the nave you’ll see an inconspicuous square roped off in the middle of the floor, this is the Omphalion. Notice how the floor is a different pattern here with a series of colored marble circles. This spot is not only where the Byzantine Emperors would sit during service, but is also where the coronation of every Emperor took place. Before moving closer to explore the prayer niche you can really notice how off center it is from when the Ottomans moved it from facing Jerusalem to Mecca during the conversion into a Mosque. Also, notice how impressive the 24 foot wide Arabic medallions look above the Apse. The pairs of medallions have the name of the Prophet Muhammad to the left and Allah to the right. Sitting high on the left side of the prayer niche, totally enclosed in a gold lattice, is the Sultan’s Loge. The lattice provided both privacy for the Sultan during prayer and protection against assassination. On the right side of the prayer niche is a tall stair column called the Mimber where the Imam would give Friday services. During prayer service, the Imam would only go halfway up as the top was symbolically reserved only for the Prophet Muhammad out of respect. 360 degree photo: (The Main floor).
Upper Gallery Tour: One of the coolest experiences in Hagia Sophia is the dark Ancient Ramp you take to get to the upper gallery. The winding and uneven ramp is dimly lit and has the feel of exploring hidden corridors of a medieval castle. While there may have been stairs at one point, the ramp was a very important addition to Hagia Sophia as Sultans and Emperors were often carried upstairs by their servants or rode up on horseback. When you emerge from the ramp notice how most of the columns upstairs are made out of beautiful green marble instead of the standard white marble. As you walk along the railing to the back of Hagia Sophia you’ll find the best views at the Loge of the Empress marked with a green stone. This is where the Byzantine Empress would sit to watch service. Continuing down the back of the Church, keep an eye out for the block with the Runic Inscriptions along the back wall. This marble block is where some Vikings left graffiti in the 9th century; Halfdan the only legible name. After you’ve taken in the elevated views of the main nave below, work toward the large white Marble Door. The door was used by members of the church council to enter meetings and also leads the way to the best mosaics in Hagia Sophia.
Right after passing through the large Marble Door is probably the most photographed mosaic, called the Deësis Mosaic. This mosaic was made in 1261 to mark the end of the 57-year occupation of Hagia Sophia by Catholic Crusaders. While damaged from the plaster that also helped preserve it during Ottoman rule, the Deësis Mosaic depicts Jesus flanked by Mother Mary to the left and John the Baptist to the right. At the end of the hallway, there are two more awesome mosaics on either side of a large window. To the right is the Commenos Mosaic which dates 1122 A.D. and may be the best-preservedd mosaic in all of Hagia Sophia. The Commenos Mosaics shows Mother Mary holding the baby Jesus flanked by Empress Irene to the right and Emperor John Commenos II to the left. To the left of the window is the Empress Zoë Mosaic from the 11th Century and has been altered over time. The Empress Zoë mosaic depicts Christ flanked to the left by Emperor Constantine IX Monomachos and to the right by Empress Zoë. Zoë’s face had been scraped off by her nephew when he briefly took power but was re-added after she had him killed. There is evidence that the Emperor’s face also replaced that of one of Zoë’s two previous husbands. Before leaving the upper gallery make sure to check out the Dome Mosaics above the main nave. Several mosaics lay high on the roof of the dome itself and are of note as they are the oldest remaining mosaics in Hagia Sophia dating back the the mid 9th Century. The most intact is that of the Virgin Mary holding the child Jesus on her lap. The closer few you get of the Dome Mosaics from the Upper Gallery makes them a lot more impressive.
Museum Cost: 25TL. Hours: Tuesday-Sunday 9am-630pm, may close at 430 in the off season. Closed Mondays. Last entry 1 hour before close. Museum Website: (HERE).
7. Fountain of Ahmed III: As you approach the gate of Topkapi Palace’s first courtyard you’ll come to a small but funky fountain building. Sultan Ahmed III built the fountain in 1728 and it served as a large meeting point during the second half of the Ottoman Empire. While the fountain makes a for a great brief stop, it will also you relief that you are heading the right way toward the main entrance of Topkapi Palace.
*After checking out the fountain, head down the hill for a truly relaxing stop at the…
8. Gülhane Sur Cafe: Gülhane Sur Cafe is slightly down the hill but impossible to miss as most of the seating is right up against the stone walls that line the alley. The Cafe is really the perfect place to relax and if you’re lucky you’ll get the booth that has a tree growing right in the middle of its padded bench. To truly live like a local order a nargile (hooka) for 15TL and take a few puffs on its dried fruit. It isn’t uncommon to see locals at the cafe puffing on a nargile while dressed up like Sultans. There are often many friendly cats around the cafe. Coffee and Tea are pretty cheap and only priced from 2-6TL. Getting your tea with two cubes of sugar is common in Turkey. Owner Murat Coskun is a really fun guy and also owns the gift shop (Coskun Bazaar) located above the cafe which has really good prices especially on scarves. If you are looking for more of a cosmopolitan place to eat a full meal, consider stopping at the Seven Hill Rooftop Restaurant (website) right after the Mosaic Museum which is marked on our map.
Address: Soğukçeşme Sok 40A (the small street behind Hagia Sophia). Cafe’s Facebook Page: Here. Hours: Open Daily 10am-1am. Cost: Hooka is around 15TL, Coffee & Tea are 2-6TL, and snacks are cheap.
9a. Topkapı Palace History (Topkapı Sarayı): Before touring the vast Topkapi Palace, a brief overview on its history is quite helpful. The hill the current Palace was built on a once housed an ancient Greek Acropolis from the days of Byzantium. The Acropolis had large temples for the gods Poseidon, Athena, Artemis, and Aphrodite. When the Romans took the temples were surprising preserved and used for other purposes like gaming halls and carriage houses. The Acropolis slowly fell into ruins over the the centuries until the Ottoman conquest in 1453 AD. Sultan Mehed II built his first royal palace on the grounds that now house Istanbul University, but he always had his eye on the Acropolis.
The Sultan’s first project near the Greek temples was a small pleasure palace called the Tiled Kioskbuilt along an old cannoned Byzantine wall. The location was perfect and the Sultan decided to build a new royal palace on top of the hill. Constructed from 1460-1478 AD, the new Topkapi Palace was named for the series of cannons (Topkapusu) on the old city wall. The palace was further expanded over time and served as the home of the Ottoman Sultans and their court until the middle of the 19th century. The overall design of Topkapi Palace has fortified walls forming a series of courtyards which get more and more private the deeper you go.
In the early 1850s, the palace became inadequate to the requirements of state ceremonies and protocol, and so the Sultans moved to Dolmabahçe Palace on the Bosphorus Straight. Because Topkapi was considered the ancestral residence of the Ottoman Dynasty, it along with the Royal Treasury, the Holy Relics of the Prophet Muhammad, and the Imperial Archives continued to be preserved. The Palace also continued to host many official State ceremonies after the Sultans moved out. Following the abolishment of the Ottoman monarchy in 1922, Topkapi Palace was converted into a museum on 3 April 1924, on the order of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk who founded modern Turkey.
9b. First Courtyard of Topkapi Palace: Stepping through the mighty Imperial Gate puts you officially inside the First Courtyard of Topkapi Palace known as the Parade Grounds. During Ottoman rule, this gate was guarded and only open from morning prayer until just after evening prayer. Just inside the Imperial Gate to the left, you’ll find Hagia Irene, also known as the Basilica of Divine Peace. Hagia Irene (Aya Irini Kilisesi) was modeled after the Greek Temple of Aphrodite which stood here and became 1st church built in Constantinople when it was completed the early 3rd Century. It also served as the Byzantines’ head Orthodox Church until the original Hagia Sophia was completed in 360. Hagia Irene was burned down in the Nika revolt of 532 A.D. but was quickly rebuilt. When the Ottomans conquered the city in 1453 and built Topkapi Palace, they enclosed Hagia Irene inside the 1st courtyard of the Palace to preserve it. Hagia Irene was one of the only churches not converted into a mosque when the Ottomans took over because they decided to use is as the armory for the Topkapi Palace. Today Hagia Irene is fairly empty outside of a few mosaics, but still serves as concert hall due to its great acoustics.
To give you a better idea of the sure size of the outer First Courtyard, Here is a model of the greater Topkapi Palace grounds with the Imperial Gate located in the middle of the outer wall. The courtyard wall basically surrounds all of the area of the ancient Greek Acropolis with the main Palace in the center. You can still find numerous 3 foot columns from the Acropolis hidden around the First Courtyard. As far as day to day life, Here is a painting from 1584 of what life in the First Courtyard life was like.
Cost: Free. Visiting Hours: Daily dawn-dusk, often left open all night.
10. Topkapı Palace Museums (Topkapı Sarayı): In the center of the First Courtyard you’ll be drawn to the castle-like Gate of Salutation (Bab-us Selam). The gate marks the outer edge of the main Palace and Second Courtyard (Council Square). Before entering the security checkpoint, buy your ticket at the booth and notice the fountain built into the wall to the far right of the gate. This is called the Executioners Fountain (Cellat Çesmesi)where executioners would wash their hands after chopping off people’s heads.
Once inside the Gate of Salutation you are in the Palace Museum which covers Courtyards 2-4 and includes the Chamber of Holy Relics, Imperial Treasury, Porcelain Collection and Weapons Collection. Here is a model of the Palace’s 2nd, 3rd, and 4th Courtyards to help make it easier to find things. A half a day minimum is needed to fully explore the entire Palace Museum and Harem, but a full day will really help you get your money’s worth. If you’re short on time, the 4 must-see things are the Harem (explained in #11), the Imperial Treasury, the Holy Relics, and the river views from the innermost Fourth Courtyard. In a pinch, these 4 can be seen in about 2 hours if you speed through them. As you stroll through the Second Courtyard, make sure to keep an eye out for the many hollowed out, but still living, trees. Tons of the trees at the Palace got a fungus and lost their guts over hundreds of years but are somehow still standing, still growing, and still producing plentiful leaves.
Chamber of Holy Relics: The Chamber of the Holy Relics, located within the Privy Room, contains religious objects sent to the Ottoman Sultans both as gifts and gained through conquest. Among the most important holy relics is the Holy Mantle of the Prophet Muhammad; the hair from Muhammad’s beard; the reliquary with Muhammad’s Tooth which was broken during the Battle of Uhud on 19 March 625; plus the footprints, signed letters, bow, and the sword of the Muhammad. There are also holy relics attributed to other important religious figures such as the saucepan tray used by Abraham; the staff of Moses; the sword of David; the robe and turban of Joseph; the swords of the Prophet Muhammad’s companions; and the shirt, mantle, praying mat, and chest of Muhammad’s daughter Fatimah. Maybe the most beautiful of the relics is the jeweled skull and Arm of St. John the Baptist. The relics in this chamber are so sacred that even the Ottoman Sultans were once only allowed one visit a year during the 15th day of Ramadan. Today everyone is welcome to check out the relics every day and some people pilgrimage just to see them.
Imperial Treasury: The Ottoman Imperial Treasury is one of the most impressive in Europe. It is made up of gifts presented at ambassadorial receptions, Sultans’ weddings, royal births, and of the Circumcision Festivities for the princes. While many gifts came from all over the World, some also came from local artists who would, in exchange for their gifts, would get promises of support and purchases of future works. The Sultans would also, on occasion, send gifts to foreign rulers; however, for various reasons, some of these would not reach their destination, in which case they would be returned and take their place in the palace treasury. An example of this sort of gift is the Emerald Dagger and emerald/diamond studded bow & quivers sent by Sultan Mahmud I to Nadir Shah of Persia. Because the Persian leader was killed while these gifts were on the way they were returned to the Treasury. The Dagger is the most impressive piece in the entire museum with its diamond-encrusted gold sheath, golf ball-sized emeralds on its handle, and even a small flip open clock on the handle’s base. The 86 carat Spoonmaker’s Diamond is a close second for the coolest item in the museum.
Weapons Collection: The Palace’s Weapons Collection is easily among the richest collections in the World. This premier collection covers 1,300 years and consists of 52,000 weapons of Arab, Umayyad, Abbasid, Mamluk, Persian, Turkish, Crimean Tartar, Indian, European, and Japanese origin. A bulk of the collection is made up of weapons transferred from the Armory (Cebehâne) and those used by the Topkapi Palace guards; however, the collections most noteworthy section consists of those weapons ordered by the Sultan personally or specially made as gifts for him, which weapons are a part of the palaces private collection. This collection includes weaponry owned by such sultans as Mehmed II, Bayezid II, Selim the Grim, Suleiman the Magnificent, Selim II, Mehmed II, and Ahmed I, as well as the weapons of such high-level dignitaries as grand viziers, pashas, and palace chamberlains; all of these weapons are eye-catching with their fine craftsmanship and decorations. An additional factor that contributed to the diversification of the collections highly artistic weaponry was the tradition of bringing to the palace the weapons of important figures that were obtained through plunder.
Chinese and Japanese Porcelain: Among the most invaluable collections in the Topkapi Palace Museum is its Chinese and Japanese Porcelain collection, which is displayed in the Palace’s Imperial Kitchens. This unique collection, which consists of more than 10,000 pieces, is the largest porcelain collection outside of China, and is particularly important in that it showcases the uninterrupted historical development of porcelain from the 13th century to the early 20th century.
Cost: 25TL. Optional audio is 10TL and overs both the entire Museum but also the Harem listed next. Most items will be labeled in English so the
audio guide isn’t required. Hours: Open Wednesday-Monday 9am-5pm, stay open until 6:45pm April-October. Ticket sales stop 1 hour prior to close for the museum. CLOSED on Tuesdays. Museum Website: (HERE).
11. The Sultan’s Harem: The Harem section of the Topkapi Palace is where the Sultans spent private time and lived with their families. It is a complex and maze-like 300 room area which was the most private area of the Palace. Harem originates from the Arabic word Harīm which means “forbidden”. In addition to the Sultan the Queen Mother (Sultan’s mom), Wives (he could have up to 4), Concubines (female slaves not sexually active with the Sultan), Favorites (girlfriends) Black Eunuch Guards (with genitals cut off) and children all lived in the Harem. The main purpose of all of the extra wives and girlfriends was to provide heirs to the Ottoman throne, but it wasn’t a crazy sex party. The Queen Mother restricted which women the Sultan could have relations or socialize with and she ran a pretty tight ship. To help the Queen Mother keep everything pure, the Sultan had the Harem guarded by Black Eunuchs who were slaves from Africa with their genitals removed.
The Harem also served as a school for Dershirmeh Girls and Page Boys between the ages of 6 and 16 who were raised under Islamic rules. Most of the girls were taught music and etiquette before being married off to Cavalrymen or other official royal workers at the age of 25. Girls selected as Chambermaids were given a wider education and had a chance to be chosen as Favorites by the Queen mother. People of the day viewed the Harem as a school where wives were raised for Sultans, for the Sultan’s sons and for popular people in Ottoman history.
Touring The Harem: Typically only around 20 of the 300 rooms are open for tourists at a given time, but they are well worth the price of admissions. Starting off your self-guided tour, the Carriage Gate serves as the entrance to the Harem museum. It gets its name because covered wagons would stop here to both drop-off and pick up the women of the Harem discretely. The first room is one of our favorites and serviced as the true entrance to the Harem, called the Hall of the Ablution Fountain, better known as the Sofa. The explosion of turquoise-colored tiles in the hallway is amazing. Imagine what it must have been like as a guest sitting on the stone benches waiting for the Black Eunuch guards to let you in.
As you move on, a decorated cobblestone path leads the way through the next few stops. Next up is the Courtyard of the Eunuchs where you walk outside along a long row of apartments that housed the Eunuch guards. At the very end is the apartment of the Chief Eunuch who oversaw the the gaurds as well as the school of the Princes located above his apartment. The cobblestone path continues to lead you along the Courtyard, through a small gold mirrored room, and into the Courtyard of the Queen Mother. This important Courtyard was a place where many of the people in the Harem would mingle and was overlooked by apartments of the Queen Mother, the Sultan, the Sultan’s senior wife, and his heirs to the throne.
Backtracking through the gold mirror room you will go through a series of rooms and other courtyards with uneven marble floors that served as the living areas for the Sultan’s Concubines. You’ll definitely know you’re through the concubine area when you hit a small fireplace room lined floor to ceiling with blue tiles. You are now entering the Quarters of the Queen Mother. The tiles in the first room of the Queen Mother Quarters are very interesting and mainly decorated with plant and leaf shapes. The second room you hit is smaller with a sofa and another explosion of colorful tiles.
The Royal Hamam (Bathrooms) which the Sultan and Queen Mother shared separated their quarters and are absolutely stunning. Notice how bright the Bathrooms are as the use of skylights flood the rooms with natural light. The Royal Bathrooms were pretty advanced in their day as the Sultan had a toilet along with hot and cold running water. Advancing through the Bathrooms you’re thrust into the Hall with a Fountain which was the holding room for guests waiting to be received in the most impressive room in the entire Harem, the Imperial Throne Hall. The Imperial Throne Hall was the official reception room for the Sultan and also the main entertainment hall of the entire Harem. The Sultan would sit in his gold throne while the Queen Mother and Favorites sat around the red sofa, and musicians played on the balcony above. The visuals of the large domed room were the envy of many royal guests, but our favorite part is the secret safety escape tunnel the Sultan had behind the large mirror.
Next up are the rooms making up the Privy Chamber of Murad III (Dining Hall). Even the chamber entrance to the Murad III’s Privy is awesome as almost all of its tiles depict peacock and other feathers instead of mainly shapes and plants like most of the rest of the Harem. The Privy is said to be the oldest room in the Harem dating back to 1578. It is considered one of the most magnificent architectural space in Ottoman history and we really like the use of borders in the room. Titled scenes in the large room have orange borders and the entire room has a ring of big blue tiles with white Arabic writing known as the Throne Verse.
The small room the side of Murad III’s Privy is the Privy Chamber of Ahmed I which gives you a great vantage point to peak into darker Privy Chamber of Ahmed III, also known as the Fruit Room. The Fruit Room was built in 1705 with pictures of flowers and fruits painted on lacquered wooden panels instead of tiles reflect the beginning of Western influence in Ottoman art.
Working back through both the Privys and the peacock chamber, you’ll find yourself in a long hallway full of tiles with a repeating white, maroon, and dark blue pattern. As you start down the hallway, the entrance the Twin Kiosks quickly comes up on your left. The crown princes were forced to live here in seclusion through their education until adulthood. The combination of beautiful stained glass windows and detailed tiled walls will for sure make you want to take a few extra minutes in these room.
At the end of the hallway where you entered the Twin Kiosks, you’ll find yourself in the Courtyard of the Favorites. Because the Sultan was limited to a max of four wives he needed plenty of quarters to house his Favorites (girlfriends) who were chosen by the Queen Mother. In the courtyard, you will be able to see why people may have thought the Twin Kiosks looked like a cage with the princes looked up. If you walk all the way to the stone railing of the courtyard you’ll have a perfect view of the now empty pool directly below.
Cost: 15TL. Cannot get to the Harem without having also bought a ticket for the Topakpi Palace Museum. Harem only audio guide is 5TL. Hours: Open Wednesday-Monday 9am-4pm, stay open until 5pm April-October. CLOSED on Tuesdays. Museum Website: (HERE).
12. Archaeological Museum: The Istanbul Archaeological Museum houses a collection of about 1 million objects from many different civilizations and cultures, which makes it the largest Turkey and one of the ten richest museums in the World. The collections include objects from many different civilizations founded on regions that became a part of the Ottoman Empire, from the Balkans to Africa, from Anatolia and Mesopotamia to the Arabian Peninsula and to Afghanistan.
The museum consists of three different sections: The Museum of Archaeology, the Ancient Orient Museum, and the Tiled Kiosk Museum. Those three buildings present traces from different ages and civilizations. In the Section of Ancient Orient, artifacts belonging to civilizations including Sumerian, Assyrian, Babylonian and Hittite discovered in Arabia, Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Anatolia are exhibited.
The Museum of Archaeology, which is the biggest one, hosts the collections of Archaic, Classical, Hellenistic and Roman Periods, Thrakia-Bithynia, Byzantium, İstanbul through the Ages, Troia, and Anatolia through the Ages and the Neighboring Cultures of Anatolia: Cyprus, Syria-Palestine. Meanwhile, in the Tiled Kiosk, outstanding tile and ceramic works belonging to the Turkish and Islamic art may be seen.
Cost: 10TL. Hours: Open daily 9am-5pm, stay open until 7pm April-October. They stop selling tickets 30 minutes before close. Museum Website: (HERE).
*If you want to save a little bit of walking to the next stop try the Tram. From the Gülhane stop you can quickly go to the Sultanahmet stop for just 1.5TL anytime between 6am-Midnight and be dropped off right by…
13. Restaurant Row: If you’re looking for true Turkish Delight, look no further than the area we call Restaurant Row! As you approach the pedestrian-only alley off Divanyolu Caddesi known as Restaurant Row, you are bombarded with smells and colors that overwhelm your senses. Traditional sweet shops cram into every nook leading to the alley and carry everything from sweet Turkish Delights, to fresh pomegranates, baking fruit torts. If you are looking for some late night shopping there are also many traditional shops selling hanging lights, clothing, rugs, dishware and more. Even if you aren’t buying anything the ambiance after dark in any of the light shops is awesome.
Sir Evi Restaurant (website) is a place we’ve eaten at many times and has probably the coolest decor on Restaurant Row. The upstairs a bathroom are both really neat, plus the food is awesome! Amerdros is another restaurant we’ve had good food at. Amerdos (website) is a little cheaper and has more outdoor seating. Regardless of where you choose to eat you have to make sure to order a traditional Turkish dish. The one that will really make your jaw drop is Testi Kabab. Testi Kebab is more or less a vegetable and meat stew but it cooked in a sealed clay pot to keep the moisture in and brought to your table still sealed and engulfed in flames. The waiter gives it a few stiff whacks to knock the top off, blows out the fire and you eat right out of the pot as your bowl. The act and presentable never gets old.
Location: Intersection of Divanyolu Caddesi & Hoca Rustem Sokak. Hours: Most shops and restaurants are open daily until late.
14. Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum (Turk-islam Eserleri Muzesi): Located on the West side of the Hippodrome where the Black Gate once stood. Hours: Tuesday-Sunday 9am-5pm, last entry 4:30pm. Cost: 10TL. Museum Website: (HERE).