If you’re visiting Istanbul for the first time, it’s almost guaranteed that you will end up in Sultanahmet at some point. Even though this area of Istanbul is very touristy and has expensive food, it is the nicest area and close to the major attractions, so this is the best place to base yourself if you have only a few days.

I stayed at the Hanedan Hotel, a budget property near the “restaurant row” (Akbiyik Caddesi) in Sultanahmet. I liked the hotel. It had friendly service, good WiFi, and great views from the breakfast room on the roof. They have two other properties, the Peninsula Hotel across the street, and the slightly more upscale Grand Peninsula a short distance away. I paid 30 Euros for my single room (in the low season) and this included breakfast. Most hotels in Istanbul seem to include breakfast in their rate. For my last two nights I stayed at the Grand Peninsula for the same price, because the Hanedan couldn’t accomodate me. I think that was pretty nice of them!

View from the rooftop of the Hanedan Hotel (Sultanahmet, Istanbul)

View from the rooftop of the Hanedan Hotel

Give yourself a minimum of four days to visit the attractions in Sultanahmet so that you avoid cramming too many sites in the same day. The city is definitely on the tourist trail, and the tour bus loads of people descending on Aya Sofya an the Topkapı Palace on any given day may tire you quickly (without saying anything of the line-ups). To make the best use of your time, try not to get dragged into a carpet shop unless of course you want to buy a carpet. They’re not cheap!

My six days in Sultanhamet were unusually sunny (for November) with perfect walking temperatures between 12 and 18C, and there is so much to see that I was happy I wasn’t stuck with only a couple of days as happens on most organized tours. Although since most tours start and/or end in Istanbul, you could tack on a couple of days on your own at the beginning or end if you decided to join a group.

Colourful shops (Sultanahmet, Istanbul)

Colourful shops

What to see in Sultanahmet

The two main buildings you see while walking around Sultanahmet are the Blue Mosque and Aya Sofya. They are huge! Aya Sofya started life as an Orthodox church, became a mosque in 1453 and was finally converted into a museum in 1934, after Turkey became a Republic. Entry is not cheap at 30 TL (US$15), but you can also buy a museum pass for 85 TL that gives you access to several other sites (including Topkapı Palace) and lets you skip the line-ups.

Aya Sofya (Sultanahmet, Istanbul)

Aya Sofya

The mosques, including the Blue Mosque, don’t have admission fees. However visitors are admitted through a different entrance from the faithfuls, and women must cover their hair with a scarf. Everyone must take their shoes off. They provide plastic bags so you can carry them around with you. The mosques are closed to visitors at certain times of day, and especially on Friday morning when Muslims all congregate for their weekly service.

Day 1

On my first morning, I just walked around the area, including the park in front of Aya Sofya, the Hippodrome (which used to be a chariot racetrack and is now a pedestrian plaza), some of the back streets, a small mosque (Little Aya Sofya) and the Arasta Bazaar.

A fountain donated by the Germans on the hippodrome (Sultanahmet, Istanbul)

A fountain donated by the Germans on the Hippodrome

Around lunch time (after being diverted into a carpet shop) I visited Aya Sofya, theorizing that the line-ups would be shorter while all the tour groups ate lunch. There was a line, but it didn’t take too long to get a ticket. The inside is quite impressive, but the fact that the whole left side was being renovated and under scaffold and tarp took away from the beauty of the place. Don’t forget to go upstairs to see the partly restored mosaics from the 11th to 13th century, one of the highlights of the museum.

Inside Aya Sofya (Sultanahmet, Istanbul)

Inside Aya Sofya

Day 2

On the second day, I went to see the Basilica Cistern (not included in the Museum Pass), which is a large and dark underground space occupied by 336 columns and flooded with water. It was built by the Byzantines (Eastern Roman Empire) in 532 AD as a water cistern. Because it is so atmospheric, it’s been used in movies (for example From Russia with Love) and features prominently in Dan Brown’s novel Inferno.

Basilica Cistern (Sultanahmet, Istanbul)

Basilica Cistern

Afterwards I walked down Soğukçeşme Sokak, a shady cobblestone street home to recreated Ottoman timber houses and further down, many small cafes offering shisha pipes.

In the afternoon I went to visit the Blue Mosque, and once again there was a line-up but it was quite manageable. The mosque’s nickname comes from the blue tiles that adorn its inside walls. It’s beautiful but busy. I’m sure it helped that I was there in November, a little off-season.

Inside the Blue Mosque (Sultanahmet, Istanbul)

Inside the Blue Mosque

Day 3

On the third day, I took a walk through Gülhane Park all the way to the far end where a tea house affords great views over the Sea of Marmara and the various ships plying it. You get overcharged for the tea though ($4 for one person??) but I imagine you’re paying for the views.

Gülhane Park (Sultanahmet, Istanbul)

Gülhane Park

This was followed by a visit to the Istanbul Archeology Museums. I’m not a big museum person but I figure I should visit at least one museum in each city! This one looked like a good choice but then I discovered that the most important exhibit, the Alexander Sarcophagus, wasn’t on display because of restorations. This seems to be a recurring motif in an Istanbul visit. At any given time, a small portion of each attraction seems to be under restoration.

An alternative could be the Museum of Turkish & Islamic Arts, but it was closed for renovations at the time of my visit. Both museums are included in the Museum Pass.

Day 4

On the fourth day I joined an Urban Adventures walking tour called “Istanbul Uncovered”. Our guide, Tolga, started by explaining Istanbul’s many layers of history before starting the walk that gave us an overview of the main sites of Sultanahmet (we didn’t enter any) and some lesser-known little corners. We then visited the Grand Bazaar and Süleymaniye Mosque (less busy than the Blue Mosque but also very nice) followed by a refreshment break on a rooftop cafe with beautiful views of European Istanbul and the Bosphorus.

Views from the rooftop of a cafe (Sultanahmet, Istanbul)

Views of the city and Bosphorus from the rooftop of a cafe

The tour ended at the Spice Bazaar which we were free to explore on our own. But instead, I followed one of the ladies from the tour onto a ferry for a little excursion to the Asian side of Istanbul. The trip took only 20 minutes. We walked along the waterfront until we got to an interesting European-looking building we had spotted from the boat. This turned out to be the now disused Haydarpaşa train station, the terminus of the defunct Orient Express!

Haydarpaşa train station on the Asian side of Istanbul

Haydarpaşa train station on the Asian side of Istanbul

Day 5

On the fifth day I was moving hotels in the morning, and I also had to write the newsletter. I did manage to visit the Aya Sofya Tombs however. These are free to enter and located on the southeastern side of Aya Sofya. They are the resting places of five sultans and their families. These “tombs” are really buildings that are larger than my apartment, and most are as richly decorated as any mosque, with tile work, calligraphy and decorative paintwork.

Sultans' tombs (Sultanahmet, Istanbul)

Sultans’ tombs

Day 6

On my last day in Sultanahmet, I went back to revisit the Grand Bazaar in more depth, and also take a look at the Spice Bazaar which I hadn’t managed to visit on Day 4. Tolga had told us that most things in the Grand Bazaar now came from China, with the exception of carpets, leatherwork and jewelry. I actually found the Spice Bazaar more interesting, with its mountains of dry fruits, nuts, spices, and Turkish delight!

Spice market (Sultanahmet, Istanbul)

Spice Bazaar

I then got a little lost trying to find the rooftop cafe from Day 4, but just as I was about to give up, there it was. It’s surprising how nice areas of the city can abruptly give way to trashy scary-looking streets, and back again.

That night I went out at dusk to capture photos of Aya Sofya, the Blue Mosque, and the illuminated fountain. As you guessed, I was not the only photographer with that idea!

Blue Mosque and fountain at night (Sultanahmet, Istanbul)

Blue Mosque and fountain at night

What about Topkapı?

Did you notice something missing form this list of attractions? That’s right, I didn’t visit the Topkapı Palace! This may seem outrageous, given that it is listed in all the guidebooks as a “must see”. However, a blog post I was reading suggested to skip this crowded overpriced attraction and see the equally opulent Dolmabahçe Palace instead. Topkapı was the seat of the Ottoman Sultans up until 1856 when they moved into the Dolmabahçe Palace, which has a more European style, but equally over-the-top opulence.

This latter palace is located on the other side of the Bosphorus and I ended up visiting it later, when I came back to Istanbul from Büyükada. Another guest at the hotel also told me that the Harems of Topkapı were currently under restoration. I guess I now have something to look forward to if I ever go back to Istanbul (and I have a feeling I might).

The food

As I mentioned before, the restaurant food in Sultanahmet is pricier than elsewhere in the city, due to the exorbitant rents. How expensive? Well, a dish or lamb stew and rice (saç kavurma) cost me 35 TL (Turkish Liras), the equivalent of about US$17.50.

saç kavurma (Sultanahmet, Istanbul)

saç kavurma (a lamb dish)

I will write more about the food of Istanbul in an upcoming post.

The people

For a commentary on the people and what it’s like to travel in Istanbul alone, you may want to read my post Solo woman in Turkey.

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