Istanbul’s Old City is in the midst of the area called Sultanahmet, a small peninsula surrounded by Bosphorus Strait, the Marmara Sea, and the Golden Horn. First timers to Istanbul will spend most if not all of their time in this area exploring the Hagia Sophia, Sultan Ahmed (Blue) Mosque, Basilica Cistern, Topkapi Palace, and Grand Bazaar. This little area houses the most famous sights of Istanbul, thus it’s easy to find a lot of hotels, hostels, and overpriced touristy restaurants in Sultanahmet.
If you only have one day in Istanbul, then it would be smart to check out all of the sites listed below rapidly. They are relatively close to one another. You would have to leave Topkapi Palace to another visit, because it would take half to a full-day to be able to explore the palace and the harem section in it.
The Hagia Sofia
This architectural and historical gem was first built by the Greeks in the 6th century as a church, then converted to a mosque by the Ottomans, and later converted into a museum after the Republic of Turkey was founded. The entrance fee is 25 liras (US$12.5) and in my opinion totally worth it. I chose to not join any tour groups and explore the site on my own, which took about 1.5 hours. The official website is here:
The grandiose Hagia Sofia
Near the main altar
The main hall
Striking a pose
The Sultan Ahmed (Blue) Mosque
The official name is the Sultan Ahmed Mosque but most foreigners know it as the Blue Mosque because of the brilliant blue tiles that decorate the interior walls of the building. It’s the only mosque in Turkey that has 6 minarets, signifying its importance since it was commissioned by the Sultan himself. The inside of the mosque is closed to visitors during prayer times but instead of waiting in the courtyard there’s an information centre that has free 30 minute presentations that line up with the visitor opening times of the mosque. The presentations are very informative and not preachy. The only thing they try to push on you is the free tea, coffee, and cookies. Entrance to the Blue Mosque is free.
The Basilica Cistern
The dim lighting, atmospheric music, size, and underground location of this water store is a far cry from the chaos of the city above. The cistern was used as an emergency water source in case of siege during the Byzantine period. Some key architectural features include the arches and columns that support the weight of the roof and a couple of columns that have Medusa faces carved into their bases. Entrance fee is 10 liras.
The Grand Bazaar
It may be one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world, but these days you won’t find too many locals shopping there. It’s become a huge tourist attraction and as a result you’ll quickly see that most of the shops are peddling the exact same mass-produced products such as carpets, lamps, toys, and tea sets. Call me jaded but after about 10 minutes I’d had enough of seeing the same shops over and over again.
Here is a quick summary of my original article posted on Backpacker Report. Check the link for the original article: http://backpackerreport.com/2013/12/01/istanbul-old-city-highlights/