Istanbul - Sultanahmet-Old City
The Old City of Istanbul (Turkish: Eski İstanbul, also Tarihi Yarımada and Suriçi, “Historical Peninsula”, and “Walled City” respectively) is the oldest part of Istanbul, and the location of most of its historical sights.
Being a peninsula bounded in all four directions - by the Sea of Marmara to south, the Bosphorus to west, the Golden Horn to the north and the city walls to the west, this part of the city is essentially what used to be called Constantinople, as the rest of what is today Istanbul was part of independent cities, towns, villages, fields or even complete wilderness later absorbed by the city. This process is still going on as Istanbul grows with increasing speed.
Istanbul, or Byzantium how it was called then, was first settled by Greek colonists from Megara in 667 BC. They founded their city in Seraglio Point (Sarayburnu) which is now occupied by Topkapı Palace. However, recent discoveries in a subway construction site in Yenikapı (southern coast of the peninsula) dates the very first date of Istanbul's settlement back to about 8000 years ago, which makes the city one of the oldest still-inhabited spots of the world. This peninsula is declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1985.
Being one of the most central parts of the city, getting to the Old City by public transport is easy.
A modern tram line lies all along the old city, connecting it with Galata and other places north, and the suburbs in the west. Tram stations are located at Eminönü, Sirkeci, Gülhane, Sultanahmet, Beyazıt, and Aksaray among others.
A metro/light rail line connects Atatürk International Airport and the main bus station (otogar) outside the city with Aksaray. From Aksaray, you can take the tram (follow the ‘tramvay’ signs) for places deeper into the Old City (such as Sultanahmet). If you are approaching from the airport, you can also change from metro to tram in Zeytinburnu. Changing at Zeytinburnu is better than changing at Aksaray, as the metro and tram stations in Zeytinburnu are much nearer to each other (making it highly unlikely to get lost!) and it’s the first station along the line, which means you can easily secure a seat after your long flight.
Public buses connect various spots in the old city with various other places. For the traveller, the most useful lines are as follows:
- T4 Taksim – Sultanahmet Square
- 61B Taksim – Beyazıt (very near the Grand Bazaar; also about 15-20 min walk or 3-4 min tram ride away from Sultanahmet)
- 96T the bus from Atatürk Airport to Taksim also passes through some parts of old city. The stop nearest to Sultanahmet is Aksaray/Valide Sultan. From there, you can take the tram.
Liners from across the Bosphorus moor at Eminönü.
BEWARE Any bus or tram with a sign or indication that it heads for or calls at Topkapı will NOT take you anywhere near Topkapı Palace. Rather, it is going to a neighborhood named after the city gate near which it’s situated (“cannon gate”), which may be worth a trip to take a look at the impressive city walls. Topkapı neighborhood is located in the extreme western part of the old city, near the city walls, while Topkapı Palace is located in the extreme eastern part, which means thed istance between each other is at least 7-8km. ‘Topkapı’ alone almost always refer to the neighborhood, not the palace. Taking a bus heading for Topkapı to go to the palace is a common mistake made by travellers. For the palace, the stop/station you should look for is 'Sultanahmet'.
The tram line connects almost all of the sights frequented by travellers.
Most of the sights in the old city are close enough to be negotiated on foot, as they are located in or around Sultanahmet Square. For many others, just follow the tram line. However, between Eminönü/Sirkeci and Sultanahmet, it is faster to to take the shortcut through Ankara Caddesi (Street) and stray away from the tramline as the tramline follows an arch through that part of the city.
Many of Istanbul’s historical treasures are in or near Sultanahmet Square.
- Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofya), Sultanahmet Square (by tram: Sultanahmet), +90 212 522 1750. Tu-Su 9AM-6PM. Dating from the sixth century, it was originally a basilica constructed for the Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian I. A masterwork of Roman engineering, the huge 30 m diameter dome covers what was for over 1000 years the largest enclosed space in the world. Unfortunately the church was looted by the fourth Crusaders in 1204, and became a mosque in the 15th century when The Ottomans conquered the city. It was converted into a museum in 1935. Don't miss the excellent mosaics, including those in the gallery, reached by a stone ramp to the left of the entrance. As of September 2008, entrance fee is 20 YTL (only Turkish currency is accepted,and credit cards) NOTE: The inside is undergoing a major refurbishment and there is a huge amount of scaffolding in a gigantic tower going up to the top of the dome. You can also hire a guide at the entrance of the museum.
- Topkapı Palace (Topkapı Sarayı) , Bab-i Hümayün Caddesi (by tram: Gülhane/Sultanahmet), +90 212 512 0480. M,W-Su 9AM-5PM. The imperial enclave of the Ottoman emperors for four centuries. Lavishly decorated, with four courts of increasing grandeur. In the second court of the entrance to the Harem (admission extra, only by joining a guided tour) and the State Treasury, housing a weaponry display. The third court has the Imperial Treasury. Both Islamic and Christian relics, rugs, china. The views from the Fourth Court over the Bosphorus are spectacular. You can also see Prophet Mohammed's belongings. 20 YTL (no concessions, cards accepted, Harem 15 YTL extra).
- Sultanahmet Mosque (Sultanahmet Camii, aka Blue Mosque) , At Meydam Sokak 17, Sultanahmet (by tram: Sultanahmet), 0212 5181319. May-Oct 9AM-9PM, Nov-Apr:9AM-7PM. With its six minarets and sweeping architecture the Sultanahmet or 'Blue' Mosque impresses from the outside. Unlike Haghia Sophia, this is still a working mosque, entry is through the courtyard on the SW side. No shorts or bare shoulders (shawls are provided) and you will need to remove your footwear. Free, but donations are expected upon exit.
- Basilica Cistern (Yerebatan Sarnici). Yerebatan Cad., Sultanahmet , 9AM-6:30PM. A giant underground cistern built by Justinian in 532 to provide water to the city in cases of siege. A wooden walkway winds between the pillars, and lights and piped music add to the eerie atmosphere. Bring some type of fish food as you'll see enormous fish swimming below your feet. The statues of Medussa are impressive. 3YTL for Turkish citizens, 10 YTL (no concessions).
- Hippodrome, adjacent to the Basilica Cistern, Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia. This was the center of Roman and Byzantine Constantinople, and is a great place to begin one's tour and to people watch. The building no longer stands, but the obelisks and sculptures that have been collected here since Theodosius' time in the fourth century remain. The four bronze horses in the facade of St. Marco in Venice used to be on top of the Emperor's box in the Hippodrome and they were looted by the crusaders in 1204. While you are on your way to the hippodrome, don’t forget to check out German Fountain (Alman Çeşmesi), a neo-Byzantine style fountain building at the square leading to Hippodrome. It was a gift sent by German Kaiser Wilhelm II to the Ottoman Sultan.
- Süleymaniye Mosque (Süleymaniye Camii; about 15-20 min walk away from Beyazıt tram stop/Grand Bazaar, also same distance away from Eminönü, but you should walk uphill from there). On the top of a hill overlooking Golden Horn is a work of Sinan, an Ottoman architect of the 16th century. The mosque is a fine example of Ottoman architecture of the era, and inspired the architects of the Blue Mosque (Sultanahmet) which was built later. Comparing these two mosques, Süleymaniye is noted for its gloomier and more atmospheric feeling. Next to the courtyard of the mosque are tombs of Sinan himself, Sultan Suleiman the Magnicifent, and his Ukrainian spouse, Roxalane (known as Hürrem Sultan in Turkish). Free admission (both the mosque building itself and tombs in the courtyard).
- The Museum of Archeology, Close to Sultanahmet, . A must see! One of the best, including a great collection of Sumerian tablets, pieces of the wall of Babylon and Roman marble statues. Tickets stop being sold at 4PM.5 YTL.
- Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art, (Sultanahmet). Carpets, rugs, calligraphy, pottery. With the same ticket, you can visit also the Ethnographic Museum downstairs where you can learn about the lifestyle of the Turks and their ancestors.5 YTL.
- Chora Church (Kariye Müzesi), at Edirnekapı, near the outer city walls (bus: #87 from Taksim). A 1000 year old Byzantine church, with precious mosaic frescoes and a captivating mood inside. The early church frescoes had been covered with plaster for nearly 500 years, as the building had been converted into a mosque, but were uncovered in the mid-twentieth century and have been partially restored. Open every day except Wednesday.
- Gülhane Park(near Sultanahmet, and next door to Museum of Archaeology). This park was royal hunting grounds in the past. Today it’s a public park with lots of seasonal flowers and huge plane trees (platanus)- which means lots of shade as well. The high walls on one side of the park seperates it from Topkapı Palace. At one end of the park is a nice outdoor café with a view of Bosphorus, a view that is as charming as the view from the Palace situated right above. That café sells tea by samovar (which usually equals 4 quite big glasses of tea), and a samovar of tea did cost about 6 YTL in Sept., 2003. Also near the café is the ruins of a monastery dating back to Byzantine times. The park has two gates, one near Sultanahmet (on the street between Sultanahmet Sq and Sirkeci, the street on which tram runs), and the other on the avenue lying on the coastline. To get to Sirkeci/Eminönü from the latter, turn left after exiting the park.
- Vivaldi Restaurant, Mustafa Kemalpasa Cad. No 52/A, Yenikapi(Take a tram to Laleli - buy some leather shoes/bags! - and then stroll down towards the water on Ataturk Blv/Mustafa Kemal Cad. Look for the Efes Beer umbrellas), ☎ (0212) 458 68 27. Definitely try the bitter wrap or mixed pide. riendly staff who will insist on giving you free Turkish tea in this quiet little cafe situated in a non-tourist-trap area.meals under YTL 10.
- Hayat Cafe, Corner of Akbıyık Cad. and Mehmet Ağa Cad., Sultanahmet, Istanbul. The proprietor of this hole-in-the-wall kebap shop might declare that he's your grandfather or crazy uncle, and that you are his nephews and daughters, before playing a traditional Turkish stringed instrument for you. The food (and the beer) is cheap and good, and it's open late.about YTL 10.
- Meshur Köfteci (Selim Usta), near the Sultanahmet tram stop (150 meters downhill). Three floor restaurant. Meshur means famous, and they rightly claim that title. Their specialty is meatballs (in a slightly different form, called köfte). Take it with a piyaz (beans salad) and ayran. Service is very swift and attentive, prices ordinary.
- Karadeniz Aile Pide ve Kebap Salonu, about five meters down a side street just a bit west from the Sultanahmet tram stop. Their specialty is pide, and at this they excel. Prices are ordinary for a quality pide place - approximately €4 for a basic one in March 2008.
- Lale Restaurant, or the legendary Pudding Shop  as known by Hippies of 60’s, is still open but without its former glory and crowd. In Sultanahmet, very near the tram station.
- Rumeli Cafe a.k.a Mozaik Cafe, Ticarethane Sokak No:8 (near Divanyolu Caddesi, about one block from the Basilica Cistern), 212 512 00 08. On a relatively quiet street but close to all the attractions of Sultanamet. Serves mostly traditional Ottoman and Turkish dishes, with lots of lamb on the menu. Staff are friendly and there are tables both indoors and on the sidewalk. 35-55 YTL per person (main, appetizer + one drink).
- Green Corner. Nice, lovely little open-air café just down the road from the Basilica Cistern. Eat a gözleme whilst lying down and smoking a Turkish pipe.
- The Four Seasons Hotel, Tevkifhane Sokak No. 1, Sultanahmet-Eminönü, 90 (212) 638 82 00 . The Four Seasons does a spectacular, but pricey, Sunday brunch featuring a range of Turkish and international dishes (January 2005 price - 70 YTL, 11.30AM-3PM).
- Asitane , at Edirnekapi. Asitane specializes in traditional Ottoman cuisine, based on meticulously researched recipes used in the royal palaces of the Ottoman empire. The main theme of these recipes are unique blends of meats and fruits. In spite of the traditional nature of the menu, the restaurant decor would not be out of place in London or New York. Pay special attention to the lamb dishes.
- Cheers, Akbiyik Caddesi 20, in Sultanahmet, +90 5324096359. Daily, 10AM-2AM. Offers the cheapest beers in town to a crowd of travellers.
For something more typical, check out these cafés:
- Cagaloglu Hamami Café, Prof. K.I. Gurkan Caddesi, Cagaloglu. A café located in a former hammam, dating 1741, where you can listen to live traditional Turkish music.
- Sark Kahvesi', Yaglikcilar Caddesi 134 (in the Grand Bazaar) . The most famous cafe in the market and a time warp into days gone by, full of traders playing backgammon. Turkish coffee NTL 1.5.
- Hotel Alp Guesthouse, Akbiyik street, adliye small street, Sultanahmet, ☎ +90 212 517 7067(email@example.com), . All the rooms have ensuite bathroom, TV, wired/wireless free internet connection, mini-bar, safe box. There is open buffet breakfast service on the terrace which has marmara sea and asian continent view. breakfast is included to room rates.Single 35/55 Euro, double 55/70 Euro, triple 65/80 Euro, Family room 80-100 Euro.
- Tulip Guesthouse, Akbiyik cad. Terbiyik Sokak No:15/2, Sultanahmet, ☎ +90 212 517 65 09(firstname.lastname@example.org), . Very friendly and helpful staff, two guys both university educated, intelligent, well acknowledged about Turkish history and Middle East politics, always eager to let you know about Istanbul's cultural events and highlights. Kitchen has a great view to Marmara with free coffee and Turkish tea.Dorm beds €10, en-suite rooms from €25.
- Hostel Orient, Yeni Akbiyik Cad 13, Sultanahmet, +90 212 517 9493 (fax: +90 212 518 3894, email@example.com), . Okay hostel in a good location in Sultanahmet. Staff are friendly and willing to help. Cafe/bar upstairs, rooftop lounge area overlooking the Golden Horn, Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, and the oldest mosque in Istanbul (it's small and has one minaret, just go down the street towards Topkapi). Pretty cheap rooms, but the travel agency downstairs is overpriced, as is the beer in the bar. Belly dancers two or three nights per week in the basement bar, but expect competition for her affections from older local businessmen. 18/20 YTL for 8 bed/4 bed dorm rooms, private rooms 40-70 YTL.
- Istanbul Hostel, 35 Kutklu Gun Sokak, Sultanahmet, ☎ +90 212 516 93 80, . Six and eight bed dorms, street-level tables, rooftop restaurant and lounge area with amazing views and mediocre food, basement bar/cafeteria/patio, where free Turkish breakfast is served every day. Free wireless and free internet at two aging computers in the lobby. Staff are very helpful and friendly. Staff can arrange transport to and from the airport, and the hostel has a travel agency which can set you up with other hostels and trips in the country. Atmosphere is good. Downstairs rooms may be noisy; the upstairs rooms share a single (working) shower in an unventilated restroom.dorms 20 YTL.
- Istanbul Hostel Sinbad, Kucuk Ayasofya Mh., Demirci Resit Sokak, Sultanahmet . Offers budget accommodations for backpackers. They offer discounts for students and hostels' card holders, together with some other amenities as free breakfast. Sinbad has a total 22 rooms - 92 beds. Dorm rooms have six beds, only female dorm, single, double, triple, quad rooms are available.
- Bahaus Guesthouse, Bayramfirin Sokak No:11, Sultanahmet, ☎ +90 212 638 65 34(fax: +90 212 517 66 97). Friendly staff with lots of useful objective information to share. Dorm room around €12 including breakfast. Rooftop bar beer 5 YTL (can't bring anything except water to hostel). Free internet.
- Mavi Guesthouse, Kutlugün Sokak No:3, Sultanahmet, +90 212 517 72 87 (fax: +90 212 516 58 78, firstname.lastname@example.org) . Breakfast is included in the price and this guesthouse is close to the Four Seasons Hotel and many other backpackers. Staff can arrange transport to and from airport (approx 12 YTL). Internet is available for a nominal fee or free with wireless LAN Laptop. Small (cosy) TV room etc. €10/11 for 6 bed/4 bed dorm rooms, private rooms for €20-33.
- Star Holiday Hotel, Divanyolu Street No:10, Sultanahmet, +90 212 512 29 61 (fax: +90 212 512 31 54, email@example.com) . Breakfast on a nice terrace (right in front of the Blue Mosque) is included in the price at this standard hotel. Rooms include air-con, TV and minibar. Starts at €40/50 for singles/doubles in high season.
- Yeni Otel, at a side street 100 m from Sirkeci station. Go towards Sultanahmet and turn into the first street on the left. Shared basic bathrooms, hot water. No English is spoken so be aware.20 YTL for a basic double (summer 2005).
- Mavi Onur Hotel, Küçük Ayasofya Mahallesi, Aksakal Sokak No:28, 34410 Sultanahmet, ☎ +90 212 4580690(firstname.lastname@example.org, fax: +90 212 4580692), . Small, family run guesthouse. Offering six rooms that have their own private shower, toilet, hair-drying facilities and air conditioning. The breakfast is included in the price and they have a rooftop terrace.from 11 euro for a dorm bed to 42 euro for a triple room (high season prices).
- Hotel Armagrandi Spina, Utangac Sok. 19, 34400 Sultanahmet, +90 212 638 1727 (email@example.com) . Beautiful renovated boutique hotel that has excellent off-season deals (€60/night via hotels.com) and decent mid-range prices during peak season. Smaller rooms great for couples. Breakfast on terrace included, with amazing view of Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia. You may see one or both from your room window, too. Elevator, no frills minibar, free wifi, exceptional staff.
- Armada Hotel, Ahirkapi Sok. 24, 34122 Cankurtaran, Istanbul. Semimodern hotel. Free wireless. Located in Sultanamet between the sea and the Blue Mosque. Working aircon, fridge. Own bathroom. Restaurant at the top of the building with a nice view of the sea and the Blue Mosque. Price via hotels.com: 42 EUR double room.
- Sultanhan Hotel Piyerloti Caddesi No:15/17 Sultanhamet, +90 212 516 32 32 (fax: +90 212 516 59 95, firstname.lastname@example.org), . This five-floor hotel features 40 guestrooms, all of which have Ottoman-style decor with patterned fabrics and chestnut furnishings. All are equipped with internet connections, satellite television and minibars. €190/230 for single/double in high season.
- Ottoman Hotel Imperial, Caferiye Sokak No:6/1 Sultanhamet, +90 212 513 61 51, . An unbeatable view of Hagia Sophia Museum and Sultanahmet Square and a blend of Ottoman and Istanbul cuisine is what you'll experience at the Ottoman Hotel Imperial. With its exquisitely furnished guest rooms reflecting the Ottoman art, trend-setting restaurants and bars, extensive guest services and in-house amenities, Ottoman Hotel Imperial responds to the needs of the most demanding leisure and business travellers. Rooms start at €100/120 for single/double in high season.
- Blue House Hotel (Mavi Ev), Dalbasti Sokak No:14, Sultanahmet, +90 212 638 90 10/11/12/13/14/15/16 (fax: +90 212 638 9017, email@example.com) . Opened July 1997 and located at the heart of old city center, steps away from world famous Blue Mosque. €120/140 for single/double in high season.
- Empress Zoe, Adliye Sokak No:10 (near Akbiyik Caddesi), Sultanahmet, +90 212 518 2504 (fax: +90 212 518 5699, firstname.lastname@example.org) . A wonderful little hotel in a quiet street just off Sultanahmet, with spartan but elegant rooms decorated in Turkish style and beautiful views over the Hagia Sophia from the rooftop terrace. All mod cons including bathroom, air-con, safe. Rooms from €50 and suites from €100, including breakfast.
- Ibrahim Pasha, Terzihane Sok. No. 5, Adliye Yani, Sultanahmet, +90 212 518 0394 (fax: +90 212 518 4457, email@example.com) . A lovely boutique hotel just steps away from the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia. The room rates include a full Turkish breakfast in the dining area off the main lobby. The hotel has a rooftop sitting area with direct views of most of the major sites in Sultanahmet - an incomparable vista as the moon rises on a clear evening. The comfortable rooms have all mod-cons, including wi fi. The staff are attentive, courteous and helpful. Highly recommended. Rooms from €125 for a standard.
- Dersaadet Hotel, Kapiağasi Sokak No:5, Sultanahmet (one block below Kucukayasofya Caddesi), +90 212 458 07 60 (fax: +90 212 518 49 18 firstname.lastname@example.org) . Boutique hotel on a quiet street 5-10 minute walk from the Blue Mosque and Ayasofya. Rooms are decorated in 19th century Ottoman-style and come with air-con, TV, mini-bar and safe, and all guests can use the high-speed internet/Wi-Fi in the lobby. The rooftop terrace looks out over the Sea of Marmora and part of the Blue Mosque. Room rate includes breakfast. €95/105 for single/double in high season, suites are €120 - 240 depending on time of year and room (10% discount if paid in cash).
- Hotel Niles Istanbul, Dibekli Cami Sokak No:19, Beyazit, +90 212 517 32 39 (fax: +90 212 516 07 32, email@example.com) . Another Ottoman mansion converted to a hotel, it is located five minutes from the Grand Bazaar. Rooms come with air-con, TV, mini-bar and Wi-Fi, and there is high-speed internet in the lobby. Complimentary breakfast is served in the rooftop terrace, which overlooks the Sea of Marmora. €55/65 for single/double in high season (10% discount if paid in cash).
- Hotel Inter Istanbul (Budget rates on mid-range facilities), Mithatpasa Cad. Buyuk Haydar Efendi Sok. No: 29 Beyazit, (+90 212) 518 35 35 (Fax: (+90 212) 518 35 38, firstname.lastname@example.org) . Away from the crowd and touts of Sultanahmet yet within walking distance (approx. 7-10 minutes). Located on a quiet street stone-throw away from the Grand Bazaar, Beyazit tram station and buses that goes to Taksim and other parts of Istanbul (2-minute walk). Modern-style rooms, comfy beds, TV with English programs and news, wi fi connection in rooms and a free PC use at the lobby, helpful staff that make-up rooms and replaces towels daily. €35/40 single, €45/50 double, €55-60 triple, €65-80 family (winter/summer) inclusive of breakfast. 10% discount on cash payments and free airport-hotel pick-up (min. 3 days stay).
- Four Seasons Hotel Istanbul at Sultanahmet, Tevkifhane Sokak No:1, Sultanahmet-Eminönü, +90 212 638 82 00 (fax: 90 212 638 82 10), . A converted prison in the historic Sultanahmet district. Offers stunning views of the Haghia Sophia, but no pool. Standard rooms start around $420.
- Hotel Prince, Nobethane Caddesi Kargili, Sok. No: 5 Sirkeci, i Istanbul Turkey, ☎ +90 (212) 513 25 50(email@example.com, fax: +90 (212) 522 43 59), . A 4 Star Hotel offering 127 modernly decorated rooms for business and leisure travellers.