Byzantine Istanbul tour allows you to explore the churches, palace ruins, cisterns, columns and city walls from the Eastern Roman Empire in Istanbul. This private guided walking tour brings the history of Constantinople to life for you.
Constantinople was founded in the 4th century by the Roman emperor Constantine the Great. The first Roman structures in this early period were the Great Palace, the Forum of Constantine, the Hippodrome, and the Church of the Holy Apostles.
Although not much remains from this first period, there are museums and ruins that keep the memory of each of these structures alive. You can listen to their story on a private Byzantine Istanbul walking tour.
Many other structures were built in Constantinople, which remained the capital of the Byzantine Empire between the 4th century and the 15th century. In the Byzantine Istanbul tour, structures from different periods are blended in a balanced way.
In this way, you can witness the story of Constantinople, the most populous and wealthy city of Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, from the time it was founded by Constantine the Great to the fall of the city in 1453.
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Private Guided Tour of Byzantine Istanbul
Private guided tour of Byzantine Istanbul will take you on a journey through time. On this journey, you will see that the first iconic buildings of the city were built during the Constantine period. You will witness how the city reached its peak during the reign of Justinian.
Of course, the story of Constantinople is not just full of victories, prosperity and wealth. On the other hand, there are great rebellions, religious conflicts, sieges and palace coups in the history of the city.
Byzantine history contains extraordinary events that could be the material of dozens of films. For this reason, I try to tell this story spanning 1100 years by supporting it with rich visuals as much as possible.
The Hippodrome was one of the first Roman buildings in Istanbul. The races here were watched by tens of thousands of people and the heart of the city used to beat in this stadium.
Some of the most famous athletes of ancient times, such as Porphyrius the Charioteer, competed here. Races in the Hippodrome with a capacity of 50,000 people would be with great splendor.
In Byzantine history, many emperors were crowned or lost their thrones under the pressure of the people in the Hippodrome. In addition, the biggest riots in the city started from here.
The Hippodrome is known as Sultanahmet Square today and still bears the traces of those old days. Here we see the Egyptian Obelisk, the Serpent Column and the Column of Constantine from the Byzantine period.
Each of these pillars has its own story and symbolizes a different period in the history of Constantinople. The Hippodrome is a very important place to discover the Byzantine heritage in Istanbul.
2. Great Palace Mosaic Museum
The Great Palace Mosaic Museum allows us to commemorate a magnificent palace that no longer exists. Roman mosaics in this museum once adorned the courtyards of the Byzantine emperors’ Great Palace.
Although this museum is located in Sultanahmet, the most popular touristic district of Istanbul, it falls outside the classical tourist route. Since it’s generally very quiet, I can easily convey a lot of what I know about Byzantine history here.
The most striking aspect of the mosaics in this museum is that you can see the East Roman art before it was completely Christianized. In other words, there are still references to Paganism in these nature-themed mosaics from the 6th century.
3. Hagia Sophia
Hagia Sophia is, of course, the most important part of the Byzantine Istanbul tour. Built by Emperor Justinian in the 6th century, this structure remained the largest church in the world for 900 years.
Hagia Sophia is a building identified with almost everything related to the history of the Byzantine Empire. The first generation Hagia Sophia was built by Constantius II, the son of the city’s founder, Constantine the Great.
The destruction of the First Hagia Sophia was due to the exile of John Chrysostom, the most important clergyman in the history of Constantinople, from the city. The second Hagia Sophia was destroyed in the famous Nika riots.
Hagia Sophia was built 3 times from the 4th to the 15th centuries and existed in almost every period of Constantinople’s history. For this reason, it is an indispensable place for Byzantine history tours.
4. Hagia Irene Church
Hagia Irene Church was destroyed and rebuilt in the same rebellions as Hagia Sophia. However, since Hagia Irene was destroyed in the 8th century due to an earthquake, it was rebuilt in a special period of Byzantine history.
The reason why I refer to the period when Hagia Irene was rebuilt as “special” is because the iconoclast emperors ruled at this specific time. For this reason, Hagia Irene has no decoration other than a single cross, unlike other Byzantine churches.
There are two things that distinguish Hagia Irene Church from other Byzantine churches in Istanbul. The first is that it was never converted into a mosque, and the second is that it has no mosaics as it was built during the Byzantine Iconoclasm period.
Hagia Irene Museum holds a special place in my Byzantine Istanbul tour. Because this building was not redecorated as it was not converted into a mosque like other churches. In this way, the interior of the building offers us a complete medieval Byzantine building experience.
5. Basilica Cistern
Basilica Cistern is one of the most fascinating Byzantine monuments in Istanbul. The cistern, which was built during the reign of Emperor Justinian, is also a contemporary structure with Hagia Sophia.
Basilica Cistern is essentially a water reservoir. However, since it was a cistern that supplied water to the royal area, it was built in gigantic dimensions. Since the Byzantine Empire was at its peak during the reign of Justinian, the imperial structures were also very magnificent.
You go below street level to see the Basilica Cistern, and when you go down the stairs, you step into another world. This 1500-year-old cistern offers a fascinating atmosphere with its hundreds of columns and Medusa statues.
6. Little Hagia Sophia Mosque
Little Hagia Sophia Mosque is essentially a Byzantine church dedicated to Saints Sergius and Bacchus. It is located in the popular district of Istanbul, Sultanahmet, and is as old as Hagia Sophia.
On the interior walls of this magnificent Byzantine building, there are still embroideries made during the Justinian period. In addition, the capitals of the columns have survived flawlessly from the Byzantine period to the present day.
7. Valens Aqueduct
The Valens Aqueduct was one of the main parts of the 200-kilometer Roman water transport system that brought water to Constantinople. Located in the Historical Peninsula, where water resources are scarce, the city was fed from this water system during both the Byzantine and Ottoman periods.
Valens was an Eastern Roman emperor who died on the battlefield fighting the Goths (Battle of Adrianople). The construction of the water system began during the reign of Constantine and was completed in his time. That’s why it still bears his name.
The place where the Valens Aqueduct is located is a very busy boulevard today. For this reason, we do not stop here on Byzantine Istanbul tours. We watch this structure from a taxi on the way from Sultanahmet to St. George’s Church (located in Fener district).
8. Church of St. George
The Church of St. George is now home to the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. After the conquest, Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque and the Patriarch of Constantinople moved here and has been here for nearly 400 years.
The Church of St George is not a building that has survived directly from the Byzantine period in its current form. However, most of the icons and relics inside are from the Byzantine period. This church is definitely a complementary place for a Byzantine history tour.
9. Chora Church
Chora Church is one of the most important stops of Byzantine tours in Istanbul. Because the religious themed mosaics in this building reflect the peak of Byzantine art. The Byzantine mosaics in the exterior and interior corridors of Chora Church are 700 years old and still in good condition.
The patron of Chora Church’s mosaics was a high-ranking Byzantine bureaucrat named Theodore Metochites. The church was converted into a mosque during the Ottoman period, but the mosaics were not damaged. As the building has been under renovation since 2020, it is still not accessible as of 2024.
10. Byzantine Palace in Istanbul
Byzantine palaces in Istanbul were once dazzling with their wealth. In the 12th century, Constantinople was the most populous city in the world, and the Great Palace and Palace of Blachernae were world famous.
Nothing remains from the Great Palace except the floor decorations exhibited in the Mosaic Museum. Although the Palace of Blachernae, where the late Byzantine emperors lived, was destroyed, an extension has survived to the present day.
According to some historians, the Palace of the Porphyrogenitus was an outbuilding where the servants of the palace lived. However, another widely accepted view identifies this palace with Constantine VII.
The Palace of the Porphyrogenitus (locally Tekfur Sarayi) has recently undergone extensive restoration and opened as a “Tile Museum”. In this way, we gained another place to visit associated with medieval Byzantine architecture.
Byzantine History Tour in Istanbul
Byzantine history tour in Istanbul is divided into two different categories. One of them is performed by visiting the historical monuments in Sultanahmet (the heart of the Old City). This is considered as a half-day walking tour.
The full-day version starts with a tour of the Byzantine buildings in Sultanahmet and goes to the West side of the Historical Peninsula (former Constantinople) to the Walls of Constantinople.
1. Half Day Byzantine Istanbul Tour
The places visited during the half-day tour of Byzantine Istanbul are Hippodrome, Little Hagia Sophia (Church of Sts Sergius and Bacchus), Basilica Cistern, Cistern of Philoxenos and the Hagia Irene Church.
Normally, the Great Palace Mosaic Museum is included in the Byzantine Istanbul tour, but since this museum has been under renovation since July 2023, I included a second Byzantine cistern, the Cistern of Philoxenos, instead.
Of course, one would expect Hagia Sophia to be included in a Byzantine history tour. However, since the upper floor galleries of Hagia Sophia are currently closed for renovations (the Byzantine mosaics are there), I am leaving it out of the tour until it opens.
This tour is a half-day walking tour and gives you an overview of the history of Istanbul (formerly Constantinople). As of 2024, this tour is a more suitable option as some Byzantine artifacts in Istanbul are under restoration.
2. Full-Day Byzantine Istanbul Tour
The full-day Byzantine Istanbul tour covers Hippodrome, Hagia Sophia, Basilica Cistern, Church of Saint George, Valens Aqueduct, Chora Church and Palace of the Porphyrogenitus.
Currently, Hagia Sophia (Upper Galleries) and Chora Church are under restoration, so it is not possible to do the full-day tour properly. For this reason, I suspended the full-day Byzantine tours for 2024.
Written by Serhat Engul