Sultanahmet comes first when it comes to visiting historical places in Istanbul. The most famous structures of Istanbul such as Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque and Topkapi Palace are located in Sultanahmet. For this reason, there are many things to do in Sultanahmet for tourists.
I have been working in Istanbul’s tourism industry for nearly 20 years. During this time, I first worked in hotels in Sultanahmet and now as a professional tour guide, I show people the historical places in Old City.
In this article, I shared many insider tips that I know about Sultanahmet. Thus, you can have detailed information about places to visit and things to do in Sultanahmet, the heart of Istanbul’s Old City.
In the first part of the article, you can find 10 historical places to visit in Sultanahmet. On the other hand, in the second part, there are 10 fun things to do in Sultanahmet.
10 Places to Visit in Sultanahmet in 2022
There are 10 historical monuments on the list of places to visit in Sultanahmet. When you visit these historical structures, you will learn a lot about the 2700-year-old history of Istanbul.
Since Istanbul was the capital of the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman empires, its history consists of many layers. You can unveil this sophisticated history by visiting the historical buildings in and around Sultanahmet.
1. Hagia Sophia
Hagia Sophia was built as a church during the Byzantine Empire. It was built by Justinian, the most famous emperor in Byzantine history. For nearly 900 years, from 537 to 1453, it was the largest church in Constantinople.
The office of the Patriarch of Constantinople, the spiritual leader of the Eastern Christians, was in Hagia Sophia. Throughout the 1000-year Byzantine history, the most important events in the city were somehow related to Hagia Sophia.
After the Ottomans conquered Constantinople in 1453, Hagia Sophia was turned into a mosque. During this period, it was respected and protected as the most important structure of the city.
Hagia Sophia is the most visited historical monument in Istanbul today. An average of three million people a year visit Hagia Sophia, which is the top place to visit in Sultanahmet.
The history of Hagia Sophia is so detailed that it is impossible to fit it in a few paragraphs. For more specific information, you can review the Hagia Sophia Architecture and Hagia Sophia Mosaics articles.
2. Topkapi Palace
Topkapi Palace consists of four large courtyards. The palace hosted 25 Ottoman sultans between the 15th and 19th centuries. Promising an oriental experience, the palace boasts magnificent Bosphorus views.
In terms of architecture, we can divide the Ottoman era in Istanbul into two periods. The first of these is Classical Ottoman architecture and the other is Modern Ottoman architecture.
Topkapi Palace represents “Classical Ottoman architecture”. While the classical architecture has a simple design on the outside, its interior decoration is decorated with wonderful Iznik Tiles, handmade pencil works and mother-of-pearl inlaid woods.
On the other hand, “Modern Ottoman architecture” carries traces of Baroque and Neo-Classical architecture. The best example of this is the Dolmabahce Palace on the Bosphorus shore.
3. Blue Mosque
Blue Mosque is 400 years old and the most famous mosque in Istanbul. The mosque does not give a clue about its name when viewed from the outside, but inside it is covered with blue Iznik tiles.
The Blue Mosque was built in 1616 for Sultan Ahmed I. The architect Sedefkar Mehmed Agha, who built the mosque, was from the school of Mimar Sinan. When you examine Ottoman history, you will see that Mimar Sinan, who lived in the 1500s, has a great place in Istanbul’s cultural heritage.
It should also be noted that the original name of the mosque was “Sultan Ahmed Mosque”. Today’s Sultanahmet district takes its name from this mosque.
4. Basilica Cistern
Basilica Cistern is definitely one of the most mysterious historical monuments in Istanbul. Basilica Cistern, an underground water reservoir, was built in the 6th century shortly after Hagia Sophia.
The most important feature of the Basilica Cistern is the Medusa Statues. The Heads of Medusa were placed as supports under two relatively short columns deep inside the cistern.
Some scenes of the James Bond movie starring Sean Connery were shot in the cistern. The scenes of the movie Inferno, adapted from Dan Brown’s novel, were also shot in the Cistern.
Basilica Cistern, a world-famous Eastern Roman structure, ranks first among the best places to visit in Sultanahmet.
Hippodrome is located right in the heart of Sultanahmet and it’s where chariots raced before 50,000 spectators in Constantinople, the capital of Byzantine Empire.
Chariots were vehicles that had 2 wheels pulled by 4 horses and riding these chariots would require a great amount of skill. The chariots would accelerate on the even part of the track and they would skid badly on the corner and the skills of riders would be tested on this part of the track.
Emperor would watch these races himself in his lodge and these races would also witness some important events. The biggest rebellion in Istanbul, the Nika Riots, started here and it spread to the whole city.
Little is left of the Hippodrome‘s past glory. But even the remaining artifacts have thousands of years of history. Especially Obelisk of Theodosius, an obelisk brought from Egypt, is 3500 years old and is the oldest historical monument of Istanbul.
With all these features, Hippodrome is one of the most important historical places to see in Sultanahmet, although most people are not aware of it.
6. Istanbul Archeological Museum
Istanbul Archeological Museum was built by an architect named Alexander Vallaury between 1897 and 1901 in Neo-Classical style. Alexandre Vallaury was a French-Ottoman architect who contributed to the beautiful silhouette of Istanbul by building beautiful monuments at Beyoglu and on the coast of Bosphorus.
The most important piece in the museum’s collection is Treaty of Kadesh, the first written treaty in the world. This treaty, also known as the Egyptian-Hittite Peace Treaty, was signed between the Hittite Empire and the Ancient Egypt, both of which competed for the lands in the Middle East.
Apart from Kadesh Treaty, the museum houses a breathtaking piece of art named Alexander Sarcophagus. Additionally, numerous beautiful sculptures from Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire are displayed at Istanbul Archeological Museum.
7. Turkish and Islamic Arts Museums
Turkish and Islamic Art Museum is actually an Ottoman palace from the 16th century. This palace belonged to Sultan Suleiman‘s right-hand man, Grand Vizier (Prime Minister) Ibrahim Pasha.
There are historical artifacts and manuscripts from the Caliphate period in the museum. In the sections describing Turkish history, there are Turkish rugs from the Seljuk Empire and the Ottoman Empire.
8. Little Hagia Sophia Mosque
Little Hagia Sophia Mosque is a relatively little-known historical monument even though it is very close to Sultanahmet. The original name of Little Hagia Sophia, which was essentially a Byzantine church, was Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus.
Built during the reign of Emperor Justinian, this building has a 1500-year history like Hagia Sophia. Anthemius, one of the architects who built Hagia Sophia, used a revolutionary architectural style in this church.
The structure, which was converted into a mosque during the Ottoman period, was named “Little Hagia Sophia Mosque” because of its similarity to Hagia Sophia. Byzantine engravings on the walls of the building can still be seen.
9. Theodosius Cistern
Theodosius Cistern is the oldest of the Byzantine cisterns in Istanbul. This cistern, which is even older than the Basilica Cistern, was recently restored and opened to the public as a museum.
Known as “Serefiye Cistern” in Turkish, there is now a light show in the Theodosius Cistern. You can go to the cistern at the beginning of an hour during the day and watch this light show that lasts for 10 minutes.
During the light show, you can see images that refer to the Byzantine period, Ottoman period and the foundation of the Republic in Istanbul’s history, reflected on the walls and columns of the cistern.
10. Sokullu Mehmed Pasha Mosque
Sokollu Mehmed Pasha Mosque is located in Sultanahmet, Istanbul’s most popular tourist destination, but unfortunately it is not well known by both local and foreign tourists.
The most important feature of Sokollu Mehmed Pasha Mosque is that it has the most important tile collection in Istanbul, together with the Rustem Pasha Mosque and the Blue Mosque.
Sokollu Mehmed Pasha was a Grand Vizier (Prime Minister) at the height of the Ottoman Empire. Mehmed Pasha was also married to Ismihan Sultan, the daughter of Sultan Selim II.
Sokollu Mehmed Pasha stood out as one of the most powerful statesmen in the history of the Ottoman Empire. As a reflection of this power, he built four mosques. Three of these mosques are in today’s Istanbul, while one is in Luleburgaz.
In this title, I wanted to highlight the magnificent mosque in Kadirga (near Sultanahmet), among the three mosques built by Sokollu Mehmed Pasha in Istanbul. This mosque, one of the outstanding works of Mimar Sinan, is definitely worth seeing.
10 Things to Do in Sultanahmet in 2022
Things to do in Sultanahmet include relaxing in the Turkish bath, shopping at the centuries-old bazaars, and dining at traditional restaurants. You can also walk the streets of the district, which has existed since the Roman period, and photograph the magnificent views from the terraces of the hotels.
1. Relaxing in the Turkish Bath
Relaxing in a Turkish bath is one of the best things to do after visiting the historical monuments in Sultanahmet.
The museums in Sultanahmet are very crowded during Istanbul’s tourist season. For this reason, you will lose a lot of time at the security checkpoints and ticket lines.
Visiting places such as Topkapi Palace, which spreads over a wide area, will make you tired. However, taking a hot shower and scrubbing in the Turkish bath will refresh you.
In addition, you can choose the Cagaloglu Hamami near the Basilica Cistern or the Cemberlitas Hamami near the Grand Bazaar.
2. Shopping in Historical Bazaars
Shopping in the historical bazaars of Sultanahmet is a fun thing to experience in Istanbul. Of course, when it comes to shopping around Sultanahmet, the first thing that comes to mind is the Grand Bazaar. However, since the Grand Bazaar is a giant labyrinth, you can try the Arasta Bazaar to practice before you go there.
Arasta Bazaar is adjacent to the Blue Mosque and is a traditional shopping place dating back to the 17th century. Here you can find much of what Istanbul’s other historical bazaars have to offer.
For more information on this subject, you can also take a look at the shopping places near Sultanahmet article. In this article, I shared useful tips about shopping centers and shopping streets around Sultanahmet.
3. Exploring the Ottoman Cuisine
Exploring the Ottoman palace cuisine is also among the must-do things in Sultanahmet. After visiting Topkapi Palace and getting inspired, you can experience traditional Turkish cuisine.
The two restaurants that best represent Ottoman cuisine in Sultanahmet are the Deraliye Restaurant next to the Sura Hotel and the Matbah Restaurant inside the Ottoman Imperial Hotel.
If you need more details about traditional restaurants in Sultanahmet, you can also review the best restaurants in Sultanahmet article.
4. Walking in Gulhane Park
Walking in Gulhane Park is a must do for Istanbulites visiting the Old City. This park within the walls of Topkapi Palace will take you on a journey through time.
Via Gulhane Park, you can walk from Sultanahmet to the coastal road on the shores of the Marmara Sea. During this walk, you can also see the Column of the Goths, among the Byzantine sites in Istanbul.
5. Taking Photos from Hotel Terraces
Taking photos from hotel terraces is one of the fun things to do in Sultanahmet. Most of the hotels in the district serve Turkish breakfast or lunch on their terraces.
While visiting the historical places in Sultanahmet, you can take a break in such a place and enjoy the view. The hotels with the most beautiful views in Sultanahmet are Seven Hills Hotel, Arcadia Blue Hotel and Adamar Hotel.
I took the most beautiful panoramic photos of Hagia Sophia from the terrace of Seven Hills Hotel. Those who want to shoot the Blue Mosque can try the terrace of Hotel Arcadia Blue.
6. Having a Turkish breakfast
Having a Turkish breakfast in Sultanahmet is an activity you should definitely add to your list. If you want to have breakfast like Istanbulites, you can review two places in Sultanahmet.
One of them is Hotel Arcadia Blue, which has a roof with a magnificent view. Open buffet Turkish breakfast is served here on weekends. I have also experienced breakfast here with my family several times.
Another popular place to have breakfast in Sultanahmet in recent years is Saade Kahvalti. Although this place is not a scenic place, it offers a breakfast experience similar to what Turks do at home.
For breakfast options in Sultanahmet and other tourist areas, you can also review our article on the best breakfast in Istanbul.
7. Walking on Tram Street
Walking on the tram street may not seem like an attractive activity at first glance. However, the tram street known as “Divanyolu” today has been an important place since Roman times.
When Istanbul was designed as the co-capital of Rome during the reign of Emperor Constantine, the name of this road was “Mese”. Victory celebrations and social events in the Roman and Byzantine periods were always on this road.
During the Ottoman period, the name of this road was changed to Divanyolu. Because the road stretched as far as the Imperial Council (Divan) inside the Topkapi Palace. Many mosques and schools (medrese) were built on this road in Ottoman Istanbul.
Today, one of the most ideal places for those who want to shop in Sultanahmet is the tram street. You can find many souvenir shops and traditional Turkish restaurants on this road.
8. Feed Istanbul’s Cats
Feeding Istanbul’s cats is also one of the fun things to do in Sultanahmet. In this city, which is famous for its stray animals, all Istanbulites take care of street cats or dogs.
The most famous cat of Sultanahmet and even all of Istanbul was “Gli”, who lived in Hagia Sophia for 15 years. However, Gli, who was born in 2005 and identified with Hagia Sophia, became an angel in 2020.
When you type “Gli the Hagia Sophia cat” into Google, you can see that she has even met American presidents. There are many similar stories about cats in Istanbul. For more, you can watch the cat documentary called Kedi.
9. Discover the Underground Istanbul
Sultanahmet is the right place to discover the underground in Istanbul. Of course, to do this, you can first visit museums such as Basilica Cistern and Theodosius Cistern, which are at the top of our list.
However, there are other cisterns in Sultanahmet for those who want to continue this mysterious discovery. For example, a 1500-year-old cistern on Sogukcesme Street serves under the name Sarnic Restaurant. A meal in this atmosphere can be a unique experience.
In addition, there is a thousand-year-old cistern on the ground floor of the Nakkas Carpet Store on Nakilbent Street. In this small cistern there is a museum presenting the history of the Hippodrome of Constantinople.
10. Visiting the Caferaga Madrasa
Visiting the Caferaga Madrasa can give you many clues about Ottoman art. Calligraphy, tile and marbling were among the most popular handicrafts during the Ottoman period.
There are small shops in a square courtyard in Caferaga Madrasa. Each of these shops represents one of these crafts. Visiting Caferaga, you can both get to know the crafts and shop.
Caferaga Madrasa is located on Caferaga Street on the west side of Hagia Sophia. Also on this street is the Matbah Restaurant (inside the Ottoman Imperial Hotel), which specializes in Ottoman cuisine.
Sultanahmet map shows us all the important places mentioned in this article. Sultanahmet district is located in the east of Istanbul Historical Peninsula and hosts the most important touristic places of the city.
As a result, Sultanahmet is an indispensable destination for those who come to Istanbul. Here you can visit the most important historical monuments and experience Turkish cuisine.
However, if you want to taste street food, you have to go a little outside of Sultanahmet. You can find great Turkish food in places like Sirkeci and Eminonu, which are very close to Sultanahmet.
If you want me to guide you on this subject, you can take a look at the best street food in Istanbul or the best local restaurants in Istanbul. These two articles can help you eat like a local in Istanbul.
Written by Serhat Engul