Built in 532 as the world’s largest place of worship, the Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya) shifts its identity with the times but never loses its grandeur. Converted from a church to a mosque during the Ottoman era and becoming a museum in 1935, the pink-hued Old City building is one of Istanbul’s don’t-miss attractions.
Hippodrome (Sultanahmet Meydani)
Built in the third century, the Hippodrome was the home of now-named Istanbul’s sporting entertainment during the Byzantine era, with a wide track for chariot racing. Today, the route of the old track is covered by Sultanahmet Square (Sultanahmet Meydani), a wide open space in the center of the old city, punctuated by ancient obelisks. The Basics The current Hippodrome traces the course of the ancient race track, though the actual remains are still underground. The square contains the Obelisk of Theodosius, a pink, Egyptian-made granite column that was brought to Istanbul in the fourth century and is one of the oldest monuments in the city. Also here are a spiralled obelisk that came from the temple of Apollo, the Walled Obelisk, and the German Fountain, a gift from Kaiser Wilhelm in the early 20th century. Some small-group and private tours combine a visit to the Hippodrome with other sights in Sultanahmet, including the Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace, and the Basilica Cistern. Things to Know Before You Go The Hippodrome is a must-visit for history buffs. Wear comfortable shoes to stroll around the Hippodrome. The Hippodrome is flat and handicap accessible. How to Get There The Hippodrome is in Istanbul’s bustling Sultanahmet neighborhood, between the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia and close to Topkapi Palace. It is minutes away from the Sultanahmet tram stop and is also easily accessible by taxi. Parking is limited in the area, so driving is not recommended. When to Get There The Sultanahmet area and the Hippodrome can get very busy, so it’s best to arrive early in the day or after the main sights have closed. Weekends and sunny days during the peak season are the busiest. The Hippodrome is now a public square, so it is open every day, all day. Archaeology at the Hippodrome Much of the historical Hippodrome is still underground. It’s possible to see part of the original level of the racecourse at the base of the ancient obelisks that dot the square. Some of the Hippodrome’s original statues and seats have been uncovered over the years, and are now housed in the Istanbul Archaeology Museums.
Basilica Cistern (Yerebatan Sarayi)
Beautiful yet eerie, Basilica Cistern (Yerebatan Sarayi) isn’t your average underground well. Dating back to the Byzantine era, the huge cistern was built in the mid-500s on the former site of a basilica. More than 300 marble columns provide a grand, serene atmosphere to what was essentially subterranean water storage. The Basics Located in the Sultanahmet district (Istanbul’s “old town”), Basilica Cistern is easy to visit during a day of sightseeing. Many tours and attraction passes include the cistern along with other top sites such as Hagia Sophia and Topkapi Palace. Measuring 450 feet (140 meters) long and 230 feet (70 meters) wide, the cistern is reached via 52 steps leading down to walkways over the water. Look for the two columns with carved Medusa heads.
Grand Bazaar (Kapali Çarsi)
Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar (Kapali Çarsi) is the ultimate covered market. Its 5,000+ vendors hawk carpets, beaded bracelets, gold and silver jewelry, multicolored lanterns, leather goods, ceramics, belly-dancing outfits, and more. With goods that span all price ranges, you’ll find the perfect souvenir in the bazaar’s labyrinthine alleys. The Basics Getting lost in the Grand Bazaar is part of the experience, as every twist and turn reveals interesting Turkish goods. Built in the 15th century during the Ottoman era, the market remains an active and lively center of commerce—and today, tourism—in Istanbul. Explore the best stalls on a guided shopping tour. Many Istanbul sightseeing tours combine the Grand Bazaar with the Spice Bazaar or with other sights in Istanbul’s Sultanahmet district, including the Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, Hagia Sophia Museum (Aya Sofya), and the Basilica Cistern.
Topkapi Palace (Topkapi Sarayi)
Behold the imperial complex of Ottoman sultans at Topkapi Palace (Topkapi Sarayi), the royal residence in Istanbul throughout the first 400 years of the Ottoman Empire. The palace contains myriad buildings and courtyards, including a treasury, harems, an armory, imperial halls, and royal chambers—all with intricate Iznik tilework and opulent architecture. The Basics To understand the history of Turkey and the Ottoman Empire in Istanbul, explore the vast Topkapi Palace. The complex has elegant chambers, landscaped grounds, and small museum collections to admire, as well as a viewpoint over the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn. Guided tours, which can offer a more comprehensive experience of the palace, often allow you to skip the long entry lines with a guide, and usually include a visit to the palace’s harem section. Many Istanbul sightseeing tours combine Topkapi Palace with an exploration of the other top sights in Istanbul’s Sultanahmet district, including the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia Museum (Ayasofya), and the Basilica Cistern.