A brief guideline to what Istanbul offers to the first time visitors.
Istanbul is not the capital city but the largest one in Turkey. The city is massive and scattered across two continent. Istanbul has 2 International Airports, Ataturk Airport (IST) on the European side and Sabiha Gokcen Airport (SAW). Turkish Airline has direct flights from many towns all around the world.
Istanbul offers a large variety of hotel category for visitors. The Old City, also known as Sultanahmet has many small family run boutique hotels from simple to luxury level. Taksim area has many 4-5 star hotels. If you stay in the old city you will be within the walking distance to the historic monuments, museums and bazaars. There is also a tramline and a subway goes through old city which make transport very easy if you are staying in other parts of the city.
Below I have put together a list of places to visit and things to do for the first time travelers to Istanbul.
It was built by Sultanahmet I of the Ottoman Empire in the early 17th Century. It is a true masterpiece with its six minarets. The interior is decorated with 20,000 exquisite blue tiles from the town of Iznik. The mosque is still in use and closed to visitors during the pray times and till afternoon on Friday. There is no admission fee to the mosque. You will need to dress modestly and remove your shoes before entering into the carpeted interior. Ladies are also required to wear a headscarf.
This is where horse chariot races used to take place during the Roman and Byzantine period and was the center of social life of Constantinople. The central part of the Hippodrome was decorated with monuments brought from different part of the Empire and some are still standing such as an Obelisk from Egypt and Serpentine Column from Greece. Today it is an open square in front of Blue Mosque and can be visited any time. No admission fee for this place.
This is a great architectural monument built by Justinian of the Byzantine Empire in 6th Century. Hagia Sophia was the largest church for almost 1000 years in the world with its massive central dome. Inside you can see some of the finest Byzantine mosaics. Don’t forget to go up to upper gallery to see beautiful Byzantine mosaics. This is a museum and an admission fee is charged.
This palace was home to the Ottoman Sultans for 400 years. Today it is a museum and houses a rich collection of priceless jewels, crystals, weapons, robes worn by sultans and Muslim sacred trusts. It is a palace complex built on the first hill of the historic peninsula with great views overlooking Bosporus. Bear in mind that this is a huge place and you should allow at least half day if you would like to visit Harem (family) part as well. There are separate admission fees for the palace and harem section.
Underground Basilica Cistern
This the largest underground water reservoir in Istanbul built by Byzantine Emperor Justinian in 532 AD. In Turkish it is known as the sunken palace because of its monumental structure with 12 rows consisting of 336 recycled ancient Roman columns along with two Medusa heads used as bases for columns by Byzantine. Today it is a museum and an admission fee is charged.
This is a masterpiece of Sinan, the Ottoman Architectural genius and was built in honor of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent and his beloved wife Roxelana in 1558. It is the largest Ottoman Mosque with a surrounding complex of schools, library, hospital, medical school and public kitchen representing the peak of the Ottoman Empire’s wealth and power. Today the surrounding complex of buildings are used as shops, restaurants and cafes. Today it is still used as a mosque and you can visit it outside the pray time. Modest dressing and headscarf for ladies is required to visit.
This is one of the most fascinating and oldest bazaar in the world. It has over 4000 indoor shops selling anything from textiles to different type of souvenirs. The bazaar was built in 1461 by the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II after he conquered the city in order to improve the economy and commercial life of Istanbul. In the bazaars narrow alleyways there are thousands of small shops selling goods of almost every color and material. The bazaar is open from 9 AM till 7 PM every day except Sunday. It is also closed on national and religious holidays.
Also built by Ottomans in 1664 was part of the nearby Yeni Camii (New Mosque) complex. For centuries it has been a spice market selling spices, dried fruits, Turkish delights, exotic essence oils and many herbs with an overwhelming fragrant aroma of spices. Walking from one side of the spice market to the other side is like going through an aromatic therapy. The market is open from 9 AM till 7 PM except national and religious holidays.