The city where Europe meets Asia has long played host to
history on an epic scale. From Byzantine churches to Ottoman palaces, its
well-preserved heritage is still very present on a visit to Turkey’s largest
Commissioned by the Byzantine emperor Justinian in 532 AD, the Aya Sofya
was Christendom’s crowning jewel for a millennium. It became a mosque under the
Ottomans and is now a museum. A vast, seemingly unsupported dome crowns golden
mosaics and stained-glass windows that bathe the space in ethereal half-light
(Ayasofya Sq; closed Mon; admission £9).
In the 1600s, Sultan Ahmed I set out to build a mosque to
surpass Aya Sofya. He came close: the curvaceous exterior of the Blue Mosque
(formally, Sultanahmet Mosque) and its six minarets (a record at the time)
dominate the Old City skyline. The interior features stained glass, marble
latticework and tens of thousands of fine blue tiles; after which the mosque is
named (Hippodrome; closed to visitors at prayer times; donation requested).
The 16th-century Süleymaniye Mosque, set atop one of the
city’s seven hills, was commissioned by the richest and most powerful of
sultans, Süleyman the Manificent, and certainly lives up to its patron’s name.
Designed by Mimar Sinan, the most renowned of all imperial architects, its
spacious, light-filled interior is patterned with Iznik tiles and stained glass
windows (Prof Sıddık Sami Onar Caddesi; donation requested).
Old City monuments
The Basilica Cistern, a magnificent underground reservoir, has 336 columns –
each 9m high – arranged in 12 rows beneath a vast vaulted ceiling. The effect
is striking: a symmetrical, softly lit forest of pillars reflected in a mirror
of water below. Visitors walk through on raised wooden boards while schools of
ghostly carp flit through the waters below (Yerebatan Caddesi
13; admission £3.50).
Home to the ruling sultans of the Ottoman Empire from the
1460s to the 1850s, the Topkapi Palace encompasses richly decorated chambers,
tile-lined pleasure pavilions overlooking the Bosphorus and the private world
of the harem. Extravagant relics of the dynasty’s intrigue and excess abound,
among them lavish costumes, an 86-carat diamond and a jewel-encrusted dagger
(Topkapı Sarayı; closed Tue; admission £9, plus £5 for
Founded more than 500 years ago by Mehmet II, Istanbul’s
first Ottoman ruler, the Grand Bazaar has grown from humble origins (one small
warehouse) into one of the most famous souqs in the world. A covered city
within a city, its miles of alleyways are lined with over 4,000 shops stacked
with everything from antiques, jewellery and carpets to Turkish delight. Its
Old Book Bazaar dates back to Byzantine times (Kapalı
Çarşı, 8.30am-7pm; closed Sun).
The Çemberlitaş Hamami is one of the city’s most beautiful Turkish baths.
Designed by the architect Sinan, it has separate baths for men and women, with
bathing basins, private cubicles and an ornate, domed chamber at its centre.
Treatments include exfoliating scrubs and oil massages (Vezirhan Caddesi 8; from £16).
The elegant Zihni Bar inhabits a century-old apartment in
the Nişantaşı district, designed by the architect Vedat Tek, famed for his
ornate Ottoman-style buildings. The whole place is a time-warp of wood
panelling, tiled alcoves, ornate ceilings and stained glass, and makes for an
evocative place for a cocktail or glass of Turkish wine (Vali
Konağı Cadesi 39; closed Sun & May–Sep; glass of wine from £6).
Tucked away in the district of Fatih next to the exquisite
Chora Church, the elegant courtyard restaurant Asitane offers a taste of
Ottoman imperial cuisine. Its team have spent decades hunting down and testing
historic recipes. From cinnamon-dusted chicken to vine leaves stuffed with sour
cherries, the fruits of their labours are truly fit for a sultan’s table
(Kariye Camii Sokak 6; mains from £9).
BA, easyJet, Pegasus Airlines and Turkish Airlines all fly to Istanbul from
London (from £100). Turkish Airlines also flies from Birmingham,
Edinburgh and Manchester. The most enjoyable way to get around is via one of
numerous ferry routes (fares from £2). Between them, the city’s handful of metro, train, tram and
light rail lines serve a sizeable area. The basic fare across public transport
is 50p, but the Istanbulkart smart card gives discounts. Taxis
are another cheap way to get around, with a 90p flagfall then 60p per
Where to stay
The Hotel Sari Konak is full of historic touches such as antiques, etchings and
embroideries. Relax by the courtyard fountain, or take in city views from the
rooftop terrace (Mimar Mehmet Aga Caddesi 42–46;
Next to historic Galata Tower, Anemon Galata features
elegant rooms with painted ceilings and an opulent foyer. The glass-walled
rooftop restaurant offers splendid views (cnr Galata Meydani
& Büyükhendek Caddesi; from £120).
The 120-year-old and recently renovated Pera Palace Hotel
has long been the choice of famous travellers, most notably Agatha Christie.
The hotel retains a sense of luxury in its grand public spaces (Mesrutiyet Caddesi 52; from £180).
The article 'Mini guide to historic Istanbul' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Traveller.