Sultanahmet neighbourhood, the true historic heart of Istanbul, covers a small area that has been sought after by different European and Middle Eastern powers since antiquity. Long before the Ottomans conquered the city and made it the capital of their empire in the 15th century, this area had already been the capital of the decadent Roman Empire, the thousand-year-old Byzantium Empire and, briefly, the Latin Empire.
Sitting atop Sarayburnu, a strategic promontory lapped by the waters of the Bosphorus, Sultanahmet is home to some of the city’s most valuable historic monuments and was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985. Today, it’s the most tourism-focused area of the city and the true cultural centre of Turkey.
Gülhane Park is the heart of the neighbourhood, a beautiful tree-lined space that leads to the largest historical monument in Istanbul: Topkapi Palace. Built shortly after the Turkish conquest, this palace complex housed the empire’s administrative power for five centuries. Today, it’s open to tourists and its Treasure Room and Harem are two of the most visited spaces. The park also contains the Archaeology Museum of Istanbul, founded at the end of the 19th century, and its collections are certain to impress anyone interested in antiquity.
Hagia Sophia is just metres away and this ancient basilica is one of the biggest attractions in old Istanbul. Built three times by the long-vanished Byzantium Empire, the current building dates from 532 and was for many years the largest Christian temple in the world. Subsequently converted into a mosque, in 1935 Kemal Atatürk, the first president of the Republic of Turkey, had it converted into a museum.
Interestingly, it’s said that sultan Ahmet I drew his inspiration from Hagia Sophia when he ordered the Blue Mosque to be built in 1609, a voluptuous building on the other side of Sultanahmet Square. Free to enter (with certain clothing restrictions), two hundred Venetian stained-glass windows, six minarets and 20,000 blue tiles from Iznek make this mosque the most beautiful in Istanbul. Another museum sits beside it: the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art.
The ancient Hippodrome of Constantinople, with countless remains from different civilizations, and the Basilica Cistern, an underground water store built during the Byzantine period, round off the most significant historic and artistic heritage of Sultanahmet.
Finally, it’s also worth visiting other tourist attractions that neighbour the area, such as the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Bazaar, two old markets that are impressive in size and make an essential stop during your visit, even if you don’t plan to buy anything.
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