Byzantine Heritage Walking Tour, Istanbul

Byzantine Heritage Walking Tour (Self Guided), Istanbul

Originated as a Greek city called Byzantium, what's now known as Istanbul initially made name as Constantinople, an Eastern Roman imperial capital whose greatness had lasted for over a millennium, from 330 AD until the Ottoman invasion in 1453.

The Byzantine Empire’s rich cultural and architectural heritage is still preserved in dazzling sites throughout the city. Away from its Islamic culture, some of Istanbul's imposing and hidden-away landmarks, from important museums to incredible architectural triumphs, are remnants of and testify to its Byzantine past.

The Theodosius Obelisk, the Serpent Column, and the Walled Obelisk are what's left of the former grandeur of the Hippodrome. Also known as Egyptian, for being imported from Egypt, the Obelisk of Theodosius is Istanbul’s oldest historical monument (dating back 3,500 years).

The center of Byzantine Istanbul was two squares: the Forum of Constantine and the Forum of Theodosius. The former plaza, built by Constantine the Great, has a porphyry column honoring the same emperor.

Basilica Cistern (Yerebatan Sarnıcı) – a subterranean wonder that seems like a flooded palace is certainly the biggest of the several hundred ancient cisterns found beneath the city.

Another one of great surviving Byzantine sites is the Stone of Million – a partially intact marble pillar, dating back to the 4th century AD; formerly the starting point of any distance measured within the Byzantine Empire.

After the Ottomans captured the city, many of its landmarks, especially churches, were converted to mosques. One such is Hagia Sophia (also known as Ayasofya), the world famous 6th-century hulking monolith, whose minarets (illuminated with spotlights at night) form an iconic part of Istanbul's skyline.

To have a glimpse of medieval Europe's most prestigious and flourishing city and to explore some of its most noteworthy historic locations, take this self-guided walking tour of the "crown jewel" of Byzantium.
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Byzantine Heritage Walking Tour Map

Guide Name: Byzantine Heritage Walking Tour
Guide Location: Turkey » Istanbul (See other walking tours in Istanbul)
Guide Type: Self-guided Walking Tour (Sightseeing)
# of Attractions: 10
Tour Duration: 2 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 2.5 Km or 1.6 Miles
Author: kane
Sight(s) Featured in This Guide:
  • Boukoleon Palace
  • Walled Obelisk
  • Serpent Column
  • Obelisk of Theodosius (Egyptian Obelisk)
  • Theodosius Cistern
  • Column of Constantine
  • Basilica Cistern (Yerebatan Sarnıcı)
  • The Stone of Million
  • Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya)
  • Great Palace Mosaics Museum
Boukoleon Palace

1) Boukoleon Palace

Lying on the shore of the Marmara Sea in Istanbul, this was one of the city's first Byzantine Palaces, most probably built by Roman Emperor Theodosius II in the 5th century. Originally called Hormisdas, it was later named the Boukoleon (or Bucoleon) from a statue of a bull and a lion that stood the small harbor in front of the palace.

The known and still visible parts were added during the time of Emperor Theophilos (829-842), who greatly expanded and renovated the structure, adding a 300m-long façade on top of the sea-facing walls. It would remain the main palace for the Byzantine court until the 11th century with the construction of the Palace of Blachernae by the Komnenos dynasty.

In the 1204 sacking of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade, Boukoleon was taken by Boniface of Montferrat who found in it treasures "beyond end or counting." Among his prizes was also Empress Margaret, daughter of Bela III of Hungary, who took refuge at the palace and whom Boniface eventually married.

In 2018, it was announced by the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality that the palace would be restored by the Cultural and Natural Heritage Conservation Board, with plans to develop it into an open-air museum with "a timber walking trail for visitors, a museum, and a pool." Until that time comes, the ruins are temporarily protected by fences.
Walled Obelisk

2) Walled Obelisk

The Walled Obelisk, also known by names such as the Constantine Obelisk or the Masonry Obelisk, is a historical monument located at the south end of what was once the Hippodrome of Constantinople, now known as Sultanahmet Square in Istanbul. This area is a major tourist attraction, not only because of the obelisk itself but also due to its proximity to other famous landmarks including the Egyptian Obelisk, the German Fountain, and iconic structures like the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque.

The exact date of the Walled Obelisk's original construction remains a mystery. However, it underwent significant reconstruction in the 10th century under the directive of Emperor Constantine VII. This reconstruction effort saw the 32-meter (approximately 105 feet) tall structure being rebuilt with roughly cut stones. During this period, it was adorned with gilded bronze plaques that showcased the military triumphs of Basil I, who was Constantine VII's grandfather. A sphere placed atop the obelisk added to its grandeur.

Unfortunately, the Walled Obelisk's splendor was not to last. In 1204, during the Fourth Crusade, the obelisk was plundered, with its gilded bronze plaques being stolen and melted down. Adding to its woes, the obelisk also suffered surface damage inflicted by young Janissaries, members of the Ottoman Sultan's household troops, who would climb the monument to demonstrate their agility and strength.

Despite these challenges, the Walled Obelisk has endured through the centuries and continues to be a point of interest for countless tourists visiting Istanbul. Its historical significance and the stories of its past make it a captivating sight for those looking to delve into the rich history of one of the world's most historically significant cities.
Serpent Column

3) Serpent Column

To raise the image of his new capital, Constantine and his successors, especially Theodosius the Great, brought works of art from all over the empire to adorn it. The monuments were set up in the middle of the Hippodrome, the spina. Among these was the Tripod of Plataea, now known as the Serpent Column, cast to celebrate the victory of the Greeks over the Persians during the Persian Wars in the 5th century BC. Together with its original golden tripod and cauldron (both long missing), it constituted a trophy or offering reminding of a military victory, dedicated to Apollo.

Constantine ordered the Tripod to be moved from the Temple of Apollo at Delphi and set in the middle of the Hippodrome. While it appears that the golden cauldron was never brought to Constantinople, the serpent heads and top third of the column were destroyed in 1700; parts of the heads were recovered and are displayed at the Istanbul Archaeology Museum.

All that remains of the monument today is the base, located near the Walled Obelisk and the Egyptian Column in Sultanahmet Square, a popular tourist spot in Istanbul.

The column in its complete form is depicted in several paintings on display at the nearby Hagia Sofia.
Obelisk of Theodosius (Egyptian Obelisk)

4) Obelisk of Theodosius (Egyptian Obelisk)

Commissioned by Pharaoh Thutmose III in the 15th century BC, the Egyptian Obelisk has four faces with a single central column of inscription, celebrating the Pharaoh's victory over the Mitanni which took place on the banks of the Euphrates in about 1450 BC. With the ascent of the Hittite Empire, Mitanni and Egypt eventually struck an alliance to protect their mutual interests from the threat of Hittite domination.

What you see is only the top third of the original obelisk built for the great temple of Karnak in Egypt, which the Romans had cut into pieces and shipped up the river Nile to Alexandria in 390 AD. This top section has survived nearly 3,500 years in astonishingly good condition., and it stands today where Emperor Theodosius placed it, on a marble pedestal, to commemorate his 20th anniversary on the throne of Constantinople. The reliefs on the pedestal show Theodosius as he offers a laurel wreath to the victor from the Kathisma (Imperial box) at the Hippodrome.

If you're around the area, give this monument a look. Its towering figure inside a peaceful park is rather exciting, especially for history buffs.
Theodosius Cistern

5) Theodosius Cistern

One of many ancient cisterns of Constantinople that lie beneath the city of Istanbul, the Theodosius Cistern – built by Roman Emperor Theodosius II between 428 and 443 – was once part of the city's 250-kilometers-long water-supply system. Like the Basilica and Binbirdirek cisterns, it is once again open to the public, having undergone an eight-year renovation.

Although a visit here doesn't take long, it is worth seeing and hearing the history behind the place and how people used to store water in the olden days. A wonderful example of Roman ingenuity, the cistern is well lit and beautifully taken care of, with no waiting lines and free-of-charge acess. They also added sound effects which really make the whole experience much better, and there are even some artworks and historical handmade Turkish rugs on display. All in all, one of the most interesting and relaxing places in Istanbul!

Use the stairs to get nice views from above the columns, and stop by Ruby Ceramics & Gift Shop across the road – you won't regret it!
Column of Constantine

6) Column of Constantine

The monumental Column of Constantine was constructed on the orders of the Roman emperor Constantine the Great in 330 AD to commemorate the declaration of Byzantium as the new capital city of the Roman Empire.

Located along the old Road to the Imperial Council between the Hippodrome of Constantinople (now Sultanahmet Square) and the Forum of Theodosius (now Beyazıt Square), the column was 50 meters tall on its erection and had the statue of Constantine (in the figure of Apollo) carrying an orb that allegedly contained a fragment of the True Cross. At the foot of the column was a sanctuary which contained even more relics, allegedly from the crosses of the two thieves who were crucified with Jesus Christ at Calvary, the baskets from the loaves and fishes miracle, an alabaster ointment jar belonging to Mary Magdalene and used by her for anointing the head and feet of Jesus, and a wooden statue of Pallas Athena from Troy.

A strong gale in 1106 AD felled the statue and three of the column's upper cylinders. Some years later, Byzantine emperor Manuel I Komnenos (reigned 1143-1180) placed a cross on top in place of the original statue and added a commemorative inscription that read "Faithful Manuel invigorated this holy work of art, which has been damaged by time". Bronze wreaths once covered the joints between the drums, but these were taken by the Latin Crusaders who plundered the city during the Fourth Crusade in 1204. The cross was removed by the Ottoman Turks after the fall of Constantinople in 1453.

Earthquakes and a fire in 1779 destroyed the neighborhood surrounding the column, leaving it with black scorch marks and earning it the name 'Burnt Column'. It was then restored by Sultan Abdülhamid I, who had the present masonry base added. The column's original platform is 2.5 meters (about 8 feet) below ground.
Basilica Cistern (Yerebatan Sarnıcı)

7) Basilica Cistern (Yerebatan Sarnıcı) (must see)

The Yerebatan Sarnıcı or the Basilica Cistern translates as “Cistern Sinking Into Ground” and is one of the many ancient cisterns that are present in the city of Istanbul. Located near the Hagia Sophia, on the peninsula of Sarayburnu, it was built in the 6th century AD by the Byzantine emperor Justinian the first. The name is derived from the Stoa Basilica upon which it was built. The Basilica was said to be built by Ilias and housed many structures and gardens. Historical texts state that over seven thousand slaves were involved in the construction of the Cistern.

The cistern used to provide a filtration system for the water for the Great Palace of Constantinople and surrounding buildings on the historic First Hill. After the Ottoman conquest, it continued to provide water to the Topkapi Palace and continues to do so in modern times. It has undergone many restorations, both by Ottoman emperors and the Roman emperors before them.

Today, the cistern is open to visitors and houses many historical relics like the Medusa columns and triumphal arches. The former can be viewed in the cistern's North West corner.

Why You Should Visit:
Great (spooky) atmosphere that makes for magnificent photos and the preservation of history is done remarkably.
Right next to Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace, and the Blue Mosque, so easy to fit it in along with the other attractions.

Watch your step as some parts (near Medusa heads) can be extra slippery, and take a jacket especially if you get cold easily.
The Stone of Million

8) The Stone of Million

The Stone of Milion is all that remains of the 4th-century triumphal gate that served as the Byzantine zero-mile marker. Consciously emulating the Golden Milestone (Milliarium Aureum) in Rome's Forum, it was considered as the origin of all the roads leading to the European cities of the Byzantine Empire, and on its base were inscribed the distances of all the main cities of the Empire from Constantinople.

The monument was actually much more complex than its Roman counterpart: a double triumphal arch surmounted by a dome, which was carried by four arches and crowned by the statues of Constantine and his mother Helena with a cross, looking towards the east, between them. A statue of the Tyche (presiding tutelary deity) of the City stood behind them.

Until the late 19th century, the zero meridian was considered to have passed through Istanbul, where there were Milion Stone once stood; therefore, many countries around the world set their clocks to Istanbul's time. In fact, the maps were prepared based on this point and directions were found here. At the 1884 International Meridian Conference, however, the "common zero of longitude and standard of time reckoning throughout the world" was moved from Istanbul to Greenwich.
Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya)

9) Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya) (must see)

Hagia Sophia is a significant Byzantine structure in Istanbul, renowned globally as one of the most impressive monuments. Initially constructed as a Christian church during the 6th century CE (532–537), it was commissioned by the Byzantine emperor Justinian I. The building's architecture mirrors the region's religious history with minarets, Islamic inscriptions, and intricate Christian mosaics.

The Hagia Sophia, recognized by UNESCO as a World Cultural Heritage site, stands out as a significant architectural achievement. Its grand dome, reaching a height of 180 feet and a width of 100 feet, marked a pivotal moment in architectural design. This building is accented by four minarets from the Ottoman period, added after its initial construction.

The Hagia Sophia has undergone numerous changes in its role through history, initially serving as a cathedral and becoming the core of the Eastern Orthodox Church for almost a thousand years.

When the Ottomans took over Constantinople in 1453, Sultan Mehmed II transformed it into a mosque, leading to the removal of many Christian features and the concealment of Christian images.

What stands out about the Hagia Sophia is its blend of Islamic and Christian symbols, showcasing a unique mix of religious histories. It houses a central mihrab pointing towards Mecca alongside a mosaic of the Virgin Mary and Jesus, reflecting its past as both a cathedral and a mosque.

The building is also home to stunning mosaics, including the notable 13th-century Deësis mosaic featuring Christ, John the Baptist, and the Virgin Mary.

An interesting part of the Hagia Sophia is the 'wishing column' located in the northwest section, believed to grant wishes or healing to those who follow a specific ritual involving their thumb and wrist. It's said that even Justinian found relief from a headache here.

Today, as the Hagia Sophia returns to being a place of worship, its history museum has moved to the nearby Ibrahim Pasha Palace, just a short walk from the mosque.

Why You Should Visit:
Unique in being both a church and a mosque, with pertinent symbols omnipresent.
The multi-domed enclosure is so mesmerizing that it's hard to take one's eyes off it!
Great Palace Mosaics Museum

10) Great Palace Mosaics Museum

The Museum of Great Palace Mosaics is a bi-level gallery within the Blue Mosque compound, beneath the Arasta Bazaar. It hosts one of the most beautiful pavement mosaics in the world unearthed at the site of the Byzantine-era Great Palace of Constantinople. If the mosaics of Hagia Sophia and Kariye Museum (Chora Church) left you jaw-dropped with admiration, then you should visit this place for certain.

While not as grand as the former two sites, the mosaics here are truly impressive, originated circa 450-550 AD. 40,000 pieces of limestone, earthenware and colored stones once formed part of a large (1,872 square meter) peristyle courtyard within Constantine the Great’s Palatium Magnum (Great Palace) during the East Roman period, largely predating the Ottoman's Blue Mosque.

In the 7th and 8th century, when painting was forbidden, the ground mosaics were covered with huge marble panels and forgotten. During the Ottoman era, due possible danger from the sea, the palaces were moved to the Golden Horn region and a residential district was established over the mosaics area (with no idea they were there). It wasn't until 1921 that the excavation works started after a big fire hit the area and the hidden mosaics showed up. Diggings continued throughout 1935-1951 led by archaeologists from Saint Andrews University, Scotland.

The mosaics lie largely where they were found, featuring over 150 human and animal figures, depicting daily life, mythological gods, animals in a fight and hunting scenes, and are rightfully considered one of Istanbul's greatest finds of the 20th century. The site was declared a museum in 1997.

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