Istanbul Introduction Walking Tour, Istanbul

Istanbul Introduction Walking Tour (Self Guided), Istanbul

Formerly known as “Byzantium”, “Constantinople” and “New Rome”, Istanbul is the main city of Turkey, straddling the Bosphorus Strait, and as such, bridging the gap between Europe and Asia, both geographically and culturally. This ancient transcontinental metropolis embraces cultural influences of the many empires and civilizations that once ruled and flourished on this land.

Founded circa 660 BCE under the name of Byzantion, the city had evolved into one of the most influential in history. In 330 CE it was renamed Constantinople (the "City of Constantine") after Constantine the Great made it a new eastern capital of the Roman Empire. At that time, the Emperor also played with the idea of calling it "Nova Roma" (New Rome), but that name didn't stick.

Constantinople remained an imperial capital for more than one and a half thousand years, during the Roman, Latin, Byzantine and Ottoman empires, and was instrumental in the spread of Christianity across Eastern Europe until it was conquered by the Ottomans in 1453 CE and became an Islamic stronghold – seat of the Ottoman Caliphate.

For centuries, the city enjoyed a strategic position as the only sea route between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, was part of the historic Silk Road, and controlled rail networks between the Balkans and the Middle East. At the dusk of the Ottoman era in 1923, the capital of the newly-established Turkish Republic moved to Ankara and the city was renamed Istanbul.

Despite that, its prominence in geopolitical and cultural affairs didn't wane and, since the 1950s, Istanbul's population has grown tenfold, making it the largest city in the region. Furthermore, in the late 20th century Istanbul became a venue for arts, music, film, and cultural festivals entailing major infrastructure improvement.

Our Istanbul Introduction Walk covers some of the most prominent relics of Istanbul, such as the Blue Mosque in the Old City, the iconic Byzantine Hagia Sophia with a soaring 6th-century dome and rare Christian mosaics, and many more. To see these and other historic landmarks adorning Istanbul, follow this self-guided walking tour and explore!
How it works: Download the app "GPSmyCity: Walks in 1K+ Cities" from Apple App Store or Google Play Store to your mobile phone or tablet. The app turns your mobile device into a personal tour guide and its built-in GPS navigation functions guide you from one tour stop to next. The app works offline, so no data plan is needed when traveling abroad.

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Istanbul Introduction Walking Tour Map

Guide Name: Istanbul Introduction Walking Tour
Guide Location: Turkey » Istanbul (See other walking tours in Istanbul)
Guide Type: Self-guided Walking Tour (Sightseeing)
# of Attractions: 9
Tour Duration: 2 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 4.3 Km or 2.7 Miles
Author: kane
Sight(s) Featured in This Guide:
  • Sultanahmet Square
  • Blue Mosque
  • Basilica Cistern (Yerebatan Sarnıcı)
  • Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya)
  • Topkapi Palace
  • Spice Bazaar
  • Rustem Pasha Mosque
  • Suleymaniye Mosque
  • Grand Bazaar
Sultanahmet Square

1) Sultanahmet Square (must see)

The former Hippodrome of Constantinople, a circus arena where chariot races and other sporting events once marked the heyday of the Byzantine Empire, today got a new life in the form of Sultanahmet Meydanı (Sultan Ahmet Square) in the heart of modern-day Istanbul. Here, alongside a few surviving fragments of the ancient Hippodrome, you will find all the famous landmarks of the city, including the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace Museum, Sultan Ahmed Mosque, Suleymaniye Mosque, Serpents column, the Museum of Turkish & Islamic Arts and many others. The Basilica Cistern is a mere 40m walk from the square and the Grand Bazaar is within a walking distance, too.

The square is very large and has lots of benches scattered around which is quite convenient for taking a break after long hours of sightseeing and/or for grabbing a quick bite from one of the food carts abound in the area selling a variety of breads, roasted corn and chestnuts, simit (Turkish pretzel) with or without chocolate cream, and plenty more. Along the tram line on both sides there are shops, restaurants and cafes offering generous selections of teas, coffee, Turkish Delights and gift packs.

As a gathering place, Sultanahmet is continuously bustling with tourists and locals alike, families enjoying the colorful artezian fountain, children running along the greenery between alleys, and the elderly folk basking in the brightness of life all around them. The square is also home to a large number of street cats and dogs who seem to be rather friendly and keep to themselves. The place is open to the elements and provides very little cover, so carrying an umbrella or raincoat, if rain is predicted, is highly recommended.
Blue Mosque

2) Blue Mosque (must see)

One of the most frequently visited and famous tourist spots in Istanbul, the Sultan Ahmed Mosque – popularly known as the “Blue Mosque” due to the blue tiles that adorn the walls of its interior – was built between 1609 and 1616 during the reign of Ahmed the First. It contains a tomb of the Sultan, a madrassah (religious school) and also a hospice. Despite being a very famous tourist attraction, it still functions as a mosque, and a call for prayer (azaan) still draws the faithful to its gates from far and wide. Usually accessible 24 hours a day, the mosque is not open for tourists during prayer time (which is approximately half an hour) five times a day, unless they are there to pray.

Built near the Hagia Sophia and surrounded by a popular tourist district, visitors to the mosque can enjoy several museums, cafes, restaurants and parks in the nearby vicinity. The mosque itself was originally built on the site of the ancient Byzantine Imperial Palace and Hippodrome and took nearly seven years to complete. This masterpiece of Ottoman architecture boasts many examples of Islamic Art and calligraphy that adorn its walls from the inside.

Why You Should Visit:
Compared to other mosques in Istanbul, this one is significantly easier to access because of its free admission and central location.
Timings are strict, a dress code is enforced and the queues are long, but the sense of tranquility that you get inside (even with crowds around) is worth it all.

Go early to avoid queues and if you need to wait, look at the details rather than focus on the line. The details in Islamic architecture/design are what sets it apart.
Close by, there are places to eat and drink if you need sustenance after or before visiting.
You could also simply walk around it as much as you are allowed, and snap some pics.
Basilica Cistern (Yerebatan Sarnıcı)

3) 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.
Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya)

4) 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!
Topkapi Palace

5) Topkapi Palace (must see)

For most tourists, the Topkapi Palace is usually number one on the list of places to visit in Istanbul. This grand palace was the official residence of the Ottoman Sultans for almost 400 years and is also a UNESCO world heritage site since 1985.

The Topkapi Palace is built on a huge scale with four courtyards and a Harem, and each location therein houses incredible displays of Islamic art, holy relics and history. The most prized collection is that of the Islamic relics which include Prophet Mohamed’s (PBUH) sword along with the swords of his closest companions, the cloak of his daughter Fatima and other holy relics.

The spacious grounds, the many gardens and rest stops are ideal for strolling at one's leisure, but most of the exhibits have very long waiting lines, especially the Harem and the Islamic Relics displays. There is a museum shop, a cafe and also a coffee shop for tourists. To visit all the exciting places and displays in the Topkapi Palace, you need a full day or, ideally, a tour should be booked.

Why You Should Visit:
Probably the world's finest museum of applied arts; as someone who loves beauty, you will cry from the visual experience of some of the objects displayed.
And, obviously, at the end of your tour, you're welcome to take a walk around the cafe area that overlooks the Bosphorus Strait... Breathtaking!

Do come early in the morning to avoid crowds and rent an audio guide (available in several languages) to maximize the experience.
If you want to rent the audio guide, make sure to have a valid ID ready.
Note that you cannot take photos or videos in most of the exhibit halls.
Spice Bazaar

6) Spice Bazaar

No visit to Istanbul is complete without stopping by the atmospheric Spice Bazaar, one of the largest and most famous bazaars in Istanbul, located near the Galata Bridge in the Eminönü quarter of the Fatih district. While the Grand Bazaar may be the largest and most popular covered shopping complex in the city, this spice market is by far the most colorful, fragrant, and often the most fun.

Built in 1664, as part of the Yeni Camii (New Mosque) complex, it is known locally as Mısır Çarşısı, which is sometimes translated to either "Egyptian Bazaar" or 'Corn Market' (as mısır in Turkish means both “Egypt” and “corn”). There are several documents, however, suggesting that initially the place was called "New Bazaar" and eventually got the name "Egyptian" because its construction was subsidized with proceeds from the Ottoman eyalet of Egypt in 1660. As part of the New Mosque, the revenues obtained from the shop rentals within the bazaar were used for the mosque upkeep.

Traditionally, this place has been the center of spice trade in Istanbul, although in recent years it has seen more and more shops of other type move in. Currently, the bazaar has a total of 85 shops under its roof selling spices, Turkish delight and other sweets, dried fruits and nuts, tea, Turkish coffee, pottery, jewelry, and souvenirs. Overall, the market is a wonderful place to stroll and enjoy the sights, smells and, of course, tastes. Of course, as in all tourist destinations, the discussion of price here is essential, so haggling is welcome.
Rustem Pasha Mosque

7) Rustem Pasha Mosque

Built during 1561-63 and located in Eminonu, Istanbul, this is an Imperial Ottoman mosque of great significance. It was designed by the famed Imperial Architect Mimar Sinan for the Grand Vizier Damat Rüstem Pasha, husband of Princess Mihrimah, daughter of the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman “the Magnificent”.

The mosque has a large number of Iznik tiles (decorated ceramic tiles) that make it distinct from others. They are set in many floral and geometric patterns that cover not only the interior but are also found on the columns and porch outside. No other mosque in Istanbul makes use of such tiles in such a manner. The tiles used to decorate Rüstem Pasha are of the characteristic tomato-red color, which denotes the early Iznik period.

The mosque was built overlooking a vast complex of shops whose rent used to financially support the mosque complex. The main dome of the mosque rests on four semi-domes and the design of the building is that of an octagon inscribed in a rectangle. Galleries are present to the north and south of the main room, and these are supported by marble columns and pillars.

Why You Should Visit:
Stunning mosque demonstrating some of the greatest Ottoman architecture and tile work of the classic period.
Tricky entrance on a 2nd floor, through a small gate and a short stair, but once you make it to the front you get fascinated.

Entry is free, but as expected – shoes off before entering and head scarves for the women.
The mosque is right beside the Spice Market, so it's very easy to visit the two spots in one morning/afternoon.
Suleymaniye Mosque

8) Suleymaniye Mosque (must see)

Built for Suleiman “The Magnificent” by the famous imperial architect Mimar Sinan in 1557, the Süleymaniye Mosque is modeled in part on the Hagia Sofia, and in part on a Byzantine basilica, in order to reflect the grandeur of the city’s past architectural monuments.

In 1660, the Süleymaniye Mosque was ravaged by fire and was restored by Mehmet IV. Unfortunately, that restoration work had changed the mosque into a baroque-style structure and ruined the original architecture. The mosque has undergone many restorations ever since. Today it is one of the most popular tourist sites in Istanbul.

The mosque complex consists of a caravanserai, an imaret (public kitchen), a madrassa (Islamic school), a hospital and a hammam (Turkish bath). The public kitchen was constructed to serve food to the poor. The gardens behind the mosque consist of Turbe (tombs) of the great Sultan Suleiman, his wife Roxelana, his mother Dilasub Saliham, his daughter Mihrimah and his sister Asiye. The tombs are fashioned on the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. The mosque is distinct from others as it contains the tomb of the great architect Sinan, designed by the occupant himself.

Why You Should Visit:
Great picturesque neighborhood, fewer tourists, sensational views of the city and quite a peaceful and solemn overall experience.

To really enjoy the views, go down and find some restaurants on the rooftops of the buildings close to the mosque.
If you have trouble walking up and down, consider renting a (reliable) taxi cab or plan your ascent/descent accordingly.
Grand Bazaar

9) Grand Bazaar (must see)

One of the oldest markets in the world, the Grand Bazaar of Istanbul or the Kapalicarsi (“covered bazaar”) has more than 58 covered streets and more than 4,000 shops. Anywhere from a quarter to half a million visitors come here daily.

The Grand Bazaar was built from 1455 to 1461 and has been open ever since. It is famed for its exquisite Turkish jewelry, silver decoration pieces, spices, Turkish delights (famous Turkish sweets), pottery and carpet shops. Visitors can also find leather goods, gold and diamond jewelry, as well as clothing here in rich supply.

The bazaar is particularly famous for the “Turkish Evil Eye” – an amulet made of blue and white glass believed to ward off evil spirits. Almost every street here has an “evil eye” stall, with many variations of the amulet being sold to tourists.

Originally the bazaar contained bedestens, which are domed structures used for storage, and was enlarged during the 16th century. After a major earthquake in 1894, the bazaar went under major restoration. Today, it contains two hammams (Turkish baths), two mosques, four fountains, as well as many cafes and restaurants.

Why You Should Visit:
The bazaar's centuries-old history can still be seen from the countless frescoes on the many ceiling arches and ancient columns; however, the main charm lies in its chaotic organization. Every turn is full of unexpected surprises – you will never know what you're going to find! No purchase is necessary to join this festivity.

If you are in need of Turkish Lira cash, this is an excellent place to exchange.
Be prepared to walk away if the seller does not agree with your asking price (or watch what happens next!).

Walking Tours in Istanbul, Turkey

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Tour Duration: 2 Hour(s)
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