Istanbul Old City Walk (Self Guided), Istanbul

Situated at the heart of Old Istanbul, the Sultanahmet neighborhood is a fascinating hub of historical timeline. The former administrative center of the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman empires, this area abounds in historic sites, such as the Great Palace of Constantinople – the former residence of Byzantine emperors, the Topkapi Palace – a place where the Ottoman sultans used to live, plus a number of religious structures (churches and mosques), popular museums and other prominent landmarks. To explore the top tourist attractions sitting majestically in the Sultanahmet district, follow this self-guided walk.
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Istanbul Old City Walk Map

Guide Name: Istanbul Old City Walk
Guide Location: Turkey » Istanbul (See other walking tours in Istanbul)
Guide Type: Self-guided Walking Tour (Sightseeing)
# of Attractions: 14
Tour Duration: 2 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 2.5 Km or 1.6 Miles
Author: kane
Sight(s) Featured in This Guide:
  • Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum
  • Sultanahmet Square
  • Obelisk of Theodosius
  • Blue Mosque
  • Arasta Bazaar
  • Great Palace Mosaics Museum
  • Hurrem Sultan Hamam
  • Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya)
  • The Milion Pillar
  • Basilica Cistern (Yerebatan Sarnıcı)
  • Sogukcesme Street
  • Fountain of Ahmed III
  • Hagia Irene
  • Topkapi Palace
1
Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum

1) Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum

The Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum in Sultanahmet Square sits in a palace that has a great deal of archaeology and history attached to it. The palace was built in 1524 above the underground ruins of an ancient Hippodrome, and was designated for Pargalı Ibrahim Pasha, a confidant and second grand vizier to Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, who later also married the Sultan's sister, Hatice Sultan. As history has it, the higher the climb, the greater the fall. Jealous people, including the Sultan's wife, didn't like the influence Ibrahim Pasha had on the monarch and eventually convinced Suleyman in Ibrahim's disloyalty, so he had him executed.

But the palace remained and today houses a museum showcasing over 40,000 exhibits of Islamic art – primarily from the Ottoman era, but also a substantial collection from the earlier Seljuk Turkish period, including illuminated Korans, carpets, miniature paintings, notable examples of Islamic calligraphy, tiles, ceramics, rugs and wooden carvings. In the basement there are interesting ethnographic displays on various cultures of Turkey, particularly the nomadic groups, recreating dwellings from different historic epochs and regions.

Being just a stone's throw away from the tourist hot spots of the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia, this museum offers an enjoyable break away from the hustle and bustle of the Old Town.
2
Sultanahmet Square

2) Sultanahmet Square

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.
3
Obelisk of Theodosius

3) Obelisk of Theodosius

The Obelisk of Theodosius is an ancient Egyptian Obelisk of Pharaoh Tutmoses III, and is also known as the Dikilitaş in Turkish. During the 4th century AD, the obelisk was re-erected by the Roman emperor Theodosius I in the Hippodrome of Constantinople, known today as Sultanahmet Meydanı (Sultanahmet square), a famous tourist spot in today's Istanbul.

Originally the obelisk was built for the great temple of Karnak in Egypt, but then the Roman Emperor Constantine II had it shipped up the river Nile to Alexandria in 357, to commemorate his 20th anniversary on the throne. Eventually, it was transported to Constantinople by Theodosius I.

Made out of red granite, the structure originally stood 30 meters tall, but its lower part was damaged, most probably during the transportation. Today it measures 19.6 meters high and, along with its base, reaches the height of 25.6 meters. On all the four sides of the structure there are inscriptions describing victory of Tutmoses III in 1450 BC, on the banks of the Euphrates River. Multiple damages to the obelisk, caused by repeated relocation and several earthquakes, have resulted in some of the parts being missed – currently replaced with bronze and cubes of porphyry.
4
Blue Mosque

4) 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.

Tip:
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.

Opening Hours:
Daily: 8:30-11:30am / 1-2:30pm / 3:30-4:45pm (except Fridays – only at 1:30pm)
5
Arasta Bazaar

5) Arasta Bazaar

Arasta Bazaar is a well-known, albeit modest open-air market in the heart of Istanbul. Located on the north side of narrow Torun Street, behind the Blue Mosque, the bazaar was built in the 17th century with the idea to use rental revenues from its shops to subsidize the upkeep of the mosque. For many years later, the shops remained empty until the tourism boom of the late 1980s-90s prompted their restoration, making it one of Istanbul's most-visited tourist markets.

If you're tired of or simply don't have time for the Grand Bazaar but still need to buy authentic goods or souvenirs, Arasta Bazaar is a good alternative. Considerably smaller (just a fraction of the Grand Bazaar), cleaner, quieter and less crowded, the Arasta makes both shopping and sightseeing very convenient. Here you will find more than 70 stores selling carpets, kilims, jewelry, pottery, spices, teas, coffee, ceramics, textiles, handicrafts, souvenirs, tiles, scarves and apparel in abundance.

Prices may appear a bit higher than the Grand Bazaar, but still reasonable, and even more so after haggling. The place is quite relaxing to stroll through whilst being invited by dozens of accomplished salesmen speaking fluent English (and a half dozen other languages, too), with bottomless treasure troves of ironic humor and topical jokes, to have a look, take a seat, sip some Turkish coffee or tea and consider the purchase.

Whilst here, you can also visit the Great Palace Mosaic Museum underneath the bazaar. The mosaics found in the environs of the Arasta during excavation works in the 1930s proved that the territory once formed part of the Byzantine-era Great Palace complex.

Opening Times: Monday to Saturday 09:00-19:00. Some shops are open on Sundays as well.
6
Great Palace Mosaics Museum

6) 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 St 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. The museum is open daily: 9:00-19:00 (15 Apr-25 Oct); 9:00-17:00 (25 Oct-15 Apr). Ticket counters close 30 minutes before the museum closing time. Purchase of the Museum Pass – a 72 hour museum access card – will grant you free access.
7
Hurrem Sultan Hamam

7) Hurrem Sultan Hamam

The Ayasofya Hurrem Sultan Hamam, aka Haseki Hamam, is a bath complex in Istanbul designed and built at the request of Hurrem Sultan (Roxelana), the wife of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, in 1556-1557 AD. It stands on the site of the ancient public baths of Zeuxippus (100-200 AD) between the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia, which is also particularly significant as the site where the Temple of Zeus once stood.

Built in the classical Ottoman style, at the total length of 75 meters, it has facilities for both men and women, and was actively in use until 1910, when it was closed and, for some time afterwards, used as a storehouse. After restoration works in the 1950s, the property was converted into a carpet shop.

In 2011, after a 13 million dollar investment and three years of meticulous restoration work, the facility reopened as a hamam once again. From the outside it may look nothing special, but as soon as you step in, you will be in awe. Today, this is one of the most luxurious traditional Turkish hamams, offering 5-star packages with 5-star services that will leave you completely blissed out. The hamam also has an on-site open-air cafe and restaurant. With the motto, "Some rituals never die," the Hurrem Sultan Hamam’s luxuries will leave you feeling like Hurrem Sultan herself. Open daily: 07:00-23:59.
8
Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya)

8) Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya) (must see)

This monumental structure in Istanbul was once an Orthodox patriarchal basilica, then a mosque, and now, finally, is a museum. It was built in the 4th century by Constantine the Great as a church, and has seen much changing in the ruling powers of the city ever since.

Many people mistake it as being dedicated to Saint Sofia, but the church, in fact, was originally dedicated to the second being of the Holy Trinity, and its full Greek name is the “Church of the Holy Wisdom of God”, with Sophia meaning “Wisdom”.

Before its takeover by the Ottoman Turks in 1435, the church housed many holy relics. It was converted into a mosque by Sultan Mehmed II, and remained a mosque for the next 500 years.

Located in the Sultanahmet neighborhood, Hagia Sophia is, without doubt, one of the best examples of Byzantine architecture and was declared a world heritage site by UNESCO in 1985. It features many distinctive decorations and is particularly famous for its fascinating mosaics.

Why You Should Visit:
Unique in being both a church and a mosque, with pertinent symbols omnipresent.
Even if you are not familiar with Byzantine history, you will surely be impressed.
The multi-domed enclosure is so mesmerizing that it's hard to take one's eyes off it!

Tip:
Should you want to visit multiple museums, buy a Museum Pass at the Museum of Turkish & Islamic Arts as there are few people in the line (the queues at the Hagia Sophia are usually enormous and it can take an hour or more to get a ticket). The Museum Pass (valid for 5 days) allows you to queue-jump into this and other museums/attractions as well.

Opening Hours:
Daily: 9am-7pm, last entrance: 6pm (Apr 15-Oct 31); 9am-5pm, last entrance: 4pm (Nov 1-Apr 14)
9
The Milion Pillar

9) The Milion Pillar

The Milion was a mile-marker monument that was erected in Constantinople in the 4th century AD. It had the same function as the Milliarium Aureum present in Rome, and acted as a starting point for measurement for all the roads leading to the main cities of the Byzantine Empire.

The monument remained intact as late as the 15th century, and during the 1960s its fragments were discovered once again. The Milion is located in the district of Eminönü of the Cağaloğlu neighborhood, and is located close to the Basilica Cistern, at the north corner of the Hagia Sophia square.

The Milion was built by Constantine the Great, whilst rebuilding Byzantium which he had named Nova Roma (new Rome). The emperor tried to emulate many features of Old Rome, including the Milion. When it was originally built, the structure was a tetra-pylon surmounted by a dome, or a double triumphal arch surmounted by a dome. It was built near the old Byzantium Walls, in the first region of the city. The monument was considered the origin of all the roads leading from Constantinople to the European cities of the Byzantine Empire with distances marked on the structure.
10
Basilica Cistern (Yerebatan Sarnıcı)

10) 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.

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

Opening Hours:
Daily: 9am-5:30pm
11
Sogukcesme Street

11) Sogukcesme Street

Soğukçeşme Sokağı (“Street of the Cold Fountain”) is a small car-free cobblestone street running downhill between Hagia Sophia and Topkapı Palace. The street is named after a fountain at its end, near Gülhane Park, and is famous primarily for holding historic wooden houses of the Ottoman era. The two-, three-storey houses (four to ten rooms each) were restored (or rather totally rebuilt) in 1985-1986 to give an idea of what typical Istanbul streetscape was like at the turn of the 20th century, before the concrete came over.

Called "Ayasofya Konakları" (Hagia Sophia Mansions), nine of the houses are used as a hostel and are named after the fragrant flower shrubs planted in front of them, namely: "Yaseminli Ev" (Jasmine House), "Mor Salkımlı Ev" (Wisteria Sinensis House), "Hanımeli Ev" (Honeysuckle House), etc. The interior furnishings – beds, consoles, silk curtains, velvet armchairs and gilded mirrors – all feature the original style. Among the notable guests of the hostel, over the years, have been Queen Sofía of Spain, Roman Polanski (film director), Sam Neil (actor), Hilary Swank (actress), Ursula Anders (actress, one of the “Bond girls”), and others.

The street also happens to be the birthplace of Turkey's 6th president Fahri Sabit Korutürk (1903–1987). One of the houses here hosts a library with over 10,000 books on Istanbul. At the one end, towards Gülhane Park, there is a Byzantine cistern housing the cute Sarnıç Restaurant.

Overall, Soğukçeşme is well worth a look, as a break from the great confusion of a huge city, to get relaxed while savoring the calm of this lovely place. Also, whilst here, make sure to check out the Fountain of Sultan Ahmed III at the square in front of the outer gate of Topkapı Palace, a huge standalone structure featuring Ottoman rococo style, built in 1728.
12
Fountain of Ahmed III

12) Fountain of Ahmed III

The Fountain of Ahmed III, otherwise known as the Ahmet Çeşmesi in Turkish, is located in front of the Imperial Gate of the great Topkapı Palace in Istanbul at the site of an older Byzantine fountain called Perayton. The fountain is a Turkish rococo structure and was built in 1728 under the Ottoman Sultan Ahmed III. During the Ottoman period, it was a very popular gathering place and social center.

The fountain's architecture is a combination of contemporary Western and traditional Ottoman styles. It consists of a large square block along with smaller domes. Foliate and floral designs decorate the Mirhab (a niche present in mosques) shaped niches present in the four facades. Each facade contains a çeşme (drinking fountain). An octagonal pool inside the kiosk supplies the water and there is space for an attendant to stand inside the fountain as well. Sherbet or water is distributed from behind a grille to people, free of charge.

Large calligraphic plates are present above the drinking fountains, which are bordered with red and blue tiles. These plates bear calligraphy of a fourteen line poem about water, donated by Seyyid Hüseyin Vehbi bin Ahmed.
13
Hagia Irene

13) Hagia Irene

The Hagia Irene, also known as the Hagia Eirene ("Holy Peace") in Greek and Aya İrini in Turkish, is an Eastern Orthodox Church located in Istanbul, in the outer courtyard of the Topkapı Palace. After being closed, in April 2014 it was opened to the public as a museum. The entrance fee is 20 TL per person.

The church originally stands on the location of a pre-Christian temple, and it is one of the first churches to be built in Constantinople. During the 4th century, Roman Emperor Constantine the Great commissioned the first Hagia Irene church to be built, which burned down in 532. In 538, the church was restored by Emperor Justinian I. Before the Hagia Sophia was completed, the Hagia Irene used to serve as the Patriarchate.

The building is a typical Roman basilica and consists of two naives and an aisle, which have been divided by pillars and columns. Today, the Hagia Irene is one of the last standing examples of Byzantine architecture in Istanbul which has retained its original atrium. Under Constantine V, the church’s interior was decorated with frescoes and mosaics.

Today, due to its extraordinary acoustic characteristics and impressive atmosphere, the museum plays host to the classical music concerts held as part of the Istanbul Music Festival.
14
Topkapi Palace

14) 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!

Tip:
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.

Opening Hours (Museum, Harem and Hagia Irene):
Wed-Mon: 9am-6:45pm, last entrance 6pm (Apr 15-Oct 30); 9am-4:45pm, last entrance 4pm (Nov 1-Apr 14)

Walking Tours in Istanbul, Turkey

Create Your Own Walk in Istanbul

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Roman Heritage Walking Tour

Roman Heritage Walking Tour

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Tour Duration: 2 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 2.5 Km or 1.6 Miles
Asian Side and Bosphorus Walking Tour

Asian Side and Bosphorus Walking Tour

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Tour Duration: 2 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 4.6 Km or 2.9 Miles
Istanbul City Walls

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Travel Distance: 5.6 Km or 3.5 Miles
Bosphorus Coast Walking Tour

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What Istanbul is today and what it was in medieval times is due to the geographical location of the city and the fact that it lies on the Bosphorus shore. This tour will take you along the coast so that you can enjoy the beautiful view and admire the city's architecture.

Tour Duration: 3 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 5.9 Km or 3.7 Miles
Istanbul Introduction Walk

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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.

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Tour Duration: 3 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 5.4 Km or 3.4 Miles

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