This district was creatively named after Sultan Ahmet I, after he commissioned the Blue Mosque. Interestingly, Sultan Ahmet I was the first of the Ottoman sultans to break the fratricide rule. This district is also known as the Old City in Istanbul. Most tourists find the majority of their time spent in this district or in Beyoğlu, which is also by the Bosphorus. If you cross the Golden Horn, you’ll find yourself in Beyoğlu.
If you want to explore Sultanahmet, we’ve compiled a list of the most important places to see, best gift shops, hotels, and restaurants.
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Best things to do and see in Sultanahmet:
1. Hagia Sophia
The Byzantine Emperor Justinian commissioned Hagia Sophia in 537. While the Great Palace of Constantine, built after the Hagia Sophia, has not survived, this captivating building still stands and has a rich history. Its religious importance has been emphasized by the world, particularly recently. Originally it was a church. When the Ottoman Empire invaded the old city, they converted the Hagia Sophia into a mosque. Since then, its Turkish name has been Aya Sofya. In the Republic era, it was known as the Aya Sofya Museum.
As it is now a mosque again, visitors are no longer charged an entrance fee. Tourists may visit outside prayer hours. If you’re curious about the Great Palace of Constantinople, you may also wish to visit the Great Palace Mosaics Museum, which is within walking distance.
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2. Sultanahmet Square
Sultanahmet Square was also known as the Hippodrome of Constantinople, and it contains several architectural relics. The German Fountain, for example, was built in a neo-Byzantine style to celebrate Emperor Wilhelm II’s visit to Istanbul in 1891.
The Theodosius Obelisk was brought over from Egypt by Theodosius the Great and is currently about 3500 years old. The Serpent Column was brought from Delphi in 324AD to celebrate the victory the Byzantinians secured over the Persians. There’s also the Walled Obelisk that, although repaired in the 10th century, its date of origin is unknown.
It’s unfortunate that some of the relics have been lost to time. The seven statues of Porphyrius aren’t there anymore. However, if you want to sound like a tour guide, you can tell your friends that the hippodrome was the site of celebrations when Sultan Ahmet III’s sons were circumcised.
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3. Blue Mosque (Sultanahmet Camii)
Known in Turkish as the Sultanahmet Camii, or the Sultanahmet Mosque, the Blue Mosque was commissioned by… you guessed it: Sultan Ahmet I. A student of the famous architect Sinan built this mosque. Both the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque were once imperial mosques.
The Hagia Sophia inspired the Sultanahmet Mosque. Therefore it has both Byzantine and Ottoman elements in its design. Its six slender minarets and cascading domes dominate the Istanbul skyline.
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4. Arasta Bazaar
If the crowds of the Grand Bazaar and Spice Bazaar are too much, we have good news for you. Hiding behind the legendary Blue Mosque is a smaller version of the Grand Bazaar. Arasta Bazaar may be the cooler part of the Sultanahmet neighborhood. The reason? The salespeople are less pushy. There are fewer tourists here. Introverted people who want a feel for that traditional Istanbul experience of exploring bazaars may prefer to find inspiration for their wardrobe in these quiet streets.
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5. Topkapı Palace Museum
This magnificent one is one of the most important of all the Turkish Palaces because it was the first Ottoman palace in Istanbul. The Ottoman Sultans used this spot as the primary royal residence from 1458-1873. Hurrem Sultan became the first woman to marry a sultan and move into this palace. There is a guided tour to cover all the history, and a fast track entry means you don’t have to wait in line as this is one of the more popular Turkish museums.
If you purchase a Museum Pass Istanbul, it will be cheaper. It’ll be like using the same ticket for the Topkapı Palace, Galata Mevlevihouse, and the Istanbul Archeology Museums.
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6. Basilica Cistern
Justinian I’s may have been the most ambitious of all of the Byzantine Emperors. The Basilica Cistern and Hagia Sophia were built during his reign. Even if you’re not interested in history, you may still wish to visit to capture its beauty. It’s the perfect place for visitors to meditate. Look out for the Medusa Column.
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7. Gülhane Park
Gülhane is one of the few attractions with its own spot on the tram line. The best time to visit is during the Tulip Festival when the park is brimming with colorful tulips and roses. Once upon a time, Gülhane Park used to supply Topkapı Palace with roses.
Gülhane is one of the oldest green spaces in Istanbul, and it has a rich history. In 1839, the Edict of Gülhane took place here. This edict, among many progressive reforms, emancipated minorities. Nearby, there is the Hagia Irene Museum, which was once a Byzantine church and is now occasionally used as a concert. Also nearby is the newly opened Museum of the History of Science and Technology in Islam.
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8. Soğukçeşme Street
This is one of those significant streets that both tourists and locals alike pass by or even visit without understanding its history. This street is located between Hagia Sophia and the walls of Topkapı Palace. It is also near Gülhane Park. It’s named after a fountain built in the Byzantine period.
As you walk along cobbled streets, you’ll find at least 12 Ottoman houses built against the walls of Topkapı Palace. Those 12 Ottoman houses are named after a flower that is grown beside them. Nine are part of a boutique hotel. The 6th President of Turkey was born in one of these charming houses.
You’ll also find the Sarnıç Restaurant, located in an ancient cistern, to be in these streets. Alternatively, bibliophiles may be pleased to see the “Çelik Gülersoy Vakfı İstanbul Kitaplığı”. This building is somewhere between a library, an archive, and a museum. It has over 10,000 rare books.
Soğukçeşme Street is a pedestrian-only street so there is no access by public transport or private car. If you want the whole Istanbul experience, sip some Turkish coffee in the cafe at the start of the street, and dream about this romantic city.
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9. Istanbul Archeology Museum
The Istanbul Archeology Museums are three museums in one. You have the Archeological Museum in the main building, the Museum of Islamic Art in the tiled pavilion, and the Museum of the Ancient Orient, which used to be a fine arts school in the 1800s. The Istanbul Archeology Museum is considered one of the world’s largest archeological museums. This is no surprise, as they have over a million artifacts are in their collection. The museum was established in 1891 when Sultan Abdulaziz wanted an archeological museum to rival the ones he had visited abroad. The collection, therefore, includes items from every country the Ottoman Empire conquered or had diplomatic relations.
Visitors may find it cheaper and more convenient to access the collections by using the Museum Pass Istanbul.
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10. Carpet Museum
Every couple of decades, this quaint museum seems to relocate to a new location in the Sultanahmet neighborhood. Recently, it was located in Hagia Sophia, but it is likely moving to the Rüstem Pasha Mosque in 2021. This may be for the best because the museum will be close to the Golden Horn. All you’ll have to do is cross the Bosphorus, allowing you to visit nearby attractions such as the Galata Bridge, the Galata Tower, or the SALT gallery.
If you’re planning on buying a Kilim (renowned Turkish carpet) at the Grand Bazaar or the Spice Bazaar, you may want to pop in here first. You’ll learn all about the symbolism of the motifs and the intricacies of carpet making.
What’s fascinating is that some carpets date back to the 13th century. The larger ones used to be proudly on display at The Blue Mosque, Süleymaniye Mosque, and other prominent mosques. You’ll even learn that a city in Anatolia, Uşak, is distinguished for its carpets. It’s a shame that there aren’t many visitors to this specialist museum, considering it holds a significant part of Turkey’s culture and history.
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Best souvenir shops in Sultanahmet:
1. Tuncer Gift Shop
You’ll find those striking mosaic lamps here as well as smaller ceramic items like ashtrays, tiles, plates, and cups. You’ll also find lovely decanters here.
2. Jennifer’s Hamam
Located in the Arasta Bazaar and within walking distance of the Hürrem Sultan Turkish bath, you’ll find everything you need from this shop. Suppliers are hand-chosen to ensure the best quality, such as certified organic cotton towels and the many organic soaps for every dermatological need.
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3. Motif Collection
You can find handmade Turkish carpets sold by a knowledgeable, helpful, and not-pushy salesman. Prices are lower than the Grand Bazaar, and you get a certificate of authenticity.
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4. Tree Of Life Ceramics and Gift Shop
This bright, colorful shop has both big and small ceramics. The wine decanter maybe half your size. You can drink some tea while browsing this museum-like shop.
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Best restaurants to eat at Sultanahmet:
Sultanahmet is a tourist hotspot which means that while there are some fabulous places here, there are also ‘tourist traps.’ It would be advisable to get an honest guide to the area’s restaurants to know what to avoid and where to go on your first day.
If you’re looking for restaurants, you’ll want to revisit and soak in a bit of culture and get a sense of life in Istanbul; you may want to try our Flavours of the Old City Food Tour. We’ll point out the local sights, such as the Süleymaniye Mosque, so you can know where to go.
We have the following blog entry if you’re looking for a quick guide on the local restaurants in Sultanahmet:
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Best hotels to stay in Sultanahmet:
1. Four Seasons Sultanahmet
The Four Seasons is one of the biggest hotel chains, and so quality is guaranteed. The neoclassic decor with marble bathrooms is lovely. Moreover, the Four Seasons have many amenities, such as hypogenic pillows!
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2. Romance Hotel
The Turkish delights at check-in and the baby bathrobe and slippers, on request, are not the only advantage of staying here. All rooms have such a lovely design that you’ll feel like an Ottoman Ruler.
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3. White House Hotel
The Roman architectural facade with exquisite Ottoman furnishings will really make you feel welcome. Moreover, you can use the roof garden whenever you wish.
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4. Neorion Hotel
You’ll get a complimentary Turkish breakfast in the morning. Moreover, unlike most hotels, their lobby is more like a living room. You can sip Turkish coffee while browsing the replicas of Anatolian craft.
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