Must-see museums and attractions
The Hagia Sophia is among Istanbul's most popular and iconic historic sites – and for good reason: its massive, transcendent interior is breathtaking and can easily be gazed at for hours. Completed in the 6th century on the orders of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I, Hagia Sophia remained the world’s largest cathedral for nearly a millennium until the completion of Seville Cathedral in 1520. Before being converted into a mosque in the 15th century and later into a museum in 1935, Hagia Sophia served as the centre of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Its most notable features are its magnificent dome, considered to be an architectural marvel even today, and the Byzantine mosaics adorning its walls, which feature portaits of bygone emperors and representations of Christ.
Among the gems of the historic peninsula, the Topkapı Palace looms over the point where the Golden Horn and Marmara Sea meet. The palace was the primary residence of the Ottoman sultans for more than four centuries, and its extensive rooms, chamber houses and fascinating objects, including the 86-carat Spoonmaker’s Diamond, make the museum a must-see. In addition to its extensive and illustrious permanent collections of weaponry, precious jewels and religious artifacts, it is a also home to a rotating cast of temporary exhibitions.
The Sultanahmet Mosque, better known as the Blue Mosque due to the prominent color of its majestic interior, was built in the early 17th century during the reign of Ahmed I and is among the city's most famous landmarks. Situated opposite the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque is still a functional mosque and visiting is forbidden during prayer times.
One of Istanbul's most intriguing attractions, the Basilica Cistern, or Yerebatan Sarnıcı as it's known in Turkish, was built by Emperor Justinian I in the 6th century to store up to 80,000m3 of water and channel it to nearby palaces. Supported by hundreds of Ionic and Corinthian columns, it also features two column bases of unknown origin emblazoned with the upside-down head of Medusa, leaving bewildered visitors to speculate why they were situated that way. The cool, dark underground complex is also a great way to escape the summer heat.
A sojourn through Istanbul's old city is not complete without a visit to the Istanbul Archaeology Museum, a treasure trove of relics. To say it is well-stocked would be an understatement. Established in the late 19th century as Turkey's first museum, it is divided into three sections: Archaeology, Ancient Orient and Islamic Art. It holds a large collection of Ancient Greek, Roman and Turkish artefacts, as well as objects discovered in the Balkans, Africa, Mesopotamia and the Middle East. Make sure to come right as it opens, because a full day is necessary to explore its vast collection.
Located next to the Topkapı Palace on the tip of Istanbul's historic peninsula, Gülhane Park is one of the city's biggest and most beautiful parks. A popular destination on the weekends among local families, the park is a sanctuary in the crowded, dense old city. Thousands of tulips bloom in the park during springtime.
Hidden gems off the tourist trail
A miniature version of the better-known Hagia Sophia, this church-turned-mosque is located below its larger counterpart close to the Marmara Sea coast. Built in the 6th century by emperor Justinian, the Little Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque in the years following the Ottoman invasion of Istanbul. It receives considerably less visitors than the main Hagia Sophia, so the lines won't be as painstaking as they often are for its grander counterpart.
Having just opened in early 2018 after spending decades hiding under a municipal building, the Theodosius Cistern, also known as the Şerefiye Sarnıcı, dates back to the 5th century and joins the Cistern of Philoxenos and the iconic Basilica Cistern among the ancient relics of the Byzantine Empire's water system that visitors can explore firsthand. It is in the heart of the old city and admission is free.
Dating back to the 5th century, the Cistern of Philoxenos is one of Istanbul’s surviving Byzantine subterranean reservoirs and a hidden gem that’s off the tourist trail. While its Turkish name, Binbirdirek Sarnıcı, translates into ‘1001 Columns’, the number isn’t used literally here but as a turn of phrase denoting multitude. The cistern is actually built on 224 columns standing more than 10 meters tall, most of which are engraved with a Greek mason’s mark. In recent years, the cistern has hosted a variety of events including concerts, fashion shows and exhibitions.
The best restaurants in Fatih
Located inside the Ottoman Hotel Imperial, Matbah offers a menu focused on Ottoman palace delights and seasonal offerings, featuring game such as geese in the winter, and quail and duck in the summer. All game come from the Kars, Ardahan and Ağrı regions, the spices and pastes from Gaziantep, and the dry ingredients procured from various shops in Eminönü. Complimentary şerbet begins and ends the meal at Matbah, flavoured with pomegranate blossom as an appetizer and cinnamon as a post-meal treat. One of our favourite dishes in Matbah's ambitious menu is the kuzu incik (lamb shank), which is cooked in its own juices with red pepper paste and served with beğendi (eggplant puree) in a bowl of crispy filo dough, a recipe from the 15th century.
Gazing deeply upon the Golden Horn, Eminönü's Hamdi Restaurant is a great place to dive into the cuisine of Turkey's southeast while enjoying a nice view. The restaurant's owner and chef Hamdi Arpacı himself hails from the province of Urfa, which is synonymous with kebabs. While best known for its grilled meat, Hamdi Restaurant also serves a wide array of regional cold mezes and hot appetizers, including içli köfte (a spinning-top shaped vessel of bulgur stuffed with spiced beef) and numerous varieties of lahmacun (spicy minced meat spread over flatbread baked to perfection).
Taking its name from one of Istanbul’s former monikers, Deraliye is run by Necati Yılmaz, who opened up his own eatery in Sultanahmet after a 15-year stint in various Ottoman-themed restaurants. Deraliye serves food fit for a sultan, and we mean this quite literally, since its menu is comprised of recipes derived from historical sources dating back 500 years. One of our favourite items on the menu is the sultan sarma bonfile, tenderized cuts of steak served with thinly sliced pastrami and spinach borani. For the grand finale, any one of Deraliye's selection of Ottoman desserts will go nicely. If you're after somthing light, we recommend trying the helatiye, mastic-flavoured rice pudding served in a sherbet of lemon juice and rose water topped with almonds, raisins and seasonal fruits.
Located between the hustle and bustle of Sirkeci, Can Oba Restaurant operates in a tiny space with a high standard of quality that even some of the most upscale restaurants don’t have. The kitchen makes due with one stove and microwave ovens and the restaurant has around 7-8 tables. But don’t let its appearance fool you; this venue belongs to a master chef who has worked with Michelin starred chefs. Applying the kitchen techniques he learned during years spent in Germany to his Istanbul restaurant, Can Oba looks like a tourist trap upon first glance but it is far from it. You have to wait weeks to make a reservation but if you believe taste is more important than the venue then the wait will be well worth it.
Serving its customers for over a century, the famous Filibe Köftecisi is one of the prominent taste destinations in Sirkeci. The restaurant, which has a long list of regulars, serves only köfte (meatballs), piyaz (onion and parsley salad), çoban (shepherd’s) salad (with tomatoes and onion) and revani (Turkish sponge cake). Revani isn’t available during the warmest months. Filibe's delightful buttons of flavor are an ode to simplicity, as the only ingredients involved are ground beef, onion and cumin, and they are made daily by hand.
A large variety of Cretan and Aegean meze, all made with the freshest ingredients, make Giritli the best choice for rakı and seafood in Sultanahmet. In addition to classic meze dishes, Giritli Restaurant's menu features the eponymous girit mezesi, a cheese spread packed with green olives, goat cheese, garlic, walnuts, dried herbs and olive oil, and çiğ balık, thinly-sliced raw fish cooked in salt and lemon. Another must-try is the ızgara ahtapot (grilled octopus), which is first dried out in the sun and marinated with wine before being grilled. Dining out in Giritli Restaurant’s garden is a pure delight during the summer months.
Located on the terrace floor of Hotel Darussaade Istanbul near the Arasta Bazaar, Saade Kahvaltı is a new eatery run by a family with 35 years of experience in hospitality and tourism management. The hotel’s owner Zuhal Hanım shares many of her own recipes in Saade's menu, like her dry-curd cottage cheese with onions and her crowd-pleasing cheese with herbs and walnuts. Their fantastic breakfast spread also includes tomato paste from Antep, za’atar herbs from Mersin, homemade jams and a tomato salad with pumpkin seeds you won’t likely find anywhere else.
Though the fish unfortunately not longer comes from the Bosphorus (it has been imported from Norway for years), enjoying a balık ekmek (fish sandwich) cooked on a rocking boat in the Eminönü shore remains and Istanbul institution, and a beloved weekend activity of families coming from all over the city.
Go for a scrub at Fatih's best hamams
The Mihrimah Sultan Hamamı was built alongside the Mihrimah Sultan Mosque Complex between 1562-1565 by the architect Mimar Sinan. This double hamam, open for dual-use by men and women, was constructed according to a building scheme common during the classic Ottoman period. Inside the hamam you can take advantage of dry massage, body-scrub, and soap massage options. Additionally, after enjoying these services you can rest up in a private room.
The Cağaloğlu Hamamı is the last great hamam built during the Ottoman era. It was constructed during the reign of Mahmut I in 1741 by Abdullah Ağa. Thanks to the architectural plan designed by court architect Süleyman Ağa you can discover Baroque features and other stylistic novelties in the building that were not common in classic Ottoman architecture. Under the wide dome which covers the plate glass ceiling of the hamam you will find a restaurant, shops, a barber, and a shoeshine parlor.
The Tarihi Gedikpaşa Hamamı was constructed by Gedikpaşa Ahmet in 1475 and designed by Mimar Hayrettin. It is a double hamam, open to dual-use by men and women. It carries the distinction of being the only historical hamam with a fountain next to its central marble massage platform.
One of the oldest hamams in Istanbul, the Çemberlitaş Hamamı was built in 1584 by Mimar Sinan at the behest of Nurbanu Sultan, wife of Selim II and mother of Murad III. With its functional richness, elegance, and simplicity this dual-use hamam is a fine example of Mimar Sinan’s late work. This is definitely the right place for history buffs - not least because the treatment here has remained authentic and true to tradition over the years.
The Süleymaniye Hamamı was built by Mimar Sinan between 1550-1557 under the orders of Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent. It was constructed along with the Süleymaniye social complex (including educational establishments, a medical college, and a public soup kitchen). The three-part hamam is mixed and admits families and couples only. The private seating area once reserved for Sultan Süleyman himself to bathe is one of the sections of the hamam still in use.
The Hürrem Sultan Hamamı was constructed by Mimar Sinan between 1556-1557 under the orders of Hürrem Sultan herself. It was in active use until 1910. The Hürrem Sultan Hamamı is open to dual-use by women and men and provides packaged deals, rituals, and massage therapy.
Where to stay
Steps away from the Topkapı Palace and the Hagia Sophia in the heart of the historic peninsula, the Four Seasons Sultanahmet is one of the classiest accommodation options for an authentic Istanbul holiday. Serving guests with a total of 65 rooms, with each offering a separate living area thanks to the hotel’s historic architecture, Four Seasons Sultanahmet also features a spa, where you can enjoy a variety of treatments from a Bali massage to aromatherapy, a restaurant specializing in Mediterranean cuisine, and a rooftop lounge with a view of the old city that's hard to beat.
The Legacy Ottoman Hotel in Sirkeci is a five-star charmer in an elegant building designed by the renowned architect Kemaleddin in 1911. Located in an area teeming with history and dotted with beautiful buildings, the Legacy Ottoman was restored in 2014 and offers a variety of rooms, including those that gaze out over the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus. It comes fully-equipped with a health club and several restaurants and bars, themselves boasting stunning views.
Emine Sultan's beautifully decorated rooms and suites offer its guests an authentic stay within walking distance to the historical peninsula's landmarks and attractions. The hotel's rooftop restaurant is the perfect place to start your day with a delicious breakfast buffet and Turkish coffee accompanied by a wonderful view of the Marmara Sea. The hotel’s experienced concierge can coordinate a number of activities for you like dining out in the city, private city tours, transfer services and more.
In the heart of touristy Sultanahmet, there are lots of traps to avoid but Cheers Hostel is a dependable choice for visitors who want to stay in the midst of the city's most famous attractions. The rooftop bar commands a magnificent view of the Hagia Sophia.
Located at the heart of old city, Blue House Hotel offers a variety of comfortable single and double/twin rooms and an impressive suite with a view of the Marmara Sea and the Princes' Islands beyond.
The family-owned Sarnıç Hotel is located a stone's throw away from Istanbul’s historic sites and occupies a renovated historic mansion dating back to 1915. The hotel takes its name from a 5th century Byzantine cistern (sarnıç) located right behind the hotel and which can be viewed free of charge by the hotel's guests. Featuring an array of comfortable rooms and suites, Sarnıç Hotel also has a terrace bar with sweeping views of the Marmara Sea and a restaurant serving traditional Ottoman and Turkish food.
Shop for gifts and souvenirs
Among the world's oldest and largest covered markets, the Grand Bazaar features thousands of shops spread across dozens of streets. It's a worthy destination even for those not planning on buying anything, as the historic atmosphere of the widespread complex is its true appeal. If you're planning on making purchases, be sure to put your bargaining hat on and show no mercy.
Smaller than the nearby Grand Bazaar, the Spice Bazaar, also known as the Egyptian Bazaar, was built in the 16th century and features rows of spice vendors prominently displaying their colorful wares in large, pyramid-like mounds, making it a visual experience as much as a place to shop for spices, Turkish delights and other souvenirs.
Situated just steps away from the east entrance of the Spice Bazaar lies Kurukahveci Mehmet Efendi's iconic shop, purveyors of the finest Turkish coffee since 1871. The shop is manned by a workforce in brown overalls dispensing packets of freshly roasted coffee, the scent of which wafts through the backstreets.
This classic candy shop is a blast from the past and features a variety of age-old sweets that are hard to come by these days in Istanbul. There are lots of lousy variations of Turkish delight to be found in Istanbul but Altan Şekerleme makes the real deal. Another speciality of the shop is akide, a homemade rock candy. Opened in 1865, the shop has been in the same family's hands and is a relic in a city that is changing by the minute.