The old part of Istanbul, the Sultanahmet district, was formerly known as Constantinople and is one of the oldest inhabited sites in the world. Today, Istanbul is a magical, bustling city with an exotic atmosphere and an enormous amount to see and do. The city offers a taste of two cultures, with ancient and modern history and shopping to die for! Recognised as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, the old part of Istanbul is bordered by the Bosphorus, the Golden Horn and the Sea of Marmara. It is home to some incredible ancient buildings and monuments, not to mention amazing shopping opportunities and superb places to eat! The ‘must see’ list should include the Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sophia Museum and the Topkapı Palace, though those are just scratching the surface of what this breath-taking city has to offer.
The Sultan Ahmed Mosque is popularly named the Blue Mosque because its interior is lined with blue tiles. Its six striking minarets and massive main dome make it one of the most prominent and memorable images of Istanbul. It is probable that the mosque is built on the foundations of an earlier Byzantine palace and construction commenced in the early 17th century. The interior is truly spectacular and there are in excess of twenty thousand hand-made tiles with many intricate designs, together with over two hundred stained-glass windows. Still in use today as a place of worship, the call to prayer from the mosque can be heard throughout the Sultanahmet district.
The Hagia Sophia is another well-known landmark in the city. It was originally built as an orthodox church, later becoming a mosque, then a Catholic cathedral and a mosque once again. At each stage, various building works and additions were made. In the 1930s, the Sultan Ahmet Mosque took over as the principal place of worship in Istanbul and the Hagia Sophia was turned over for use as a museum. Its architecture is unusual in terms of the construction, and the interior is highly decorative and a visual feast. There are many extremely important mosaics here, many dating back to before the 11th century.
In the heart of Sultanahmet, the Topkapı Palace dates back to the mid-15th century and this expansive building was the main home of the Ottoman Sultan rulers for some four hundred years. The scale is truly monumental and the buildings now house items from the centuries, including very important Muslim holy relics, imperial treasures and major collections. Among the exhibits are over ten thousand important pieces of Chinese porcelain, an armoury collection, a library with more than three thousand manuscripts, and jewels that will astonish you. The Ottoman miniatures are superb and the decoration, tiles and architecture throughout the building are stunning.
When it comes to shopping, Istanbul is rightfully famed. The city boasts some of the best modern shopping malls in Europe, but probably the most famous is the Kapali Carsi (covered Bazaar), a shoppers paradise comprising over 4000 shops spread across 64 streets. Here you can find gold jewellery galore and, of course, traditional Turkish rugs. Another famous Bazaar is the spice bazaar (the Mizir Carsisi). Here the aromas and colours are incredible and this is the place for every spice and nut that you could imagine, plus a bewildering variety of Turkish delight.
There are countless other places that deserve a visit, and it is well worth doing some research before you travel. You can of course make your own way, but we offer city breaks with tours included, together with a full range of optional tours you can take during your stay. Of course, you can also let us plan the ultimate combination for you, to combining Istanbul and North Cyprus holidays.
When planning your Istanbul stay, it is worth pointing out that the Hagia Sophia museum is closed on Mondays, the Topkapı Palace is closed on Tuesdays and the Grand Bazaar is closed on Sundays.