orientation? Central Istanbul is arranged into four quarters. Three are to the south of the Golden Horn harbour: Seraglio Point, on which stands the Topkapi Palace; the Sultanahmet, where you will find the Haghia Sophia and Blue Mosque; and the Bazaar Quarter, containing the Grand and Spice Bazaars and many other impressive mosques. The fourth, to the north of the harbour, is called Beyoglu—a cosmopolitan area known for its shopping, fish restaurants and bars.
transport? Tourists invariably arrive by plane to the Ataturk Airport, 16 miles to the west of the city centre. An inexpensive visa, which can be obtained on arrival, is required by those arriving from most western countries (c. £10; €15; $20 per person). Public transport is excellent, especially the air-conditioned trams and cheap yellow taxis. The main tourist attractions are within walking distance of eachother.
weather? Many are drawn by Istanbul's warm climate: the average maximum temperature exceeds 20 degrees Celsius between May and October; visitors can expect over 8 hours of sunlight between May and September; and the city boasts maximum temperatures of over 37 degrees Celsius between June and August. Even in January, Istanbul's coldest month, the average maximum temperature is 8 degrees Celsius.
food? Meals typically start with a selection of mezes, small plates of cold food for sharing, to be eaten with bread. Examples include hummus, yoghurt, grilled peppers, aubergines or artichokes, stuffed vine leaves and small side salads. The most popular main courses are grilled meat, served at ubiquitous kebab houses, or fish fresh from the Bosphorus—tuna, sardines and sea bass are the most popular. Turkish deserts include apricots stuffed with nuts, selections of Turkish cakes and Turkish delight.
cost? Istanbul is not cheap. Central Istanbul hotel rooms start from TL200 per night, and a meal for two at a kebab restaurant will cost c. TL60. Some attractions, in particular the Mosques, are free. Others typically cost TL10 to TL20.
Designed by Mehmet Aga, the imperial architect, the Mosque incorporates a mix of Byzantine and late Ottoman features. It derives its name from the blue paint and tiles on the walls of its interior, and can accommodate up to 10,000 worshippers.
The Blue Mosque is 72 m long, 64 m wide, 64 m high at its dome. It has six surrounding minarets, each with two or three balconies (housing loudspeakers which call worshippers to prayers by day). A graceful cascade of eight domes and semidomes flows from the Mosque's 23.5 metre wide central dome. The Blue Mosque's adjacent courtyard, with the now disused Ablutions Fountain at its centre, is itself surrounded by a stunning domed arcade.
Light floods into the Mosque through over 200 stained glass windows. Further lighting is provided numerous chandeliers, into which are incorporated ostrich eggs ( said to repel spiders and therefore prevent cobwebs). The Blue Mosque's Mihrab (the wall which signifies the direction of Mecca) is made of finely carved marble, and has to its right a 17th century white marble Minbar (from which the Imam delivers his sermon). The design is such that each worshipper can see the Imam, even when the Mosque is at its most crowded.
The Blue Mosque's interior contains 20,000 ceramic tiles, handmade at Iznic, featuring 50 different tulip and other flowers, trees and geometric patters. They can be seen in the galleries and on the north wall above the entrance.
where? Blue Mosque, Sultanahmet, Istanbul, Turkey. Closest tram: Sultanahmet. Non-worshippers enter the Blue Mosque through the north entrance, and must remove their shoes and wear modest dress (women must cover their heads). Queues are lengthy at peak times, and often stretch around the Mosque's courtyard.
when? Daily 9am to 6pm, except during prayer times (30 mins, five times a day, and midday on Fridays).
Shortly thereafter, the then Ottoman Sultan, Mehmed II, set about building the Topkapi Palace, with initial construction completed about a decade later. The palace, situated close to the Bosporus, remained the Sultan's official residence until 1856 and is now a major tourist attraction.
The complex is made up of four principal courtyards and a number of other buildings. As the Topkapi Palace was once home to 4,000, those buildings include mosques, bakeries, a library, a school, a mint and a hospital.
Access to the Topkapi is gained through the massive marble-clad Imperial Gate, which leads to the first of the palace's courtyards. That courtyard, the largest (for which no ticket is required), contains the Church of Hagia Irene, the Imperial Mint, gardens and a number of fountains (including the executioner's fountain, where he is fabled to have washed his hands after a decapitation).
The second courtyard, accessed through the Gate of Salutation, contains a well-tended park which was used by the Sultans to hold audiences and dispense justice. It is bordered by a number of buildings, including the Topkapi Palace's substantial kitchens, the Imperial Council Chamber, the Treasury (which displays highlights from the Sultan's collection of jewels, including the Sultan's emerald-clad dagger and an 82-carat diamond) and the Tower of Justice (the palace's tallest structure, symbolizing the Sultans' eternal vigilance against injustice).
The third courtyard, accessed through the Gate of Felicity, is where the Sultan spent his days, and contains an audience chamber, the Sultans' offices and the Imperial Harem (home to the Sultan's mother, his wives, concubines and children, who were all guarded by eunuch slaves).
The fourth courtyard, the Sultan's private sanctuary, contains a number of pavilions, the circumcision room (where the procedure was performed on young princes) and a mosque.
where? Topkapi Palace near Sultanahmet Square, Old City, Istanbul. The closest tram stop is Gülhane.
when? From 9am to 7pm (though opening times vary on public holidays). Visitors are advised to book tickets in advance and to arrive early.
£$€¥ Tickets for the Topkapi Palace are TL20, with a supplement of TL15 payable by those who wish to tour the Harem (as of April 2012).
It was the largest cathedral in the world for almost a millennium (being 75m long, 70m wide and having a central dome (pictured) with a diameter of 31m) and is said to have 'changed the history of architecture'. It is certainly one of the finest surviving examples of Byzantine architecture, with its golden mosaics attracting particular attention.
The Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque on the orders of the conquering Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II in 1453; it served as Istanbul's principal mosque for the next 500 years, and heavily influenced the design of the Blue Mosque (above). As a result of the Hagia's conversion to a mosque, a mibrah, a minbar, minarets and a madrasa were built, and the faces shown in the Hagia's mosaics were plastered over (on account of the Islamic prohibition on figurative imagery). The Hagia Sophia was converted into the Ayasofya Museum in 1934, and the original mosaics have been slowly uncovered since. The Hagia's most famous mosaic is the Deesis, picturing Christ flanked by the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist.
where? Aya Sofya Square, Sultanahmet, Istanbul, Turkey. Closest tram: Sultanahmet.
when? Tue-Sun, 9am to 4.30pm. At peak times, queues can be lengthy.
£$€¥ TL20, entitling visitors to access the Hagia Sophia's ground floor, first floor gallery and grounds. Audio guides are available at TL15 each.
The Archaeological Museum, housed in an imposing four-storey neoclassical building, can now claim to house one of the world's best collections of classical artefacts, extending to a million objects.
The Archaeological Museum's most famous works include the Alexander Sarcophagus, a well-preserved 4th century BC carved stone sarcophagus with bas-relief carvings of Alexander the Great thought to have been made for an early governor of Babylon and unearthed at the Sidon Royal Necropolis; the Sarcophagus of the Crying Women; a first century BC marble bust of Emperor Augustus; and marble statues of Poseidon and a reclining Oceanus.
The adjacent Museum of Ancient Orient displays particularly impressive Egyptian relics, such as the Treaty of Kadesh, a tablet onto which the world's first peace treaty—agreed between Ramesses II of Egypt and Hattusili III of the Hittite Empire—was carved in about 1260 BC. Though the smallest of the three, the Museum of Islamic Art is not to be overlooked; it displays Islamic pottery and other art in a marble pavilion dating from the 16th century. Its prized exhibit is the Karaman Mihrab, an ornately decorated mihrab (wall niche pointing to Mecca) from the eponymous city in southern Turkey.
where? Archaeological Museum, Osman Hamdi Bey Yokusu Sokak, Gülhane, Istanbul (very close to the Topkapi palace). The closest tram stop is Gulhane.
when? Tuesday to Sunday, 9am to 7pm in summer and 9am to 5pm in winter.
Constructed during the 6th century, during the reign of Emperor Justinian, the Cistern is 70 metres wide and 140 metres long, with a brick roof supported by 336 nine-metre high marble columns. When full, it holds about 100 million litres of water.
Restored in 1985, the Basilica Cistern is now open to the public. Highlights include exploring the vast cavern on wooden walkways, and marveling at the two Medusa statues found at the far end of the Cistern.
The Cistern was one of the locations used in filming the 1963 James Bond film From Russia with Love. A fascinating place to visit, especially on a wet day.
where? Basilica Cistern, 13 Yerebatan Cad, Sultanahmet. Closest tram Sultanahmet.
when? 9am to 5pm, seven days a week.
A boat trip down this busy international sea-lane, connecting the Black Sea with the Marmara, offers fantastic views over Istanbul's skyline (pictured) and the many attractions built on the Bosphorus' banks. As you leave the Eminonu ferry port, the city's principal landmarks will come into view, revealing a remarkable silhouette punctuated by the minarets of the Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, Suleymaniye Mosque and New Mosque.
Most trips stay to the west (European) side of the river as they travel away from central Istanbul, giving close-up views of the Dolmabache Palace and then Mecidiye Mosque before sailing under the kilometre-long Bosphorus Bridge (the ninth longest suspension bridge in the world). On the way back, hugging the east (Asian) bank, the trip offers great views of the Beylerbeyi Palace, the Semsi Pasa Mosque and Leander's Tower (a white tower standing in the middle of the channel). We suggest taking the trip at sunset, to avoid the crowds and the heat of the day. Take warm clothing.
where? Ferries leave from the Eminonu port, close to the eponymous tram stop.
when? There are a large number of ferries, many of which leave on the hour every hour between 9am and 7pm
£$€¥ From TL10. We recommend the 2-hour trip with the Turyol company.
The first, the Grand Bazaar, is around a mile to the west of the Hagia Sophia. Established by Mehmet II in the 15th century, it now contains around 1000 shops. It can be entered through a number of gates, with the Carskapi gate close to the Beyazit tram stop and the Nuruosmaniye gate close to the Cemberlitas tram stop. Shops selling antiques and carpets are found towards the centre of the Bazaar, with gold and silver shops found to the east and fabric, souvenir, leather and denim emporia to the west.
Though a visit is an experience which should not be missed, you should expect hubbub, crowds and (sometimes aggressive) bartering—don't be surprised to be insulted if your initial bid is deemed too low!
The smaller L-shaped Spice Bazaar, built in 1660 as part of the New Mosque complex, is found five minutes' walk further north. Be prepared for sensory overload—with strong coffee and spice aromas, colourful goods such as turmeric and saffron on display, and traders hawking their wares.
The most recent James Bond film, Skyfall, opens with Bond chasing his nemesis, Patrice (Ola Rapace), across the Spice Bazaar's terecotta-tiled rooves on a motorcycle.
where? The Grand Bazaar is found to the north of Yerniceriler Caddesi, close to the Beyazit and Cemberlitas tram stops. From here walk north to the Spice Bazaar, which is found to the south of the New Mosque (closest tram stop Eminonu).
when? The Grand and Spice Bazaars are open from 8.30am to 7pm, Monday to Saturday.
£$€¥ Free. When bartering in the Grand Bazaar, be aware that many traders make opening bids which are often 50% more than they expect to receive.
Followers of the Sufi religion, these dancers are famed for their superhuman ability to spin themselves around about 60 times per minute without getting dizzy or even breaking sweat. The dancing is the culmination of a Sufi religious ceremony that begins with music played on a ney (flute), tanbur (sitar) and drum, accompanied by chanting. The tempo of the music gradually increases, signaling the arrival of the Dervishes.
The Dervishes wear tall hats and white robes, initially covered by a black gown. They perform a bowing and praying ritual before starting the first of four dancing segments. During each segment, the Dervishes begin rotating in turn, tilt their heads to one side and gradually raise their arms; their white robes fan out, and they begin to circle the Dervish or Sheikh at the centre of the dance-floor (rather like planets spinning on their axis and circling the sun). The ceremony concludes with more praying and bowing. As this is a religious event, most venues prohibit photography and applause.
where? There are a number of shows in Istanbul. We recommend the performances at the Hodjapasha Culture Centre, Hocapasa Hamami Sk, No 3B, Sirkeci. The centre is a short walk from the Gulhane and Sirkeci tram stops.
when? The Hodjapasha Centre puts on shows five nights a week, at 7.30pm (not Tues or Thurs).
£$€¥ TL50 per person.
On arrival, bathers are issued with a piece of cloth to wrap around themselves and clogs for walking on the hot, wet floor. They are then shown into the hot room or hararet, a large, marble-clad, octagonal room heated to over 50 degrees Celsius. The hot room has a heated marble plinth at its centre, seating around its perimeter (together with cold water basins), and a central dome with small star-like windows.
After warming up, bathers are given a short but vigorous full body massage on the central plinth; this process, involving slapping, stretching and pummelling, leaves no region untouched and is not for the prudish! Bathers are then taken to the outer seating and briskly scrubbed with a rough, soapy mitt called a kese and showered with cupfuls of cold water from the perimeter basins.
Bathers can remain sweating in the baths for as long as they like (or can stand), before being given warm towels in the intermediate room and shown back to their changing cubicle. We suggest rounding off the experience with a cup of rehydrating apple tea in the Haman's entrance hall. The most famous bathhouse in Istanbul is the Cagaloglu Haman, whose former clients range from Florence Nightingale and George Soros to Cameron Diaz. The Cemberlitas bathhouse is also recommended.
where? Cagaloglu Hamam, Cagaloglu 34100, Istanbul, in the Sultanahmed district. The closest tram stop is Gulhane. The Cemberlitas baths are at Vezirhan Cad, No 8, very close to the Cemberlitas tram stop.
when? The main bath houses are open daily, from 8 am to 10 pm.
£$€¥ The Cagaloglu's €50 'complete bath service' includes entrance to the hot room and a 10 minute massage and a 10 minute scrubbing. The Cemberlitas offers an equivalent, but less expensive, service.
Süleyman presided over numerous artistic and architectural achievements, in particular those of the designer of the Süleymaniye Mosque, Sinan Pasha.
The Süleymaniye Mosque, the second largest in Istanbul, has a 53-metre high and 26-metre diameter central dome, from which cascade a number of smaller domes and half domes. Its importance is shown by its four 72 metre-high minarets (less significant mosques have one or two). The Süleymaniye's interior is 58 x 59 metres and is elegantly decorated with Iznik tiles and ivory and mother of pearl inlayed woodwork. The adjacent courtyard is the best in Isanbul, with its peristyle (covered porch) supported by tall marble columns. The complex was bordered by a hospital, school and soup kitchen—which provided a social welfare system for 1000s of the city's poor. Visitors should not miss the adjoining Tomb of Süleyman.
where? Süleymaniye Mosque, Prof Siddik Sami Onar Cadessi, Vefa. Closest tram stops are Beyazit and Eminönü.
when? Open daily, save at prayer times.
The 45,000 square metre Palace contains 285 rooms, 46 halls and 6 baths (hamam), and was home to six Sultans before the abolition of the Caliphate in 1924. It was then occupied by Mustafa Atatürk, the founder and first president of the Turkish republic, until his death here in November 1938.
The architecture is a mix of Baroque, Rococo and Neoclassical styles, with the Iznic tiles of the Topkapi replaced by crystal and gold (with 14 tonnes of gold leaf adorning the Palace's ceilings). The Dolmabahçe Palace's Ceremonial Hall is its most attractive room; designed to hold 2,500, the hall's centrepiece is a 4.5 tonne Bohemian crystal chandelier, the world's largest, donated by Queen Victoria.
The Dolmabahçe Palace's double horseshoe Baccarat brass and crystal staircase is another stunning feature. So too is the Dolmabahçe's main bathroom, complete with solid silver taps and walls revetted in the finest Egyptian alabaster, which offers stunning views across the Bosphorus. Outside, visitors should take in the Imperial Gate, Swan Fountain and well kept formal gardens.
where? The Dolmabahçe Palace is on the European side of the Bosphorus, to the north of Beyoglu. The address is TBMM Milli Saraylar Daire Baskanligi, Dolmabahce Sarayi 34357, Besiktas.
when? 8.30 am to 4 pm, five days a week (closed Mon and Thurs).
£$€¥ Tickets for guided tours of the public and private parts of the Dolmabahçe Palace cost TL40. Separate tickets are available for TL30 and TL20 respectively.
The 60-metre tall Galata Tower is Beyoglu's most iconic attraction. Completed in 1348, this cylindrical stone-capped structure dominates the skyline and offers panoramic views over old Istanbul from its restaurant and cafe. Over the years, it has been used as a depot, prison and fire watch tower.
Another must see attraction is the Istiklal Caddesi, the pedestrianised main street bordered by late 19th century apartment blocks and grand European embassy buildings. The surrounding streets are filled with fashionable restaurants and bars, jazz clubs and shops selling handmade jewellery and furniture. The Mevlevi Lodge is found at the bottom of the street, a small museum of the Mevlevi Sudi sect; dervishes perform their famous swirling dance here on the last Sunday of each month.
The Pera Palace Hotel, minutes away, opened in 1892 to cater for travellers on the Orient Express. Known for its mystique, attentive staff, Grand Orient bar and patisserie, the Hotel's former guests include King Edward VIII, Queen Elizabeth II, Alfred Hitchcock and Agatha Christie (who is reputed to have written Murder on the Orient Express in room 411).
where? To the north of the Golden Horn, accessed by the Ataturk and Galata bridges.
The Church was rebuilt in the 14th century, converted to a mosque during the Ottoman period, and is now a popular museum. The Church (aka Church of the Holy Saviour) is best known for its high quality mosaics and frescoes, which were plastered over in the late fifteenth century (because Islam prohibits iconic images) and not restored until 1958. They include mosaics of the journey to Bethlehem, the census enrolment by the Virgin Mary and Saint Joseph, Saint Peter, Christ taken to Jerusalem for the Passover, and the Church’s founder, Theodore Metochites, offering the Church to Christ.
The Chora Church itself occupies about 750 square metres, making it one of Istanbul’s smaller Byzantine structures. The space is divided into three sections: the narthex (entrance hall), the naos (the main church) and the parecclesion (the side chapel, used for family burials and memorials). The 8-metre diameter main dome is decorated with frescoes of Mary and 12 angels. Underneath the dome is found a striking painting of Christ raising Adam and Eve from their sarcophagi (known as the Anastasis).
where? Chora Church, Kariye Camii Sokak Edirnekapi (the Church is a little difficult to reach by public transport; we suggest taking a taxi).
when? 9am to 6.30pm, six days a week. Closed Weds.
Born in Istanbul, Pamuk became an international star with the publication of My Name is Red (2000) and Snow (2004). The Museum of Innocence is his first novel since 2006; it is a story about the son of a wealthy family from Istanbul, Kamal, who falls in love with Fusan, a distantly-related young shopgirl. Sadly, the relationship is doomed and Kamal never recovers.
Pamuk says that he conceived of the book and Museum together, collecting more than 1,000 artefacts whilst writing. They date from 1974 to 2000 and are displayed in 83 exhibits, one for each chapter of the book. The eclectic mix ranges from cigarette butts, to earings, to a tricycle, ceramic dogs and lottery tickets. The exhibits also have a more serious aim: to chart the cultural and economic development of Istanbul over the last decades of the 20th century.
The Museum is found in a quirky red townhouse in the fashionable Çukurcuma district, amongst antique and bric-a-brac shops, trendy cafes, a mosque and a hamam. One of the most interesting things to do in Istanbul!
where? Çukurcuma Caddesi, Dalgiç Çikmazi, 2, 34425, Beyoglu, Istanbul. T: 00 90 212 252 97 38. E: firstname.lastname@example.org. Closest tram: Tophane
when? Tues to Sun: 10:00 - 18:00 (late opening on Fri till 9pm). Closed Mon.
Known initially as Byzantium, the city was renamed Constantinople after Emperor Constantine the Great (324-37 AD) moved the Empire's capital here from Rome.
The Hippodrome was an enormous circus or stadium located in the city centre, principally used for horse and chariot racing around a U-shaped track. Built under the rule of Emperor Septimus Severus, the 450 by 130 metre stadium could house up to 100,000 spectators and was richly decorated with statues of horses, chariot drivers, gods, emperors and heroes. A typical chariot race would involve eight chariots, sponsored by the four political parties, each powered by four horses.
The Hippodrome later became used for public gatherings, and was the site of the massacre of 30,000 citizens protesting against tax increases during the reign of Emperor Justinian in 532 AD (known as the Nika riots or revolt). Those riots also saw the destruction of the second Hagian Sophia.
The site is now an elongated public garden known as Sultan Ahmet Square (Sultanahmet Meydani). Sadly only three of the original monuments remain. The first, the intricately carved Obelisk of Theodosius or Egyptian Obelisk, was built in around 1500 BC and moved to Constantinople from Luxor; carved from red granite from Aswan, this 20 metre-high structure is mounted on a pedestal depicting Theodosius I congratulating the victors of chariot races.
The adjacent Serpentine Column, dating from about 500 BC, was built to commemorate the victors of the Greeks over the Persians during the 5th century BC. The Walled Obelisk, a 32 metre high structure made of roughly cut stones, dates from the reign of Constantine VII in the tenth century; its state of disrepair is partly attributable to the practice of young Ottoman soldiers climbing to the top as a right of passage.
where? The Hippodrome is adjacent to the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia in the Sultanahmet district.
when? Dawn till dusk.
(1) The Princes' Islands are a 1.5 hour boat ride from Istanbul's Kabatas and Büyükada piers. The voyage itself, away from the Bosphorus and into the Sea of Marmara, offers great views of the Topkapi Palace and Istanbul receding into the distance. There are nine islands in all, with most trips taking in the four largest (Kinaliada, Burgazada, Heybeliada and Büyükada). Named after the royal palace built by Justin II on Büyükada, the Princes' Islands have a rich history: during the Byzantine era, members of the royal family were often exiled here; Leon Trotsky lived in one of Büyükada's finest mansions between 1929-33; and the famous Greek Orthodox School of Theology is found on a hilltop on the Heybeliada island. Other attractions are the Islands' sandy white beaches, Büyükada's horse-drawn carriages (called phaetons), and Büyükada's 20th century Monastery of St George.
(2) The Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts, found in the Sultanahmet district, is housed in the former palace of Ihrahim Pasa. The Museum's 40,000 objects date from the earliest period of Islam to modern times, arranged by chronological period or geographical origin. Don't miss the Museum's colelction of rugs housed in the Palace's Great Hall.
(3) The Beylerbeyi Palace is the principal tourist destination on the Asian side of Istanbul. Designed by Sarkis Balyan in a Baroque style, it was built as a summer residence for Sultan Abdul Aziz in 1861. It was also used as a prison, which held the deposed Sultan Abdulhamid II from 1912 until his death in 1918. Other famous visitors have included Empress Eugénie of France (on her way to the opening of the Suez canal) and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. The reception hall is a must-see, with its pool, fountain and Bohemian crystal chandeliers.
(4) The Fortress of Europe is found about six miles north of Beyoglu on the European shores of the Bosphorus. Built by Mehmet the Conqueror in 1452, the Fortress was positioned at the Bosphorus' narrowest point to control the supply route to Constantinople. Nicknamed the 'throat-cutter' or 'strait-cutter', the Fortress is heavily defended and presided over by three large towers. After the fall of Constantinople the Fortress lost its military significance and was converted into a prison. The structure was restored in 1953 and is both a tourist attraction in its own right and an open-air music venue.