Ah, the masses of Sultanahmet attractions make this neighbourhood of vibrant Istanbul stand out on the world stage. Sultanahmet isn't an official district in itself. Just a neighbourhood. Yet, every day, Sultanahmet attracts thousands of visitors eager to see landmark attractions that make Istanbul Turkey's top visited destination. Such is the importance of these attractions; they boast of UNESCO World Heritage status thanks to their cultural significance So, why exactly are they so important, and why do people from all around the world flock to Istanbul see them?
They reflect two influential empires from history; the Byzantines and the Ottomans. The Byzantines first built Istanbul nearly 2700 years ago and enjoyed much success in their attempt to match the importance and grandeur of Rome. However, by the time 1453 came about, the Ottomans rode into Istanbul after a long, enduring siege and snatched power and rule from the Byzantines. Both empires left traces of their life, beliefs, and power through landmarks in Istanbul's Sultanahmet area.
12 Exciting Sultanahmet Attractions of Istanbul
1: The Imperial Blue Mosque of Istanbul
When you step through the doors, be prepared for amazement. While the exterior architecture earns fame in many Turkish and international travel magazines, admiration stems from the exquisite interior décor and design. Also called by its official name, the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, built in 1616, served as an imperial mosque for sultans. Earning its nickname from the thousands of blue interior tiles, the Istanbul Mosque also achieves fame thanks to the six minarets, a unique feature since most mosques only have four. Urban legends say the architect misheard the Sultan's request for gold minarets and instead built six, which insulted many people since the only mosque of that kind was Kaaba in Mecca. In addition, only the Sultan could go through the imperial western entrance with a chain stretching across. Therefore, the Sultan had to bend his head when he entered. This reminded the Sultan; that Allah was the only divine ruler.
2: The Beautiful Hagia Sophia of Istanbul
Across from the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia also commands respect and admiration. The Hagia Sophia's timeline is quite extraordinary. First built in 537 by Roman emperor Justina and named holy wisdom church, the Hagia Sophia was the largest church and had the world's largest dome. Many say the building changed architectural trends as empires worldwide tried to match impressive styles and sizes. Although the original burnt down, they rebuilt the structure, but then in 1453, the Ottomans rode into Istanbul. They converted the building into a mosque, and then by the time their empire fell apart in the early 20th century, the new Turkish government turned it into a Istanbul museum. These days, the Hagia Sophia's function has reverted into a mosque of Sultanahmet, but the building still attracts visitors from all faiths who want to see impressive architectural designs. (More about the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia.)
3: Topkapi Palace
This impressive attraction of Istanbul perfectly portrays Ottoman beliefs and lifestyles. The sprawling compound covering part of the Bosphorus European shores was where the sultans lived and ruled for nearly 500 years. Although the architecture seems more of a medieval palace than a grand state of residence, touring the courtyards, kitchen, rooms, bedrooms, and gardens wow and amaze at every turn, thanks to the unique and bizarre facts surrounding them. A must-see is the harem, where the female members lived. Although much is said about the role of females during the Ottoman empire, don't underestimate their power. The wives and mothers had much influence over the sultans, and rivalry was typical. (Discover the delights of Topkapi Palace.)
4: The Ahmet Cesmesi Fountain
Throughout Istanbul, old fountains sit in public squares. They were a water source for locals and are still not as widely relied upon as in the past. These days, their admiration comes from their immaculate architecture and fine detail. One such fountain of Sultanhamet stands in front of Topkapi Palace. Known as the Ahmet Cesmesi fountain, the 18th-century attraction presents a Turkish Rocco-style feature with five small domes and floral designs on either side of each drinking fountain. Above each drinking fountain are lines taken from a poem by Seyyid Huseyin Vehbi bin Ahmed, which praises the benefits of water. (More drinking fountains in Istanbul.)
5: Basilica Cistern
Descend a flight of stone steps to see the marvellous Cistern of Sultanhamet, nicknamed the 1001 columns. This old water reservoir suppled the Byzantine palace with water but fell into disrepair and disappeared from public use in the 19th century when a curious traveller rediscovered the attraction. Mark Twain famously visited and remarked, "You are forty feet underground and amid a perfect wilderness of tall, slender, granite columns of Byzantine architecture. Stand where you would, or change your position as often as you pleased; you were always a centre from which radiated a dozen long archways and colonnades that lost themselves in the distance and sombre twilight." Walk the wooden pathways to the back to see Medusa's famous upside-down heads. (Find out more about the Basilica Cistern.)
6: Istanbul Archaeological Museums
First opening during the reign of Sultan Abdelhamid and assisted by the famous painter Osman Hamdi, this collection of artefacts is impressive. The Istanbul museums perfectly introduce classical and ancient art, by featuring antiquities from the Middle East, North Africa, and Turkey. With various rooms for sculptures, the museum famously holds the sarcophagus of Alexander the Great, dating from 4 BC. The museums separate into the museum of ancient art, the tiled pavilion, and the main section and sit just around the corner from the famous Topkapi Palace of Sultanahmet.
7: Gulhane Park in Istanbul
So, in among touring all the landmark attractions of Istanbul, you may want a rest and a reminder of Mother Nature. In which case, head to Gulhane park next to Topkapi Palace. As one of Istanbul's oldest and most significant parks, Gulhane originally belonged to Topkapi Palace, and only sultans went there. In 1912, as the empire crumbled, Gulhane opened to the public and famously featured a zoo, coffee houses, and recreation areas. In later years, the zoo was removed, and exercise routes were added alongside many more trees. On the park's western edge, the Museum of The History of Science and Technology in Islam features many science artefacts from the 8th to 16th centuries.
8: The Sultanahmet Hippodrome
Next to the Blue Mosque, the Sultanahmet hippodrome does not have the same impact as other attractions, yet it still served an essential role in the history of the area. Built in 203 by the Roman emperor Septimius Severus and later extended by Constantine the great, locals gathered in the hippodrome to watch gladiator fights and chariot races. Unfortunately, many were also slaughtered here. First 40,000 rebels during the byzantine empire and then 30,000 former Ottoman empire guards who likewise rebelled. Nothing remains of the former chariot race course or seating, but the history comes alive with imagination and a good Sultanahmet tour guide. Also, keep an eye out for the famous serpent column.
9: Museum of Turkish and Islamic arts
This Istanbul museum, opposite the hippodrome, twins Islamic and Turkish arts to portray the blend of culture and history. An additional part reflects nomadic Turks through original handmade carpets and rugs, including 13th-century Seljuk carpets. First opening its door in 1914, the museum moved to a new location in 1983. Yet the impressive collection is worth taking an hour out of your Sultanahmet sightseeing trip. Initially, the house of the Ibrahim pasha of Pargali, walk to the top terrace for refreshments and a lovely view over the hippodrome of Sultanhamet. Lastly, walk to the inner courtyard to see the ethnography section portraying life in 19th-century Istanbul.
10: Arasta Bazaar of the Sultanahmet District
The Arasta bazaar only contains a small number of shops, yet it is the perfect introduction to shopping in Istanbul since the stall owners are not as pushy or insistent as in other places. In addition, Arasta is a great place to pick up your souvenirs, from jewellery to ceramics to textiles, spices, and handicrafts. First built in the 17th century as stables for the sultans, its purpose transitioned into a shopping market in the 1980s, and rent from stall owners goes to the Blue Mosque. With a bit of imagination and silent contemplation, history can come alive.
11: Experience a Traditional Turkish Bath
After sightseeing in Sultanahmet, you might like to unwind with a traditional Turkish bath. Hurrem Sultan Hamman is an excellent place to head to. Built in the 16th century by the famous Ottoman architect Minar Sinan, he said, "I hope when the time comes, good-hearted friends who look at my work when they see the seriousness and spirit of my effort, can take a fair view and pray for me by mentioning my name." Suleiman the Magnificent's wife, Roxana, the most powerful Ottoman woman, requested the construction. Another traditional city bath to try in Sultanhamet is Cagaloglu Hamami near the Basilica Cistern.
12: Soguk Cesme Street in Sultanahmet
Also, sitting around the corner from the Topkapi palace, few people venture to Soguk Cesme street, yet they miss out. The name translates into the cold fountain, but the city road earns fame for the old Ottoman houses on both sides. As a car-free zone of Istanbul, the street takes its name from the nearby historic fountains. This fact pales in astonishment compared to the two and three-story 20th-century houses, some of which have been restored to their former glory. A hotel has even bought some houses and refurbished them in their original décor and design. Another house was converted into a library with more than 10,000 books.
Other Attractions to Visit in Istanbul
Grand Bazaar: Istanbul city, now home to modern shopping malls in the world, is also home to what must be the very first shopping mall in history, the Grand Bazaar, or Kapali Carsi, meaning covered marketplace in Turkish. This vast 15th-century indoor arcade is the largest covered market in the world, selling traditional Turkish goods such as carpets, jewellery, textiles, antiques, and souvenirs. As you enter through, prepare to feel overwhelmed by the sheer vastness and enormity of vaulted roofing, booth-like shops with wares spilling over the passageways, the din, the colour, and the sense of chaos.
Shopping in Istanbul: Do not expect to go home with any loose change when shopping in Istanbul city. The best range of malls and famous markets host thousands of bargains and luxury stores of which the happy sellers help to empty your purse. Whether buying souvenirs or clothes in cosmopolitan boutique stalls, travellers always find what they want in this vast metropolis. Covering two continents, Istanbul hosts millions of visitors annually, who usually go home with something in their suitcase. So, bearing in mind that the overwhelming choice sometimes leads to shopper's frustration, we have listed where to go after seeing the Sultanahmet attractions of Istanbul.
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