Istanbul Free Walking Tour:
Location: Old Town Istanbul (Sultanahmet)
Cost: Free, Self-Guided (Museum and sight costs below)
End: Restaurant Row
Distance: 1.5 Miles
Time: 3 Hours of Walking (with attractions around 6 hours)
Fun Scale: 10 out of 10
Dividing Your Time: A busy traveler can hit up all of these sights in one long day, however, we highly suggest splitting it into two days and adding in Chora Church as well. If you have a third day add in our New Town Walking Tour.
The Ottoman’s weren’t as interested in Roman games as the Byzantines were so the arena quickly fell into ruin and the Palace was replaced by the Blue Mosque. Today most of the buildings of the arena are gone, but it was never built over, so the current Atmeydanı Park follows the same path the Hippodrome did.
Continuing further South there are 3 awesome monuments in the middle of the Hippdrome starting with the hieroglyph-filled Obelisk of Theodosius. This ancient Egyptian obelisk was originally built by Pharaoh Tutmoses III at the temple of Karnak in 1450 B.C. Yes we said B.C.! After 20 years on the throne, Constantine moved this Obelisk and the Lateran Obelisk from conquered Karnak to Alexandria in 357 A.D. The obelisks stayed in Alexandria until 390 A.D. when this one was moved to the Hippodrome and the Lateran Obelisk went to the Circus Maximus in Rome. Today, only the upper third of the Obelisk of Theodosius remain as the rest of it was damaged in during transportation. The large marble pedestal is sits on today depicts Theodosius crowning chariot game winners.
Just down from the Egyptian obelisk you’ll see the remains of the Serpentine Column which looks like a broken twisted pipe. The Serpentine Column was originally built in 478 B.C. in Delphi as an offering to Apollo to honor the Greek victory over the Persians in the battle of Plataea. It’s said to be made from the melted down shields of fallen Persian soldiers. Originally the twisted pipes were the bodies of serpents whose large head held a golden tripod topped with a large golden bowl and it stood for over 800 years before being moved to the Hippodrome. The Column actually remained intact until about 300 years ago when it was plundered, but the upper jaw of one of the serpents was recently found and is on display at the Istanbul Archaeological Museum.
The final major monument still remaining in the Hippodrome sitting on the far southern end is the bare stone Constantine Obelisk. Often refereed to as the Walled Obelisk, the Constantine built this monument with rough stone and covered it with gilded bronze plates showing victories of his Grandfather Basil I and topped by a sphere. Unfortunately the adornments were stolen and melted down during the Fourth Crusade in 1204 exposing the rough stone below. Many other monuments once covered the Hippodrome grounds such as four large bronze horses from Greece which are now in front of St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice Italy. Hours: 24/7 3D Render: Here is a great series of 3D render images on what the Hippodrome looked like at its peak.
2. Blue Mosque (Sultanahmet Camii): Built on the grounds of Constantine’s Grand Palace, the massive Blue Mosque is beautiful inside and out. If you think the sure size of the Mosque is impressive now, imagine what people thought when Sultan Ahmet completed it in 1616 A.D. Can you believe it only took the Sultan 7 years to complete the Blue Mosque? Surrounding the cascading domed architecture are a series of six towering minaret spires. The purpose of a minaret in a mosque is that an imam will climb the minaret five times a day to announce/sing each of the five daily call to prayers. It is similar to a bell tower at a church ringing out before services. Although only one minaret is needed it’s legend that the Blue Mosque has six due to a communication problem. The Sultan wanted to show off his wealth with golden (altin) minarets, but the architect heard him wrong and thought he said six (alti) minarets. Today they no loner climb the minarets as they have all been fitted with speaks capable of projected a single imam’s voice for many blocks. It is other worldly the first time you hear it as a tourist.
Once inside the inner courtyard, tourists (non-worshipers) must enter the the Blue Mosque through main entrance on the North West side of the Mosque; this is also where the main courtyard is. All active mosques are closed to non-Muslims around the five daily calls to prayer which we touch on along with other visiting tips below. As you enter through heavy drapery the interior of the Blue Mosque is a little overwhelming. The first thing that hits you is how the cascading domes make the main room feel infinitely larger than the massive 141 foot tall, 110 foot wide main dome does. The dispersed weight of the domes is settled upon four large 15 foot wide elephant feet footers in each of the corners of the main room.
Once you wrap you mind around the size of the main room, you quickly understand why travelers gave it the name of the Blue Mosque. 260 windows and over 20,000 decorated blue tiles give the interior its famous alluring color explosion. The French loved the shade of blue so much that they called itturquoise, or the color of the Turks. The tiles are decorated with abstract patterns, geometric patterns, flowers, and trees. Muslim mosques only use figurative art and do not depict living beings as to not distract from the worship of Allah as their one God. Our favorite form of art in Mosques is the elegant use of Arabic calligraphy to depict excerpts of the Quran. The most predominant uses of calligraphy appear is two round medallions high above the main worship area with the name of the Prophet Muhammad to the left and Allah to the right. Below the medallions lays the marble mihrab which points toward the holy city of Mecca where all Muslims face while worshiping. Although there are five daily calls to prayer you’ll see people worshiping in the main area during all times of day. Non-worshipers are required to always stay behind the wooden railing surrounding the main worship area. Worship services are segregate with only men allowed in the main area, while women must worship behind the railing next to the main entrance. While so many beautiful aspects, we know that your visit to the Blue Mosque will be one you’ll never forget. 360 degree photo of the interior.
Visiting Hours: Open daily one hour after sunrise until one hour before sunset. Closed to tourists starting 30 minutes prior to each of the 5 daily prayer times until the service it over. Services last around 30 minutes, but the Friday mid-day sermon may last a full hour. Best Time To Go: Typically between 9am and Noon as it is the largest gap between services. Here is a helpful list of current prayer times for Istanbul day by day to better help you plan your time. Cost: Free
Shoe Etiquette: Everyone must remove their shoes at the raised platform by the door. Proper etiquette states that before stepping up on the platform you take your shoe off without letting your foot touch the ground below the platform. This act ensures that both your feet and the platform will remain clean before entering; socks typically remain on if you are wearing any. Plastic bags for your shoes are provided to bring them with or you can safely leave them outside in the racks by the door.
General Etiquette: Tourists may only enter during non-prayer time through the North West entrance. Modest dress is required for both men and women with your shoulders and knees covered; most major Mosques will let you borrow a wrap if you are not covered. Women must also cover their heads with a scarf which are available to borrow but you can buy your own cheaply at any market. Even during non-prayer time people may be praying so no running or yelling. Like any place of worship do not take photos of worshipers without permission. Keep in mind that non-muslims must stay behind the wooden barrier surrounding the main worship area.
3. Great Palace Mosaic Museum: Located inside an active bazaar, the Mosaic Museum was created when the northern section of a peristyle courtyard from Constantine’s Great Palace was discovered under some shops. The first series of mosaics were found in 1933, but when they found more in 1950 they made 16 shops in the Bazaar close and started the museum. Although they date back to 450 A.D., many of the mosaics are in remarkable condition and have a unique use of shading for mosaics that are so old. Although not as vast as the grand mosaics at the Chora museum on the edge of town, the Mosaic Museum will give you great insight into everyday life in early Istanbul. The surrounding Bazaar is popular and the Museum itself is definitely worth at least 15-20 minutes of your time.
Hours: Tuesday-Sunday 9am-5pm, stays open until 7pm April-October. Closed on Mondays. Cost: 8TL
4. Sultan Ahmet Park: In the days of Constantine’s Great Palace the entire area of the park served as the Baths of Zeuxippos, now it serves as one of the best spots to take photos in all of Istanbul. We loved the day time street vendors that dress up like Sultans and the friendly stray dogs and cats that roam the southern benches, but our favorite spot is near the large fountain in the middle. Standing in the middle of the park, near the large fountain, you’ll have amazing views of the dominating Blue Mosque to the South, the Turkish Baths to the East, and ancient Hagia Sophia to the North. While the bustling daytime hours are enjoyable, the most magically time to take photos is near both dawn and dusk as the light turn on in the fountain and on the buildings creating a postcard perfect effect. Hours: 24/7.
Near the entrance to the next stop make sure to check out the Million Marker. Constantine built Million in his New Rome to serve as mile marker zero in measuring road distances to all corners of the Empire, just like the Milliarium Aureum in Rome had once done.
5. Basilica Cistern (Yerebatan Sarayi): The grandest of the many underground water reservoirs in Istanbul, the ancient Basilica Cistern and its 336 columns can hold 27 million gallons of water! Built in 532 A.D. by Byzantine Emperor Justinianus, the Cistern was an engineering marvel with the weight of the city above supported by a complex series of arches connecting the 12 rows of 28 columns. It’s said that it took over a workforce of over 7,000 slaves to originally dig out and build the Cistern. Movie goers may remember the Cistern as the location for the 1963 James Bond film From Russia with Love.
The 2 football field sized Cistern was in constant use for almost 1,000 years until 1453 when the Ottomans conquered Istanbul. The Ottomans largely abandoned the reservoir because they preferred fresh tap water over sitting water. The Ottomans decided to build their own water system and only used the Cistern to feed Topkapi Palace gardens along with a few private homes. Because its use was cut so much the Cistern went undiscovered by Westerners until 1544 when Dutchman Petrus Gyllius came to Istanbul looking for Byzantine monuments. Gyllius noticed that many residents were getting their water by lowering buckets into holes in the floors of their homes and set out to explore beneath the massive city. Locals directed Gyllius to a set of walled steps near a local house where he descended Torch-in-hand to explore the system below. In cramped conditions Gyllius brought a small boat into the Cistern and began plotting out off the columns and published the story of the forgotten Cistern with illustrations in his book which inspired many other travelers to come see the magnificent masterpiece.
In 1723, 1876, and 1958 restorations took place to re-enforce failing masonry, but the modern restoration from 1985 unveiled the greatest treasures. The water level was lowered and 50,000 tons of mud were removed from the Cistern revealed that the massive columns were a whopping 30 feet tall! Some of the columns have Corinthian style capitals, others have Ionic capitals and 98 of them have Doric capitals. The diversity comes because they were all reused from other structures from across the ancient Byzantine Empire. One of the coolest Columns is engraved with images of eyes and tears to pay tribute to the hundreds of slaves who died building the Cistern. The removal of the mud from the 100,000 square foot space also uncovered the Cistern’s main attraction, two columns with massive Medusa heads as column bases. The Medusa Heads, in the far Southwestern corner of the Cistern, are from the Roman Period and have amazing detail. One is sideways and the other is completely upside down. Researchers generally believe that the heads were brought in for the sole purpose of being used as column bases, but some locals believe any of 3 legends. One legend says the heads were used because Medusa is believed to be one of three Gorgonas which are female monsters of the underworld. Another belief is that the heads were moved here to provide protection to the important structure. The third legend is that the Medusa heads were put here sideways so anyone who looked upon her wouldn’t be turned to stoned by her gaze.
When the 1985 restoration was complete all of the original 52 steps down from the entrance were uncovered, platforms for tourists to walk on were added, an underground cafe was opened, and they found that the 4 foot wide brick walls of the Cistern had been made waterproof with a thick layer of Khorasan mortar. The Cistern’s mysterious aura make it one of our favorite spots in Istanbul and is not to be missed.
Hours: Daily, 9am-5:30pm but stays open until 6:30pm in the Summer. Last entry 30 minutes before close. Cost: 10TL
6a. Hagia Sophia’s History (Aya Sofya): A bright pink exterior is definitely misleading as you step into the black and gold interior of the 1,500 year old Hagia Sophia with its dim medieval lighting. Words almost can’t describe how your senses are thrown back in time and confused by mixed elements of Orthodox, Islamic, and Catholic origins. Built in 537 A.D. by the Byzantines on the same spot as two previous churches, Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom) is considered one of the greatest religious buildings in the World. Unfortunately nothing remains from the 1st church Megale Ekklesia (Great Church), built in 360 A.D., but there are still some fragments from the 2nd church. The 2nd church was burned down during the Nika revolt in 532 A.D. in which half the city was burned and over 30,000 people died. You can still see large marble blocks with lamb carvings from the 2nd church in pits near Hagia Sophia’s entrance.
The current Hagia Sophia was completed as Europe was beginning its Dark Ages and Istanbul was on a large upswing which led to over 400 years of the city being the center of Christianity. They spared no expense on the massive domed church and it seems that there’s marble everywhere you look. When Hagia Sophia’s 182 foot tall, 104 foot wide main dome dome was completed it was the largest in the World in until the Cathedral of Florence was built 900 years later. It’s so large that the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris could fit inside it. As the Hagia Sophia’s power grew they brought riches from all corners of the Byzantine Empire to the church from doors they believed to be made from Noah’s Ark, to large marble doors from conquered temples. Many of these riches still survive today, but the power didn’t last forever. In 1204 Crusaders overtook the Hagia Sophia and controlled it for the Roman Catholic Church until 1261. During the years of Catholic control many of the Hagia Sophia’s riches were sent to Venice Italy. Luckily they left many of the detailed gold mosaics of the upper gallery untouched.
If the Crusaders weren’t enough, the Ottomans took Istanbul over in 1453 and converted Hagia Sophia into a Mosque. All images of living beings inside the Mosque were removed and all of remaining gold mosaics upstairs were plastered over. Some historians feel that the conversion to a Mosque actually saved Hagia Sophia as it had begun falling into ruin before the Ottomans took over. The Ottomans not only added the four minarets spires to Hagia Sophia’s exterior during the conversion, but also made other interesting structural changes like moving the prayer niche off center. They did actually had to move the niche because the original Christian Church was built to face Jerusalem while the prayer niche in a Mosque needs to face the Muslim holy city of Mecca. While most of the remaining elements from the Mosque are structural, several large medallions adorned with Arabic calligraphy can be seen from anywhere in Hagia Sophia and make the cultural blending complete.
Then Ottoman Empire fell in the early 1900’s and the newly formed government of Turkey closed Hagia Sophia as a worship center to turn it into museum in 1934. During restorations they removed the plaster on the upper gallery to reveal the gold Christian mosaics largely intact in all their shimmering glory.
6b. Touring Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofya): The brochure you get at the entrance of the Museum has a great map and most points of interest will have an English description plate near them so learning and exploring on the fly is easy. Here are our favorite of the many points of interests.
First Floor Tour: Before entering Hagia Sophia check out the marble flower statue next the fountain, it’s really cool. Now entering, the first door you walk through is the bronze gilded Nice Door which was installed in 838 A.D. The door is actually the oldest artifact in Hagia Sophia as it is believed to be from 200 B.C when it was made for the Pagan Temple in Antiock. Some say that the making up the core of the door is made out of wood from Noah’s Ark. As you enter notice the large mosaic known as the Donation Mosaic. It shows Mary and Jesus being offered a model of the city by Constantine on the right and a model of Hagia Sophia by Justinian to the left. Continuing the the center of the hallway you’ll find the main entrance the the nave known as the Imperial Gate. Originally this entrance was used only for members of the Imperial family and above it is a mosaic showing Emperor Leon VI kneeling at the feet of God.
Once in the nave your jaw will drop and the sure size and old-world beauty of Hagia Sophia. Once you’ve wrapped your head around the church head left to the massive Marble Lustration Jar. There is a matching jar in the opposite back corner of the nave, but this one is our favorite. The jars were originally carved the Hellenistic period and brought to Hagia Sophia in 1580 A.D. from the ancient acropolis in Pergamon. Can you believe that each jar was carved out of a single block of marble, we find it remarkable given how huge it is as you can see from the photo above. Just beyond the Lustration Jar, in the far back corner of the nave is the always fun Wishing Column. You can’t miss it as it is the only column wrapped in bronze and has an obvious hole sitting right at shoulder height. It’s said that if you do a complete clockwise circle with your hand while keeping your thumb in the hole your wish will come true. Some party poopers will tell you your thumb has to come out damp for your wish to come true. See in the photo to the right, visitors over the years have polished a circle on the bronze by spinning their hands on it.
As you move to the prayer niche at the far end of the nave you’ll see and inconspicuous square roped off in the middle of the floor, this is the Omphalion. Notice how the floor is different here with a series of different colored marble circles. This spot is not only where the Byzantine Emperors would sit during service, but is also where the coronation of every Emperor took place. Before moving closer to explore the prayer niche you can really notice how off center it is from when the Ottomans moved it from facing Jerusalem to Mecca during the conversion to a Mosque. Also notice how impressive the 24 foot wide Arabic medallions look above the Apse. The name of the Prophet Muhammad to the left and Allah to the right. Sitting high on the left, totally inclosed in gold lattice, is the Sultan’s Loge. The lattice provided both privacy and protect against assassination. To the right is a tall stair column called the Mimber where the Imam would give Friday services. During service the Imam would only go halfway as the top was symbolically reserved only for the Prophet Muhammad out of respect. 360 degree photo from the main floor.
Upper Gallery Tour: One of the coolest experiences in Hagia Sophia is the dark Ancient Ramp you take to get to the upper gallery. The winding and uneven ramp is dimly lit and has the feel of exploring hidden corridors of a medieval castle. While there may have been stairs at one point, the ramp was very important as Sultans and Emperors were often carried upstairs by their servants or rode up on horseback. When you emerge from the ramp notice how most of the columns upstairs are made out of green marble instead of white, they are very beautiful. As you walk the railing to the back of Hagia you’ll find the best views at the Loge of the Empress marked with a green stone. This is where the Byzantine Empress would sit to watch service. As you continue down the back of Hagia Sopha keep an eye out for the block with the Runic Inscriptions along the back wall. It is a block marble where some Vikings left graffiti in the 9th century; Halfdan the only legible name. After you’ve taking in the views continues along the railing until you get to the large white Marble Door. The door was used by members of the church council to enter meetings and also leads the way to the best mosaics in Hagia Sophia.
As you pass through the large marble door to your right is probably the most photographed mosaic, theDeësis Mosaic. This mosaic was made in 1261 to mark the end of the 57 year Catholic control of Hagia Sophia. While damaged from the plaster that covered it during Ottoman rule, the Deësis Mosaic depicts Jesus flanked by Mary to the left and John the Baptist to the right. At the end of the hallway there are two more awesome mosaics on either side of a large window. To the right is the Commenos Mosaics which dates 1122 A.D. and may be the best preserved mosaic in all of Hagia Sophia. The Commenos Mosaics shows Mother Mary holding the baby Jesus flanked by Empress Irene to the right and Emperor John Commenos II to the left. To the left of the window is the Empress Zoë Mosaicfrom the 11th Century which has been changed over time is at the end of the hallway with the Deësis Mosaic and dates to the . The Empress Zoë mosaic depicts Christ flanked to the left by Emperor Constantine IX Monomachos and to the right by Empress Zoë. Zoë’s face had been scraped off by her nephew when we briefly took power but re-added after she had him killed. There is also evidence that the Emperor’s face replaced that of one of Zoë’s two previous husbands. Before leaving the upper gallery make sure to check out the Dome Mosaics. Several mosaics lay high on the roof of the dome itself and are of note as they are the oldest remaining mosaics in Hagia Sophia dating back the the mid 9th Century. The most intact is that of the Virgin Mary holding the child Jesus on her lap.
Cost: 25TL Hours: Tuesday-Sunday 9am-630pm, may close at 430 in the off season. Closed Mondays. Last entry 1 hour before close.
7. Fountain of Ahmed III: As you approach the gate of Topkapi Palace’s first courtyard you’ll come to a small but funky little fountain building. Sultan Ahmed III built the fountain in 1728 and it served as a large meeting point during the second half of the Ottoman Empire. While the fountain makes a for great brief stop, it is extremely important in giving you relief that you are heading the right way toward the main entrance of Topkapi Palace.
8. Gülhane Sur Cafe: Gülhane Sur Cafe is slightly down the hill but impossible to miss as most of the seating is right up against the stone walls that line the alley. The Cafe is really the perfect place to relax and if you’re lucky you’ll get the booth that has a tree growing right in the middle of its padded bench. To truly live like a local order a nargile (hooka) for 15TL and take a few puffs on it’s dried fruit. It isn’t uncommon to see locals puffing on a nargile dressed up like Sultans. There are often many friendly cats around the cafe. Coffee and Tea are pretty cheap and only priced from 2-6TL. Getting your tea with two cubes of sugar is common in Turkey. Owner Murat Coskun is a really fun guy and also owns the gift shop (Coskun Bazaar) located above the cafe which has really good prices especially on scarves. Address: Soğukçeşme Sok 40A (the small street behind Hagia Sophia). Facebook Page: Here. Hours: Open daily 10am-1am.
9a. Topkapı Palace History (Topkapı Sarayı): Before moving forward into Topkapi Palace a brief overview on its history is quite helpful. When the Ottomans conquered Istanbul in 1453 the Sultan Mehed II had his first palace built on the grounds that now house Istanbul University, but he wasn’t quite happy with the location. After building himself a small pleasure palace (the Tiled Kiosk) near an old cannoned Byzantine wall the Sultan knew he found the spot for his new palace. From 1460 and 1478 the built Mehmed IIs New Palace which gained its current name Topkapi after a series of cannons or Topkapusu were placed nearby. The palace was further expanded or time time and served as the home of the Ottoman sultans and their court until the middle of the 19th century. The overall design of the Palace has fortified walls forming a series of courtyards which get more and more private the deeper you go.
In the early 1850s, the palace became inadequate to the requirements of state ceremonies and protocol, and so the sultans moved to Dolmabahçe Palace, located on the Bosphorus. But despite this move, the royal treasure, the Holy Relics of the Prophet Muhammad, and the imperial archives continued to be preserved at Topkapi, andsince the palace was the ancestral residence of the Ottoman dynasty as well as the place where the Holy Relics were preserved. Topkapi continued to play host to certain state ceremonies. Following the abolishment of the Ottoman monarchy in 1922, Topkapi Palace was converted into a museum on 3 April 1924, on the order of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk who founded modern Turkey.
9b. First Courtyard of Topkapi Palace: After walking back up the hill from the Gülhane Sur Cafe stepping through the Imperial Gate puts you officially inside the First Courtyard of Topkapi Palace known as the Parade Grounds. During Ottoman rule, this gate was guarded and only open from morning prayer until just after evening prayer. Just inside the Imperial Gate to the left you’ll find Hagia Irene (Basilica of Holy Peace). Hagia Irene (Aya Irini Kilisesi) was was the first church built in Constantinople and was completed in the early 3rd Century. It served as the Byzantines’ head Orthodox Church until the first church at the Hagia Sophia location was completed in 360. Hagia Irene was burned down in the Nika revolt of 532 A.D. but quickly rebuilt. When the Ottomans conquered the city in the 1400s and built Topkapi Palace, they enclosed Hagia Irene inside the 1st courtyard of the Palace. Hagia Irene was one of the only churches not converted into a mosque when the Ottomans took over because they decided to use is as the armory for the Topkapi Palace. Today Hagia Irene is slightly rundown and fairly empty, but still serves as concert hall due to its great acoustics.
Here is a model of the greater Palace grounds with the Imperial Gate located in the middle of the outer wall. Here is a painting from 1584 of what life in the First Courtyard was like. Cost: Free. Hours: Daily dawn-dusk, often left open all night.
10. Topkapı Palace Museum (Topkapı Sarayı): Continuing through the First Courtyard (Parade Courtyard) of the Topkapi Palace you’ll be drawn to the castle-like Gate of Salutation (Bab-us Selam) which leads into the Second Courtyard (Council Square) and the Topkapi Palace Museum. Before entering buy your ticket at the ticket booth and notice the fountain built into the wall to the far right of the gate. This is theExecutioners Fountain (Cellat Çesmesi) where executioners would wash their hands following an execution. The Gate of Salutation serves as entrance the security check point for the Museum where you will have to put you belongings through a security scanner.
Once inside keep an eye out for any of the many hollowed out by still living trees. Many of he trees at the Palace got a fungus and lost their guts over hundreds of years but are somehow still standing, still growing, and still produce plentiful leaves.
Here is a model of the Palace’s 2nd, 3rd, and 4th Courtyards which make up the Museum. A half a day is needed to fully explore the entire Palace, but a full day will really help you get your money’s worth. If pushed for time, the 4 must-see things are the Harem (explained in #11), the Imperial Treasury, the Holy Relics, and the views from the fourth and innermost courtyard. These 4 can be seen in about 2 hours.
Chamber of Holy Relics: The Chamber of the Holy Relics, located within the Privy Room, contains religious objects sent to the Ottoman sultans both as gifts and gained through conquest. Among the most important holy relics are the Holy Mantle of the Prophet Muhammad; the hair from Muhammad’s beard; the reliquary with Muhammad’s Tooth which was broken during the Battle of Uhud on 19 March 625; along the footprints, signed letters, bow, and sword of the Muhammad. There are also holy relics attributed to other important religious figures such as the saucepan tray used by Abraham; the staff of Moses; the sword of David; the robe and turban of Joseph; the swords of the Prophet Muhammad’s companions; and the shirt, mantle, praying mat, and chest of Muhammad’s daughter Fatimah. Our favorites visually are the jeweled skull and Arm of St. John the Baptist. The relics in this chamber are so cool that even the Ottoman Sultans were only allowed in once a year during the 15th day of Ramadan. Today everyone is welcome to checkout the relics everyday. some people pilgrimage just to see them.
Imperial Treasury: A large part of the palace treasury is made up of gifts presented at ambassadorial receptions and gifts presented on the occasion of the sultans weddings, of births, and of the circumcision festivities of the princes. While such gifts as these would sometimes be brought to the sultan from the four corners of the world, other gifts would be presented by local artists and artisans who would, in exchange for their gifts, receive not only gifts in return, but also promises of support and future purchase of their works. The sultans would also, on occasion, send gifts to foreign rulers; however, for various reasons, some of these would not reach their destination, in which case they would be returned and take their place in the palace treasury. An example of this sort of gift is the Emerald Dagger (shown above) and emerald and diamond-studded bow and quivers sent by Sultan Mahmud I to Nadir Shah of Persia. Because the Persian leader was killed while these gifts were on there way they were returned to the treasury. The Dagger is the most impressive piece in the entire museum with its diamond encrusted gold sheath, golf ball-sized emeralds on its handle, and even a small flip open clock on the handle’s base. The 86 carat Spoonmaker’s Diamond is a close second for coolest item.
Weapons Collection: The Palace’s collections of weapons are among the richest such collections in the world. Covering 1,300 years and consisting of 52,000 weapons of Arab, Umayyad, Abbasid, Mamluk, Persian, Turkish, Crimean Tartar, Indian, European, and Japanese origin, the Topkapý Palace Museums weaponry collection is also among the worlds premier weapons collections. The collection is made up in part of weapons transferred from the cebehâne and those used by the palace guards; however, the collections most noteworthy section consists of those weapons ordered by the sultan personally or specially made as gifts for him, which weapons are a part of the palaces private collection. This collection includes weaponry owned by such sultans as Mehmed II, Bayezid II, Selim the Grim, Suleiman the Magnificent, Selim II, Mehmed II, and Ahmed I, as well as the weapons of such high-level dignitaries as grand viziers, pashas, and palace chamberlains; all of these weapons are eye-catching with their fine craftsmanship and decorations. An additional factor that contributed to the diversification of the collections highly artistic weaponry was the tradition of bringing to the palace the weapons of important figures that were obtained through plunder.
Chinese and Japanese Porcelain: Among the most invaluable collections in the Topkapi Palace Museum is its Chinese and Japanese Porcelain collection, which is displayed in the Palace’s Imperial Kitchens. This unique collection, which consists of more than 10,000 pieces, is the largest porcelain collection outside of China, and is particularly important in that it showcases the uninterrupted historical development of porcelain from the 13th century to the early 20th century.
Cost: 25TL. Optional audio is 10TL and overs both the entire Museum but also the Harem listed next. Most items will be labeled in English so the audio guide isn’t required. Hours: Open Wednesday-Monday 9am-5pm, stay open until 7pm April-October. Ticket sales stop 1 hour prior to close for museum. CLOSED on Tuesdays.
11. The Sultan’s Harem: The Harem, where Sultans spent private time and lived with their families, takes up a huge part of the Palace creating a maze-like 300 room area. It was the most private area of Topkapi Palace, Harem means forbidden in Arabic, is where the Sultan lived with his Queen Mother (Sultan’s mom), Wives (he could have up to four), Concubines (female slaves not sexually active with the Sultan), Favorites (girlfriends) Black Eunuch Guards (with genitals cut off) and children. The main purpose of all of the extra wives and girlfriends was to provide heirs to the Ottoman throne, but it wasn’t a crazy sex party. The Queen Mother restricted all aspects of which women the Sultan could have relations or socialize with and she ran a pretty tight ship.
To help the Queen Mother keep everything pure, the Sultan had the Harem guarded by Black Eunuchs who were slaves from Africa with their genitals removed.
The Harem also served as a for Dershirmeh Girls and Page Boys between the ages of 6 and 16 who were raised under Islamic rules. Most of the girls were thought music and etiquette before being married off to Cavalrymen or other official royal workers at the age of 25. Girls selected as Chambermaids were given a wider education and had a chance to be chosen as Favorites by the Queen mother. People of the day viewed the Harem as a school where wives were raised for Sultans, Sultan’s sons and popular people in Ottoman history.
The Tour: Typically only around 20 of the 300 rooms are open for tourists, but are well worth the price of admissions and then some. Starting off, the Carriage Gate serves as the entrance to the Harem museum and gets it name because covered wagons would stop here to both drop off and pick up the women on the Harem. The first room you enter on the tour is one of our favorites and serviced as the true entrance to the Harem, the Hall of the Ablution Fountain known as the Sofa. The explosion of turquoise-colored tiles is amazing. Imagine what it must have been like sitting on the stone benches waiting for the Eunuch guards to let you in.
As you move on a decorated cobblestone path leads the way through the next few stops. Next up is the Courtyard of the Eunuchs where you walk outside along a long row of apartments that housed the Eunuch guards. At the very end is the apartment of the Chief Eunuch who oversaw the Eunuchs as well as the school of the Princes located above his apartment. The Cobblestone path continues to lead you through the Courtyard, through a small gold mirrored room and into the Courtyard of the Queen Mother. This courtyard was a place where many of the people in the Harem would mingle and was overlooked by apartments of the Queen Mother, the Sultan, the Sultan’s senior wife, and heirs to the throne.
Back tracking through the gold mirror room you will continue through a series of rooms and courtyards with uneven marble floors that served as the living areas for the Sultan’s Concubines. You’ll definitely know you’re through the concubine area when you hit a small fireplace room lined floor to ceiling with blue tiles. You are now entering the Quarters of the Queen Mother the second room you hit a small room with a sofa and another explosion of colorful tiles. The tiles in the first room are very interesting and mainly decorated with plant and leaf shapes.
The Royal Hamam (Bathrooms) which the Sultan and Queen Mother shared separated their quarters and were quite the treat. Notice how bright the Bathrooms are as the use of skylights flood the rooms with natural light. The Royal Bathrooms were pretty advanced in their day as the Sultan had a toilet along with hot and cold running water. Advancing through the Bathrooms you’re trust into the Hall with a Fountain which was the holding room guest waiting in before being received in the most impressive room in the entire Harem, the Imperial Throne Hall. The Imperial Throne Hall was the official reception room of the Sultan and also the main entertainment hall of the Harem. The Sultan would sit in his gold throne while the Queen Mother and Favorites sat around the red sofa, and musicians played on the balcony above. The visuals of the large domed room were the envy of many royal guests, but our favorite part is the secret safety escape tunnel the Sultan had behind the large mirror.
As you move on from the Imperial Room the small chamber prior to the Privy Chamber of Murad III (Dining Hall) is very unique as almost all of its tiles seem to depict peacock and other feathers instead of mainly shapes and plants as is the case in most of the rest of the Heram. Murad III’s Privy, on your left, is said to be the oldest room in the Harem dating back to 1578. It is considered one of the most magnificent architectural space in Ottoman history and we really like the use of borders in the room. Titled scenes in the large room have orange borders and the entire room has a ring of big blue tiles with white Arabic writing known as the Throne Verse.
The small room the the side of Murad III’s Privy is the Privy Chamber of Ahmed I which gives you a great vantage point to peak into darker Privy Chamber of Ahmed III, also know as theFruit Room. The Fruit Room was built in 1705 with pictures of flowers and fruits on painted on lacquered wooden panels instead of tiles reflect the beginning of Western influence in Ottoman art.
Working back through both the Privys and the peacock chamber, you’ll find yourself in a long hallway full of tiles with a repeating white, maroon, and dark blue pattern. As you start down the hallway, the entrance the the Twin Kiosks quickly comes up on your left. The crown princes were forced to live here in seclusion through their education until adulthood. The combination of beautiful stained glass windows and detailed tiled walls will for sure make you want to take a few extra minutes in these room.
At the end of the hallway where you entered the Twin Kiosks you’ll find yourself in the Courtyard of the Favorites. Because the Sultan was limited to a max of four wives he needed plenty of quarters to house his Favorites (girlfriend) who were chosen by the Queen Mother. In the courtyard you will be able to see why people may have thought the Twin Kiosks looked like a cage with the princes couped up. If you walk all the way to the stone railing of the courtyard you’ll have a perfect view of the now empty pool directly below.
Cost: 15TL. Cannot get to the Harem without having also buying a ticket for the Topakpi Palace Museum. Harem only audio guide is 5TL. Hours: Open Wednesday-Monday 9am-4pm, stay open until 5pm April-October. CLOSED on Tuesdays.
12. Archaeological Museum: The Istanbul Archaeological Museum houses a collection of about 1 million objects from many different civilizations and cultures, which makes it one of the ten richest museums in the world and the largest Turkey. The collections include objects from many different civilizations founded on regions that became a part of the Ottoman Empire, from the Balkans to Africa, from Anatolia and Mesopotamia to the Arabian Peninsula and to Afghanistan.
The museum consist of three different sections: The Museum of Archaeology, the Ancient Orient Museum and the Tiled Kiosk Museum. Those three buildings present traces from different ages and civilizations. In the Section of Ancient Orient, artifacts belonging to civilizations including Sumerian, Assyrian, Babylonian and Hittite discovered in Arabia, Egypt, Mesopotamia and Anatolia are exhibited.
The Museum of Archaeology, which is the biggest one, hosts the collections of Archaic, Classical, Hellenistic and Roman Periods, Thrakia-Bithynia, Byzantium, İstanbul through the Ages, Troia and Anatolia through the Ages and the Neighboring Cultures of Anatolia: Cyprus, Syria-Palestine. Meanwhile, in the Tiled Kiosk, outstanding tile and ceramic works belonging to the Turkish and Islamic art may be seen.
Cost: 10TL. Hours: Open daily 9am-5pm, stay open until 7pm April-October. They stop selling tickets 30 minutes before close.
If you want to save a little bit of walking to the next stop try the Tram. From the Gülhane stop you can quickly go to the Sultanahmet stop for just 1.5TL anytime between 6am-Midnight and be dropped off right by…
13. Restaurant Row: If you’re looking for true Turkish Delight, look no further than the area we call Restaurant Row! As you approach the pedestrian only alley off Divanyolu Caddesi known as Restaurant Row, you are bombarded with smells and colors that overwhelm your senses. Traditional sweet shops cram into every nook leading to the alley and carry everything from sweet Turkish Delights, to fresh pomegranates, baking fruit torts. If you are looking for some late night shopping there are also many traditional shops selling hanging lights, clothing, rugs, dishware and more. Even if you aren’t buying anything the ambiance after dark in any of the light shops is awesome.
Sir Evi is a place we’ve eaten at many times and has probably the coolest decor on Restaurant Row. The upstairs a bathroom are both really neat, plus the food is awesome! Amerdros is another restaurant we’ve had good food at. Amerdos is a little cheaper and have more outdoor seating. Regardless on where you choose to eat you have to make sure to order a traditional Turkish dish. The one that will really make your jaw drop is Testi Kabab. Testi Kebab is more or less a vegetable and meat stew but it cooked in a sealed clay pot to keep the moisture in and brought to your table still sealed and engulfed in flames. The waiter gives it a few stiff whacks to knock the top off, blows out the fire and your eat right out of the pot as your bowl. The act and presentable never gets old. Location: Intersection of Divanyolu Caddesi & Hoca Rustem Sokak. Hours: Most shops and restaurants are open daily until late
1. Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum (Turk-islam Eserleri Muzesi): Located on the Westside of the Hippodrome. Hours:Tuesday-Sunday 9am-5pm, last entry 4:30pm. Cost: 10TL