Istanbul has the highest concentration of attractions we have seen in a city.
This is the Best of the Old City in One Day in Istanbul.
Istanbul is one of the most exciting and accessible cities to explore. Within walking distance, you will find all the classic Istanbul attractions. The famous Istanbul landmarks that draw millions of visitors each year to this magical and exotic city.
Wheather you do a self-guided tour or take an Istanbul Old City walking tour, even if you only had one day in Istanbul, you can still tick off all the main attractions Istanbul is famous for. If you have more time to spend in this intriguing city, a day in the Old City is a great introduction to Istanbul.
Sultanahmet Square, also known as Hippodrome is the heart of the Old City and central point for Istanbul sightseeing.
The compact and relatively traffic free area of Sultanahmet makes it easy to explore Istanbul’s best attraction on foot including the Grand Bazaar, Hagia Sophia and The Blue Mosque. Sultanahmet Square is the centre of the Old City of Istanbul.
Hippodrome of Constantinople
Sultanahmet Square was the original setting of the Hippodrome of Constantinople. A public venue for chariot races, athletic events and political activities, back when the city was known as Constantinople.
Measuring an estimated 450m long, it had a U-shaped racetrack and stands capable of holding 100,00 spectators. The Hippodrome was the social centre of the city.
The Obelisk of Theodosius and the Serpentine Column
The Obelisk of Theodosius and the Serpentine Column (or what remains of it) still stand in the square as reminders of past rulers and the glory days of the Hippodrome.
Theodosius the Great bought the Obelisk from Egypt in the 4th century. To transport it, he had the original work cut into three pieces and erected the top section on a marble pedestal. This is where it has stood in near perfect condition for nearly 3500 years.
Like Theodosius, Constantine endeavoured to raise the image of his new capital, by erecting works of art in the centre of the Hippodrome. The Serpentine Column was commissioned to celebrate the victory of the Greeks over the Persians.
In 324, Constantine had the work moved from the Temple of Apollo at Delphi and placed in the Hippodrome. The original work was adorned with a golden bowl supported by three serpent heads. The bowl was destroyed during the fourth crusade and the serpent heads sometime before the end of the 17th century. Only the column remains.
Hagia Sophia (St. Sophia) Museum
Hagia Sofia is without a doubt an Istanbul Must See. Built by Byzantine Emperor Justinian, St Sophia has had many lives. Bult in 537 as an Eastern Orthodox Cathedral. Aside from a brief period between 1204 and 1261 when it was converted into a Roman Catholic Cathedral, the building remained Orthodox until 1453.
It was then Hagia Sophia became a mosque until 1931 when it was secularised and opened as a museum in 1935.
The largest cathedral in the world for nearly a thousand years, it is considered one of the greatest architectural marvels and a masterpiece of Byzantine architecture.
In a constant state of repair and restore, the imposing interior will have you craning your neck in awe as soon as you walk in the door.
The entire building still bears impressive representations from all of her inhabitants. From the mosaics and paintings of Jesus, Mary and Saints to Islamic features such as the four minarets.
Hagia Sophia Opening Times and Entry
Summer: April – October | 09.00 – 19.00 | Ticket Closing: 18.00
Winter: October – April | 09.00 – 17.00 | Ticket Closing: 16.00
Entry fee: 40 TL (~ USD $10.00)
Hagia Sofia is closed on Mondays and closed for a half day on the first day of Ramadan and Eid.
Another initiative of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian- the Basilica Cistern, built in the 6th century is only 500 meters from Hagia Sophia. It is the largest of several hundred cisterns which lie beneath the city of Istanbul. Historical archives claim it took 7,000 slaves to build the structure.
At what price clean water? A timeless question it would seem.
Construction of the Basilica Cistern
To put the size of the cistern into perspective:
- The cathedral-size cistern is approximately 138 meters x 65 meters.
- Is capable of holding around 80,000 cubic meters of water.
- It requires 336 carefully spaced marble columns to support the cathedral style ceiling.
The majority of the carved marble pillars are believed to be recycled ruins from other parts of the empire, including leftovers from Hagi Sophia. It is certainly an impressive water holding facility.
The Basilica Cistern Tear Column
There are some intriguing features in the Basilica Cistern. One is a single column carved with pictures of a hen’s eye, slanted branches, and tears. It is said to resemble the columns of the Triumphal Arch of Theodosius and the tears pay tribute to the hundreds of slaves who died during the construction of the cistern.
Medusa Heads of the Basilica Cistern
Another curious feature of the cistern is in the far northwest corner. Two columns have pedestals with the appearance of Medusa carved into them. While it is assumed these carvings have been repurposed from another building, there is no evidence they were previously used as pedestals. What is unsure, is the intention behind their placement.
One Medusa is placed on her side. Ancient urban myth suggests it was to negate the power of the Gorgon’s Gaze said to turn one to stone. This theory is often dispelled as it is widely thought this placement was for no other reason than being the correct size to support the column.
Why the upside-down Medusa is placed this way is unknown as she would be the same size upright as upside down.
For film fans, the Basilica Cistern also leaves its mark on popular culture. The cistern has been used as a location in a number of films, most notably in the 1963 Bond film, From Russia With Love and more recently the Tom Hanks film Inferno.
Basilica Cistern Opening Times and Entry
Summer: 09.00 – 18.30
Winter: 09.00 – 17.30
Entry fee: 20 TL (~ USD $5.00)
The Basilica Cistern is open seven days a week. The museum opens at 13:00 on first days of religious holidays and on January 1.
The Madrasa is like a school for the arts if you like. With more than a dozen courses on offer including the popular Turkish art of marbling known as Ebru.
We were treated to a demonstration of this art form. The creation of the piece, set to beautiful traditional music is an art form in itself. It was really quite mesmerising watching this delicate picture unfold as if telling a story.
Offering everything from Ottoman language courses to calligraphy and reed flute (Ney), Caferaga Madrasa has become a popular place for both Turkish and foreigners to study traditional Turkish arts.
Caferaga Madrasa Opening Times
Caferaga Madrasa is open from 09.00- 18.00 every day except Mondays when it is closed.
Topkapi Palace was built in 1459 by Sultan Mehmed II, Topkapi Palace was the primary residence of Sultans during the Ottoman period for nearly 400 years.
Named by UNESCO as one of the finest examples of palaces of the Ottoman period, it is now a museum and popular tourist attraction.
The palace complex consists of four main courtyards and an assortment of smaller buildings, once home to as many as 4,000 people. This small city within the city contained everything it required to be self sustaining including mosques, bakeries and a mint.
Throughout the palace are impressive collections of porcelain, clocks, weapons, shields and armour as well as some of the most precious jewels in the world. There are also important Muslim holy relics such as Muhammed’s cloak and sword. Unfortunately, photographing of any of these collections is prohibited.
In the Mohamed Chamber, you will find a small booth where an Imam has been continuously reciting passages from the Quran for 500 years. Shifts of a few hours are taken by various local Imam’s as the readings continue round the clock, as they have done, non-stop for 500 years.
Topkapi Palace Opening Times and Entry
Summer: April – October | The Museum, Harem and Hagia Irini can be visited 09.00 – 18.00
Winter: October – April |The Museum, Harem and Hagia Irini can be visited 09.00 – 16.45 |Last entrance to the museum from 16:00 to 18:00
Entry fee: Museum Entrance: 40 TL (~ USD $10.00) | Harem Entry: 25 TL (~ USD $6.00)| Aya Irini Entry: 20 TL (~ USD $5.00)
Topkapi Palace is closed on Tuesdays.
Blue Mosque (Sultanahmet Mosque)
Sultanahmet Camii in Turkish, the Blue Mosque was built between the years 1609 and 1616 during the rule of Ahmed I.
Named for the 20,000 blue Iznik tiles around the interior walls, the Blue Mosque is still a functioning mosque and one of the most iconic Istanbul Landmarks and one of the most popular things to see in Istanbul.
Tips for Visiting the Blue Mosque
There is no cost to enter the Blue Mosque.
There is the option to make a donation towards the maintenance of the mosque at the exit door. A donation is not compulsory but a receipt will be given for any donations made.
The Blue Mosque is only open to visitors outside of prayer times. This leaves only small windows for visiting, so be prepared for long queues and crowds.
Tip: Be wary of anyone offering entry to the mosque without having to queue up. They will most likely be angling to sell you something or lure you to a shop. It is best to line up with everyone else. Don’t worry if the line looks long, they move everyone along very quickly to get them through before the next prayer time.
Opening Times for Visitors
- Prayer is five times a day lasting 90 minutes.
- The mosque is closed on Friday mornings for Friday prayer.
Blue Mosque Dress Code
Remove Your Shoes
As you enter you will be required to remove your shoes. You will be given a plastic bag free of charge to place them in. This is required of all persons as part of Muslim tradition when entering any mosque.
Dress Code for Ladies:
- All ladies must wear head coverings. We always recommend travelling with a lightweight travel scarf for this purpose. If you don’t have a scarf, they are available at the entry, free of charge.
- The scarf is only to cover the hair, not the face. Place the scarf on top of your head hanging equally on both sides. Take one side and wrap it around your neck, tossing it over your back to cover your shoulders.
- Skirts or shorts need to be well below the knee.
Dress Code for Men:
- Men need to wear pants that cover the knee. Anything above the knee is not acceptable.
Once you have tackled the crowds, inside you will be rewarded, albeit briefly with the Blue Mosques beautiful interior.
The Grand Bazaar Istanbul
What better way to finish a day of classic Istanbul attractions than to wander aimlessly through the Grand Bazaar.
The Grand Bazaar was commissioned by Mehmet II after the Ottoman conquest of Istanbul in 1453 to provide the financial resource for Hagia Sophia.
Covering an area of 54,653 square meters, with 61 covered streets and 3,000 shops, it is the oldest and largest covered bazaar in the world. The Grand Bazaar is also listed No 1 among the world’s most visited tourist attractions and is without a doubt one of the top things to do in Istanbul.
You can find almost anything at the Grand Bazaar, including Turkish rugs, gold, lanterns, and antiques. Amazingly, there seems to be an order to the chaos of the Bazaar, a city that operates within a city.
Imagine a shopping mall over 550 years old, employing over 26,000 people, with anywhere from 250,000 – 400,000 visitors daily. Now that’s some impressive stats by any score.
And if you happen to get lost in the Bazaar, there will undoubtedly be a Turkish Rug salesman standing at an intersection waiting to give you directions. After all, you look like someone who is in the market for a Turkish rug!
Grand Bazaar Opening Hours
Open: Monday – Saturday 08.30 – 19.00
Closed: Sundays and on religious holidays. You can find a full list of Turkish national and religious holidays here.
We did say you can find almost anything in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar!
Plan Your Istanbul Itinerary
While this may seem like an overwhelming day, the good news is, all of these Istanbul attractions are all within a short walk of each other. Also, remember, depending on the day, you may not be able to visit all of these attractions.
It is best to double check opening times and days before planning your one day in Istanbul itinerary to avoid disappointment.
You can find a great resource for checking the closing days and opening hours in Istanbul here.
The Best of Istanbul Tours
Of course, all of these attractions may be visited under your own steam without a guide, but after taking a full day private tour we believe this is the best way to see Istanbul. Especially if you are short on time and want to see a lot.
Many walking tours of the Old City will take the hassle out of visiting the top Istanbul attractions and are relatively inexpensive.
- Many tours offer Skip The Line service with pre-purchased tickets.
- At sights like the Blue Mosque where there is no ticketing, your guide will know the best time to get you there, to ensure minimal waiting and maximum time inside.
- You can tap into the local knowledge for information on the best places to eat during your stay.
- A good guide knows each attraction intimately so can whizz you through to the good bits and know how to dodge the crowds while not missing out on anything.
- Many tours will collect you from your hotel.
These are just a few of the walking tours available around Istanbul’s Old City.
Where We Stayed in Istanbul
We stayed at a delightful 19th century Ottoman boutique hotel in Sultanahmet – Dersaadet Hotel which gave us easy access to all attractions and the best restaurants in the Sultanahmet area.