Istanbul might have a reputation for its cosmopolitan population and increasingly modern attitude, but the heart of the city still beats in the historic old town of Sultanahmet, located on the European peninsula bounded by the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus. First founded by Greek colonists in 667BC, the area of Sultanahmet was once the walled city of Istanbul known as ‘Constantinople’ and today the peninsula is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and teeming with examples of Byzantine and Ottoman era architecture.
The Sultanahmet District of Istanbul is a popular base camp for visitors, crammed with tourist accommodation, restaurants and souvenir shops, but the tourist sprawl does little to distract from the old age beauty of the area’s historic buildings and those exploring Istanbul’s myriad sights will find themselves spending the majority of their time in the ancient quarter.
The magnificent Blue Mosque, named for the colored mosaic adorning the dome roof, and the mighty Hagia Sophia, with its enormous 30-meter dome, reign proud over Sultanahmet, both exquisite examples of the city’s religious buildings. Nearby, the grand Topkapi Palace is another popular attraction, the lavish former abode of Ottoman Emperors, showcasing a vast collection of Royal relics, weaponry and jewels alongside a fascinating complex of Harem apartments. A walking tour of the area also takes in the giant underground Basilica Cistern, the remains of a Byzantine era Hippodrome, the Istanbul Archeological Museums and the Great Palace Mosaic Museum. Don’t forget a trip to the world renowned Grand Bazaar too, where everything from elaborate hand-woven carpets to cheerful trinkets are on sale, and the nearby Egyptian Spice Bazaar, where a kaleidoscope of herbs and spice are sold alongside heaps of varieties of Turkish Delight.
The best part about the old town though, is the atmosphere – wandering the labyrinth of streets, navigated by the ever-presented minarets rising into the sky. This is Istanbul at its most charming, where you can join the locals at a hookah cafe or traditional teahouse; unwind at one of the area’s many time-honored Hamams (Turkish Baths) or enjoy a picnic in the flower-lined Gulhane Park, the former royal hunting grounds of Topkapı Palace.