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It's said that when the Byzantine Emperor Justinian entered his finished church for the first time in AD 536, he cried out "Glory to God that I have been judged worthy of such a work. Oh Solomon, I have outdone you!" The Aya Sofya (formerly the Hagia Sophia) was the emperor's swaggering statement to the world of the wealth and technical ability of his empire. Tradition maintained that the area surrounding the emperor's throne within the church was the official center of the world.
Through its conversion to a mosque, after the Ottoman armies conquered Constantinople, to its further conversion into a museum in the 20th century, the Aya Sofya has remained one of Istanbul's most cherished landmarks.
Location: Aya Sofya Medanı, Sultanahmet
First built by Mehmet the Conqueror in the 15th century, the sultans of the Ottoman Empire ruled over their dominions from this glorious palace beside the Bosphorus up until the 19th century. The vast complex is a dazzling display of Islamic art, with opulent courtyards lined with intricate hand-painted tile-work, linking a warren of sumptuously decorated rooms, all bounded by battlemented walls and towers. Of the many highlights here, the most popular are the Harem (where the sultan's many concubines and children would spend their days); the Second Court, where you can walk through the vast Palace Kitchens and stand in awe at the dazzling interior of the Imperial Council Chamber; and the Third Court, which contained the sultan's private rooms. The Third Court also displays an impressive collection of relics of the Prophet Muhammad in the Sacred Safekeeping Room and is home to the Imperial Treasury,where you're greeted with a cache of glittering gold objects and precious gems that will make your eyes water. To fully see Topkapı Palace you'll need at least half a day.
Location: Babıhümayun Caddesi, Gülhane Park Closed on Thuesday
Sultan Ahmet I's grand architectural gift to his capital was this beautiful mosque, commonly known as the Blue Mosque today. Built between 1609 and 1616, the mosque caused a furore throughout the Muslim world when it was finished as it had six minarets (the same number as the Great Mosque of Mecca). A seventh minaret was eventually gifted to Mecca to stem the dissent. The mosque gets its nickname from its interior decoration of tens of thousands of İznik tiles. The entire spatial and color effect of the interior make the mosque one of the finest achievements of Ottoman architecture. A great sightseeing joy of a trip to Istanbul is wandering amid the gardens sandwiched between the Blue Mosque and the Aya Sofya to experience their dueling domes in twin glory. Come at dusk as the call to prayer echoes out from the Blue Mosque's minaret for extra ambience.
Directly behind the Blue Mosque is the Arasta Bazaar; a great place for a shopping stop as the handicraft shops here sell high-quality souvenirs. Even if you're not interested in a browse, head here to see the Great Palace Mosaic Museum, which is tucked between the Arasta Bazaar and the mosque. This small museum displays the 250-square-meter fragment of mosaic pavement that was unearthed in the 1950s here. Excellent information panels explain the mosaic floor's recovery and subsequent rescue.
Location: At meydanı, Sultanahmet
The Basilica Cistern is one of Istanbul's most surprising tourist attractions. This huge, palace-like underground hall, supported by 336 columns in 12 rows, once stored the imperial water supply for the Byzantine emperors. The project was begun by Constantine the Great but finished by Emperor Justinian in the 6th century. Many of the columns used in construction were recycled from earlier classical structures and feature decorative carvings. The most famous corner with their Medusa head carvings. A visit here is very atmospheric with the columns beautifully lit and the soft, steady trickle of water all around you.
Location: Yerebatan Caddesi, Sultanahmet
For many visitors, sightseeing in Istanbul is as much about shopping as museums and monumental attractions, and the Grand Bazaar is where everyone comes. This massive covered market is basically the world's first shopping mall; taking up a whole city quarter, surrounded by thick walls, between the Nure Osmanıye Mosque and Beyazıt Mosque. The Beyazıt Mosque (built in 1498-1505) itself occupies the site of Theodosius I's Forum and has architecture inspired by the Aya Sofya.
Entrance to the bazaar is through one of 11 gates from where a maze of vaulted-ceiling laneways, lined by shops and stalls selling every Turkish souvenir and handicraft you could imagine, cover the area. The various trades are still mostly segregated into particular sections, which makes browsing easier. Near the bazaar's Divanyolu Caddesi entrance is the Burned Column. This stump (still 40 meters high) of a porphyry column was set up by Constantine the Great in his forum. Until 1105 it bore a bronze statue of Constantine.
Location: Beyazıt Meydanı, Beyazıt
Sitting high on the hill above Sultanahmet district, the Süleymaniye Mosque is one of the most recognised landmarks of Istanbul. It was built for Süleyman the Magnificent by the famed Ottoman architect Sinan between 1549 and 75. The interior, dominated by its soaring 53-meter-high dome is notable for its harmonious proportions and unity of design. Outside in the tranquil garden area is an interesting Ottoman cemetery that is also home to the türbes (tombs) of the Sultan Süleyman and his wife Haseki Hürrem Sultan (known in the west as Roxelana).
Location: Süleymaniye Caddesi, Beyazıt
The Spice Bazaar is the place to get your foodie fix of lokum (Turkish delight), dried fruit, nuts, herbs, and of course spice. Much of the money that helped construct it came from the taxes the Ottoman government levied on Egyptian-made products, which is why its name in Turkish (Mısır Çarşısı) means "Egyptian Market". The Spice Bazaar is a prime tourist attraction and at certain times of the day gets ridiculously crowded with huge tour groups from the docked cruise ships. Try to come before 11am or after 4pm.
Just next door to the Spice Bazaar's main entrance is the stately Yeni Camii (New Mosque), which was begun in 1615 and finished in 1663 - that's "new" for Istanbul. It is worthwhile taking a peek inside while you're sightseeing in the area as the interior is richly decorated with tile-work and liberal use of gold leaf.
Location: Yenicamii Meydanı, Eminönü
Closed on Sunday and national and religious days.
The sumptuous and ornate Dolmabahçe Palace shows the clear influence of European decoration and architecture on the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century. Built by Sultan Abdülmecid I in 1854, it replaced Topkapı Palace as the main residence of the sultans. The formal gardens are punctuated with fountains, ornamental basins, and blooming flower beds, while inside the sheer splendor and pomp of the Turkish Renaissance style is dazzling. The interiors mix Rococo, Baroque, Neoclassical and Ottoman elements, with mammoth crystal chandeliers, liberal use of gold, French-style furniture, and dazzling frescoed ceilings.
Location: Dolmabahçe Caddesi, Beşiktaş
Chora means "country" in Greek, and this beautiful Church (originally called the Church of St. Saviour of Chora) lay just outside old Constantinople's city walls. The first Chora Church was probably built here in the 5th century, but what you see now is the building's 6th reconstruction as it was destroyed completely in the 9th century and went through several facelifts from the 11th to 14th centuries. The church (now a museum) is rightly world-famous for its fabulously vibrant 14th-century mosaics, preserved almost intact in the two narthexes and fragmentarily in the nave, and the frescoes along the walls and domes. These incredible examples of Byzantine artistry cover a wide range of themes from the genealogy of Christ to the New Testament stories.
Location: Kariye Camii Sokak, Edirnekapı
Housed in the palace of İbrahim Paşa who was Grand Vizier for Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent, this museum is a must-see attraction for anyone interested in Ottoman and Islamic art. The carpet collection on display here is vast and is heralded by textile experts as the world's best. This is a prime place to come have a peek at the dazzling array of styles of Turkish carpets (along with carpets from the Caucasus and Iran) across the centuries before setting out on a shopping mission to purchase your own floor piece. There are also exquisite ceramics, calligraphy, and wood carving exhibits ranging in date from the 9th century AD to the 19th century.
Location: At Meydanı Caddesi, Sultanahmet
Proving that Istanbul isn't just about historic sightseeing, this thoroughly up-to-the-minute art gallery holds an extensive collection of Turkish modern art with an ever-changing calendar of exhibitions hosting both local and international artists throughout the year. This is by far the best place in town to get your finger on the pulse of Turkey's contemporary art scene. The location, right on the Bosphorus, is a winner, and the stylish café here, with knock-out views across the water, makes a good coffee or snack pit stop before hitting some more of the city's highlights.
Location: Meclis-i Mebusan Caddesi, Tophane
Istanbul's most famous art gallery is the lovely Pera Museum, which is where art-hounds head to drink in one of the finest collections of Ottoman era painting in the world. As well as the art, make time to wander through the rest of their collection, which includes plenty of ceramics along with other Ottoman period objects. The program of regularly changing exhibitions often displays some of the art world's biggest names.
Address: Meşrutiyet Caddesi, Tepebaşı
On the opposite side of the column-filled courtyard to the Museum of the Ancient Orient is this imposing neoclassical building, which was wrapped in scaffolding and tarpaulin and undergoing renovation when we visited. It houses an extensive collection of classical statuary and sarcophagi plus a sprawling exhibit documenting İstanbul's history. The museum's major treasures are sarcophagi from sites including the Royal Necropolis of Sidon (Side in modern-day Lebanon), unearthed in 1887 by Osman Hamdi Bey. The extraordinary Alexander Sarcophagusand Mourning Women Sarcophagus were not on display when we visited. However, some good pieces from the statuary collection are exhibited on the way into the museum, including a marble head of Alexander from Pergamum.On the 1st floor, a fascinating, albeit dusty, exhibition called İstanbul Through the Ages traces the city's history through its neighbourhoods during different periods: Archaic, Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman. On the 2nd floor is the museum's 'Anatolia and Troy Through the Ages' exhibition; on the 3rd, the 'Neighbouring Cultures of Anatolia, Cyprus, Syria and Palestine' exhibition was closed at the time of writing. When we visited, a separate entrance led to an impressive collection of ancient grave-cult sarcophagi from Syria, Lebanon, Thessalonica and Ephesus, including impressive anthropoid sarcophagi from Sidon. Three halls are filled with the amazingly detailed stelae and sarcophagi, most dating from between AD 140 and 270. Many of the sarcophagi look like tiny temples or residential buildings; don't miss the Sidamara Sarcophagus from Konya with its interlocking horses' legs and playful cherubs. The last room in this section contains Roman floor mosaics and examples of Anatolian architecture from antiquity.
Tiled Pavilion : The last of the complex's museum buildings is this handsome pavilion, constructed in 1472 by order of Mehmet the Conqueror. The portico, which has 14 marble columns, was constructed during the reign of Sultan Abdül Hamit I (1774–89) after the original burned down in 1737. On display here are Seljuk, Anatolian and Ottoman tiles and ceramics dating from the end of the 12th century to the beginning of the 20th century. The collection includes İznik tiles from the period between the mid-14th and 17th centuries when that city produced the finest coloured tiles in the world. When you enter the central room you can't miss the stunning mihrab from the İbrahim Bey İmâret in Karaman, built in 1432.