Where to visit
Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya) Museum
For nearly a thousand years, Ayasofya was the largest enclosed space in the world, and still seen as one of the world’s most important structures. It is one of Turkey’s most popular attractions, drawn by the sheer spectacle of its size, architecture, mosaics and art.
It used to be a church for 916 years, then a mosque for 481 years, and has been a museum since 1935. Thought to have been constructed by Emperor Konstantinos I (324-337) it was burned down during a revolt. Rebuilt by Emperor Theodosium II, it was opened for worship in 415 and once again was burned to the ground, during the Nika revolts of 532.
Emperor Iustanianus (527-565) wanted to build something even bigger than the first two versions of the structure. He appointed architects Isidoros from Miletos and Anthemios from Tralles to build the “Aya Sofya” which still stands. Columns, heads, marble and coloured stones were imported to Istanbul from ancient cities in Anatolia for the purpose.
The construction began on 23rd December 532 and was completed exactly five years later. The main, central section measured 100m by 70m, covered with a 55m high dome which was a mammoth 30m in diameter – appearing to be a great feat of design. The mosaics are of great importance and the oldest ones are dominated by geometric and plant motifs decorated with gold.
Topkapı Palace Museum
The Topkapi Palace Museum is located on the promontory of the historical peninsula in Istanbul which overlooks both the Marmara Sea and the Istanbul strait. The walls enclosing the palace grounds, the main gate on the land side and the first buildings were built during the time of Fatih Sultan Mehmet (the Conqueror) (1451-1481). The palace’s present layout stems from additional structures built in later centuries. Topkapı Palace was the official residence of the Ottoman Sultans, starting with Fatih Sultan Mehmet until 1856 when Sultan Abdülmecid I moved the administrative centre of the state to the Dolmabahçe Palace. The Enderun section also gained importance as a school.
In the 18th century, when the Topkapı Palace took its final shape, it was sheltering a population of more than 10,000 people in its outer (Birun), inner (Enderun) and Harem sections. It shows no architectural unity as new parts were added in every period according to the needs. However, this helps in tracking the stages Ottoman Architecture went through from the 15th to the middle of the 19th century at the Topkapı Palace. The buildings of the 15th-17th centuries are simpler and those of the 18th-19th centuries, particularly in terms of exterior and interior ornamentation, are more complex.
Topkapı Palace was turned into a museum in 1924. Parts of the Palace such as the Harem, Baghdat Pavilion, Revan Pavilion, Sofa Pavilion, and the Audience Chamber distinguish themselves with their architectural assets, while in other sections artifacts displayed reflect the palace life. The museum also has collections from various donations and a library.
Built in the reign of Sultan Abdülmecid I during the 19th century, this over-ornate palace lies along the European coast of the Istanbul strait. Dolmabahçe Palace was constructed in between 1843 and 1856, mixing different European artistic influences and built by Abdülmecid’s architect, Karabet Balya. It was built over three levels, and symmetrically planned, with 285 chambers and 43 halls. It has a 600m long pier along the river, with two huge monumental gates. The palace is surrounded by well-maintained and immaculate gardens, with an immense 56-columned greeting hall, with 750 lights illuminated from 4.5 tons of crystal chandelier. The entrance was used to meet and greet Sultans and the harem was opposite the ceremonial hall. The interior decoration, furniture, silk carpets and curtains all remain with little defect.
Kariye (Caria) Museum
This is actually Kariye Mosque, fomerly the 11th century church of St Saviour in Chora, and considered to be the second most important Byzantine monument in Istanbul after Aya Sofia. Whilst unremarkable in its architecture, the interior walls are decorated with superb 14th century mosaics. Illustrating scenes from the life of Christ and the Virgin Mary, these brilliantly coloured paintings embody the vigour of Byzantine art.
Yerebatan Sarnıcı (Cistern)
Close to Aya Sofia is the sixth century Byzantine underground Basilica cistern, with 335 massive Corinthian columns supporting the immense chamber’s fine brick vaulting. This is one of several buried into the city’s foundations and the first to have been excavated and renovated. Thought to have been built in the fourth century by Emperor Constantine I, it was enlarged two centuries later. It was supplied with water from Belgrade Forest which was relayed to the Great Palace and Topkapi Palace.
Sultan Ahmet I built this mosque in the 17th century (1609-1616) in the square carrying his name. The architect was Sedefkar Mehmet Ağa. It is the only mosque in Turkey with six minarets. The mosque is 72m long by 64m wide. The central dome is 43m high and has a diameter of 33.4m and there are 260 windows. Due to its beautiful blue, green and white tiling, it has been named the “Blue Mosque” by Europeans. The inscriptions were made by Seyyid Kasım Gubari.
Kapalı Çarşı (Covered Bazaar)
It is the oldest and biggest closed bazaar in the world, also known as the Grand Bazaar, and has an estimated 4,000 shops and over 60 alleyway, covering a huge labyrinth in the city centre. The original two structures, covered with a series of domes and remains from the 15th century walls, became a shopping area by covering the surrounding streets and adding to it over the following centuries. In Ottoman times, this was the centre of trading and a vital area of town. The Sandal Bedesten was added during Süleyman’s reign to cope with the rising trade in fabrics in the 16th century.
Mısır Çarşısı (Egyptian Bazaar)
Also known as the Spice Market, this is Istanbul’s second bazaar, constructed in the same complex as Yeni Camii (or New Mosque). There are six gates which make it an attractive exterior. The L-shaped market, along with the mosque, was built for the mother of Mehmet IV, a powerful woman who ruled the harem and, some would say, much of the empire.