Sultanahmet Istanbul Old Town

Quirky Guide to Sultanahmet Neighborhood – Historic Heart & Center of Istanbul

When first-timers in Istanbul hear the name of the neighborhood Sultanahmet, they might shake their head in confusion. But if you say ‘The Blue Mosque’, ‘Hagia Sophia’, or the ‘Cistern Basilica’, their eyes open and they start nodding with excitement and understanding.

Sultanahmet neighborhood in Istanbul, one of the most colorful and authentic areas, receives its name from the Ottoman Sultan Ahmed I, who reigned over the Ottoman empire from 1603 to 1617 when he died in Topkapi Palace. He was the one who commissioned the construction of The Blue Mosque also known as Sultan Ahmet Camii which many people call simply Sultanahmet Mosque.

Sultan Ahmed intended to build a bigger mosque than Hagia Sophia and place it right in front of it. Mistakenly, the architect designed this new mosque with as many minarets as the Grand Mosque of Mecca and the Sultan got furious.

Until the Shaykh-ul-Islam (honorific Islam title) suggested that Sultan Ahmed I erect an additional minaret at the Grand Mosque to solve the problem. And so, he did, and the problem was solved. This is the story about the number of minarets that exist in the Blue Mosque and about the beginning of popularity of the Sultanahmet area.

Blue mosque in a distance
Sultanahmet guide

The neighborhood of Sultanahmet is famous for many more things than just a Blue Mosque. It belongs to the municipality of Fatih which includes famous neighborhoods like Eminonu and a big Fatih district.

All municipalities have a plethora of historical buildings, but Sultanahmet is the official Istanbul OLD TOWN or as many people also know it – a historic center. And I want to share with you all the secrets of this must-visit neighborhood in Istanbul.


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Why Sultanahmet is a Must-Visit Neighborhood in Istanbul

Sultanahmet Istanbul
Sultanahmet

As the history junkie that I am, I love to read and learn about the world’s historical chronicles. But nothing beats walking through city walls, antique stores, bazaars, and religious buildings and, finishing the day looking at the Bosphorus strait while enjoying a fresh beer or a nice glass of wine.

Sultanahmet is a melting pot where tourists and locals cross every day. Despite the endless number of people in this area, you can’t miss visiting or even staying in this neighborhood to truly understand the magic that lives in Istanbul.

This area is very popular among tourists thanks to all the sightseeing you can find here. So it gets crowded during the day. However, if you only have a few hours or days to stay in Istanbul, this is the must-visit area, even if you don’t get to go anywhere else.

Is Sultanahmet Worth Staying in?

Sultanahmet is not everyone’s favorite destination for accommodation, but one must remember that Istanbul (the largest city in Turkey and listed among the top 20 largest cities in the world) is a city of over 15 million inhabitants.

This inevitably will lead to high traffic, jammed pack public transportation, and overpriced taxis. So, to avoid having to deal with all that during my short stays in Istanbul, I chose Sultanahmet as my home base and I was able to move around the city easily by foot or quick tram trips.

old town of Istanbul
center of Istanbul

Every area has its pros and cons. But let’s review some of those for Sultanahmet to help you decide if it is a good neighborhood where to stay in for you and your family:

Advantages of Staying in Sultanahmet Old Town:

Starting with Pro #1:

You are within walking distance of the most visited places in Istanbul.

Pro #2:

There are tons of hotel options that allow you to sleep in a historical area like no other in the world.

If you decide that the Old Town of Istanbul is the right place for your home base during your vacation time, you will find the right accommodation for all budgets, tastes, and travelers. 

hotels in Sultanahmet

For example, if you travel with your family, Best Western Empire Palace is the perfect spot for all families. It is located right behind Gulhane Park, and at walking distance from all tourist attractions.

This hotel has spacious rooms, and all the amenities you can imagine. Including a spa to relax after long days of walking, laundry service and as a bonus, it offers Airport-Hotel transfers. This hotel gives peace of mind when traveling as a family, so you don’t have to worry about extra planning or finding transportation. Prices start at $100 USD per night based on season and availability.

If you like to pamper yourself with luxurious experiences and a higher-end environment, then AJWA Sultanahmet is your best bet in the area. This 5-star hotel is located only 10 minutes walking behind the Grand Bazaar and very close to tram stops.

You won’t miss anything in this luxurious hotel. They have an indoor pool and fabulous spa, a high-floor restaurant with breathtaking views, a fitness center, a sauna facility, a few nice bars, and amazing ottoman-style rooms where you can feel like a sultan or sultana. In my opinion, it also has one of the best views of the Old Town, Marmara Sea, and more. Prices are above average but remember they fluctuate due to the season.

However, I also can’t forget about budget-friendly options because there are many of you like myself that prefer to spend your money on other things when traveling. Food, wine, and experiences, and then more wine of course, haha.

For such individuals, I have the Recital Hotel. A small, humble hotel that offers the necessary things for a convenient stay. This affordable hotel in Sultanahmet is located not far from the Blue Mosque and right near the Cistern of Theodosius.

Some of the services they offer are Airport-Hotel transfers (for extra pay), breakfast from the terrace where you will have a nice view of the city, dinner options, and a 24-hour front desk for whatever you may need. There are single and double rooms, and prices start at $70 USD depending on the season.

Looking for more accommodation options? Stay in one of the historic mansions in Istanbul or cheap but beautiful airbnbs.

Disadvantages of Staying in Sultanahmet:

Con #1:

Everything is more expensive. Yes, everything, and it doesn’t always mean that it’s better. In most cases, rooms will be smaller, and not as beautiful as in other areas of Istanbul.

So, if you do want to stay in the center of it all, be ready to pay a lot extra without many extras in return.

Con #2:

The simple equation is – where there are more tourists, there are more scams.

Despite that Istanbul is a safe city, especially compared to some other European cities, scams are a common practice. Sultanahmet is like a fresh meat market for scammers, and you should always be alert… even if you just want to go to take a nice and relaxing walk around.

From rug sellers to “nice people” who invite you for tea, to the “lackadaisical” who pretend to drop things off so you can pick them up for them. Then, in return, they will want to invite you to have some cay (Turkish tea) and then surprisingly charge you an astronomical amount of money for a cay that only costs .10 cents of a dollar.

I talk more about these scams in my post about things to know about Istanbul. But be aware of pickpocketing, beggars, and scammers. They like to hang out in Sultanahmet looking for tourists.

I consider this the darkest side of big tourist areas. After traveling to many cities in the world, I have come to admit this is just part of the “magic” that I personally prefer to avoid, and it unfortunately has pushed me away from many touristic hubs. Yet, it didn’t scare me away from Sultanahmet. I just know what to expect there and use common sense, and recommend you do the same and you’ll enjoy this neighborhood.

Now, if you are going to be in Istanbul for more than 4 days, then you should explore your options in places like Kadikoy, Arnavutkoy, or Besiktas for your accommodation like I do for most of my visits.

What to do in Sultanahmet, Historic Center of Istanbul

exploring Sultanahmet
streets of Sultanahmet neighborhood

And now let’s get to the most interesting part about things to do in Sultanahmet as this part of Istanbul has a lot to offer. History is the constant theme in this area, but there are many other attractions that are worth mentioning and visiting if you do have the time.

While it is true that you only need one long day to visit the main Sultanahmet attractions, you can also make your trip to Istanbul dedicated to this area to fully explore it and enjoy the hidden spots that most tourists don’t get to.

Let’s start with the main ones and go down to the most hidden ones.

Discover the Iconic Hagia Sophia

A very controversial masterpiece of architecture, that started as a Greek Orthodox Church, then a Mosque during the Ottoman Empire, to being a museum during modern times under Ataturk (father of the Turkish Republic) presidency, and most recently changed to a Mosque again.

The most fascinating part of the Grand Mosque Hagia Sophia is the grandiose dome that was built in a very innovative way for its time, carrying on four spherical triangular pendentives. This was the largest pendentive dome in the world until the completion of St Peter’s Basilica.

The best way to explore and understand Hagia Sophia is on a tour either a public or private one. When visiting on your own, do some research and find information about the mosque to understand the history behind its walls.

Hagia Sophia inside

If you plan to stay in Sultanahmet overnight, I highly recommend you visit this mosque at dawn or late in the evening and for the most interesting experience do it with a guide. I can recommend Abdullah from one of my favorite tour companies in Istanbul, but all their guides are wonderful really.

With the morning tour, you can observe or participate in prayer, and seeing Hagia Sophia at night promises a tranquil experience without people. Or even do it during the day and as Hagia Sophia is on the route with many famous attractions in Sultanahmet.

Find the Blue Mosque a Few Steps Away

Walk across the greenery park that separates the Hagia Sophia and the Sultan Ahmet Mosque to explore the 20,000 blue Iznik titles on the inside of this religious marvel.

It is an incredible piece of art that contain inscriptions of the Quran and the names of the caliphs, who were leaders of the Muslim community. The title was carried by the ottoman Sultans and then, in 1924 was abolished by Ataturk. If you like history and empires, I am sure you would love to visit the tomb of Sultan Ahmet I, which is in the northeast area of the Blue Mosque.

For these two attractions, I suggest you give an extra visit to the outside area during the nighttime so you can see the blue lights purposely place to illuminate the Blue Mosque and the dim mysterious effect lights that enhance the Hagia Sophia.

Blue Mosque in Sultanahmet

Istanbul sightseeing
View from the Mosque at night

Both are free of charge but require every visitor to dress accordingly to Islam’s expectations, covering shoulders and hair for the women and mandated long pants for the men. Keep in mind you will have to remove your shoes at the entrance, so wear nice, clean socks.

Walk on the Sultanahmet Square or Hippodrome of Constantinople

Right next to the left side of the Blue Mosque, you will see the Hippodrome. It is an open space with some relics where the sultans celebrated some events, such as the circumcision of the son of Sultan Ahmet III.

On the nicest side, you will find the Theodosius Obelisk which was brought over from Egypt by Theodosius the Great. This obelisk is 3500 years old. You can also see the Serpent Column that was brought here in celebration of the victory of the Byzantines over the Persians.

And finally, the famous German fountain. By the way, on one of the sides of the fountain, there are a bunch of public restrooms that you can use with your Istanbul Kart.

walk through Sultanahmet Square

Visit the Basilica and Theodosius Cisterns

There are two cisterns in the Sultanahmet area. The most popular one is the Basilica Cistern. But the less crowded one is Theodosius Cistern.

A cistern is a waterproof receptacle for holding liquids, usually water, and the Byzantine empire left a few of these in Istanbul. The Basilica cistern is from 534 AC, and the Theodosius Cistern is from 443 AD, so visiting both is a huge travel-in-time experience. Both cisterns are paid attractions and both have a light show.

Thanks to the Medusa head in the Basilica Cistern, the Theodosius Cistern is a bit forgotten and you might be able to walk around with barely anyone around you. So select your night effect on your smartphone and go take a selfie session with no people or interruptions.

Hours of operation are from 9 am to 7 pm. Both cisterns are paid attractions and both have a light show that might affect the entrance fee and times, so check the website in advance. Basilica Cistern entrance fee starts at 190 Turkish Lira and the Theodosius Cistern entrance fee starts at 150 Turkish Lira.

Basilica Cistern visit
Basilica Cistern light show

See Topkapı Palace, House of the Ottoman Empire

Topkapı palace is an impressive structure that served as a residence to all Sultans until the 17th century. It overlooks the Golden Horn, where the Bosphorus Strait meets the Marmara Sea. The terrain is hilly and the palace itself is located at one of the highest points close to the sea.

This, now a museum, was also the administrative center of the Ottoman empire.

Every time I visit it, I love walking through the beautiful gardens and focusing on the different rooms of the Palace. And I always find something new there.

My advice is that you visit the Imperial Treasury to see the Spoonmaker’s Diamond and the Topkapi Dagger. Also explore the Imperial Harem and some of the areas in the Courtyards like the Iftar Kiosk, The Gate of Felicity, and the Palace Kitchen. These areas will give you a feeling of the importance, exuberance, and day-to-day life of the Ottoman Sultans and the hundreds of people that lived with them.

Topkapi Palace

The Topkapı Palace is open every day (except Tuesday) from 09:00 am to 6:45 pm in summer (April 1 – October 1) and from 10:00 am to 4 pm in winter (October 1 – April 1). It is also closed in the morning on the first day of the two biggest Islamic holidays such as Ramazan Bayramı and Kurban Bayramı.

The entry fee for Topkapi Palace, Harem, and Hagia Irene is 285 Turkish Lira. But to save money on the entrance, especially if you plan to visit other museums of Istanbul, it is worth buying the Museum Card before or when you arrive in Istanbul.

The Museum card gives you access for days to different museums and you can visit some extra places at a discounted price, plus you get to skip the long lines of busy sites.

You can buy it online and learn the details about what else the card covers in my post to Istanbul museum pass quick guide.

Best Tours in Sultanahmet on GetYourGuide:

 

Relax at Gulhane Park

After your visit to Topkapi Palace, go to the south entrance and explore Gulhane Park, the oldest urban park in Istanbul. It is also known as the Imperial Park.

Locals enjoy the beautiful open area to have picnics and to delight themselves with the view of the Marmara Sea and the Princes’ Islands.

The best time to go to Gulhane Park is during the Tulip Festival in April.

Gulhane Park

Did you know Tulips are originally from Kazakhstan and the Ottoman empire grew them and gifted them to the Netherlands in the 1600s? Well, that is a story for another blog, but if you come to Istanbul in April, do not miss the festival. And do not miss my spring guide to Istanbul if visiting this grand city from March to May.

Go to Arasta Bazaar and Avoid the Grand & Spice Bazaars

I don’t have anything against Grand or Spice Bazaars. They are really among the most popular places to visit in Istanbul. I also recommend them for a visit in my other posts about Istanbul. But if you want to see Sultanahmet from a different side than most tourists do, then avoid these two places.

Instead, go to Arasta Bazaar.

It is not the Grand Bazaar or the Spice Bazaar, but you can find here everything else you can find in the above-mentioned bazaars but at much better prices. However, keep your eyes open for possible scams as well.

The bazaar houses the Great Palace Mosaic Museum, which contains ancient mosaics that are worth a visit. Located at Mimar Mehmet Ağa Cd. No:2, literally on the right side of the Blue Mosque.

Arasta Bazaar
Arasta Bazaar in the evening on one winter day in Istanbul

Soak Your Senses in Cağaloğlu Hammam

Why did I add this hammam to my list of top places to visit in Sultanahmet?

Well, because it is a historic 300 year old hammam that is well worth a visit. It combines a good quality of services, an average price level for a tourist area, and clean premises.

Cağaloğlu Hammam is suitable for those who have walked enough around Istanbul and need to have a good break from walking. Besides a general cleansing experience, it also provides massages and various spa treatments.

This ancient site stands out for its richly decorated halls and baroque elements in decoration. The main steam bath is marbled and spacious, with columns and windows in the dome.

There is a small courtyard where you can relax and have a cup of tea before or after bathing, as well as a shop where to buy soap and various accessories for washing. Check their website for offers and prices.

Admire the Beautiful Carpets in the Carpet Museum

Turkey’s carpets and rug weaving tradition is known around the world. You simply can’t miss an acquaintance with the carpet industry when visiting Istanbul, particularly the Sultanahmet neighborhood.

In the very heart of Sultanahmet, there is a center of carpets where visitors can see unique exhibits. For many years since 1979 when it just opened, the pavilion was located on the premises of the Blue Mosque. But when the number of artifacts became significant, the complex moved to another building.

These days, the Carpet Museum is located within Hagia Sophia and has carpet exhibits that are kept in specified temperatures and controlled levels of humidity. There, you can see carpets from different periods such as the Early Ottoman era (which exhibits carpets used by the Seljuks), Middle Ottoman era (showcases items woven in Anatolia), and the last period of the Ottomans.

carpets in Istanbul
Grand Bazaar walking

The gallery has huge carpets and small prayer rugs with a total collection of more than 2,000 items that have been restored and are in good condition. You’ll find an entrance here near the grand entrance to the First Court of Topkapi Palace.

On Wednesdays, Go to the Wednesday Market (Çarşamba Market)

Okay, well, this place is not really in Sultanahmet but I wanted to add it to this post as it is a true hidden gem in Istanbul.

I absolutely love going to local markets and I was ecstatic when I found it in the middle of Istanbul away from the main touristy sights, yet in the heart of the city. Getting from Sultanahmet here is easy and it brings you directly into a very vibrant, authentic Istanbul neighborhood, in some ways similar to Sultanahmet in the distant past. 

If you crave very local life, want to be surrounded by only Turkish speakers, and want to try fresh fruits and vegetables, you must go to this market.

To find it, go to the imperial Fatih Mosque and be ready to enjoy stall after stall in what seems to be an endless market. I mentioned before it is very local, but I also should mention that it is located in a very conservative area, so dress appropriately according to Muslim rules.

These are some of the things to do in Sultanahmet, but also keep in mind that there are many other places nearby you must visit. And they are:

  • The Grand and Spice Bazar
  • Süleymaniye Mosque
  • Hagia Irene Church

  • Istanbul Archaeology Museum 
  • Balat neighborhood
  • Galata Bridge and tower, and more.

All these places are very close, and you can either walk or take trams to get there in minutes.

Best Restaurants in Sultanahmet Neighborhood in Istanbul

restaurants in Sultanahmet
Sultanahmet cafe

I mentioned before that one of the cons of Sultanahmet is that restaurants can be more expensive and not necessarily better. But I checked so many of them that know there are some truly incredible finds. 

On this list below, you will find restaurants that are best for either being local or having a very specific feature. This is why I believe they are worth visiting:

Balikci Sabahattin

Opened in 1927 and serves traditional seafood dishes.

I would recommend trying here different mezzes and rice with mussels, full of spices and raisins that gives a very interesting flavor. Mid-budget prices. Located in Cankurtaran, Seyit, Şht. Hasan Kuyu Sk. No:1.

Tarihi Sultanahmet Koftecisi Selim Usta

Kofte is essential in Turkish cuisine and this restaurant has been serving some of the best Kofte for 4 generations.

Kofte is a Turkish meatball that instead of being round looks more like a small burger patty. Yet, in this restaurant, they are rectangular. And, yes, my recommendation is for you to try their delicious Kofte that comes with salad, fries, and bread. For a low-budget traveler, it is very affordable.

This place is conveniently located near the Basilica Cistern and its exact address is Alemdar, Divan Yolu Cd. No:12. If you eat meat, this is the best place to stop at for lunch in between tours or for a quick dinner.

Tarihi Sultanahmet Koftecisi Selim Usta restaurant

Matbah restaurant

Described as the most exquisite cuisine in Istanbul, and they are not wrong.

Matbah offers traditional Ottoman cuisine with an impressive modern presentation. The place has three different rooms or atmospheres, the Summer Garden, the Winter Garden, and the Sultan’s Lounge.

I visited several months ago and I tried the Degustation Menu while finding a table in the Winter Garden. And I can assure you the view, the food, and the atmosphere made this visit an unforgettable experience.

Price range is a bit high, but it is worth going there at least once if you have a chance. This restaurant has a very elegant setting and has received many awards. Located in Caferiye Sokak No 6/1 right behind the Hagia Sophia and inside the Ottoman Hotel Imperial.

More Cafes & Restaurants in Istanbul Old Town 

Among other places, I want to give honorable mention to Hocapasa Pidecisi for great Pide (Turkish Pizza), Hafiz Mustafa 1864 (different locations) for some of the best baklava in Istanbul. Guvenc Konyali specializes in meats and has very good chicken wings. Next door Bitlisli is famous for kebap, mercimek corba (lentil soup), and pide.

Erol Lokantasi offers the absolute traditional way of local eating. Meals are exposed on the vitrines, and you get to choose what you want from all the options. And for the best views, while dining, you have to go to Deraliye and/or Seven Hills.

However, there are many more incredible restaurants in Istanbul with views and great food. You can find them all here in my other post about the best places where to eat in Istanbul. I included many more fine dining and budget eats in Sultanahmet, including ideas for Turkish breakfast, traditional Turkish food cafes, bars, and restaurants with a view. I truly enjoyed them all.

Sultanahmet at Night – What is it Like & Things to Do

Sultanahmet at night

Sultanahmet nightlife is generally very quiet, but, if you decide to stay in Sultanahmet, you might want to know what to do in Sultanahmet at nighttime.

A great option is to visit the gardens and the outside areas of the mosques during the night, so you can enjoy the lights and the contrast.

Another option is to cross the Galata tower and get to Karakoy or Taksim. These two neighborhoods have a very active nightlife, from cafes to bars and even rooftops. One of my favorite rooftops in Galata is the Snog Roof. Cool place with good views and decent cocktails. Yet, I would recommend ordering a beer, so you won’t get disappointed.

If you don’t want to take a walk and prefer to stay in Sultanahmet, head to any of the hotels in the area. You will find that most of them have bars and other nightlife entertainment options. And outside guests are welcome to attend.

And regardless of the time when you decide to go back to your hotel, make sure you are cautious. Remember this area is a bit tricky during the day for tourists, and it is not that different at night. Sultanahmet is safe during the night, but I still recommend you be alert and do not let others see you as a target.

Enjoy your visit to the Sultanahmet neighborhood in Istanbul!

More Neighborhoods & Tips for Istanbul

If you enjoyed this neighborhood tour, I have a few more neighborhood tour suggestions that you can do on your own. And many more are yet to come!

Sultanahmet neighborhood in Istanbul
 
 

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