It’s no exaggeration to say that you could easily spend a month in this fascinating, beautiful, enormous city, and it would only make you want to explore it more. But if you do find yourself with only one day, we will help you make the best of it.
The wonderful thing about our top four of Istanbul’s absolute must-see sites is that they are all extremely close together in, or very near, Sultanahmet (also called “Old Istanbul”), a UNESCO world heritage site area. These include the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, the Basilica Cistern and the Topkapi Palace. And happily, some of Istanbul’s other most fascinating attractions, such as the Grand Bazaar and the Dolmabahçe Palace, are also both a half-hour or less from Sultanahmet by tram.
However before we continue, we want to offer you a “cheat” where you don’t need to think about it and can let someone else decide. Not the sights we would choose but nonetheless an utterly breathtaking tour: Roman Hippodrome, Blue Mosque, German Fountain & Grand Bazaar: Walking Tour >
The four (or maybe five) top things to see for the within-a-day sightseer
Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya)
Completed in AD 537, this architectural masterpiece (in English the Aya Sofya) was built by order of Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian I, who was seeking to restore some of his capital’s faded grandeur. A true marvel of engineering for its (or any other) time, the Hagia Sophia was the largest house of worship anywhere in the world, and remained so for almost a thousand years.
Almost continuously from its completion in 537 until 1453, it served as an Eastern Orthodox cathedral, with a brief period as a Roman Catholic one during the Crusades. After conquering Constantinople in 1453, however, Sultan Mehmet II (also called “Mehmet the Conqueror”) strode through its Imperial Door to claim the magnificent edifice for Islam.
Hagia Sophia is perhaps most famous for its massive, breathtaking dome. Supported by 40 huge ribs, the dome is made of hollow bricks using a light, porous clay that allows for the uniquely ethereal, translucent light that fills the interior, captivating countless visitors down the centuries. In fact, when daylight enters at certain intensities, the dome actually seems to be floating. A spellbinding experience.
Soaring minarets and priceless mosaics
Hagia Sophia is also a must-see for its four imposing minarets, as well as its splendid mosaics.
However, with Islamic art strictly forbidden from depicting people or any other living creatures, many mosaics were plastered over – but not, mercifully, destroyed. Most, including some of the greatest medieval artistic representations of Jesus and many of Christianity’s very first saints, have gradually been restored since it was declared a museum in 1935.
Hagia Sophia opening hours
- Summer schedule: 09:00-19:00 with a last entrance time of 18:00
- Winter schedule: 09:00-17:00 with a last entrance time of 16:00 (winter schedule)
The Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmet Camii)
Just a short walk across Sultanahmet Park from the Hagia Sophia is another of Istanbul’s architectural marvels, the Sultan Ahmet or “Blue” Mosque.
Built in the early 17th century, this mindblowing structure is one of the most majestic Ottoman-era mosques anywhere in the country. A visitor can’t help but be awed by its six stunning minarets, one of only six mosques anywhere in Turkey having this many.
A legendary misunderstanding
According to legend, this was due to a legendary misunderstanding, as Sultan Ahmet I – seeking to outdo the ancient next-door Hagia Sophia in both size and beauty – ordered altın minareler (“gold minarets”). But the chief architect is said to have misheard this as altı minare (“six minarets”), at the time a unique feature of the mosque of the Ka’aba in Mecca. (When criticised for his presumption, Ahmet then ordered a seventh minaret to be built at the Mecca mosque.)
Its enormous courtyard – nearly as large as the mosque itself – is the biggest of any Ottoman mosques in Turkey. In order to best appreciate the Mosque’s remarkably elegant series of domes and semi-domes, approach it from the Hippodrome (At Meydani) side, rather than crossing Sultanahmet Park from Hagia Sophia.
Bathed in blue after sunset
Earning its name due to the beautiful, hand-painted blue tiles that adorn its interior walls, the Blue Mosque’s magnificence is on further full display after sunset, when rich, dark-blue lights bathe its five main domes, six minarets and eight secondary domes. There is also a sound and light show after dusk from May to September.
But be prepared to wait
As a place of worship, admission is free. But the Blue Mosque is so heavily visited that admission is quite tightly controlled, both for the purposes of crowd control and respect for worshippers.
Only worshippers are admitted via the main door. Tourists are to use the north door and are not admitted during prayer times. It’s pretty much a given that you will be in for a wait of some duration.
Visit the Blue Mosque as part of the Roman Hippodrome, Blue Mosque, German Fountain & Grand Bazaar: Walking Tour >
Blue Mosque opening hours
- From 8:30 am until one hour before dusk each day
- 90 minutes each prayer time
- Two hours during Friday noon prayers
Basilica Cistern (Yerebatan Sarnıcı)
The cistern – a gigantic underground reservoir – was built under the city during the times of the Emperor Justinian when Istanbul was called Constantinople and has an unusual history.
Only 150 metres southwest of the Hagia Sophia, the enormous Basilica (or “Sunken”) Cistern is the largest surviving Byzantine-era cistern, one of several hundred ancient cisterns that lie beneath Istanbul.
Opened in AD 532, this massive water storage tank was one of many of Emperor Justinian’s projects that has lasted through the centuries. (Justinian was very much a ruler who never thought small in terms of public construction works, or anything else.) Historical texts claim that 7,000 slaves toiled to build the massive project. Its roof is held up with hundreds of marble columns raided from Roman temples throughout Anatolia.
The 70 m by 140 m (230 ft x 460 ft) space once held 80,000 cubic meters of water (more than 20 million gallons), delivered via an astonishing network of aqueducts from a nearby reservoir on the Black Sea.
A city’s salvation
In a city that’s endured more than its fair share of very lengthy (not to mention world-history-shaping) sieges, the cistern’s vital role in maintaining much of Constantinople’s water supply has proven its salvation over the centuries.
Many of the columns and plinths within the cistern complex- selected from the wealth of ruins scattered around Constantinople – are decorated with remarkable and ornate carvings, such as peacock eyes or, in the case of two strikingly grotesque pillars in the north-western corner, with upside-down and sideways Medusa heads at the base. (Legend has it that the Gorgon’s heads were placed that way to block their turn-you-to-stone powers.)
Basilica Cistern opening hours
- From 9:00 to 6:30 pm, seven days a week
- On the first day of each religious holiday it opens at 1 pm.
Topkapı Palace (Topkapi Sarayı)
The Harem: myth vs realityThe most popular attractions include the Imperial Harem. While countless legends would have us believe that this was mainly a Sultan’s private pleasure home – a place where he was free to be as debauched as he pleased with the hundreds of concubines at his beck and call – the Harem was actually the private apartments of the women and young children of the imperial family – as well as concubines, female slaves and eunuchs – where daily life was dictated by very strict protocol. Another popular area is 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 palace complex consists of four main courtyards and many smaller buildings. Female members of the Sultan’s family lived in the harem, and leading state officials, including the Grand Vizier who headed the imperial government, held meetings in the Imperial Council building.
A diamond, a dagger and very sacred relicsThe palace complex has hundreds of rooms and chambers, but only the most important are accessible to the public today, including the Harem and the treasury, (“hazine”) where the 86-carat, pear-shaped Spoonmaker’s Diamond – the world’s fourth-largest – and the Topkapi Dagger are on display. The Sacred Safekeeping Rooms were once only accessible to a very select few, handpicked by the Sultan – and only then on ceremonial occasions. Though now open to all visitors, it remains a place of pilgrimage for Moslems, containing priceless treasures such as hair from the Prophet Mohammed’s beard, and what is alleged to be a walking stick used by Moses. After the 17th century, Topkapı gradually lost its status as the center of imperial power. The sultans of that period preferred to spend more time in their new palaces along the Bosphorus. In 1856, Sultan Abdulmejid I decided to move the court to the newly built Dolmabahçe Palace although Topkapı retained some of its functions including the imperial treasury, library and mint. But you should keep in mind that it can easily take more than half a day to explore the enormous palace. (The six-level Harem area alone is practically a mini village) So we definitely recommend getting there early!
Topkapi Palace opening hours
- Summer season (April 1st – October 2nd): 9 am – 6:45 pm with last entrance to the museum at 6 pm.
- Winter season (October 2nd – March 31st): 9 am – 4:45 pm wiht last entrance to the museum at 4 pm.
(if you have time!) Grand Bazaar (Kapalı Çarşı)
If you are still hungry for more Istanbul magic after taking in all that, the Sultanahmet area has to offer, take the T1 tram from the Sultanahmet or Gülane stops to Beyazıt-Kapalıçarşı in the Fatih district, and delve into the magical Grand Bazaar.
One of the oldest and biggest – and most definitely among the busiest – covered markets in the world, the Grand Bazaar is a mesmerising hodge-podge of 61 streets and over 4,000 shops inside the Fatih district’s walled city. There, shops along its labyrinthine passageways can sell you… literally, just about anything. From Ottoman lamps and handcrafted silk carpets, to copper coffee service sets, to designer fashions or boxes of Turkish Delight, the Grand Bazaar will have something that appeals to both your taste and your budget.
Visit the Grand Bazaar on the Roman Hippodrome, Blue Mosque, German Fountain & Grand Bazaar Walking Tour >
Grand Bazaar opening hours
- Weekdays: 8.30 am – 7 pm
- Saturday: 8.30 am – 7 pm
- Sundays: closed
- Islamic holidays: closes at noon the day before and on the first day of each holiday