Topkapı Palace, Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque – Must-See
Under a distance of one kilometer, Istanbul has managed to pack in three must-see monuments in one neighborhood, Sultanahmet. It is quite easy to spend a couple of days just walking the streets in Sultanahmet, visiting monuments and mosques, eating tons of great food from baklava to chicken shawarma. Sultanahmet sits on the European side of Istanbul and juts out into the critical Bosphorus strait. The three places to discover are Topkapı Palace, Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque – must-see. These locations are part of the UNESCO World Heritage Historical Areas of Istanbul.
Topkapı Palace was at one time the center of the universe. It was the main palace for over 400 years for the Sultans who reigned over the Ottoman Empire. In its heyday during the 16th and 17th century, the Ottoman Empire stretched from North Africa to Central Europe to Western Asia. The palace was in use from 1465-1856, and today it is a museum. At its height over 4,000 people called Topkapi Palace their home. The palace is located on a hilly area overlooking the Golden Horn and Sea of Marmara.
Scores and scores of buildings and structures dot the landscaped area within a walled complex. The complex includes everything from kitchens, stables, courtyards, pavilions, gates, halls, Circumcision Room, dormitories, and of course the well-known harem. The Imperial Harem is constructed with 400 rooms, and formally housed the sultan’s mother, concubines, and wives of the sultan. The Harem was overseen by a group of Eunuchs.
When I visited the Topkapi Palace I was an invited guest with Walks of Turkey. One of the major benefits of being a client of Walks of Turkey, is I was able to skip the lines with a pre-reserved ticket (and including the separate Harem ticket). I met my guide, Alp, in front of Hagia Irene Church. Alp was a knowledgeable and enthusiastic guy who made the Palace come alive by sharing the context and back story during my visit. The tours lasts three hours which is a perfect amount to learn about Topkapi and get you out for lunch. Check out Walk of Turkey’s intimate tours and these other options when visiting Istanbul.
Hagia Sophia located only minutes away by foot from the palace and has played many roles throughout history. From 537 to 1453, Hagia Sophia was the Eastern Orthodox cathedral and also seat of the Patriarch of Constantinople. Constantinople was the former name of current day Istanbul. Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Empire 1453. It was converted into a mosque in 1453 and then became a museum in 1935.
Hagia Sophia is an impressive structure with four soaring minarets and a giant central dome. Hagia Sophia towers 180 feet tall. While the building is magnificent prepared to be wowed upon entering the museum. Sunlight dances through the windows in the dome, lighting up the interior. There is a mixture of both Christian and Muslim symbols in the interior. The attention to detail is fantastic, including some mosaics that date from 800. They depict among others the Virgin Mother and Jesus.
I noted long queues to enter Hagia Sophia on several occasions, so be prepared to wait. As of May 2017, there is a frustrating amount of scaffolding in the interior. The fee to enter is 40 TL. You can also purchase the Museum Pass for 85 TL, which includes entrance for Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace, and other landmarks in Istanbul.
Sultan Ahmed Mosque (Blue Mosque)
The Blue Mosque was built in the early 17 century, and its six minarets pierce the sky intermeshed with multiple domes. The expansive carpeted interior is adorned in hand-painted, blue tiles; hence the name. The mosque’s capacity is over 10,000 worshipers.
Often in history, monuments are constructed to honor victory or celebration, but this was not the case for the Blue Mosque. It was built by Sultan Ahmet I to reassert the Ottoman Empire’s strength after a defeat at the hands of the Persian Empire.
It is free to enter the mosque outside of prayer times. Remember to dress modestly when visiting.
Where To Stay And Viewing Points
The Sultanahmet neighborhood contains these three magnificent landmarks. I spent time at two different viewing points, which afforded incredible views of both the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia. I was fortunate to catch a sunrise and three sunsets. (Not quite as fun waking up at the crack of dawn).
Hotel Arcadia Blue
I stayed at this hotel for three nights and was amazed with the incredible view from my room. Large glass windows opened up for an unencumbered view of both Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia. This alone made my stay worth it. For those not staying at the hotel, there is a decent restaurant with an open-air balcony affording the same views. I would highly recommend enjoying the view from here. The view is better here for sunrise, but you will not be disappointed with the evening sky either. Book here!
Seven Hills Hotel
Seven Hills Hotel has an open air restaurant on the top floor. I came here for one sunset, alternately taking in the beauty of the two landmarks that seemed so close. It got a little chilly at night during springtime, the food was decent (maybe a bit overpriced), and the restaurant pleasantly was not too crowded. Book here!
I also stayed at the Hippodrome Hotel which is located in a neighborhood with a plethora of restaurant options. It is an easy walk to the landmarks. The hotel is simple, but hard to beat the rate of under $30 a night. Book here!
Topkapı Palace, Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque – Must-See
Disclosure: I was an invited guest of Walks of Turkey. The opinions reflected in this post are my own. I you book a hotel through Agoda I will earn a fee.