Basilica Cistern // © 2015 Thinkstock
Feature image (above): Hagia Sophia was converted from a Greek orthodox patriarchal basilica. // © 2015 Thinkstock
The taxi from Ataturk International Airport meandered through the most unlikely of streets, dirt roads and hotel parking lots to take me to Sultanahmet district, Istanbul’s crowded tourist center and home to some of Turkey’s most important and historically significant attractions. If I didn’t know better, I might think I was being kidnapped.
Istanbul is notorious for its sprawling size and congested traffic, with each vehicle bent on getting where it’s going as fast as possible. For the tourist, this can be intimidating.
However, Istanbul is a must-see destination for both the first time visitor and the seasoned traveler. And the good news is that many of Istanbul’s artifacts are concentrated in one historic area, making it fairly easy to efficiently sightsee.
The following must-see attractions are all within convenient walking distance from each other in Sultanahmet.
Topkapi Palace houses perhaps the greatest collection of extravagant treasures in one destination. The palace was also the main residence of the Ottoman sultans for nearly 400 years. Don’t miss The Harem room — it’s so beautifully decorated that it’s worth the additional charge.
Also, there’s Hagia Sophia, a sixth-century Greek orthodox patriarchal basilica converted into a mosque and then converted into a secular museum. The museum’s brooding interiors, arches, domes and surviving mosaics attract droves of visitors from all around the world.
Another must-see is Blue Mosque, whose piercing minarets are unmistakable. Inside, elaborate designs, primarily in blue, cover the walls and ceilings and feature more than 200 stained glass windows and upwards of 20,000 ceramic tiles. Admission is free but travelers should note that there are separate entrances for practicing devotees and camera-wielding oglers. The mosque closes five times a day for prayer.
The underground Basilica Cistern is a Roman water-storage facility from the sixth century. The cistern features 336 columns and utilizes two Medusa heads in the northwest corner, recalling the area’s pagan past, to support the columns of this underground cathedral.
For those who seek shopping and a glimpse of modern Istanbul, head outside of Sultanahmet district. I recommend starting at Spice Bazaar, also known as Egyptian Bazaar, where mint- and lemon-flavored sumac can be purchased. The spice market is a 15-minute walk along the Bagcilar-Kabatas tram route, from the main tourist center of Sultanahmet to the waterfront by the market.
To reach the newer part of Istanbul, head over the bridge toward Taksim Square and up Istiklal Caddesi (Street), home to one of the most famous and crowded shopping avenues in the world. The location is a shopping mecca for tourists and locals alike, but it also offers plenty of food, coffee and baklava. The street ends at Taksim Square, a popular and historic meeting place.