A Guide to Istanbul's Sultanahmet Square
What to do in and around the historic Roman Hippodrome
Born and raised in Istanbul, I've had plenty of opportunities to visit all the iconic historical and cultural landmarks of the city. I had however, never done a full touristic day in Sultanahmet, until last week when a friend from the US was visiting me for 3 days. So I took the opportunity to take some photos, and put together this guide along with some tips and tricks.
Photo by me of the interior, sorry for the quality!
A masterpiece of Byzantine and then Ottoman art and architecture, and almost 1,500 years old, the Hagia Sophia is one of the main attractions of Istanbul. With its stunning dome and massive interior it's definitely worth a visit.
Since its conversion into a mosque in 2020 (I'm not gonna go into the politics of it) it's become a bit more difficult to visit. Make sure to look up the local prayer times and plan around these. And don't let the lines intimidate you, they're long but once the gates are opened the line moves very quickly (took us ~15 minutes to get in). Since it is now a mosque, you'll need "modest" clothing to get in. Women will need to cover their heads, shoulders, and legs. Men are mostly fine with shorts and a t-shirt. Worst case scenario, they sell plastic coverings after the entrance.
New Hagia Sophia History Museum
There's a brand new (opened 3 weeks ago from the time of writing) Hagia Sophia History Museum that provides an audio-visual experience about the history of Hagia Sophia. I thought it was a gimmick at first, but I was incredibly impressed. I learned more about the history and significance of the temple in 30 minutes than I thought possible, and the A/V experience was very impressive. We visited the museum before going to Hagia Sophia itself, and this is definitely the right way to do it. Note that there are, as always, quite some biases at play in this rendition of history so take the last 500 years of history with a grain of salt.
Also note that the facilities in the museum are beautiful! They have the best (in my humble opinion) cafe in the area here, and a really thoughtfully curated museum shop. Lastly, and I know this is kind of a weird thing to say, but they have the best and cleanest bathrooms you will find on your day as a tourist — take advantage of it!
Sultan Ahmet Mosque
Photo by me, Sultan Ahmet Mosque from the courtyard
Built more than a thousand years after Hagia Sophia, Sultan Ahmet Mosque is a striking mosque characterized by its blue "cini" tiles (it's also known as the "Blue Mosque") and six slender minarets. Its traditional Muslim/Ottoman Architecture is a great juxtaposition to Hagia Sophia's Byzantine roots, I'd recommend this as the next stop after Hagia Sophia. This is also an active mosque, so make sure to again plan around prayer times and dress appropriately (see above).
Yerebatan Sarnici / Basilica Cistern
Recently reopened after 3 years of renovations, this my favorite of all places in Sultanahmet. Used for a thousand years as one of Istanbul's main water storage sites, the Cistern is now a museum where you can learn about the history of Istanbul Waterworks, marvel at the millennia-old internal structure, and view thoughtfully curated contemporary art installations within the cistern. The city now hosts concerts here every summer, and I am dying to catch one!
The Hippodrome and Obelisks
Obelisk of Theodosius, photo by me
The Hippodrome of Constantinople, once the heart of Byzantine social life, now serves as the Sultanahmet Square of Istanbul. The shape of the Hippodrome, a historic chariot racing arena, has been preserved to this day and you can still see its oval outline. Around the hippodrome, you'll see the sights of Sultanahmet like Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, and the baths of Hurrem Sultan. Within the square, stand three obelisks: the Walled Obelisk (commissioned by the Byzantine Emperor Theodosius I in the 4th century), Obelisk of Theodosius (first erected in Egypt more than 3 thousand years ago and brought by the Byzantines to Istanbul in the 4th century), and the Serpent Column (brought from Greece by Emperor Constantine in the 4th century).
Photo from brebrooks on Flickr
Last, but certainly not least: what to eat! The famous/historic Sultanahmet Koftecisi is the address of Kofte (Turkish meatballs) in the city. Make sure to go to the correct one pictured above, as there are quite a few replicas in the area. Obviously get the Kofte, traditionally eaten with bread but goes great with rice, and make sure to try the signature red pepper spread and pickled peppers.