Sultanahmet is the historic heart of Istanbul, the most famous of Turkey’s cities. It may not be the capital but it’s the only city that sits astride Europe and Asia.
Just a few months after we visited Istanbul, it was gripped by the worst riots in years. But it seems that historic Sultanahmet escaped the worst of those depressing but not surprising protests, which were concentrated on Taksim Square – across the stretch of water known as the Golden Horn. Terrorism has reared its ugly head a few times too.
For those of us staying in Sultanahmet, Taksim seemed miles away for Istanbul is a massive city, effectively several thrown together as one. There’s so much to see and do that there was no chance we’d ever get to do it all in one trip and, indeed, we never did make it to the square.
We concentrated our stay on Sultanahmet, the district on the European side of the Bosphorus that contains the main attractions and is where most tourists end up.
It’s where we found the Aya Sofya, the sprawling Topkapi Palace and the marvellous Blue Mosque. It’s where the old Roman conquerors established the capital of their Eastern empire – Constantinople – back when Rome itself was crumbling. It’s where the Ottoman rulers in turn governed their empire.
Sultanahmet is at times modern, spic and span and neatly packaged for the tourist. A lot of money has been spent giving key areas a facelift, and a lot continues to be spent on mosques, historic buildings and essential public transport.
But there’s plenty of the old Istanbul in Sultanahmet, as we found when we ventured into its back streets. Amid the beautifully renovated wooden properties that lined its cobbled streets, we often found other buildings that were falling to pieces, leaning precariously and victims of neglect.
Many of the streets run down to the sea below, lined with cheap souvenir shops and trendy boutiques, small hotels and restaurants. Cats stalked them by the score and colourful plants and tulips were everywhere in spring. In some places, perhaps surprisingly, it reminded us of San Francisco.
Other parts of the district, particularly near the Grand Bazaar, were more developed, more commercial and somewhat less charming. But even here, we turned corners to find quaint mosques, a tiny shaded park, a well-tended cemetery.
Aya Sofya was a must-see. Once a church, then a mosque and now a museum, it’s one of the two giants of Sultanahmet and squats monumentally atop the hill opposite the Blue Mosque. Its minarets look like rockets all set for a mission to space. Built in the 6th century on the orders of Emperor Justinian and much added to over the centuries, it’s vast and with an immense dome. After queueing for ever to get in, we discovered remains of Christian mosaics, explored the first-floor galleries, spotted the huge wooden discs hanging from its walls displaying gold Arabic calligraphy. It was overwhelming and unmissable.
The Blue Mosque, or Sultanahmet Camii to give it its proper name, sits opposite. Where the Aya Sofya can be gloomy, the Blue Mosque is perfectly proportioned on the outside, and light, colourful and airy inside. The historic blue tiles that give the mosque its name are perfectly in tune with the colourful painted domes and the rich red of the carpet.
Cool and inviting it may be but the columns holding up its main dome were the biggest we’d ever seen.
We were shown round by an old man who volunteered for the role but then demanded generous compensation. I felt duped but at least we were able to visit parts of the building roped off to ordinary mortals.
Nearby is the Arasta Bazaar, a pleasant shopping street that was built to help fund the mosque through rents.
The Grand Bazaar, or Kapali Çarsi, is one of the city’s most famous sites and the largest covered bazaar in the world. We needed a good map to navigate it and found that anything and everything we could possibly want was available to buy, not justrugs, spices, leather goods and gold. We also found fancy fashion outlets and designer boutiques. We didn’t get pestered nearly as much as I thought we would and left empty handed.
One of the most fascinating attractions was the Basilica Cistern, Yerebatan Sarniçi. Featured in the James Bond film From Russia With Love, when Bond went below ground to spy on the Russian embassy, this cavernous, damp space was built to store and supply water to the city, and is supported by dozens of columns. Eerily lit, the water that remains in the cistern is full of fish. Again, we queued forever to get in but it was extraordinarily atmospheric.
The Topkapi Palace, which we visited on a sweltering day, is a large complex that was once home to the Sultans, their families and officials. It boasted beautiful gardens and a collection of ornate state rooms. The Harem proved to be more intimate and was where the family lived away from the ceremonies of state. Getting around the palace was hard work in high season – crowd management didn’t seem a strong point and queues were everywhere. One highlight was the stunning tiling, particularly in the circumcision room (ouch).
The Great Palace Mosaic Museum may be small but we appreciated many of its incredible mosaics, discovered on the site of the great palace that was built and then enlarged by Roman emperors across a large swathe of Sultanahmet. Hunting scenes, animals fighting animals and mythical beasts were among the scenes.
The Hippodrome was a popular gathering and promenading spot in the city. Once the sporting heart of Constantinople, the U-shaped circus hosted chariot races and has been given a facelift. The most obvious remains of the base structure can be seen behind the Eresin Crown Hotel, which is coincidentally where we spent our stay.
Sultanahmet didn’t prove to be the best place in Istanbul for shopping, eating or drinking. Instead, we crossed the Galata bridge and headed to Beyoglu for the best of the nightlife. Booze wasn’t cheap in Istanbul, but the locals knew how to party. The bars in the side streets were rammed, and it was often difficult to get a seat in the restaurants.
Sultanahmet was more restrained, offering everything from cheap and cheerful restaurants and bars to relaxed cafes and expensive options, including the elegant Four Seasons Hotel Sultanahmet, housed in a charming old prison building. The hotel was one of the few places where service was anywhere near good in the city. In two other restaurants, my main meal was forgotten. In others, attentiveness and politeness were virtually non-existent.
And one thing I really hate is poor service…
Find out more about the city’s food and drink at this great blog.