Istanbul/Sultanahmet-Old City

The Old City of Istanbul (Turkish: Eski İstanbul, also Tarihi Yarımada and Suriçi, “Historical Peninsula”, and “Walled City” respectively) is the oldest part of Istanbul, and the location of most of its historical sights.

Understand

Topkapı Palace as seen from across Bosphorus

Being a peninsula bounded by bodies of water to the north, east, and south (the Golden Horn, Bosphorus, and the Sea of Marmara, respectively) and by the old city walls to west, this part of the city is essentially what used to be called Constantinople. The rest, of what is today Istanbul, were independent cities, towns, villages, fields or even complete wilderness later absorbed by the city. This process is still going on as Istanbul grows with increasing speed.

Recent discoveries in the construction of Yenikapı train and subway station, on the southern coast of the peninsula, date the very first time of Istanbul's settlement back to about 8000 years ago, which makes the city one of the oldest still-inhabited spots of the world. However, tradition states that Byzantium was first settled by Greek colonists from Megara on the Greek mainland in 667 BC. According to this tradition, they and their leader Byzas consulted the Delphi oracle, who said they would create a great harbor city "across from the land of the blind". After much sailing, they arrived at the strategically superb peninsular site of Seraglio Point (Sarayburnu) and encountered some fishermen who told them they lived in Chalcedon, a very less privileged site across the Bosphorus. ("THEY are the blind!!!", said Byzas to himself). This spot that the Megarans chose to found their new colony is now occupied by Gülhane Park and the Topkapı Palace.

Once the starting point of the Hippie Trail, the Sultanahmet area has been the main tourist district of the city since the 1960s. As the Hippodrome of Constantinople, it was for long one of the main social centres in the city — a role it still temporarily plays for the evening feasts during the Ramadan — and hence is a part of the old city with an exceptionally disproportionate number of historic sights. The name of the district derives from the Turkish name of the imposing Blue Mosque on one side of its main square, which in turn is named after the Ottoman sultan Ahmet I (r. 1603–1617), who had the mosque built and is buried in a mausoleum in the yard of his mosque.

Parts of the peninsula was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1985.

Get in

Being one of the most central parts of the city, getting to the Old City by public transport is easy. The waterfront often hosts cruise ships, providing passengers (not on tours) with easy, self-arranged access to sights and shopping.

By tram

A modern tram line lies all along the old city, connecting it with Galata and other places north, and the suburbs in the west. Tram stations are located at Eminönü, Sirkeci, Gülhane, Sultanahmet, Beyazıt, and Aksaray among others.

With the cancellation of public bus line T4 between Taksim and Sultanahmet, easiest way to get to the old city from Taksim by public transport now is to take the funicular from inside the metro station at Taksim Square and then transfer on to tram at Kabataş station.

By metro

A metro/light rail line connects Atatürk International Airport and the main bus station (otogar) outside the city with Aksaray. From Aksaray, you can take the tram (follow the ‘tramvay’ signs) for places deeper into the Old City (such as Sultanahmet). If you are approaching from the airport, you can also change from metro to tram in Zeytinburnu. Changing at Zeytinburnu is better than changing at Aksaray, as the metro and tram stations in Zeytinburnu are much nearer to each other (making it highly unlikely to get lost!) and it’s the first station along the line, which means you can easily secure a seat after your long flight.

By bus

Public buses connect various spots in the old city with various other places. For the traveller, the most useful lines are as follows:

By boat

Liners from Kadıköy and Üsküdar across the Bosphorus moor at Eminönü. There are also smaller private boats plying on the same routes. Another option is to take the boat from Üsküdar to Kabataş and take the tram.

If you are arriving in Istanbul by one of fast ferries from towns across on the southern and southeastern coast of Marmara, your likely point of entry to the city is Yenikapı on the southern shore of the peninsula.

By train

Trains from Europe and European Turkey have their terminii at Sirkeci station, which is located in this district. It's also possible to take the suburban trains (banliyö treni), which have about 30min intervals and cost TRY1.50, from Bakırköy and other coastal suburbs in the west to Sirkeci.

By taxi

In Istanbul there are plenty of yellow taxis and cab fares are not expensive. A ride from Atatürk Airport (IST) to Sultanahmet is about 18km and the cab fare is c. TRY30 (USD17, when USD1 = TRY1.85), while a ride from Sabiha Gokcen Airport (SAW) to Sultanahmet is about 45km and costs around c. TRY75 (USD40).

Get around

By tram

The tram line connects almost all of the sights frequented by travellers. The trams can be very crowded, but services are frequent and journey times are usually short.

On foot

Most of the sights in the old city are close enough to be negotiated on foot, as they are located in or around Sultanahmet Square. For many others, just follow the tram line. However, between Eminönü/Sirkeci and Sultanahmet, it is faster to take the shortcut through Ankara Caddesi (Street) and stray away from the tramline as the tramline follows an arch through that part of the city.

The sidewalk along Hüdavendigar Caddesi between Sirkeci, Gülhane, and Sultanahmet Square is not very wide and trams pass along fairly close to the sidewalk, so watch your steps especially when you hear tram's horn.

See

Many of Istanbul’s historical gems, mostly consisting of Byzantine and Ottoman-built monuments are within the Old City. Most are located a short walk away from, if not immediately on the edges of, Sultanahmet Square. Some other sights are dispersed throughout the peninsula.

There is a very handy museum pass allowing access to many of the key spots on Sultanahmet. A pass valid for 3 days can be purchased for 85 TL, while a five day pass that allows access to some additional sites is 115 TL (July 2014 prices). The pass allows free access to:

In addition to saving money when visiting multiple sites, the card allows you to skip the queue for tickets and go straight to the gates at all sites. The brochure provided with the card will also list tourist services such as shuttles, shops, and tours that offer discounts for cardholders.

It is worth noting that most museums in Istanbul are closed on Mondays, so checking the website first or ringing is a sensible option before setting off.

Around Sultanahmet Square

Hagia Sofia
Inside Hagia Sofia
Sultanahmet also known as the Blue Mosque
Blue Mosque, close-up
Basilica Cistern
Main footpath of Gülhane Park lined with plane trees

Elsewhere

Interior of Chora Church
Tower of Phanar Greek College
Valens Aqueduct as seen from southeast
Zeyrek Mosque with the three former churches making it up still distinguishable

Do

Hamams

Most of Istanbul's historical Turkish baths, known as hamam and quite an inevitable part of any Istanbul experience, are located in Old City around Sultanahmet.

Buy

The Grand Bazaar during Republic Day

Istanbul's historical bazaars are located in Old City.

Mall

Eat

Restaurants in the eastern part of the Fatih area (Sultanahmet) are mainly targeted at tourists, and charge much higher prices than those in places such as Galata. A kebab can cost here TL8, TL10 or even higher (the real price is about TL4-5). The quality of most restaurants aimed at tourists varies, so it's well worth looking for online reviews or following the recommendations of a good guidebook when making your selection (this also reduces your exposure to the aggressive touts employed by many of the restaurants). If one wants not to spend much money, it is worth to spend 10 minutes and leave Sultanahmet neighbourhood to the North or West and have much cheaper - and probably nicer - meal.

Budget

For budget meals it is advisable to avoid the restaurants along the tram line and to the West and South from the Blue Mosque. For really budget places, where locals eat, one should go to the Gedik Paşa street and look in the side streets. But if you search some normal prices, it easy to find some place on Peykhane street.

Mid-range

Splurge

Drink

Restaurants under Galata Bridge

Cafés

For something more typical, check out these cafés:

Sleep

Accommodation in the peninsula is mostly around Sultanahmet. Cankurtaran, a neighbourhood just south of Sultanahmet Square towards the coast of the Sea of Marmara, is one of the places where hotels/hostels cluster most.

Free

Budget

Mid range

Splurge

Connect

Internet

All of Sultanahmet Park (between Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque) is a wifi hotspot free of charge.

There are also a couple of internet cafes along the tram line between Sultanahmet and Gülhane.

Stay safe

The focal point of the peninsula for travellers, Sultanahmet Square, is safe and policed during day and night, so by staying within the realms of common sense, you shouldn't encounter problems there. However, there are some issues to keep in mind for the rest of the old city:

Istanbul Police Department has a "tourism police" office with multilingual staff in Sultanahmet, just across the street from Hagia Sophia, where you can report passport loss or any other problems.

Cope

Laundry

This article is issued from Wikivoyage - version of the Thursday, February 18, 2016. The text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike but additional terms may apply for the media files.