Sultanahmet Square and Historic Peninsula: Old Town of İstanbul

Sultanahmet Square and Historic Peninsula is not just the oldest part of İstanbul but also one of the most important parts of it. Sultanahmet Square is very essential for İstanbul which was used to serve as a Hippodrome in the Byzantium period. The square involves many historical landmarks such as German Fountain, Basilica Cistern, Sultan Ahmet Mosque, etc. It is the most touristic area of İstanbul that you can’t leave İstanbul without seeing there. 

Historic Peninsula is called for the area that the city was firstly established and surrounded by Haliç, Bosporus, and the Marmara Sea. The central district of the peninsula is Fatih and the Eminönü neighborhood. The peninsula was not preserved as it was at the first time but a lot of historical landmarks and art pieces are saved and exhibited for the people who are wondering about the history of İstanbul.

View of Hagia Sophia, Hürrem Sultan Bath and Sultanahmet Square
View of Hagia Sophia, Hürrem Sultan Bath and Sultanahmet Square

Getting to Sultanahmet Square

Since the Sultanahmet Square is very touristic getting there is quite easy and has several ways.

If you land in Sabiha Gökçen Airport you can get on a “HAVABUS” and go to Taksim. Below I will explain how you can get to Sultanahmet Square from Taksim. Also, you can go to Kadıköy by E11 bus and get on to Kadıköy-Eminönü ferry right away. After you get off in Eminönü you can get on the tram from Sirkeci station and get off in Sultanahmet.

From İstanbul Airport, the best way to get to Sultanahmet Square is taking the Havaist Bus number 12 to Beyazıt Meydanı(Beyazıt Square). From Beyazıt Square you can get to the tramway(T1 line) and you will be in Sultanahmet Square after two stops. Besides, it is only 10 minutes’ walking distance.

If you are in Taksim the best way is to get on the Yenikapı M2 metro line and get off at Vezneciler station. Then, from Laleli station you should take the T1 tramway and get off in Sultanahmet.

From Şişli you can take the 46H bus and take off at Laleli station, then get on the T1 tramway and get off in Sultanahmet.

From Beşiktaş, you should go to Kabataş Tramway Station. This tramway(T1) will take you directly to Sultanahmet Square.

From Üsküdar or Kadıköy you should get on Marmaray and get off in Sirkeci then take the tramway (T1) and get off in Sultanahmet station. You can also prefer to use the ferries that depart from Üsküdar and Kadıköy to Eminönü or Karaköy and take the same tramway(T1) from those stations.

How long to Spend?

If you want to tour around Sultanahmet Square and the historic peninsula by taking your time and without any rush, you should at least three days. These three days are only for the Sultanahmet and the historic peninsula since İstanbul is a very big city and has a lot of places that worth seeing. If you are not in a hurry you should have yourself at least a week to wander around İstanbul. On the other hand, for the digital nomads, that time could be a lot longer. İstanbul is a city where you can live without getting bored.

History of Sultanahmet Square and Historic Peninsula

Hagia Sophia at Night
Hagia Sophia at Night

Sultanahmet Square is located in the historic peninsula and it was built in the Hippodrome area of the Byzantium period. In the Byzantium time, the neighborhood and the square were also considered as the center of İstanbul. It was the core of everything as if everything starts from there and spreads around later on. Lots of worship places for all religions, hamams, centers of social and trade were working on there.

Since the Sultanahmet is in the historic peninsula its importance multiplies. In the past, all the trades especially sea trade has functioned in the historic peninsula. It is the oldest residential area of İstanbul and the homeland of many historical landmarks in the present. 

Top Things to See

There are lots of things to see in Sultanahmet Square and the Historic Peninsula. The numerous historical landmarks that all worth seeing are waiting for you. If you don’t know where to start; here is the guide for you to take a history tour.

Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofya)

Interior View of Hagia Sophia
Interior View of Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia was built between 532-537 by Byzantium emperor I. Justinianus as a cathedral. In the historical journey of Hagia Sophia, the state of it changed at the time. At first, it was a cathedral then turned into a mosque after the conquest of İstanbul. After that, it was turned into a museum and at last, it was turned into a mosque again. It is open to worship if you wish. Hagia Sophia is a true master art piece and surely it is one of the most stunning places in the world. Also, it must be seen before die.  

The Blue Mosque

View of the Blue Mosque from Sultanahmet Square
View of the Blue Mosque from Sultanahmet Square

The Blue Mosque which is also known as Sultan Ahmed Mosque was built by the order of I. Ahmed in the Historic Peninsula. The “blue” in the name is coming from the blue-colored tiles and the decorations inside the mosque. It is one of the greatest works in İstanbul with its complex of. The complex includes the mosque, stores, hamam, fountains, school, etc. but some of the parts could not be preserved to the present. 

You can see the harmony of Islamic and Byzantium in the mosque but the however the traditional Islam vibes are all over the mosque. It is located in the middle of the city with its all magnificence and greatness.

I have written a more detailed article about the Blue Mosque and you can read that article from here.

Topkapı Palace

Throne Room Inside Harem Section of Topkapi Palace
Throne Room Inside Harem Section of Topkapi Palace

Topkapı Palace is built in 1478 by Fatih Sultan Mehmed. 400 years out of 600 years of the Ottoman Empire’s reign time it was the center of the government. Sometime in the past, there were almost 4000 people that was living in the palace. It was the official place of residence of the Ottoman sultans. As time passes and the other palaces were built the sultans were moved but the importance of it was never lost. It was converted into a museum and opened to visit by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. This greatness is worth seeing.

Basilica Cistern

View of the Basilica Cistern in Istanbul
A View of the Basilica Cistern

Basilica Cistern is the biggest cistern of İstanbul and is located southwest of Hagia Sophia. It is called the basilica since there was a basilica before the cistern was made. The vibe of the cistern is very authentic and impressive. It was used to use for storing water. In the present, it is serving as a museum and a place for many important meetings. Also, the humidity inside is very high so if you have asthma you may consider getting in. 

The article that I have written about the Basilica Cistern before is here.

İstanbul Archeology Museums

Ancient Sarcophagus Detail in Istanbul Archeology Museum
Ancient Sarcophagus Detail in Istanbul Archeology Museum

Istanbul Archeology Museums are one of the greatest museums in the world with its millions of pieces. The complex is the oldest museum building in Turkey and there are three main units included which are Archeology Museum, Museum of Ancient Oriental Works, and Tiled Kiosk. These units are including the pieces from Ottoman, Mesopotamia, Anatolia, Africa, and goes on. It is a great chance to visit there and explore new things about old cultures. Also, if you have “müzekart”, the entrance is free. 

Great Palace Mosaic Museum

An ancient mosaic from the Byzantine period in the Great Palace Mosaic Museum
An ancient mosaic from the Byzantine period in the Great Palace Mosaic Museum

Great Palace Mosaic Museum is located in the Arasta Bazaar which is in Sultanahmet Square. The museum building was built onto the Bukaleon Palace’s base of the yard which is all covered by mosaics. The other pieces belong to the yard were brought later on to the museum. The figures on the mosaics are grouped as hunt scenes, fighting animals, free animals, village life, children, myths, and exotic creatures.  

Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts

Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts
Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts

Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts is located in Fatih district and it is the first Turkish museum that gathered Islamic art pieces. At first, it was opened in the complex of Süleymaniye Mosque. Then the museum was moved into the İbrahim Paşa Palace. HandmadeTurkish carpets from the 13th-20th centuries, ceramic and glass objects, handwritten books, etc. are exhibited in the museum. 

The Egyptian Obelisk

The Egyptian Obelisk (Obelisk of Theodosius)
The Egyptian Obelisk (Obelisk of Theodosius)

The Egyptian Obelisk was established by Roman Emperor I. Theodosius in the south of Sultanahmet Square. Theodosius took the obelisk from Egypt and there are four sides written on them. The writings are in Greek and Latin and telling stories about the Egyptian gods and Theodosius. You can observe the hieroglyphs on the obelisk closer to the square. 

Serpentine Column

Serpentine Column
Serpentine Column (Behind the tree)

The serpentine column is located in the Sultanahmet which is left from the old Hippodrome. The column is Greek made and there are three piton snakes rolled to each other and made of bronze. It was made for the victory of Greece cities and stick in the temple of Apollo. It was believed that it protects the city from insects. Two of the heads are lost and one head of the snake is exhibited in İstanbul Archeology Museum.

Hurrem Sultan Bath(Hamam)

Entrance of Hürrem Sultan Bath
Entrance of Hürrem Sultan Bath

Hurrem Sultan Bath was built by the main architect of Turkish history Mimar Sinan by the order of Hurrem Sultan who was the wife of Süleyman the Magnificent. Bath was built in the middle of the Blue Mosque and Hague Sophia. The hamam was closed for long years and reopened again in 1910. During the time, the hamam was used for other purposes such as storage. Today, you can go and enjoy the hamam and experience the Turkish-style spa. 

German Fountain

German Fountain in Istanbul
German Fountain

German Fountain is found in the Sultanahmet Square across the tomb of Sultan I. Ahmed. It was a gift from German Emperor II. Wilhelm to Sultan Ahmet. It was decorated with golds inside and the style of the structure is neo-Byzantium. 

Gülhane Park

Gülhane Park is located in the Eminönü neighborhood of Fatih and it is a public park. It is found in between the Alay Kiosk, Topkapı Palace, and Sarayburnu. It was the outer garden of Topkapı Palace back in the Ottoman Empire period. Gülhane has the meaning of “home of roses” since there were lots of roses in the past. In the present, you can still smell the roses but you can also enjoy the view of beautiful tulips. Also, the Museum of the History of Science and Technology in İslam and İstanbul Archeology Museum are found in the park.

Divanyolu Street

Divanyolu Street was the first main street of İstanbul which was opened in the time of Roman Emperor Constantin. In the back in time, the street covered the city from two sides by the walls. In the present Divanyolu Street starts from Hagia Sophia and ends in Çemberlitaş following through the whole historic peninsula.

Çemberlitaş Hamamı

Çemberlitaş Hamamı is located on the Divanyolu Street and built by Mimar Sinan in 1584. From the day it was built to today, the hamam has been used towards its purpose. The building of the hamam has two adjacent and identical buildings belong to women and men to separate their entrances. You can spend a day here and do nothing but relax.

Grand Bazaar

Grand Bazaar
Grand Bazaar

Grand Bazaar is the world’s biggest bazaar and is located in the middle of the Beyazıt, Nuruosmaniye, and Mercan districts. Also, it is one of the oldest grand bazaars in the world. There are nearly 4000 stores inside the bazaar. Sometimes, there could be up to 500.000 people inside of it and 91 million tourists visit there every year. It is the most visited tourist place in the world. The jewelry and carpet stores in Grand Bazaar are the best that you could ever find.

You can read more about the Grand Bazaar from here.

Nuruosmaniye Mosque

Nuruosmaniye Mosque

Nuruosmaniye Mosque is the first mosque built with the style of Baroque. It is located at the entrance of Grand Bazaar. It has also a complex that includes a fountain, library, dispenser, tomb, madrasa, and almshouse. It is still open to worship and also it is permitted to wander inside and around the mosque.

Süleymaniye Mosque

Aerial View of Süleymaniye Mosque
Aerial View of Süleymaniye Mosque

Süleymaniye Mosque was built by Mimar Sinan and dedicated to Süleyman the Magnificent. Süleymaniye Mosque was built with its complex that includes hospital, madrasa, hamam, etc. The mosque was completed in 1557 and from that day to the present hundreds of earthquakes got through and not even a crack has occurred on the walls. The workmanship on the domes inside and outside deserves all the respect. It is a true art piece you need to see.

Eminönü Square

Eminonu Square at Night
Eminönü Square at Night

Eminönü Square is located in the historic peninsula in the west of Haliç. The walls are covered the Eminönü district on the core of the city. It is the most alive area of İstanbul and involves the Spice Bazaar, the Historic Train Station, and the new mosque. You can find anything you want here in Eminönü. Textile, electronics, furniture, kitchen equipment, etc. Also, for bulk sales, Eminönü is always firstly preferred. There are also lots of street food around the square that you can eat and wander around at the same time. 

The Spice Bazaar

View of the interior of the spice bazaar
Spice Bazaar

The Spice Bazaar is located inside the Eminönü and next to Flower Bazaar. It is one of the oldest bazaars of İstanbul. As it is referred the bazaar is famous for the spices but there are also highly qualified, seeds, flowers, natural medicines, nuts, and delicatessen. If you are looking for some interesting food, you can certainly find it here. The prices are affordable for high-quality products. Also, the Spice Bazaar is open on Sundays. 

You can read more on Spice Bazaar from here.

The New Mosque

Eminönü Square and the New Mosque

The New Mosque which is also known as Valide Sultan Mosque was completed in 1665. The new mosque intensifies the silhouette, aesthetic appearance, and integrity of the city. It is the last example of the great mosque built by the Ottoman. In the past the mosque was right near the sea but as the sea was poured the distance increased. You can see the blue-green tiles inside of the mosque. 

Tahtakale

Tahtakale is a neighborhood in Eminönü that is located southwest of the Spice Bazaar. It is found in the port and behind one of the most important trade pier. So that, during Byzantium and Ottoman periods it was used as a trade and business center. However, this trait is never lost. Tahtakale is still the center of trade and where you can get what you want cheaper than the market.

Rüstem Paşa Mosque

Interior view of Rüstem Paşa Mosque
Interior view of Rüstem Paşa Mosque

Rüstem Paşa Mosque is located in Fatih district, Tahtakale neighborhood and inside the Hasırcılar Bazaar. This mosque was dedicated to the Rüstem Paşa who is the husband of Mihrimah Sultan and also the grand vizier of Süleyman the Magnificent. The architect of the mosque is Mimar Sinan who is the greatest architect of Turkish history. All around the mosque is covered by stunning tiles. 

Little Haghia Sophia Mosque

Little Hagia Sophia Mosque
Little Hagia Sophia Mosque

Little Haghia Sophia Mosque was built by Byzantium emperor I. Justinianus and his wife Theodora as a church. However, in 1497 in the period of II. Beyazıt the church was turned into a mosque. In the present, it is not open to worship. 

My detailed article about the Little Hagia Sophia Mosque can be read here.

Fener and Balat Neighborhoods

Old narrow street in Balat
Old narrow street in Balat

Fener is an old Greek neighborhood whereas Balat is an old Jewish. They are very close and located in the south of the historic peninsula and attract both local and foreign tourists with their nostalgic texture and in Balat still, Jewish families are living. They both worth to see and please don’t turn back before you see the stunning Fener Greek Patriarchate. 

Chora Church

Wall mosaics of ancient Chora Church, Istanbul. Joseph and the Virgin at the census before Cyrenius, the Syrian Governor
A wall mosaic of ancient Chora Church. Joseph and the Virgin at the census before Cyrenius, the Syrian Governor

Chora Church is located in the Edirnekapı neighborhood of Fatih and it is turned into a mosque and a museum. In the beginning, it was a Middle Age Greek Orthodox Church. It is open to worship and as a museum. After it is turned into a mosque The Christian symbols were covered with lime whitewash without doing any harm. 

Zeyrek Mosque

Zeyrek Mosque
Zeyrek Mosque

Zeyrek Mosque was built in the East Roman period and is located in the Zeyrek neighborhood. After the Hagia Sophia, it is the second oldest big church of İstanbul. The church is made of three chapels gathered. After the conquest of İstanbul, the first madrasa was opened there. After the other madrasas were opened, the madrasa in there was closed and the church turned into a mosque. In today, just the south part is used as a mosque.

Fatih Mosque

View of Fatih Mosque from inner courtyard
View of Fatih Mosque from inner courtyard

Fatih Mosque and its complex were built by the order of II. Mehmed. Inside the complex, there are 16 madrasas, guest house, hospital, hamam, library, and soup kitchen. It is built on one of the seven hills of İstanbul. Since there are lots of stunning mosques are around the historic peninsula, Fatih Mosque could stay behind but it is worth seeing without any doubt. 

Patriarchate of Constantinople

Patriarchate of Constantinople
Patriarchate of Constantinople

The Patriarchate of Constantinople was built to represent the Orthodox Christians. It is one of the four-teen autocephaly East Orthodox Church. According to this and the location of it which is the capital of the East Roman Emperor the church is accepted as very special by the Orthodox community.    

Museum of the History of Science and Technology in İslam

The Museum of the History of Science and Technology in İslam is located inside Gülhane Park and opened in 2008. In the museum, the inventions from the 9th-16th centuries of Muslim investors are exhibited. There are twelve parts in the museum such as astronomy, medicine, physics, geometry, etc. that you can take look at these valuable pieces.

Food and Drink

There lots of places to eat and drink in Sultanahmet Square and the historic peninsula. You can try street food, traditional Turkish food, breakfast, or even traditional Ottoman cuisine in this area. If it is hard to decide for you, let’s review the list below. 

Simit Sellers

Cart with simits, Turkish bagels in Istanbul
Cart with simits, Turkish bagels in Istanbul

The simit sellers are everywhere in the historic peninsula. In the morning, afternoon or evening you can find a simit seller anytime you want. However, you should eat them in the early hours because they are crispier. It is affordable and delicious for go-to food. You should get one while you are wandering around. 

Sultanahmet Köftecisi

Sultanahmet Köftecisi is opened in 1920 in the corner of Divanyolu Street. There are several more köfteci in Sultanahmet but you should find the historical one. You can have a break in there while you are eating delicious and juicy köftes while you are wandering around Sultanahmet. Also, you need to try piyaz by the side of köfte and drink a big glass of ayran; it is the proper way to eat köfte. 

Vefa Bozacısı

Vefa Bozacısı was found in 1876 and still, the fourth generation takes the direction. Boza is a special sour drink prepared with yeast. The first owner Hacı Sadık Bey produced boza in his house for six years and sell in the streets. Don’t forget to ask for roasted chickpeas on the side of boza which is a traditional couple. Boza is especially going well in the wintertime but you should give it a try while you are in İstanbul. 

Ali Muhiddin Hacı Bekir

Ali Muhiddin Hacı Bekir began as a candy shop in 1777.  Candies of Hacı Bekir were even eaten and loved by Ottoman Palace. An English visitor acquired Turkish delights from Hacı Bekir in the 19th century and carried them back to England, where Turkish delight became famous. Hacı Bekir is the one who popularizes the term “lokum.” The place is now run by the 5th generation of the family. If you happen to be passing here, you should taste the Turkish delights and akide candies. They are also great souvenirs. 

Altan Şekerleme

Altan Şekerleme is opened in the year of 1865 and still goes on. This is a family business that the son and grandson of the inventor Hacı Mustafa Altan are operating the Altan Şekerleme. It is not a big store but very cozy and colorful. You should try lokum, helva, and akide candies from there. Also, just a little warning, you may want to prepare yourself a bag of candies before you turn back.

Dönerci Şahin Usta

Dönerci Şahin Usta selling the most expensive but probably the most delicious döner of İstanbul. The place is inside the Grand Bazaar and near to the Nuruosmaniye Gate. There are just döner in there and you just need to choose whether you will eat as a wrap or not. They are masters of the döner and it is worth to price and also the hype. 

Kurufasulyeci Erzincanlı Ali Baba

Kurufasulyeci Erzincanlı Ali Baba was opened in 1924 almost a century ago. It is right across from the Süleymaniye Mosque that you can eat there after you visit the mosque. The restaurant is operated by the 4th generation now. The kurufasulye is cooked in coal fire slowly. If you decide to eat there you should order also pilaf, pickles, and ayran to drink on the side of kurufasulye; they are the power four of Turkish food. 

Boris’in Yeri

Boris’in Yeri was opened in 1936 by Mr. Boris. It is a breakfast salon and right next to the Kör Agop Restaurant. They are not serving a regular breakfast. Kaymak, butter, yogurt, and jams are their product from the day the place is opened. All the food they are serving is so fresh and delicious. Even if you don’t have breakfast here you have to try the ekmek kadayıfı dessert in there. You won’t regret it. 

Erenler Nargile Çorlulu Ali Paşa Medresesi

Erenler Nargile is located in the Çorlulu Ali Paşa Medresesi which is from the Ottoman period and close to Grand Bazaar. You can smoke hookah in there under the beautiful one-hundred-year-old trees. Also, you can take a break in there while you are sipping your tea. The energy of the place is very nostalgic and sincere.

Balıkçı Sabahattin

Balıkçı Sabahattin opened that restaurant in 1927 in the same building now which was repaired by Armada. Before that restaurant, Sabahattin was the operator of his father’s restaurant which was not so popular but indispensable of the frequenters. After he moved and the fame of the delicious seafood and mezze are heard his popularity is maximized. He appeared in The New York Times two times. His family and he know that fish business and remunerate it.

Deraliye Restaurant

Deraliye Restaurant is serving delicious and rich Ottoman cuisine to its customers. It is right next to Hagia Sophia and very close to Topkapı Palace. After you finished your tourist trip in those, you may have dinner there. The prices are quite affordable and the foods are very delicious. It is a good way to get to know the Ottoman/Turkish culture and also the cuisine even better. 

Matbah

Matbah is a great restaurant that serves Ottoman cuisine. The gourmets are always talking about there also the restaurant won numerous of gastronomic prices. It is a great chance to taste Ottoman Palace Cuisine there. Also, some modern touches and synthesis are done by the respected chefs of Matbah. You should take a look at this rich menu.

Kör Agop Restaurant

Kör Agop Restaurant was opened in 1938 in Kumkapı but moved into the recent place in 1980. It Is a tavern and the ownership of the tavern is pass through the family. You can enjoy eating fresh seafood, fish, and delicious mezzes and drinking rakı while listening to beautiful Turkish Art Music. It would be a final touch of a great day. Also, you may need a reservation.

Siirt Şeref Büryan

Siirt Şeref Büryan Restaurant serves the experience of eating the delicious kebab in İstanbul. You have to try the Büryan Kebab when you are in the historic peninsula. Even though this kebab is belonging to Siirt it is a great chance to try it in İstanbul. The restaurant is not fancy but they don’t have such a claim. The only claim they are having is serving people the best food, and they are doing it very perfectly. 

Ağa Kapısı

Ağa Kapısı restaurant is offering you eating delicious food while enjoying the stunning view of the sea. It is very suitable for organizations such as birthday parties, engagement parties, business meetings, etc. Also, it is easy to be reached by public transportation. 

Where to Stay

Finding a place to stay in Sultanahmet Square and the historic peninsula is nothing you should worry about. In these areas, there are plenty of places that you can stay. If you are an individual, with your family or friends, the desires can be changed but don’t worry about it. There are places for every desire. Also, of course for every budget. 

If you want to spend the night in a 5-star hotel and a suite; you can find it easily. If you want to stay in a middle-class hotel; also you can find it easily. If you want to stay in a cheap and lack of facilities hotel; again you can find in a minute. 

Safety

Both Sultanahmet Square and the historic peninsula are quite safe places.

However, besides the tourist, this area is always crowded. Especially, on weekends the tourists and locals are everywhere and it is providing the optimal environment for thieves and frauds. You may want to keep your cell phone and purse inside the pocket of your jacket. 

Also, always keep your bag closed tightly. Try not to wear a backpack but if you are wearing it doesn’t leave your valuable objects in the front pocket of the bag.

İsmail Çamönü

Hi! I am Ismail. I am a digital nomad from Turkey. I lived in many cities around Turkey during my life and I am passionate about traveling. At Nomad's Guide to Turkey, I share travel tips for nomads, expats, and tourists who would like to visit Turkey.

You may also like...