The Hagia Sophia isn’t just the best-known tourist attraction in Istanbul, or one of Europe’s most cherished landmarks… it’s one of the greatest buildings in human history. This church, nearly 1500 years in age, was once the center of Byzantine faith, later reborn as the predominant mosque of the Ottoman Empire, and today has found a new purpose as one of the world’s most popular museums.
Were we excited to visit the Hagia Sophia? It’s just one of the most legendary buildings on the planet. The largest church in the world for a thousand years. The scene of some of history’s most decisive moments. A breathtaking architectural achievement on a scale unthinkable for its day. Yes, I suppose it’s fair to say that we were excited.
Set atop a hill in Gülhane Park, just meters from Topkapı Palace, the Archaeology Museum Complex boasts one of the world’s most stunning collections of ancient artifacts. At the height of its power, the Ottoman Empire stretched across major sections of Europe, Asia and Africa, so it should come as no surprise that countless treasures have found their way to Istanbul.
An arena nearly half a kilometer long, packed with 100,000 howling fans. The emperor seated with his family in the imperial loge, disinterestedly following the proceedings. Hundreds of golden statues, columns, monuments and treasures decorating the track. And the thunderous sound of 32 horses, galloping under the whip’s cruel crack. Oh, to experience the Hippodrome during Constantinople’s Golden Age!
Popularly known as the Blue Mosque thanks to the color of the Iznik tiles lining its walls, the Sultan Ahmed Mosque dominates Istanbul’s skyline with six minarets. Completed in 1616, the mosque is still used for worship, but due to its grandeur and location, has become a popular tourist attraction.
The city is far easier to walk than I’d feared, and public transportation is cheap, quick and efficient (if crowded). Most importantly, most of the major sights are packed closely together in or near the historic center. On one of our first days, we walked along the tram line from Sultanhamet Square (next to the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia) to Beyazit: a short, straight walk during which we saw one historic treasure after the other.
Not much remains of the Great Palace of Constantinople, built in 330 AD and home to Byzantine emperors for over 800 years. After taking the city in 1453, the Ottomans reduced the palace to rubble and eventually erected the Blue Mosque on top of it. But not all was lost. Excavations in the 1920s uncovered some brilliant mosaic patterns which had once decorated the palace’s floors and walls. And these have been preserved in the Great Palace Mosaic Museum.
Hundreds of underground cisterns lurk beneath the surface of Istanbul, the largest of which is the Yerebatan Sarnıçı, or the Sunken Cistern. Built by Constantine the Great in the 4th century to provide water to his palace, it’s survived the ages in remarkable form.