Whole Istanbul is covered with beautiful sites to explore but Sultanahmet is where you’ll be rightly headed as a first time visitor. Gorge yourself on the grand architecture of Byzantium and the Ottomans.
Below are my top choices so you won’t only go to the Hagia Sophia and then end up lost at the Grand Bazaar. I kept it tight and manageable for a 2 day visit and there are links throughout the text to each monument’s Wikipedia page so you can find everything easily and get more information if you want to.
Hagia Sophia: Once the most magnificent church later turnt mosque of the world, now a museum it still holds an incredible beauty unreached even of the surrounded architecture. Get close to it and you can feel this buildings very old age. It’s still a mystery how the architects 1500 years ago made the dome so perfect. Must-do: stick your thumb into the wishing column inside the main building and hope for the best.
Basilica Cistern (Yerebatan Sarayi which means sunken palace in Turkish): The largest of Istanbuls ancient cisterns built by the Romans in late antiquity which you will easily notice once you take step into this truly mystic space beneath the ground. There is still some water inside full with alive fishes. They are said to be native even from Roman times on when the fishes had been put in to ensure water safety as the supply came a long way via aqueduct from the Belgrade forests. Watch out: the Medusa column heads from the Roman era.
Topkapi Palace: On the most exquisite location of the Sultanahmet peninsula overlooking Golden Horn and Bosphorus sits the vast former residence of the Ottomans. A conglomerate of several buildings represents the architectural style of the first 400 years of the Ottoman reign. The Topkapi Palace is built upon much older structures though not on its predecessor The Great Imperial Palace by the Byzantines which stood on another place very near. Hold your eyes open for those ancient stonework peeking out all around.
This site is crowded with tourists but the queues don’t take long. Best view: across the Bosphorus from the Terrace of the Treasury reached through the third courtyard.
Hippodrome: From the Palace you can walk to the Hippodrome. There is no structures to be seen from this ancient horse race track of Byzantium. But I find it very interesting how one still can detect its shape through the arrangement of current buildings. Also there are some remarkably interesting monuments standing in the middle: the 2500 years old Serpent Column, part of a trophy taken from Delphi by Constantine the Great and brought to Istanbul; the Obelisk of Thutmose III brought from Egypt, the Walled Obelisk built in the 10th century and the German Fountain.
Culinary wise the plenty restaurants at this spot don’t offer anything mention worthy but you can sit down and sip some tea for refreshment.
After these architectural heavy weights maybe you’re in for a little back alley exploring. Don’t wait for your next visit to discover the old districts of Sultanahmet. Truly wonderful old wood houses which must once belonged to fairly rich people and steep cobble stone paths are waiting to be explored almost tourist free even during the main season. When you walk through the picturesque districts starting behind the hippodrome, reaching from the coast below up to Yeniçeriler Caddesi you’ll notice the bad state of these houses built in the late Ottoman period. These are real neighborhoods and in many of them so called gypsies took up residence until the buildings collapse eventually or some suspicious fire breaks out and the ground opens up for speculators.
A little deeper in, this quarter will bring a slight change to the setting as now the charming old buildings will not be occupied privately anymore. Leather vendors and other trades have set up their warehouses and workshops here. It’s nice to catch the aura of the working people here.
Now after this more leisurely stroll, head straight to The Grand Bazaar (Kapaliçarși) and mark off the next big must see on the list.
Lay your path so that you pass the Cemberlitaş monument on the Yeniçeriler Caddesi road. This is such an important monument and still gets overseen easily. The column there got constructed on the orders of Constantine the Great in 330 and commemorates the declaration of Istanbul then called Byzantium as the new capital of the Roman Empire.
From the ancient Grand Bazaar very less original structure has been preserved due to various fires this space had to suffer throughout the centuries. I admit to never been actually inside it though I looked at its exterior and the non roofed book section as I get wary easily in touristic bazaars. But I do think that if you haven’t been that much in Middle Eastern regions before, visiting this bazaar is a great opportunity. Catch a glimpse of their former importance and buy some overpriced souvenirs. Bazaar people seem annoying at first but if you take your time, you see they truly love their job and also meeting all kind of persons from the world. I think you’ll make nice conversations, just don’t buy any carpets if you don’t want to.
Which parts to have a look: Everything with precious metals, the gold is just splendid. At the non covered parts are also workshops located like the ones of Soy Turkiye where they produce high quality copper pots, preserving an old tradition of the Middle East.
Where to eat
There is food everywhere in Sultanahmet though like in any touristy area nothing outstandingly noteworthy. At most hold yourself to the spots where the locals eat inside the bazaar. For example I got Gaziantep Burç Ocakbaşi recommended for some tasty stuff. Outside it’s nice to sit down where they serve traditional baklava and replenish with black tea, even in summer.
The exception: A very interesting experience offers balik ekmek (fish and bread) offered from towed boats at the waterside (coming from the bazaar left of Galata bridge). Ignore the fact that the fish is actually imported. It’s fun to grab a bite of it in between bread for a few TL and sit down right there at the hustle bustle mixed with other tourists and locals alike. Don’t skip on the pickled vegetables offered from tablets by guys wearing fez.
The Valens Aqueduct. Parts of it are still standing and are not particularly touristy destinations. You can have a tea beneath its ancient arches together with Turkish locals.
Sokollu Mehmed Pasha Mosque built by the famous Ottoman architect Sinan on a steep slope.