A glorious former basilica consecrated to Holy Wisdom, the Hagia Sophia is a feast for the eyes. The central dome, representing the vault of Heaven, is 31 metres in diameter and hangs 55 metres above the ground. Its entire weight is borne by four immense pillars, leaving a remarkable airiness and lightness in the central space.
Just a few hundred metres to the west stands one of the most beautiful mosques in the world, the Sultan Ahmed Mosque. Named for the sultan who commanded it in the early 17th century, it incarnates the zenith of the Ottoman Empire. Though smaller than the Hagia Sophia, it is much more elegant, with its volumes created by a succession of domes. The porcelain tiles on the walls have given it its most common name: the Blue Mosque.
Nearby, on the site of the old Hippodrome of Constantinople, the Sultanahmet Meydanı (Sultan Ahmed Square) or Atmeydanı (Horse Square) today offers some of the most beautiful views of the city.
The other great monument of the old city is Topkapı Palace, the famous seraglio from which the sultans ruled the empire. The palace, a grand complex of courtyards and buildings, can be visited, as can the numerous museums it houses and a part of the former harem.
The Istanbul Archeology Museums house more than a million artifacts, including the famous Alexander Sarcophagus and the Sarcophagus of the Mourning Women.
But there are still more treasures to be seen in the old city. The Cisterns of Yerebatan, built during the reign of Constantine the Great, are well worth visiting.
Make time to see the famous double walls that protected Constantinople for centuries. The best place to visit is the spot where the fortifications meet the Sea of Marmara, at the Castle of the Seven Towers. From there, you can explore the walls and their gates as far as the ruins of the palace of Constantine, on the Golden Horn.
On the other side of the Golden Horn is the district of Galata, with the 68m tower of the same name offering a unique view of Istanbul. After securing major commercial treaties with the Byzantine Empire in the 1200s, the Genoese fortified the entire area. The Galata Tower is what remains.
The Palace of Dolmabahçe alone is worth leaving the old city for the other side of the Golden Horn. Built on the north shore of the Bosphorus in 1855, it was the home of Sultan Abdülmacid I, who intended it to play a role similar to the court of Versailles. Mustafa Kemal died here, and all the clocks were stopped to show the time of his last breath. A tour shows a good proportion of the 285 rooms of the palace.
Don’t miss the Grand Bazaar, a labyrinth of more than 4,000 shops. This fascinating, picturesque commercial centre, selling crafts and objets d’art from every region in the country, will nearly make you forget where you come from and what century you live in.
Where on earth
Istanbul remains Turkey’s largest city, with a vast population of more than 13 million people – a lot for a country of 75 million, most of whom work in agriculture. Istanbul is also Turkey’s main seaport and its chief cultural centre. It occupies an exceptional site astride the Golden Horn, a small inlet on the European side of the Bosphorus, where it enters the Sea of Marmara. Straddling Europe and Asia, this city enjoys a hot Mediterranean climate in summer, but in winter it is influenced by the cold continental climate of the Black Sea.