Things to see in Istanbul

Tourist information

Turizm Danisma Burosu
Sultanahmet Meydani
Tel: (0212) 518 8754/1802.
www.istanbul.gov.tr
Opening hours: Mon-Fri 0900-1700, Sat 0900-1300.

Ayasofya (Hagia Sophia)

When the Christian Emperor Justinian inaugurated Hagia Sophia, meaning Church of Divine Wisdom, in the year AD 537, it was the most impressive building in the world and remained the crowning achievement of the Byzantine Empire for over a millennium. In the 15th century, Mehmet the Conqueror converted it from a Christian church to a mosque, adding the minarets, tombs and fountains. Turkey became a secular republic in 1923 and Hagia Sophia was established as a museum 12 years later, with many of its Byzantine mosaics revealed from underneath layers of Ottoman plaster.

Designed to represent the heavens, visitors marvel at the huge 56m (183ft) high dome. Other highlights include Byzantine mosaics and huge Ottoman circular shields containing calligraphy of Koranic verses.

Opening Times: Tues-Sun 0900-1700 (winter); Tues-Sun 0900-1900 (summer).
Admission Fees: Yes
Disabled Access: Yes
Unesco: Yes
Address: Sultanahmet, Turkey
Telephone: (0212) 522 1750/0989.
Kapali Çarşisi (Grand Bazaar)

The famous and vast bazaar is the best known of Istanbul's markets. It was instated shortly after the 1493 Conquest and contained the slave market, as well as the hans, or caravanserais of old, where Silk Road traders could rest themselves and their camels, as well as sell their goods. While the ornate ceilings and labyrinth-like layout still hark back to the past, these days the vast number of stalls (more than 4,000 of them, in over 60 streets) sell mainly tourist-friendly goods and plasma TV screens belie any sense of a timeless atmosphere. The complex also contains two mosques, money change offices, a police station, cafés and an information point. Haggling is essential at most stalls.

Opening Times: Mon-Sat 0900-1900.
Admission Fees: No
Disabled Access: Yes
Unesco: Yes
Address: Beyazit , Istanbul, Turkey
Misir Çarşisi (Egyptian or Spice Market)

This L-shaped market, facing the Golden Horn, was built in the 17th century as an extension to Yeni Camii (New Mosque), and financed by the money paid as duty on Egyptian goods. Originally famed for its exotic spices and oils from the Orient, these days it also sells dried fruits, caviar and Turkish delight, as well as a plethora of souvenirs at prices generally lower than the Grand Bazaar. Its surrounding streets are a hub of commercial activity, with local craftspeople, traders and a great selection of cheeses and olives.

Opening Times: Mon-Sat 0800-1900.
Admission Fees: No
Disabled Access: Yes
Unesco: Yes
Address: Eminönü , Istanbul, Turkey
Sultanahmet Camii (Blue Mosque)

With its cascade of opulent domes and slender, balconied minarets soaring towards the sky, Istanbul's Blue Mosque is one of the city's most striking images.

The Blue Mosque was built during the reign of Sultan Ahmet I (1603-1617), as Islam's answer to Haghia Sophia, and remains the symbol and centre of religious demonstrations and Istanbul's only mosque with six minarets. Blue Iznik tiles dominate the interior, and blue light shines through more than 250 windows. The interior is stunning, from the vast central dome designed to lift all eyes heavenward to the latticework-covered Imperial Loge and the mihrab (prayer niche) containing a piece of sacred black stone from Mecca.

Hundreds of Muslims still use the mosque for daily prayer and worship. Visitors of all faiths who are modestly dressed may enter the Blue Mosque; special slippers and head and shoulder coverings are distributed at the entrance.

After dusk during summer, there is a Son et Lumière (sounds and lights) show with Turkish, English, French and German on different nights. The Imperial Pavilion also contains the state-run Vakiflar Carpet Museum with Usak, Bergama and Konya samples, dating between the 16th and 19th centuries.

Opening Times: Daily 24 hours, except during some prayer times.
Admission Fees: Yes
Disabled Access: Yes
Unesco: Yes
Address: Meydani 21, Sultanahmet, Istanbul, Turkey
Telephone: (0212) 485 0776.
Topkapi Palace (Topkapi Sarayi)

Topkapi Palace was created on the orders of Mehmed II, the 23-year-old sultan who captured the Roman city of Constantinople in 1453 and made it the capital of his mighty Ottoman empire, under the new name of Istanbul. The palace was constructed between 1459 and 1478 and rapidly grew to become a jumbled complex of elaborate living quarters and administrative offices.

The layout of the palace features a series of interconnected courtyards which progress inwards, from the first, which was open to all citizens, through to the fourth, where the sultans had their gardens and private living area.

Today visitors can enter the gardens and courtyards, and take a guided tour of the harem to gain an impression of the extravagant lifestyle of the rulers of one of the world's greatest empires. View the glittering jewels of the original treasury (including the Topkapi dagger, and the gold-plated throne of Murat III), the armoury, silk ceremonial robes, Chinese ceramics and the collection of manuscripts, all convey the opulence of the Ottoman Empire at its zenith.

Near the Imperial Gate is Haghia Eirene Museum, venue for concerts during the International Istanbul music festival. The Harem, comprising several dozen ornate rooms which once housed up to 300 concubines, is only open to guided tours and requires a separate ticket (and separate queue).

Opening Times: Wed-Monday 0900-1700.
Admission Fees: Yes
Disabled Access: Yes
Unesco: Yes
Address: Babihümayun Caddesi, Sultanahmet , Istanbul, Turkey
Telephone: (0212) 512 0480.
Galata Kulesi (Galata Tower)

The balcony at the top of Galata Tower has an unforgettable view of the city. Built in 1348 by the Genoese as part of their fortifications, this distinctive 62m (205ft) tower with conical roof is visible from most of Istanbul. It was converted to cater for tourism and has a lift, a nightclub and restaurant on the top floors with a tourist-oriented cabaret that includes belly dancing. On a clear day, the view is spectacular and it is possible to see the main monuments of Istanbul and even the Princes' Islands. It's a good way for visitors to get a feel of the surroundings and there are several charming tea gardens at the foot.

Opening Times: Daily 0900-2000.
Admission Fees: Yes
Disabled Access: Yes
Unesco: No
Address: Büyük Hendek Sokak, Tünel, Istanbul, Turkey
Telephone: (0212) 293 8180.
Süleymaniye Mosque

Although fewer tourists make it here than to the Blue Mosque, this Istanbul mosque commissioned by Sultan Sülemaniye I ('the Magnificent') is even grander and more peaceful, and one of the finest creations by Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan. The huge dome and pencil-slim minarets from each corner of the courtyard are an exquisite essay in symmetry and elegance. Built in the 1550s, the site also contains the tombs of Sinan, Sultan Süleyman I and his wife Roxelana decorated with intricate tiles, the original apartments of the mosque astronomer, charitable foundations, caravanserai and fountain, all set around a tranquil courtyard. There are several outdoor tea-houses in a row behind the mosque in what was formerly known as 'Addict's Alley'.

Opening Times: Daily 0930-1730.
Admission Fees: No.
Disabled Access: Yes
Unesco: Yes
Address: Siddik Sami Omar Caddesi, Süleymaniye, Istanbul, Turkey
Telephone: (0212) 514 0139.
Yerebatan Sarayi (Basilica Cistern)

Sometimes referred to as the Sunken Palace, Istanbul's Basilica Cistern was the reservoir for water required for the Byzantine Great Palace, and is thought to date back to AD532. This huge atmospheric structure, measuring 140m (460ft) by 70m (230ft), still contains a few feet of water, over which wooden walkways have been constructed. Many of the 335 columns supporting the cathedral-like ceiling have been recycled from pre-Christian temples - such as the Medusa heads that are used as column bases, pilfered from the Temple of Apollo in Didyma (Didim). Rather cheesy piped music spoils the atmosphere to some extent. The cistern was used as a film set for the James Bond film, From Russia With Love (1963).

Opening Times: Daily 0900-2000.
Admission Fees: Yes
Disabled Access: No
Unesco: Yes
Address: Yerebatan Caddesi, Sultanahmet, Istanbul, Turkey
Telephone: (0212) 522 1259.
Istanbul Museum of Modern Art

Located in a restored old waterfront warehouse and opened in 2004, the huge Istanbul Modern has a fine collection of contemporary arts from Turkey and around the world. Specialising in painting and photography, with a cinema screening world films in the basement, the gallery hosts exhibitions that include 20th-century home-grown talent to try to encourage Turkish art. The entire venue is fresh, spacious and well laid-out, with a fine restaurant/café on the ground floor overlooking the Bosphorus.

Opening Times: Tues-Sun 1000-1800, Thurs 1000-2000.
Admission Fees: Yes (except for Thursdays)
Disabled Access: Yes
Unesco: No
Address: Meclis-i Mebusan Caddesi, Liman İşletmeleri Sahası Antrepo 4, Karaköy, Turkey
Telephone: (0212) 334 7300.
Türk ve Eserleri Müzesi (Turkish and Islamic Art Museum)

Originally the 16th-century palace of Süleyman the Magnificent's most able Grand Vizier, Ibrahim Pasha, this Istanbul museum contains more than 40,000 items dating from between the seventh to the 19th century. Its famous carpet display contains Turkish carpets depicting Holbein paintings and fragments of 13th-century Selçuk rugs. Further highlights include Ottoman Koran cases and stands, illuminated manuscripts and tiles, and the basement contains an exhibition of the evolution of the Turkish house - from nomadic tents to 19th-century palaces.

Opening Times: Tues-Sun 0900-1630.
Admission Fees: Yes
Disabled Access: Yes
Unesco: No
Address: Meydani 46, Sultanahmet, Istanbul, Turkey
Telephone: (0212) 518 1805.
Edited by Tina Banerjee
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