Start in the heart of Old Istanbul at Topkapı Palace, the royal residence where sultans of the Ottoman Empire lived for about 400 years. On a promontory overlooking the Golden Horn and the Sea of Marmara, Topkapı Palace was once the sprawling administrative center for 26 Ottoman Sultans, but also their home, a place of opulence and intrigue until the mid-19th century. Here lived poetic sultans like Suleiman I, who flouted tradition to marry his artful concubine, and erratic rulers like Ibrahim the mad, who nearly caused the empire’s collapse.
The artifacts of their reign can be found within the 173-acre complex’s four courtyards, each leading into the next, with the fourth exclusively sequestering the royal family. Topkapı functioned as a city within a city, where about 4,000 residents drifted about its bakeries, mosques, hospital, state mint, and armories.
Today, the 15th- and 16th-century architecture still shines. Among the hundreds of chambers are collections of porcelain, weapons, armor, Ottoman miniatures, murals and manuscripts. You could spend a day here, but if you’re short on time, be sure to explore the harem, which requires separate admission, and the imperial treasury. The sultan’s mother, wives, children, concubines and servants lived in the harem, in intricately painted chambers, of which only a few remain open to the public. In the treasury, gaze upon gilded relics made for the palace, including the Topkapı dagger—with large orbs of emeralds and a sheath of gold, a coat of mail overlaid with jewels, and an ebony and ivory throne.
(Topkapı Sarayi, Sultanahmet; tel. 90-212-512-0480; www.topkapipalace.com.)
The Blue Mosque
A short walk from Topkapı is the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, which tourists rnknow as the Blue Mosque for its thousands of blue Iznik tiles blanketingrn the interior. With the largest courtyard of all Ottoman mosques and flanked by six slender minarets, it’s a sight to behold, especially when floodlit at night. Inside, a tremendous chandelier stretching like a starry sky illuminates the prayer area of red carpet, floral-patterned frescoes and religious inscriptions. Construction began in 1609 at the behest of Sultan Ahmet I, who aimed to outshine other mosques in Constantinople and constructed it across from the Hagia Sophia.
The best time to visit the Blue Mosque is morning. Visitors are not permitted during prayers and must remove shoes before entering.
(The Blue Mosque, Sultanahmet Square; tel. 90-212-518-1319.)
Founded in the mid-15th century, the kapalıçarşı, or covered market known as the Grand Bazaar, is a labyrinth of over a thousand shops rnoffering jewelry, elaborate Turkish carpets and ceramics, leather, spices, souvenirs, and other untold wares. It’s a buzzing collection of storefronts, decked with alabaster ornaments, lighted lanterns, strings of gold necklaces and lush colorful fabrics.
Many shops lining the 60 or so covered streets are arranged by type, and while it would seem easy to get lost, remember Kalpakçilarbasi, the thoroughfare of jewelry sellers, is the main street. Hundreds of thousands of locals and tourists visit daily, so you’ll need to keep alert and be prepared to bargain. If you merely glance in the direction of many vendors, they will call out to you or even follow you a few paces. The Grand Bazaar is a place to peruse countless diversions and rnexotic curiosities for hours, making it an essential stop on any journey to Istanbul.
(Kalpakçılar Cad. Sorguçlu Han. No. 22 Kapalıçarşı Beyazıt; tel. rn90-212-519-1248; www.kapalicarsi.org.tr.)
Sometimes it’s enough to linger in a lively street of taverns, shoulder to shoulder with strangers, to take in the tenor of a city. A knot of slender backstreets in the Beyoğlu district, Asmalımescit is brimming with revelers mingling beneath the neon signs and hanging lights of outdoor cafés. Named after a single road situated between the busier Istiklal and Meşrutiyet streets, the neighborhood was once a hamlet of artists and designers before its bar-scene gentrification. Asmalımescit now sparkles in every nook, while maintaining its façades of long ago.
Stick around Asmalımescit, Sofyalı and Şehbender streets, where you’ll stumble upon Babylon, an intimate live music venue inaugurated in 1999 that hosts everything from jazz and Turkish melodies to indie pop, hip hop and funk, or boîtes like Otto, popular for Mojitos and a late-night DJ masterminding electro beats. Istiklal Street is car-free and full of rnpeople wading through art installations, record shops and local vendors. The bars are plentiful, and Asmalımescit is worth the trip, if only to roister with Istanbul’s chic younger crowd.