Pictures of the floating world

Top 12 landmarks of Ottoman Istanbul

Explore the magnificent Ottoman past of Turkiye!

By Anna Purpurpurpur

Istanbul Istanbul is a vibrant and modern city sitting between Europe and Asia. As well as the geographical location, its history is also divided into two big pieces: Roman and Byzantine Empires (330 – 1453) and Ottoman Empire (1453 – 1922). I decided to dedicate an article to each part of its history, and below you’ll learn about the landmarks that appeared after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople!

1. Topkapi Palace

Topkapi palace is a gem of the Ottoman architecture where you can wander all day (if you don’t mind the crowds). Some practical things first: a queue outside the Imperial Gates is the queue through the security metal frames. Once you pass it, you find yourself in the first courtyard,  where there are Hagia Irene, Topkapi palace ticket office, restaurant and shops. Only after  that do you actually go to the palace entrance (gates of Salutation), and the queue here is much less frightening. You’ll need a ticket for the general admission and an extra ticket if you want to visit Harem as well which I highly recommend because this is a true marvel of the palace! 

It was the main Ottoman residence from 1460s-1470s till 1856 when the residence moved to Dolmabahçe Palace (see below). You will learn here about everything on how life, education and politics took place at that time: the everyday life of sultan, his mother Valide Sultan (Queen Mother who would moved from Old Place in Bayezid District to Topkapi and held the highest position in Harem ), his wifes and concubines, about the social hierarchy including the white and black eunuchs and even the four different kitchens of the palace.

Don’t miss the Harem (the word comes from the ‘forbidden’), the Divan where the imperial council sat, the Imperial Hall (built in 1585 and used as a ceremonial hall), the Privy chamber of Sultan Murad III, the Circumcision Room, the collection of the historical and religious objects and of course the nice view from the Palace! 

Make sure you enter the palace at the right time: queues are enormous at some points of the day and literally non existing at others. In my experience, the queues are the shortest early in the morning and around 1-2pm but this obviously may vary. To skip some parts of the queues you can visit the palace with a guided tour which has a fast track through the security line (but if you’re lucky, you still get through faster on your own on the right time than with a guided tour on a peak hour). 

Here’s my collection of the ceramic tiles from the Topkapi palace, which one do you like the most?

2. Gülhane Park

Gülhane Park is a lovely public park adjacent to Topkapi palace. Its name is very poetical and is translated as a Rose house. It’s one of the oldest parks of the city where you can stroll, walk on the bridges upon the small lakes, have a coffee and have a nice view over the north bank of Istanbul. It also has the oldest monument of Istanbul: the Column of the Goths dating to the 3BC!

This park used to have a small zoo too but it was moved to Ankara. The Tulip Festival takes place here nowadays in spring now! 

3.  Dolmabahçe Palace

Dolmabahçe Palace, meaning ‘‘the Filled Garden’, was the main residence of the Ottomans since they left Topkapi palace in 1856. The influence of the Ottoman architecture is obvious however the palace is mostly built in Western Neoclassical, Baroque and Rococo styles. It’s definitely worth visiting as it was built to impress (just imagine 14 tons of gold used for decoration of the ceiling!) although don’t expect too much from the interiors if you’ve already seen quite a few European palaces.

It’s been home to the last six sultans of the Ottoman empire and is still the largest palace of Turkiye! Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the first president of the country, also occasionally  occupied the palace and died there in 1938.

Once you enter through the magnificent Treasure gates with a clocktower nearby, you cross the garden to get to the palace itself. Dolmabahçe Palace is divided into the Official part acting as the State palace rooms, the Harem and the area now occupied by the Painting Museum. I was mostly impressed by the Crystal staircase and the chandeliers (that was a real gem), Grand Ceremonial Hall and the gates of the palace opening right onto the Bosphorus as if this was a fairytale! Unfortunately, the photography is limited inside so I can show you just bits of it.

You can also walk around the gardens, meet some chicks, peacocks and other birds in the aviary commissioned by Sultan Mehmed Resad V (1909-1918), observe the koi in the fountains and have a snack in the local cafe! Dolmabahċe Mosque is located near the entrance to the palace too. 

4. Blue Mosque

Although the Blue Mosque is under reconstruction, it’s still worth visiting! Just a few min walk from the Hagia Sophia, the Sultanahmet Mosque (that’s the real name of the site) built in 1609 and 1616 during the rule of sultan Ahmed I, known for its affection for religion. It’s been nicknamed Blue by the foreigners because of the gorgeous hand-painted Iznik ceramic tiles with fruit trees, cypresses and flowers made in the colours of blue and green.

Another notable feature of the mosque is 6 minarets. Traditionally there are 4 of them, and the Blue mosque is the first of two mosques in Istanbul to have 6! At the same time as it was being built the number of minarets in the Great Mosque of Mecca was commissioned to be increased up to 7.

The Blue Mosque is enlisted as a UNESCO World Heritage Site as well.

5. Grand Bazaar

Grand Bazaar is one of the oldest functioning covered markets in the world: its construction started in the mid-15th century! Hundreds of identically built stalls, or dolap, sell spices, cloths, lamps, teas and spices, ceramics and so many more – be sure not to get lost!

Especially taking into a view thaa a bazaar like this is definitely chaotic and crowded, once it’s been estimated to be one of the most visiting landmarks of the world! Don’t feel obliged to buy things too, you can likely find similar items in the other shops too. 

6. Süleymaniye mosque

The Mosque of Suleyman Magnificent, or Süleymaniye mosque, is one of the most beautiful places you can visit in Istanbul. You’ll be absolutely dazzled by the gorgeous interior realised by Sinan the Architect (the main dome is 53 metres high) which is considered one of the finest examples of the Ottoman heritage. It dates back to the mid-16th century and was commissioned by Suleiman the Magnificent.

You can find his tomb and the tomb of his wife Roxelana (Hurrem Sultan) nearby in the courtyard as well as other notable people of the Ottoman empire. The tombs are really beautiful octagonal buildings erected in colourful stones and with triple windows on the sides.

Süleymaniye mosque is located on the hill above the Kantarcılar district – so you’ll get some beautiful views over the city too! 

7. Mausoleum of Ahmed I

Another important landmark and UNESCO world heritage site is located close to the Blue Mosque: it’s the Tomb of Ahmed I (he commissioned the Blue Mosque, changed the Ottoman succession system and wrote poems under the pseudonym ‘Bahti’) erected in 1617-1619 by Sultan Osman II. In total there are 36 tombs including the tomb of Ahmed I’s wife Kösem Sultan who played an important role in Ottoman history.

It’s a stunning building from the visual point of view designed by the same architect who worked on the Blue mosque: it has a beautifully decorated dome, iznik tiles all around. Meticulously crafted lamps. On the other hand, it’s very moving because you see multiple tombs of small kids there too, and if you dig deeper, you’ll discover the vast net of political intrigues and murders behind all the burial there.

8. Hurrem Sultan Hamami

Hurrem Sultan Hamam is the historical functioning hammam located between the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia dating to 1556. Hurrem Sultan, or Roxelana, the wife of Suleyman the Magnificent, has requested its construction, and Sinan the Architect (the designing star of the era, you’ve seen this name above) designed the very innovative hammam where the areas of women (on the south) and men (on the south) are mirroring each other and are located on one axis. 

The Hurrem Sultan Hammam underwent a massive restoration in 2008 carried by Kocaeli University Faculty of Architecture, and it reopened as a fully functioning hammam in 2011. First you enter into the large hall where the changing rooms are, pass the cold room and reach the hot room under a large dome with small additional sections coming to the sides. In the centre there is a huge octagonal marble stone on the side of which you lay down while the treatment is going on. To give you an insight of how it looks inside I’m using an official photo below (you confined it and more others on the ham instagram page).

I went there for a treatment called Keyf-i Hamam.First my therapist Rabia escorted me to the hot area, placed me near one of the marble basins with a metallic bowl, splashed me over warm water and let me rest there for 10 mins. Then a scrub with a kese mitt and redbud face and body clay mask followed. After that, I took a place on the octagonal marble platform to enjoy the full body traditional aromatic foam massage. To create foam, a therapist puts a mesh into a soapy water, swings it a few times, air enters the sack and it gets filled with bubbles.  After a quick wash I was escorted to the entrance area to enjoy my glass of pomegranate juice, tea and Turkish delights.

If you’re planning to visit a Turkish bath like mine, make sure you’re comfortable being naked around other women (not only the therapist, but other customers). Read about my Japanese onsen experience too!

9. Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia is undoubtedly the main landmark of Istanbul. It was built as an enormous Christian church, and it took almost two centuries, from 360 to 537 AD, to get its modern look because of the fire events: what we see today is the third church built on this site. For almost a thousand years it remained the largest cathedral in the world – it was called Magna Ecclesia, or the Great Church! Upon the Ottoman conquest, it was converted to a mosque – this fate touched the majority of Christian religious buildings.

Turkiye Istanbul Constantinople
Turkiye Istanbul Constantinople

In 1935 it became a museum and just a few years ago it was decided by the government to convert it back to a mosque. The interior reflects the complex history of the building: the huge medallions with Islamic inscriptions are placed near the Byzantine mosaics and six-winged angels. 

Usually the queue at the entrance is quite huge (this happens because of the security control taking place). If you’re visiting with a tour or private licensed guide, you can skip part of the queue. We however went to Hagia Sophia in the evening when there was literally almost no one, compared to the daytime, and had the opportunity to explore it quietly. The only downside of visiting in the evening was darkened stained glass (but luckily I saw them during my previous visit to Turkiye in the daylight).

10. Little Hagia Sofia Mosque

What we now know as the Little Hagia Sofia Mosque (Küçük Ayasofya Camii), was once the Byzantine Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus built around the 530s during the rule of Emperor Justinian and was converted into a mosque in the beginning of the 16th century.

It’s still one of the most important buildings of the early Byzantine empire, and now it’s a gorgeous and quiet mosque with blue tiles and blueish carpet protected by UNESCO. You can have tea in a cafe nearby (the staff is super nice there!) and adore the countless cats running around.

11. Egyptian Bazaar

Egyptian Bazaar, also known as a Spice bazaar, is younger (dating back to 1660s) and smaller than the Grand Bazaar located nearby. Nevertheless, it was by far my favourite! You can find all sorts of spices, sweets, teas, pottery there – and it’s a nice visual and olfactory experience as well. It has a similar structure being a covered market with arcades but as it’s less vast, you don’t feel overwhelmed by the things going on around. 

Read about the Dubai souks too in my blog about the UAE!

12. Ortaköy Mosque

Ortaköy Mosque dates back to the mid-19th century and was commissioned by Ottoman sultan Abdülmecid I to be built on the site of a smaller old mosque. The current mosque is quite small but it’s lavishly decorated and gives an impression of a lightweight and weightless building.

By the way, Ortakoy is a nice area of Istanbul famous for its shops, kumpir, loaded jack potato street food snacks, and the proximity to the Bosphorus Bridge.

Where to stay in Istanbul with Ottoman vibe?

We stayed in Hagia Sofia Mansions (Curio collection, Hilton) in the very heart of historical Istanbul. You even change your taxi for a buggy to get to the reception and rooms! This is also the place where you can swim in cistern spa (please check my blog about Constantinople for more info).

This is the hotel where you’ll get the best Ottoman vibes and see the beauty of Hagia Sofia for breakfast. I really loved the details of our room and especially the bathroom and the lanterns: if you compare them to the Hurrem Sultan hammam, you’ll see that they’re very correctly in line with the historical luxurious life of the past.

You might also like:

Not Istanbul, Constantinople

Hope you liked my blog!

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