Built in the 6th century, Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofya) was a Greek Orthodox church for nearly a thousand years. Also commissioned by emperor Justinian I, it was then converted into a mosque in 1453 before being secularised in 1953 as today’s Hagia Sophia Museum. As a result, you’ll find beautiful gold Christian mosaics like the 9th century Virgin and Christ Child interestingly juxtaposed with brilliant Islamic calligraphic roundels suspended from the main dome of the building.
Hagia Sophia is considered the magnum opus of Byzantine architecture. Its innovative architecture, rich history, religious importance and stunning beauty make it a must-visit in Istanbul. Today, the UNESCO World Heritage Site continues to undergo constant restoration works, with the latest major restoration being completed in 2012.
Admission: 72TL (US$13) for adults. Free for children 8 years and below. Opens 9am – 7pm (Apr-Oct), 9am – 5pm (Nov-Mar)
Time needed: 2 hours + 0.5-1 hour queue
Just a 3-minute walk from Hagia Sophia is the Topkapi Palace (Topkapi Sarayı), which was home to generations of Ottoman sultans from the late 15th century to 1856.
Today, the Palace with its promontory location is a museum with breath-taking views of the Sea of Marmara, Bosphorus and Golden Horn. Besides the brilliant architecture, its manicured courtyards and collection of holy relics, weapons, porcelains and art are not to be missed.
If you’ve another hour or two to spare, get tickets (42TL/US$8) to the harem. Wives of sultans were closeted in these lushly tiled rooms wrapped round a gem of a traditional Turkish bath.
The palace is notorious for its snaking queues, so try booking a guided tour if you’re short on time. Modest dress is also required at the Sacred Relics department; cloths are available for loan with staff.
Foodie Tip: At the end of a packed day, settle down for grilled meats and traditional Turkish desserts at Gullhane Sark Sofrasi, a 10-minute walk from the palace.
Admission: 72TL (US$13) for adults. Free for children 8 years and below. Opens 9am – 6.45pm (Apr-Sep), 9am – 4.45pm (Oct-Apr) daily except Tuesdays. Additional fees apply for Harem entry.
Time needed: 3 hours + 1 hour queue
With 2 days to spare
Two days gives you plenty of time to squeeze in more museums and some shopping without having to wander too far from Sultanahmet Square.
Just across Topkapi Palace are the Istanbul Archaeological Museums made up of the Archaeology Museum (Arkeoloji Müzesi), Museum of the Ancient Orient (Eski Şark Eserler Müzesi) and the Museum of Islamic Art located in the Tiled Kiosk (Çinili Köşk).
Showcasing archaeological and artistic treasures from the Topkapi collections, the three museums together house over one million artefacts, artworks, inscriptions and coins covering the history of Istanbul, Turkey and Islam!
Highlights here include the sarcophagus of Alexander the Great which depicts scenes from his life in vivid 3D; the blue-tiled Karaman Mihrab, a semi-circular prayer niche indicating the direction of Mecca; the beautifully restored Tiled Pavilion—one of the city’s oldest Ottoman structures—and the Treaty of Kadesh from 1269 BC, the world’s earliest surviving peace treaty.
Admission: 36TL (US$7) for adults. Free for children 8 years and below. Opens 9am – 6.45pm (Apr-Oct), 9am – 4.45pm (Nov-Mar) daily except Mondays.
Time needed: 4 hours + 0.5 hours queue