If this is your first time to Istanbul, you’ll be spending most of your time in this area of town. Simply because it is home to most of the unmissable and famous sights. The historical part of Istanbul is the area south of the Golden Horn and consists of boroughs such as Beyazıt, Eminönü, Fatih, Kumkapı, Sirkeci, Süleymaniye, Sultanahmet, and Tahtakale. Below you find an overview of the ones you may (unknowingly) wander around in as a tourist.
Sultanahmet is by far the most important borough of the historical part of Istanbul. It was the heart of the Byzantine, Constantine and Ottoman empires. Today people still refer to Sultanahmet as the historical heart of Istanbul. It has the highest concentration of tourist attractions, all barely a few minutes away from each other and well within walking distance.
Divan Yolu – the main street with the tramway – is the spine of Sultanahmet, while Sultanahmet Square is the obvious starting point for your tourist excursions. It’s a central location from which the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, Topkapi Place, the Hippodrome and the Basilica Cistern can be reached easily.
If you start walking slightly uphill on Divan Yolu – leaving Sultanahmet Square behind you – you’ll end up in Beyazıt. Upon reaching Beyazıt Square, you can see the Beyazıt Tower and the Beyazıt University which was founded on 30 May 1453, the day after Mehmet II the Conqueror captured Istanbul. Beyazıt Square is also one of the main entrances to the Grand Bazaar. Also worth mentioning in this borough is the book bazaar (Sahaflar Çarşısı) – a charming booksellers courtyard.
The main attraction in this area is the Süleymaniye Mosque. To reach it, from Beyazıt Square walk around the university from the left-hand side until your reach the street of the addicts.
Located completely within the old city walls, Eminönü has always been a crucial settlement for the transportation and trade throughout the history. After the 10th century the Latin colonies, mostly the Genoese, settled in this Byzantine town and built their own piers to trade. During the Ottoman Empire the area kept on playing its role as trade center, and received with the Sirkeci train station some added value.
During the Turkish Republic period the face of the area changed drastically. The buildings in front of the New Mosque (Yeni Camii) and the ticket boxes for crossing the bridge were demolished; some buildings around the Spice Bazaar were cleared out while others were renovated. Although until the late 50s the area’s population kept on growing, today the residential population decreased massively due to the trade and business.
The city ferry line piers (among the Scenic Bosphorus Ferry Cruise dock) and the inner city bus terminal by the sea, the New Mosque, the Spice Bazaar and various shops surrounding those landmarks are the most prominent features of Eminönü.
The most important attraction is the Sirkeci train station – once the final station of the Orient Express. The main street is called Ankara Caddesi and climbs up the hill to Cağaloğlu which used to be the press center.
Also the ferries heading for the Princes’ Islands as well as the car ferries to Harem on the Asian side are located on the seaside part of Sirkeci. Büyük Postane – the building of Istanbul’s postal authorities – is the biggest postal building in Turkey.
Tahtakale is located south-west of the Spice Bazaar and famous for its coffee. Coffee came to Istanbul in 1519 after Selim I the Grim conquered Egypt and Hedjaz. The first kahvehane (café serving only coffee or tea) of Istanbul was opened in 1554 in Tahtakale by two merchants. The first customers were the bureaucrats. In those days kahvehanes were places for the intellectuals and entertainment lovers to socialize, discuss art, and play chess or backgammon. In those days being able to join these gatherings meant being accepted and approved by the community.
Located so close to the port of Eminönü, Tahtakale has always been the center of trade with dozens of shops cramped in its small streets. Before 1980 it was famous for illegal foreign exchange which was banned in those days. After the ban was lifted the area lost that reputation but is still very well-known for the variety and authenticity of the shops located in its narrow and crowded streets.
In Byzantine days its name was Kontoskalion, meaning small pier. In Turkish, Kumkapı means ’sand gate’. It was one of the gates in the old city walls. Up until recent times, the residential population of Kumkapı was mostly Armenian. They still have a community school and several churches there. It is also the seat of the Armenian Patriarchate of Constantinople. Today Kumkapı is famous for its various fish restaurants and taverns located in car free streets – Nevizade style.
The name of this borough comes from Mehmed II the Conqueror. Today it is still accepted as the real Istanbul. It is also one of the most conservative parts of Istanbul.
The most eminent historical values in the area are the Valens Aqueduct (Bozdoğan Kemeri) located on the Atatürk Boulevard, Yedikule Fortress, the Palace of Porphyrogenitus (Tekfur Sarayı), the Fethiye Mosque, the Kariye Mosque, the Gül Mosque (a former Byzantine church), the Fenari Isa Mosque (a complex of two Byzantine churches), the Greek Patriarchate with the Church of St George, the Yavuz Selim Mosque and the famous Fatih Mosque. The latter is the first mosque built within the medresseh (medrese) in Ottoman history.
The tombs of Mehmed II the Conqueror (Fatih Sultan Mehmet), Selim I the Grim (Yavuz Sultan Selim) and some of the leading statesmen of the Ottoman Empire, including Gazi Osman Pasha, are in Fatih.