Istanbul Ortakoy Mosque Baroque Exterior On Bosphorus With Boats And Bridge

A Guide to Istanbul’s Iconic Architecture

In a city as old as Istanbul, it’s inevitable to focus on comparisons. As the center of two major empires, bookended by tenure as a Greco-Roman outpost and a modern-day metropolis, its architecture spans thousands of years. But before diving into Byzantine-this and Ottoman-that, we’d like to highlight some timeless qualities which bind the city together. Walking is still the best means of transport in the dense Old City, along with ferry travel to outlying districts. Domed landmarks topping gentle hills anchor neighborhoods and keep everyone oriented. The city’s famed skyline and its relationship with the water can’t be pinned down to a single spot; instead they form a constant backdrop to life at the juncture of two continents.

We first fell under the city’s spell several decades ago and have returned for multiple visits in the last year. While the number of sites in Istanbul can seem overwhelming, the city’s layout makes filtering them simple. Travelers with only a day or two can concentrate on the historic core, while those with more time can explore the surrounding enclaves. All sites are marked on our Google map.

Istanbul Blue Mosque Exterior At Night Minarets With Pink Lights As Seen From Arasta Bazaar Pedestrians And Ancient Palace Columns

Sultanahmet:

Topkapı Palace & Hagia IreneFountain of Ahmed IIIHagia Sophia ComplexHürrem Sultan HamamHippodromeBlue MosqueSokollu Mehmet Paşa MosqueLittle Hagia SophiaBasilica Cistern

Çemberlitaş, Grand Bazaar & University Area:

Along the Mese (Column of Constantine, Çemberlitaş Square, Grand Bazaar) – Beyazıt Square (Forum of Theodosius, Mosque of Beyazıt II, Beyazıt Tower) – Aqueduct of ValensŞehzade Mosque Complex

Eminönü:

Süleymaniye Mosque ComplexRüstem Paşa Mosque

Galata & Karaköy:

Galata TowerKılıç Ali Paşa Mosque

Around the Old City Walls:

Walls of TheodosiusTekfur Sarayı Müzesi (Palace of the Porphyrogenitus)Mihrimah Sultan Complex (Edirnekapı)Kariye Mosque & Museum (Chora Church)

Üsküdar:

Mihrimah Sultan Complex (Iskele Camii)Şemsi Ahmet Paşa ComplexNevmekân Sahil Library & Cafe – Atik Valide Complex

Bosphorus

Conclusion & Further Reading

Sultanahmet

Where the Golden Horn meets the Bosphorus and Europe meets Asia lies a triangular, sloping piece of land known as Sultanahmet. For most of its long history, the area has been synonymous with the city itself – whether it was called Byzantium, Constantinople, or Istanbul. Few if any spots pack as many major monuments into such a compact area: a handful of world-famous sites line up one after the next. Over half a dozen lesser-known sites – many of which would dominate most other cities – are no more than a few minutes’ walk away.

Topkapı Palace

Not many places in the world have acquired as much mystique as the Topkapı Palace, the city-within-a-city which formed the core of the Ottoman Empire. Here architecture merged with power and ceremony: each space had guidelines not only about who could enter but how they dressed, moved and spoke. It can take some effort to reconcile the storied “Sublime Porte” with the ritual-less complex of today, but no legend can capture the wealth of details waiting to be discovered. 

Istanbul Topkapi Palace Privy Chamber Of Murad III Designed By Mimar Sinan Elaborate Ottoman Style Tile And Stained Glass
The Salon of Murad III by Mimar Sinan, a highlight of the Harem

Thanks to near-constant additions and alterations from the 15th to the 19th centuries, no single ruler or period dominates Topkapi. Like most Islamic palace complexes, the site progresses from public areas on its edges to increasingly intimate and restricted spaces further in. The first courtyard contains the Byzantine Hagia Irene as well as ticketing facilities. Next comes a park-like area surrounded by the administrative machinery needed for running an empire, from the all-important Divan (Council) Chamber to an entire set of kitchens dedicated to confectionary arts. Past the Gate of Felicity, the third court housed the sultan and his pages. Nowadays the rooms display his many possessions, from the jam-packed Imperial Treasury to the Library of tulip fanatic Ahmed III. At the end of the palace, a series of showstopper pavilions use ornament to create a uniquely Ottoman version of classic Islamic garden rooms. One of them may very well be the world’s most beautiful Circumcision Room.

The fourth court includes the Baghdad Pavilion (left) and a reflecting pool outside the İftariye Pavilion (right).

The palace’s notorious Harem runs along the side of the second and third courts. It’s a bewildering warren of cramped and sometimes dark spaces with momentary eruptions of colorful tiles. Originally, the labyrinthian layout provided extra security. None of the women’s apartments match the opulence of those of the royal men, even though the Sultan’s mother or wife often dominated the empire’s rule. The Harem’s highlight is the Salon of Murad III, one of the few remaining contributions of Mimar Sinan.

Topkapi Palace Harem Exterior Covered In Green Tile Brown Window Shutters Ottoman Architecture
A view of the Harem from the Marble Terrace

Note that visiting hours change according to the time of year, and may not be updated on the website. When we visited in May, crowds thinned between the posted closing time of 4 p.m. and the actual closing time of 6:30. 

Hagia Irene (Aya Eirene)

Hagia Irene Byzantine Church Brick Exterior Istanbul

Hagia Irene is the only building within Topkapı Palace built before the Ottomans. Some think it was completed before Constantine’s death, making it one of the oldest surviving churches anywhere. Like many early Christian structures, it was not dedicated to a specific saint but a holy attribute: Hagia Eirene means Divine Peace. Unlike most churches in Istanbul, this one was never used as a mosque. Stripped down to its bones by looters during the Fourth Crusade and later the Ottoman conquest, the structure served as an armory for most of the following centuries. Scaffolding and tarps obscured much of the interior’s main space when we visited, including the unusual elliptical dome.

Topkapı Palace tickets include entry to the Hagia Irene, or one can purchase separate admission to the church. 

Fountain of Sultan Ahmed III

Fountain of Ahmed III Tulip Style Rococo Architecture Elaborate Structure Next to Hagia Sophia And Topkapi Palace Istanbul

A fantasy of a kiosk stands between Topkapi Palace and the Hagia Sophia ticketing area. It’s one of multiple fountains built by Sultan Ahmed III. In the early 18th century, good rulers were expected to provide fresh water to the public. A sebil was a small stone structure erected over a pool with room for attendants to pass out cups of cool sherbet or water. Thanks to its prestigious location, this one features especially elaborate ornamentation. Like the Ahmed III Library in the Topkapi, it’s an example of the ‘Tulip Period’ when French Rococo and Persian Safavid influences mixed with classical Ottoman styles.

Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofya)

Hagia Sophia Exterior View Of Iconic Byzantine Church Dome And Minarets Istanbul Architecture

In the sixth century, the Hagia Sophia set a standard of architecture which would not be surpassed for almost a millennium. Its colossal dome inspired architects across Europe and Asia. Awe-struck travelers described their first sight of it from the water, rising miraculously into the sky. From the street, it’s a mountain-sized pile of blocks whose organization defies easy understanding. Inside lies an equally wide range of perspectives, although most visitors will not be able to see them all. The church-turned-mosque-turned-museum is now a mosque again, and only Muslims and Turkish citizens are allowed on the ground floor.

Newly-restored galleries upstairs provide views of the main space. Here the full scale of the dome and its ornamentation become even more apparent. Strange six-winged seraphim loom from the corners, while an outsize baby Jesus and Mary can be glimpsed behind the white drape screening them from worshippers below.

In the side galleries, historical curiosities mingle with more mosaics. The tomb of Enrico (“Henry”) Dandolo, the blind octogenarian Doge of Venice who led the Fourth Crusade’s sack of Constantinople, lies near a riveting, delicate Deesis (Christ flanked by the Virgin Mary and St. John the Baptist).

Upper gallery tickets currently cost €25 for non-Turkish citizens. See the website for visiting information.

Hürrem Sultan Hamam

At the junction of the Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, and Hippodrome sits an attractive but comparatively unassuming building. Master architect Mimar Sinan’s 1556 bathhouse was commissioned by Haseki Hürrem Sultan (a.k.a. Roxelana), the controversial wife of Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent. In founding a hamam to enrich the Hagia Sophia, Roxelana left her mark at the very epicenter of the city.

Hurrem Sultan Hammam Sixteenth Century Bath Complex Istanbul Exterior Facade Domes By Sinan Ottoman Architecture

Built onthe site of the ancient Baths of Zeuxippus, the new hamam connected Ottoman life with the city’s past. Unlike most bathhouses, which restricted men and women to different days, this one features two sets of rooms. Sinan arranged them in an unusual configuration with male and female sides mirroring one another.  

After functioning as a prison, warehouse, and a carpet store, the Hürrem Sultan Hamam was finally restored to its original use in the early 2000’s. Today the bathhouse is popular but quite expensive; see the website for information.

Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmet Camii)

Ahmed I and his mosque mark the Ottoman Empire’s peak. In 1609 the young sultan commissioned a monument to rival the Hagia Sophia at exorbitant expense and with much ruffling of feathers. His demand for six minarets – unprecedented outside a pilgrimage site – struck many as presumptuous. Fortunately, the architect rose to the occasion with a design beloved enough to inspire the neighborhood’s name.

Istanbul Blue Mosque Exterior View Of Domes And Minarets From Courtyard Ottoman Style Architecture

Mimar Sinan’s apprentice synthesized the master’s ideas, and gave them his own interpretation. The newer structure uses the Şehzade complex as a model but multiplies the number of forms, frequently softening the transitions between them with muqarnas (stalactite carvings). This emphasizes the cascading effect both inside and out; overall, it’s more graceful but less dramatic than Sinan’s work.

Blue Mosque Interior Domes With Colorful Tiles Ottoman Architecture Istanbul

The mosque’s nickname becomes obvious upon entry. It’s been called a “virtual museum of tile” with more than 21,000 pieces either custom-produced or taken from other sites. Most of the painting was redone using stencils, and few of the 260 windows still contain their original Venetian stained glass. In addition to lights, the chandeliers once held ostrich eggs to ward off spiders. Hanging crystal globes contained curiosities within, like a model ship. Today, the chandelier rings can seem strange in photographs but they serve to ground visitors in the vast space.

Hippodrome

It takes some imagination to connect the modern-day site of the old Hippodrome to the raucous chariot races and riots of its Byzantine past. Today only the basic footprint remains, with just three of the monuments which once formed a line down the central spina (spine). Some of these, like the 1490 BCE Obelisk of Thutmose III were already ancient when the Byzantines brought them here. Nearby, the pit surrounding the Serpent Column taken from Delphi shows the ground’s original level. 

Istanbul Hippodrome Former Racing Circus With Obelisk Of Theodosius Ancient Egyptian Pharaoh Thutmose III People Walking

Large trees and benches have replaced the bleachers lining the stone paving, creating a park with a steady traffic of both residents and tourists. A few old structures on either side have been converted into museums, such as the Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum in Ibrahim Paşa’s old palace. A few blocks beyond the park, the land slopes down to reveal the curving end of the original Hippodrome.

Sokollu Mehmet Paşa Mosque

Many consider the 1571 Sokollu Mehmet Paşa to be Mimar Sinan’s best interior, with “the finest single wall of tile ever created by Iznik”. The entire building serves as a jewel box for precious fragments from the Ka’ba stone in Mecca. In spite of its location just below the Hippodrome, the mosque sees surprisingly little traffic.

Sokollu Mehmed Pasha Mosque Interior Iznik Tiles And Dome Istanbul Mimar Sinan Ottoman Architecture

Sinan made superb use of a cramped, sloping site. Multiple levels establish different zones while maintaining an open feel and creating an ever-changing sequence of views as one moves through the complex. In order to add grandeur to the tiny space Sinan paved the courtyard in marble, a convention normally reserved for sultanic projects.

Little Hagia Sophia (Küçük Aya Sofya Mosque, Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus)

This little building comes with a lot of confusing names. Justinian commissioned a church dedicated to Saints Sergius and Bacchus almost immediately after becoming Emperor in 527. A few years later, work also began nearby on the domed colossus known as the Hagia Sophia. Their similarities inspired the Ottoman nickname Küçük Aya Sofya (Little Hagia Sophia) – although scholars have largely discredited the notion that the smaller church was a practice run for the larger one. It has more in common with the architecture of Ravenna, which had replaced Rome as the Western Empire’s capital.

Most early Christian churches adopted the elongated form of Roman basilicas. This structure not only introduced a central plan topped by a dome, but it used a form which would continue to inspire architects over a thousand years later. The main space features an octagonal base with alternating flat and rounded sides supporting a 16-sided ribbed dome which also alternates between straight and scalloped profiles. Latin Crusaders looted the marble lining the interior, but the uniquely Byzantine capitals and frieze survived. The Ottomans used a light touch in the conversion to a mosque, echoing the carvings with lace-like lines of blue.

Little Hagia Sophia Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus Ancient Byzantine Brick Exterior With Grass Kids Playing Soccer

A grassy expanse next to the mosque may be the last undeveloped plot of land in Sultanahmet. Just a block or two away, restaurants actively solicit multitudes of tourists passing by – but in this little pocket residents chat over tea while their kids play football.

Basilica Cistern

Basilica Cistern Byzantine Underground Reservoir Istanbul Stone Columns Green And Orange Lighting

Roman engineering prowess allowed the Byzantines to store water in vast underground cisterns. No one knows how many remain buried today, but several excavations have revealed spaces full of their own eerie grandeur. Of the three sites open to the public, the Basilica Cistern is the best one to visit.

Slowly-shifting lighting accents different parts of the sixth-century space, while the flooded floor reminds us of its original function. A handful of site-specific modern sculptures nestle discreetly throughout, as do ancient surprises like the oversized Medusa heads at odd angles or a lone column with a “peacock” relief. To avoid crowds, we recommend arriving shortly before opening time. For more information see A Guide to Istanbul’s Three Monumental Cisterns

The Grand Bazaar & University Area

Along the Mese: Çemberlitaş Square and the Grand Bazaar

Back when the city of Byzantium was no more than a Roman outpost, Emperor Septimius Severus laid out a road which still exists today. Istanbul’s tram line runs along the old processional route known as the Mese (Middle Way) in Byzantine times and Divan Yolu (Avenue of the Divan) under the Ottomans. 

A few minutes’ walk from the Hippodrome on this historic thoroughfare takes visitors to a column which once loomed over the Forum of Constantine. Its Turkish name Çemberlitaş means “hooped stone”, a reference to the iron rings holding it together, while its blackened color bears testament to the numerous fires it survived. The column once supported a massive statue of the Emperor, in the guise of sun god Apollo but incorporating Christian relics. Today it marks the edge of Çemberlitaş Square, presided over by the elegant Baroque Nuruosmaniye Mosque on the far end. Beyond the square stretches the vast Grand Bazaar. Here modern shops catering to tourists screen historic foundations; sensory overload makes it a challenge to focus on the architecture. A map can be useful for serious exploration. 

Beyazit Square

After the Bazaar, the road passes Beyazıt Square on the right followed by the remains of the Forum of Theodosius on the left. The latter includes remnants of the curious “peacock” relief columns like the one recycled in the Basilica Cistern. Beyazıt Meydanı is a large square marking the entrance to Istanbul University. Nearby stands Beyazit Tower. Once used to watch for fires, it now shows the weather via color-coded lights: red means snow, green means rain, yellow means fog, and blue means clear skies.

Istanbul Beyazit Square And Mosque Early Ottoman Architecture Domes And Two Minarets

The oldest surviving imperial mosque in Istanbul was commissioned by Beyazıt II, son of Mehmed the Conqueror. Built between 1501-06, it shows Ottoman architecture right on the cusp of its classical bloom under Mimar Sinan. The courtyard feels especially peaceful compared to the busy boulevard and bazaar. 

Aqueduct of Valens 

Valens Aquaduct Constantinople Istanbul Byzantine Architecture Street With Pedestrian

Turning into the university, sections of a two-tiered arcade in ancient brick appear between modern buildings. The Aqueduct of Valens is not the largest, longest, or most elegant of its kind – but it is a survivor. Built in 375 CE, it supplied water to the city for 15 centuries. The most striking stretch lies just past the university, behind the Şehzade Mosque and along Saraçhane Parkı.

Mehmet Şehzade Complex

Istanbul Şehzade Mosque Exterior And Fountain View From Courtyard Arches And Domes Ottoman Architecture Mimar Sinan

The culmination of what Mimar Sinan called his “apprentice” phase, the Şehzade Mosque marks the turning point from the eclectic tendencies of earlier Ottoman architecture to a unique classical style. Where mosque architecture had concentrated primarily on the interior, Sinan included extensive carvings on the outside as well. He also introduced domed arcades at the base, concealing heavy buttressing and emphasizing the overall pyramidal shape. Dedicated to Mehmet Şehzade, the beloved eldest son of Sultan Suleyman and Roxelana, the complex also includes a funerary garden with several mausoleums. 

Istanbul Şehzade Mosque Interior Dome With Striped Arches Sinan Architecture

Inside, Sinan’s spaces feature a transitional mix of ornamentation. Previously, the Ottoman style favored complexity over clarity: for instance calligraphy might include overlapping or reversed lettering. The Şehzade complex is the last time Sinan would include any scripts other than the monumental and easily-legible thuluth style. 

Eminönü 

From the Grand Bazaar and university, it’s a 10-minute walk up the hill to the Süleymaniye complex, on the site of the city’s first harem. Eminönü spills down to the Golden Horn, where the bustling spice market evokes the days when this was a busy port. The Yeni Camii, or New Mosque, dominates the area here more by virtue of its size than originality. 

Süleymaniye Complex

Suleymaniye Mosque Istanbul By Mimar Sinan Ottoman Architecture Exterior Facade And Domes View From Courtyard

The Sultan wanted a mosque complex which would surpass all others in beauty and enlightenment. Sinan’s design for the Süleymaniye announced a fully-fledged Ottoman architecture which could hold its own against the Hagia Sophia. Designed to preside over the city from all vantages, the mosque crowns its hilltop. With multiple levels stacked on top of each other, the complex appears to cascade down the slope. 

View Of Istanbul Skyline And Bosphorus From Suleymaniye Mosque Domes Cascading Down Hill

Sinan’s team scoured the empire for materials; some of the larger pieces famously came from the Hippodrome. Iznik tiles, with their innovative production and uniquely Ottoman patterns, make their first appearance here. In order to underscore the symbolism of a sober ruler, Sinan kept the ornamentation relatively restrained and restricted it primarily to transition zones.

Suleymaniye Mosque Interior Dome Striped Arches Windows Ottoman Architecture Mimar Sian Istanbul

Enormous in both scale and variety of buildings, the Süleymaniye complex once housed five madrasas, a hospital, hospice, elementary school, guest housing, kitchens, baths, and numerous shops. Later, Sinan added mausoleums for Suleyman and his wife Roxelana. 

Rüstem Paşa Mosque

In the thick of the old spice market, an unobtrusive set of stairs leads to a secret world. In an unusual configuration, the mosque memorializing Grand Vizier Rüstem Paşa sits right on top of a block of shops – and it features enough visual stimulation to distract from the surrounding chaos. The tiny courtyard features tiled wall panels with plant motifs to create an illusory garden. Inside is a riot of color and light, with over 80 patterns of tile coating nearly every surface. 

Rüstem Paşa Mosque Istanbul Interior Blue Tile Round Light Fixture Striped Arches Ottoman Architect Sinan

The city of Iznik was just hitting its golden age of tile production, with innovations such as deep red underglaze and a fresh, uniquely Ottoman series of patterns. In this mosque Sinan let the tiles take center stage. He wisely restrained the rest of the building to the same palette: everything harmonizes with the glowing white, cobalt, turquoise, and red.

Enter via a flight of stairs at the corner of Makheme Sk. and Hasırcılar Cd. Inside the mosque, don’t miss the upstairs gallery.

Galata & Karaköy

The Galata Bridge is lined with fishermen keeping an eye on the ferries and cats keeping an eye on the catch. A smell of fish accompanies pedestrians across the water from Eminönü to Galata, the part of the city set aside for Europeans and other foreigners to live and trade. 

Galata Tower

Since the time of Emperor Justinian, the city’s skyline has included a Great Tower to watch for fires on the northern side of the Golden Horn. The one we see today was erected in 1348 when merchants from the city-state of Genoa illegally expanded their colony and added defensive walls. As the tallest building in Constantinople and a proud example of Italian Romanesque architecture, it quickly became a symbol for the Europeans. Eventually, residents began referring to it by the neighborhood’s name of Galata.

For €30, the newly-restored tower offers 360-degree views of Istanbul. See the website for details.

Kılıç Ali Paşa Mosque

Just down the hill from the thronged Galata Tower and obscured by skyscrapers, we found one of Sinan’s loveliest mosques empty on a May morning. Designed for a famous pirate-turned-admiral, the mosque once sat in view of the sea.

Kılıç Ali Paşa Mosque Interior Central Space With Light Fixture And Medallions Karaköy Istanbul By Mimar Sinan Ottoman Architecture

For non-royal commissions, Sinan used pre-existing monuments as a model: in this case, the Hagia Sophia. The project was an opportunity for the architect to update the original which he had recently restored. For the Ottomans, it was a political statement: the ancient basilica, revered for over a thousand years as a symbol of Byzantine architectural prowess, could now be improved upon by one of their own. Sinan’s structure is noticeably brighter than its predecessor because he concentrated the primary dome’s weight onto relatively small supports. Eliminating the need for heavy walls allowed him to open up the interior and add an abundance of windows. Light streams in through patterned screens, reflecting off glossy tiles and making the marble glow. 

Around the Old City Walls

A few ferry stops up the Golden Horn puts visitors within walking distance of several Byzantine sites as well as one of Sinan’s most daring designs. Not much remains of the area’s history as a center of Greek and Jewish life, but the lanes winding up and down the hill remain full of atmosphere. 

Theodosian Walls

Istanbul Constantinople Byzantine Defensive Land Walls Surrounding Tekfur Palace Porphyrogenitus Stone And Brick Polychrome

According to legend, at least one army turned back at the sight of the city’s defensive barrier. The double ramparts built under Theodosius II withstood attack for an entire millennium – only to finally succumb to Mehmed II’s giant cannons in 1453. Most of the outer walls and their 96 towers survive, but some sections are better-preserved than others. Exploring the full length of 5.7 km (3.5 miles) could take hours; we elected to concentrate on the stretch around Edirnekapı (Adrianople Gate) for its historic significance and proximity to other sites. A small restaurant provided spicy menemen and a great view of the spot where Mehmed conquered the wall.

Tekfur Sarayı Müzesi (Palace of the Porphyrogenitus)

Other than a single sign in the courtyard, visitors to the Tekfur Sarayı might never know that it’s the only palace to survive from the Byzantine era. The three-story shell adjacent to the Old City walls has been converted into a museum space focusing somewhat inexplicably on its years as a ceramic factory in the 18th century. 

Constantinople Tekfur Palace Porphyrogenitus Stone And Brick Polychrome Byzantine Architecture Istanbul

Erected between 1261-91, the Palace of the Porphyrogenitus probably took its name from one of the princes; porphyrogenitus (purple-born) refers to children born to a reigning Byzantine emperor. Situated between the inner and outer defensive walls, it protected imperial inhabitants from urban mobs as well as external threats. Organized vertically, the structure features a large arcade on the lower level to accommodate general traffic and administration. Above this were royal apartments, with a throne room occupying the entire top floor. Exterior materials reflect the layout, with brick and marble set in a variety of unusual patterns capping the base’s hefty stones.

At some point after the Ottoman conquest, the structure became known as Tekfur Sarayı, or Palace of the Sovereign. After two centuries as home to the Sultan’s menagerie and a few decades as a brothel, it was converted into a workshop for pottery and tiles. In the 19th century, it housed poverty-stricken Jews; in the 20th, a bottle factory.

See the website for visiting information.

Mihrimah Sultan Complex (Edirnekapı)

Mihrümah Sultan Mosque Complex Edirnekapı Istanbul Exterior Courtyard View Framed By Arches Fountain Small Domes Mimar Sinan Architect

Suleyman and Roxelana’s sole daughter commissioned multiple structures from Sinan, two of which bear her name today. The one near the Theodosian Walls shows him hitting the peak of his abilities.

Mihrümah Sultan Mosque Complex Edirnekapı Istanbul Interior Windows And Dome Stained Glass Decorative Patterns Sinan Architecture

With its radical structural system, the mosque of Mihrimah Sultan in Edirnekapı was an important precursor to Sinan’s ultimate masterpiece, the Selimiye in Edirne. In a feat of engineering, Sinan transferred all of the dome’s weight to four corner towers. Because they can’t be seen from the inside, the massive dome appears to float. And without the need for buttressing, all four walls could be opened up to bring in light. 

Kariye Mosque & Museum (Chora Church)

Istanbul Chora Church Anastasis Fresco Restored Kariye Mosque Byzantine Art Istanbul
Anastasis Fresco

After an extensive restoration, the Kariye (Chora) has recently reopened with part of the building reconsecrated as a mosque. The original church of St Saviour in Chora is said to have been founded in the fourth century, although the earliest physical remains discovered date to the sixth century. The structure underwent multiple renovations and expansions even before the Ottomans arrived, resulting in an ad-hoc layout. A series of three long spaces wrapping around two sides of the central prayer hall (in the naos, or former nave) were added in the 14th century; their late Byzantine mosaics and frescoes are considered some of the greatest ever produced.

Chora Church Kariye Mosque Byzantine Architecture Interior Dome With Ribs And Frescoes Of Saints Istanbul Constantinople

In some places the artwork overwhelms the architecture – an effect amplified by rather clinical new lighting which sacrifices ambiance for clarity. (We would have loved to see the mosaics shimmering by candlelight.) But when art and architecture come together, the effect is staggering. In the ribbed domes, lines of gold glow against the matte darkness like a divine code.

The central space retains most of its marble paneling but little of the mosaics. Although the naos is now reserved for Muslim men, other visitors can peek in outside of prayer times. Ticket prices for the rest of the building had not been finalized at the time of writing; for more information see the website.

Üsküdar

A short and scenic ferry ride from Eminönü or Karaköy, Üsküdar’s vibrant waterfront can be a destination in itself or a base for exploring the tourist-free neighborhood behind it. The Asian suburb was a popular location for both private palaces and pious foundations. While the former have largely disappeared, the district still contains some celebrated mosque complexes. Üsküdar also features some of the city’s most interesting modern architecture, including the Şakirin Mosque (by the historic Karacaahmet Cemetery) and the Mamara University Faculty of Theology Mosque.

Mihrimah Sultan Complex (Iskele Camii)

The first of Sinan’s designs for Mihrimah Sultan lies near the Bosphorus in Üsküdar. Before the shoreline was built up, its position on the water’s edge inspired the nickname Iskele Camii, or Jetty Mosque. The architect played on the location by borrowing forms from shoreline pavilions such as a raised garden terrace along the water, deep eaves and stone benches.

Iskele Mosque Mihrimah Sultan Complex Üsküdar Istanbul Interior Dome With Striped Arches Mimar Sinan Architecture

Princess Mihrimah’s complex was built at the same time as the one honoring her brother Mehmet Şehzade, roughly 1543-48. Even this early in his career, Sinan already demonstrated the ability to express subtle distinctions of rank in his architecture. For instance, both complexes conveyed the family’s preeminence over previous royals by including two minarets instead of one – but in the princely complex, they are taller. 

Şemsi Ahmet Paşa Complex

Even relatively minor commissions show Sinan’s gift for fitting his buildings into the landscape. From a distance, the minaret joins the district’s other spires to form a garland of stone along the shore. An L-shaped plan, laid on a diagonal, gives the Şemsi Ahmet Paşa privacy without sacrificing views. Instead of a traditional courtyard with walls all around, he left the water side open.

Nevmekân Sahil Library & Cafe

Nevmekan Sahil Library In Üsküdar Istanbul Interior Domed Ceiling Books And Tables With People Modern Architecture

A 2008 conversion of a 1928 tram depot, the Nevmekân Sahil is part of a campaign to repurpose abandoned buildings. Ottoman architecture gets a lighthearted update throughout the complex, which includes a garden and exhibition space. The project’s centerpiece is a spectacular dome unfolding over reading areas and an enormously popular cafe. Proof that a trip to the library can be fun for all ages, even for those of us who can’t read Turkish. Open daily 9 a.m. to 11 p.m.

Atik Valide Complex

Atik Valide Mosque Complex Interior View Multiple Domes Red And White Striped Arches Üsküdar Istanbul Mimar Sinan

Further inland in Üsküdar, one of Sinan’s more interesting projects shows how his designs could adapt to political changes. The Atik Valide Complex was completed in three phases to reflect the growing power of its patron, the Valide Sultan (Queen Mother) of Murad III. When her son ascended the throne, she more or less took control of the government – and demanded architectural features normally reserved for sultans. Although it was too late to enlarge the dome in her mosque, Sinan (or perhaps one of his apprentices) appended smaller domes to either side. Because the design was changed over time, some scholars find the interior less unified than Sinan’s other work, but it does include celebrated tilework.

Bosphorus Cruise

Istanbul Beylerbeyi Palace Late Ottoman Architecture As Seen On Bosphorus Ferry Evening Golden Light
Beylerbeyi Palace

Some of the city’s architecture is best seen from the water. Ferries pass European-style edifices like the Dolmabahçe and Beylerbeyi palaces as well as the Baroque Ortaköy Mosque (featured in our lead photo). Summer retreats cluster along the hills further north, including shoreline pavilions and wooden houses in a characteristic deep red. Most boats turn around at the Rumeli Fortress, built by Mehmed the Conqueror as a base for attacking the city proper in the 15th century.

Bosphorus ferries run hourly. Purchase tickets at the Turyol pier, on the Eminönü side just past Galata Bridge.

Conclusion & Further Reading

Given their prominence, it’s only fair to mention the city’s four-legged residents and a special kind of architecture created just for them.

Istanbul Cat House With Multiple Cubbies And Pitched Roof With Sleeping Cat And Stretching Cat

For more on the city’s architecture, see our posts on Mimar Sinan’s Ottoman masterpieces and Istanbul’s cisterns.

Jane Taylor’s book Imperial Istanbul goes into more detail about many of the sites listed above. The always-entertaining John Julius Norwich provides historical context in A Short History of Byzantium. (We read the three-volume original, but linked the abridged version.) Our Ottoman sources included Empress of the East, Leslie Pierce’s biography of Roxelana, and Osman’s Dream, Caroline Finkel’s history of the Ottoman Empire.

Anthony Doerr’s Cloud Cuckoo Land depicts the city just before the Ottoman invasion, as an orphaned girl combs abandoned buildings for ancient manuscripts. Dorothy Dunnett’s novel Pawn in Frankincense describes the elaborate preparations necessary for an audience at Topkapi Palace. It also includes scenes set in the harem and the Basilica Cistern. Elif Shafak’s novel The Architect’s Apprentice paints a vivid picture of life in the Ottoman court as told from the point of view of Sinan’s apprentice. Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk has written extensively about Istanbul; our favorite is his novel My Name is Red.