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Being pummelled in a traditional hamam and visiting its ancient mosques are must-do activities in the historical heart of Turkey

“Not another church/mosque/temple!” With the greatest respect to those of all faiths, sometimes ‘seen one you’ve seen them all’ is fair when it comes to places of worship. But in Istanbul you don’t see these sights ‘cos you have to. You have to see them.

With a history spanning more than 2000 years – it began in 660BC – Turkey’s biggest city, straddling Asia and Europe, has been the capital of four empires (Roman, Byzantine, Latin and Ottoman).

It’s no wonder this place is so bloody interesting, and its evolution, beauty, scale and fascinating contradictions are all clear in the most elaborate landmarks. Here’s TNT’s pick of the best.

Topkapi Palace haram

Topkapi Palace

Palace, museum, gardens (tulips everywhere!), touched by each Ottoman ruler who called it home over about 400 years – this ticks every box for a ‘sight’.

Among the many treasures here are some of the world’s most significant Muslim relics, including Muhammed’s cloak and sword (he must have been huge), and the journey through centuries of weapons, from bludgeoning devices to elaborate swords and guns, is awe-striking.

The most popular area, though, is the haram. For a place built for discretion (the outside is intentionally plain) it’s strange that people now pay extra to see inside. Not so much a seedy sex dungeon, it was more a family quarters for the privy wives, their underlings and kids. Stunning tiled rooms surround gorgeous shallow baths. 

Entry £9; Harem £5.50

Epic: Ayasofy's more than a mosque

Ayasofya (Hagia Sofia)

I’ll admit to being a “not another steeple” type, but Ayasofya or Hagia Sophia (Greek) is one exception.

The church-then-mosque-then-museum is a masterpiece, maybe most interesting for its mish-mash of Christian (it was HQ for the Eastern Orthodox Church for 1000 years) and Muslim (Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II renovated in 1453) art and architecture – an English-speaking guide to point out the differences comes in handy, but I’d have been happy marvelling at the extreme scale, Christian mosaics and Islamic features.

When my guide dubiously tells me “10 hundred thousand” (would that be a million?) people built it, I’m happy to believe. For luck, spin your hand 360 degrees in the wishing column.

Entry £9

Elaborate: ignore the foot smell and look up at the Blue Mosque

Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmed Mosque)

Yep, another mosque and must-see, across from Ayasofya – but know you’ll spend more time in the line than inside. Built in the early 17th century, it still operates during the five daily prayers (it’s closed to visitors during that time). I take good advice from a local guide and get there while it’s closed.

As I wait at the front of the queue outside, a Turkish guide complains to her group: “There are so many mosques in Istanbul, this should be a museum. It is too popular.” A lady from Malaysia (a Muslim country) says they’re happy to wait and respect the worshippers. Schooled!

When inside, it’s worth the wait – ignoring the distinct smell of feet from those who may not have realised they’d have to take off their shoes today – and striking, with ornately embroidered carpet working off the 21,000 fine Iznik tiles, many of them the blue, giving the mosque its name.

Donation on exit


Essential Istanbul: Must-do activities in the historical heart of Turkey
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