Palace of sultans from 15th- to 19th-century; housed thousands of imperial servants. Center of the historic district, overlooking city across Sea of Marmara, Golden Horn, and Bosporus. Magnificent treasury of jewels (86-carat Spoonmaker Diamond), elaborately tiled harem chambers and kiosks. Closed Tuesdays. Tip: Eat a substantial breakfast and go early. Harem closes at 4 p.m., separate fee.
2-Galata Dervish House
Witness traditional whirling dervishes in the oldest lodge in Istanbul, established 1491. Mevlevi order of Sufis—followers of Jalal ad-Din Rumi founded in 1273—employ whirling (sema) as a form of prayer. Building houses Museum of Divan Poetry, 15th- to 18th-century ritualized Ottoman poetry. Tip: Group performs in Sirkeci Train Station, but the Galata location offers a reflective, authentic atmosphere.
Built in 1663 as a stop for camel caravans traveling the Silk Road. “Turkish delight to precious saffron, caviar to henna, almost anything can be found.”—Saffet Emre Tonguç, author, 101 Must-see Places in Turkey. Locals flock to its arched stone corridors for traditional remedies. Closed Sundays.
4-Rüstem Paşa Mosque
A 1516 Mimar Sinan Ottoman jewel box, up a hidden flight of stairs near the Spice Bazaar. Every surface covered in exquisite İznik tiles. Tip: If you visit only one mosque, make it this charming one.
Christendom’s largest cathedral for almost a thousand years; Emperor Justinian’s influential architectural masterpiece from the sixth century. Centuries of gold mosaics of the Virgin Mary, archangel Gabriel, and Byzantine emperors and empresses. Converted into a mosque, now a museum with exhibits. Closed Mondays.
Hauntingly lit sixth-century columns and vaulted ceilings; the largest of several hundred ancient water reservoirs beneath the city’s surface. Cool respite from summer heat; occasional art installations; or music and dance performances.
7-Turkish and Islamic Art Museum
Former palace of Süleyman the Magnificent’s Grand Vizier in Hippodrome, a man so powerful the sultan commanded him executed. With 800-year-old Selçuk rugs, it contains one of the best carpet collections in world. Inspired European painters, including Hans Holbein. Illuminated scripts, intricate metalwork, ceramics; nomad tents and Ottoman parlor re-create context. Closed Mondays. İbrahim Paşa Sarayı, Atmeydanı 46, Sultanahmet; tel. 90 212 518 1805, fee. english.istanbul.gov.tr
Last stop on the Silk Road. Labyrinthine market of more than 3,000 shops established in 1461 by Mehmet the Conqueror. More than 50 streets of jewelry, textiles, pottery, glazed tiles, bronze, leather, carpets. Head for the heart, İç Bedestan, once the area harboring the most valuable goods. Tip: Impress hospitable shopkeepers by requesting Turkish black tea (normal çay) instead of touristy apple tea. Closed Sundays.
Designed by Mimar Sinan in 1550, largest mosque in Istanbul, with caravanserai (roadside inn), seminary, hospital, soup kitchen, and hamam. Garden mausolea of Süleyman the Magnificent and Ukrainian wife Roxelane. Tip: Respect active worship by waiting for prayers to end.
Nothing remains of the original church, built outside the city walls. Rebuilt in the 11th century, current interior dating from 14th century; considered one of the finest Byzantine churches in Turkey with the best preserved mosaics and frescoes. Closed Wednesdays.