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. Sarayıçı, Sultanahmet; tel. 90 212 522 4422; fee. http://www.topkapisarayi.gov.tr/
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. Seyh Galip Caddesi 15, Beyoğlu; tel. 90 212 245 4141; fee. www.galatamevlevihanesimuzesi.gov.tr
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. Eminönü; tel. 90 212 527 3909. www.misircarsisi.org
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. Hasırcılar Çarşısı, Tahtakale, Eminönü. Donation. istanbultourstudio.com
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. Sultanahmet Meydanı; tel. 90 212 528 4500. ayasofyamuzesi.gov.tr
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. Yerebatan Caddesi 13, Sultanahmet; tel. 90 212 522 1259; fee. www.istanbul.gov.tr/en
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. www.istanbul.gov.tr/en
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. Sultanahmet, Beyazıt. www.istanbul.gov.tr/en
Bosporus Boat Tour
Excursions along shoreline best reveal the city’s grandeur and other attractions hidden from street view. Board local ferry, Istanbul's municipality boats from Sea of Marmara to Black Sea, private boat tours, or ride like a sultan in a regal caique replica. Tip: Take along a copy of From the Bosphorus, by Richard Hinkle and Rhonda Vander Sluis, for an insightful look at waterfront history.
Archeological Museum Complex
- Nat Geo Expeditions
Turkey’s first museum, founded in 1891. Assyrian, Babylonian, Egyptian, Urartian, Hittite, Greek, Roman, and Hellenistic artifacts. Tip: Don’t miss the Persian-style kiosk, the oldest secular Ottoman building in Istanbul. Closed Mondays. Osman Hamdi Bey Yokuşu, Gülhane; tel. 90 212 520 7740; fee.
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. Şifahane Caddesi, Süleymaniye. Donation.
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. Camii Sokak, Kariye Meydanı, Edirnekapı; tel. 90 212 631 9241; fee.
Yıldız Palace and Park
Hilly woods dotted with imperial pavilions now serving as tea houses and exhibition sites. Originally on the grounds of nearby Çırağan Palace, absorbed by later Yıldız Palace, where Sultan Abdul Hamid II moved the seat of the Ottoman government in the late 19th century. Closed Tuesdays. Tip: Lunch at elegant Malta Köşk, once a cushy imperial prison for Sultan Murad V and his mother. Yıldız Parkı, Beşiktaş; tel. 90 212 258 3080; fee.