I was thrilled to have my first official guest at the beginning of December, but less thrilled at the prospect of revisiting the top three must-sees on any visitor’s list. The convenient square location of the Blue Mosque, Aya Sofya and Topkapı Palace, Sultanahmet is hands down the most touristed part of Istanbul.
But winter is a great time to visit. Sunshine and 16C made the sprawling gardens of Topkapı a pleasure to walk through. Architecture and exhibits concealed by the crowds of May were now on clear display. In fact, sometimes we had the echoing empty chambers of the Harem all to ourselves, ideal for contemplating the decadence and opulence of the Ottomans.
Aya Sofya, for a thousand years the largest enclosed space in the world, was nearly deserted an hour before closing time. Once the greatest church in Christendom, it served as a mosque until Atatürk declared it a museum in 1935.
We walked alone up the 1500-years-of-footsteps-smooth cobblestones to the gallery level. The angle of the setting sun set the gold mosaics on fire. Empty but for the resident cats who wisely remained behind the barrier ropes, we were the last to pass through the 2,000 year-old doors and back into the square.
We crossed Sultanahmet and found a street vendor selling sahlep, a popular winter drink since Ottoman times of steamed milk flavoured with cinnamon, vanilla and orchid. It kept the chill off as we watched the moon rise over the minarets of the Blue Mosque – the end of a great day to be tourists in Istanbul.
below: Harem bathroom, Aya Sofya mosaic and windows