The Byzantine, Roman, and Ottoman kings, Caesars, and sultans were quite obliging when they clustered their lives in, around, and on top of each other's centers of power. The headliners of each are conveniently located in and around the Old City neighborhood of Sultanahmet, which is where we will begin the day. By following this tour, you will beam yourself back and forth between empires with visits to the unforgettable and obligatory stops at the Hippodrome, the Ayasofya, the Yerebatan Cistern, the Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, and the Grand Bazaar. If Sunday or Monday is the 1 day you've allotted for Istanbul, it will be necessary to modify this tour, as the Grand Bazaar is closed on Sundays, while Monday is the day that most of the museums go dark. Unfortunately, because of an upsurge in tourism, you will not be alone at any of these sites. The sequence followed here attempts to mitigate the competition with busloads of tourists; but still, you'll have to be patient and gauge extra time for standing in line. Because of the longer days of summer, this day can be stretched out a bit, as museum hours generally extend to 7pm, as opposed to 4:30 or 5pm in winter. Start: Hippodrome.
A place for public spectacle, the Hippodrome hosted Roman and Byzantine celebrations and revolts, as well as Ottoman royal games and imperial weddings. Its narrative is as grand as it is gruesome. This is the place to get your historical and geographical bearings; remember this spot, as you will want to come back to one of the park benches and watch the people stroll by. During Ramadan, the municipality dresses up the Hippodrome in a nostalgic costume of Ottoman storefronts, and in anticipation of sunset, a family-style carnival begins.
2. Topkapi Palace
The center of Ottoman might for almost 5 centuries, Topkapi Palace is a place of Oriental mystique, conjuring images of turbaned sultans and their harems, of pasas and eunuchs, and of an empire that wielded transcontinental influence at a time when the West was still living in the Dark Ages. The Treasury Room alone is enough to desensitize a woman to diamonds, rubies, and pearls. Try to get here when it opens, as the busloads descend by 9:30 or 10am.
3. Take a Break -- Konyali
At the halfway mark of your visit to Topkapi Palace -- the farthest courtyard from the entrance -- rejuvenate yourself at the spectacularly sited and storied Konyali Restaurant.
4. Sogukçesme Sokagi
Take a walk through the typical, cobbled 19th-century Ottoman lane that runs parallel to the palace wall (to the right of the main gate of Topkapi Palace as you're leaving). This evocative and flowering mew passes a picturesque collection of Ottoman houses. Look closely, and you will see interesting juxtapositions of antiquity and relative modernity before the street slopes gently down behind the imposing backside of the Ayasofya.
The crowning monument to the Byzantine Empire (and not to mention Justinian's reign) has endured for more than 1,000 years, serving Byzantine emperors and Ottoman sultans. Her very structure set the standard for all monumental Ottoman architecture that followed. It wasn't until recent years, after having had her interior whitewashed to create an acceptable prayer space for the Ottoman Muslim rulers, that her astonishing collection of gilded mosaic panels was once again exposed to daylight.
6. Yerebatan Sarnici
Who'd have thought that the underbelly of a city could look so good? Hundreds of marble columns support soaring masonry arches, all theatrically alight to emphasize the gravitas, the mystery, and the beauty of what once served as the royal plumbing.
7. Blue Mosque
Named for the predominance of blue in the exquisite Iznik tiles, the mosque whose construction was ordered by Sultan Ahmet was designed to rival the Ayasofya in architectural glory. On weekend afternoons, you may see little mini-sultans parading around the grounds -- these boys are celebrating the week preceding their circumcision rite.
8. Grand Bazaar
And now for the treat you've all been waiting for: the bazaar to end all bazaars -- a veritable candy store of more than 3,600 shops, 24 hans (privately owned inns or marketplaces), 64 streets, 22 gates, 2 bedestens (covered markets), restaurants, mosques, fountains, and teahouses within an area of 31 hectares (76 acres).
9. Süleymaniye Camii ve Külliyesi
Another masterpiece of the dream team of Süleyman the Magnificent and his chief architect, Sinan, this mosque complex was their crowning achievement. It is here that Sinan finally manages to out-dome the Ayasofya, but beyond this enormous feat of engineering, the mosque is perfectly sited, sitting atop the third of Istanbul's seven hills. There are commanding views from the rear of the grounds that arrive well up to the Princes' Islands. You should get here before sunset to profit from the view.
10. Süleymaniye Hamami
End this exhausting, and culture-filled day of exploration like a sultan. Indulge your senses at the adjacent Turkish bath, another architectural icon by the great Sinan, where an attendant will rub, scrub, and rinse away all of your cares.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.