Istanbul a city steeped in history that dates back around 2,700 years. It’s a city that is home to over 15 million people and served as the capital for the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman Empire. Although Istanbul has become a modern city today, churches, walls, monuments and ruins from the Byzantine period can still be seen. Private Byzantine History Tour of Istanbul will help you understand this deep-rooted history.
Perhaps the most mysterious era that Istanbul experienced was under the Byzantine Empire when the city was named Constantinople. From 395 to 1453, the Byzantines reigned in the city during the medieval age and left a great deal of history behind.
Whether it’s the Hippodrome of Constantinople, the Chora Church or even the Walls that surrounded the ancient city, there are countless landmarks to explore. Despite all of the changes that the great city has gone through, the city of Istanbul is still filled with exciting Byzantine architecture and history that can still be experienced.
If you want to discover the mysterious history that is hidden within Istanbul, then we offer expert tours that will take you through the 1000 years of Byzantine rule and show you how they shaped the city, the landmarks and architectural wonders that they left behind, and also dive into the rich culture and history of Constantinople.
During the Byzantine history tour in Istanbul, we’ll take you through several of the most important Byzantine heritage sites that still exist within the city. However, before presenting the contents of the tours, I would like to introduce 20 magnificent Byzantine structures that you can see in Istanbul.
Byzantine Sites to See in Istanbul 2023
There are churches, aqueducts, walls, museums and palace ruins among the Byzantine sites to be seen in Istanbul. In the lines below, you can find places that will help you understand the Byzantine heritage in Istanbul.
1. Hippodrome of Constantinople
Hippodrome of Constantinople is one of the early Roman buildings in Istanbul. The Hippodrome was built in the 4th century by Constantine the Great, who declared Istanbul the new capital of Rome.
The Hippodrome used to house around 50,000 people and it was free and open to males in the empire. There were around eight different games played and they were held throughout the day, making this a lively yet powerful symbol of the Byzantine Empire.
The Hippodrome served as the main entertainment center of Istanbul for about 1000 years. This structure is an open-air museum, also known as Sultanahmet Square today.
2. Great Palace Mosaic Museum
The Great Palace was also built during the reign of Emperor Constantine and was the royal residence of the Roman emperors. The palace, which served for about 900 years, was replaced by the Palace of Blachernae in the late Byzantine period.
You can see the floor decorations left from the Great Palace at the Great Palace Mosaics Museum in today’s Sultanahmet district. These mosaics give us an idea of the early Roman art in Istanbul.
3. Hagia Sophia
Hagia Sophia was built in 537 by Justinian, the most famous emperor in Byzantine history. The building, which has stood for 1500 years, symbolizes the sophistication of Roman architecture.
Hagia Sophia is, of course, the most important work to see regarding the Byzantine heritage in Istanbul. However, considering that Hagia Sophia was built three times in history, it is recommended that you visit the structure with a guide who is an expert in Byzantine history.
4. Hagia Eirene
Hagia Eirene is essentially one of the oldest churches in Istanbul. It is rumored that there was a church built on the Temple of Venus here before even Hagia Sophia was built.
First Constantine I and then Justinian I beautified this church. However, the works of both of them did not reach the present day. Today’s Hagia Eirene was rebuilt during the Iconoclasm period in the 8th century.
Hagia Eirene is the structure with the most mystical atmosphere among the Byzantine churches in Istanbul. The building, which was built in a simple style by the Iconoclast emperors, was never turned into a mosque.
5. Column of Goths
The Column of the Goths is a Roman victory column dating to the 3rd or 4th Century AD. It stands in what is now Gulhane Park within the borders of the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul.
6. Basilica Cistern
Basilica Cistern is one of the most important buildings for the Byzantine heritage in Istanbul and is contemporary with Hagia Sophia. The cistern was built by Emperor Justinian in the 500s.
Although there are many Byzantine cisterns in Istanbul, Basilica Cistern stands out as the most iconic building among them. The reason for this is the Medusa Heads under some columns in the cistern.
7. Theodosius Cistern
Theodosius Cistern was opened to the public a few years ago after many years of restoration. The cistern, whose local name is “Serefiye Cistern”, is actually older than the Basilica Cistern and dates back to the Theodosius II period.
Light shows are held in Theodosius Cistern today. There is a 10-minute light show every hour. During the show, you can see the reflections of figures from the history of Istanbul on the walls of the 1600-year-old cistern.
8. Cistern of Philoxenos
The Cistern of Philoxenos was closed to the public until a few years ago and only opened for private events. As of 2023, it was opened to tourists for a reasonable fee.
Cistern of Philoxenos is a must-see for anyone interested in Byzantine sites in Istanbul. Known locally as the Binbirdirek Cistern, the building has a mysterious atmosphere.
9. Church of Sergius and Bacchus
Church of Sergius and Bacchus is a 6th century structure built during the reign of Emperor Justinian. As old as Hagia Sophia, this building is a little off the traditional tourist route and is generally quiet.
In this old Byzantine church, which serves as the Little Hagia Sophia Mosque today, there are still reliefs and column capitals to see about the Byzantine heritage in Istanbul.
10. Bukoleon Palace
Boukoleon Palace is an early Byzantine palace in the south of the Historic Peninsula, adjacent to the Sea of Marmara. This palace is thought to have been first built during the reign of Theodosius II.
The Palace was restored and expanded by emperors such as Justinian and Theophilos throughout history. The palace is also located very close to Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus, one of the structures of the Justinian period.
Boukoleon Palace is currently in the process of major restoration. In the coming years, we will have a historical monument that we can show as a good example of the Byzantine palaces in Istanbul.
11. Forum of Constantine
Forum of Constantine houses the Column of Constantine also known as Cemberlitas. It’s a Roman monumental column that was created by the order of Emperor Constantine the Great in 330 AD.
It was built to commemorate the declaration of Byzantium as the new capital city of the Roman Empire and marks the centre of the new city. The column was originally crowned with a statue of Constantine but strong winds in 1150 caused the statue to fall.
Today, the column can be seen from many places in the city. It’s old, high and takes a bit of explanation to fully appreciate, but there’s no doubt that it was one of the most iconic landmarks in Constantinople.
12. Valens Aqueduct
The Valens Aqueduct was the most important part of the sophisticated water transport system established by the Roman emperors. This aqueduct was used in both Byzantine and Ottoman periods.
When Constantinople was declared the new capital of Roman Empire, its population suddenly increased and there was a water shortage. This aqueduct, which was completed during the reign of Emperor Valens, permanently solved the water problem of the city.
Today, the aqueduct looks over the Ataturk Boulevard, an iconic road that was built in the 1950s. The road passes straight under the majestic arches which uphold the Roman Aqueduct System. It was an iconic landmark in Constantinople and is one of the largest structures in the entire city.
13. Monastery of the Pantocrator
Pantocrator Church was the heart of Christ Pantokrator Monastery during the Byzantine period. The church consists of the merging of three separate buildings built in the 12th century.
Pantocrator Church today serves as “Zeyrek Mosque” in the middle of the Historic Peninsula. Watching the Golden Horn from a hill, the church is one of the prominent structures in the silhouette of Old Istanbul.
Pantocrator Church was the third largest religious building in Constantinople after Hagia Sophia and the Church of the Holy Apostles during the Byzantine period. The church was also the burial chapel of the late emperors.
Today, the Monastery of the Christ Pantocrator can be visited by everyone that has an interest in its architecture and history. It’s a wonderful place to relax and admire the beautiful Byzantine design.
14. Pammakaristos Church
Pammakaristos Church was one of the most important works of the late Byzantine period in Istanbul. Pammakaristos Church, the only structure remaining from the monastery complex, serves as a mosque and museum today.
15. Church of Saint Theodosia
It is rumored that when the Ottoman soldiers entered the city in 1453, they found the Church of Saint Theodosia equipped with roses. Therefore, when the church was converted into a mosque, it was renamed Gul (Rose) Mosque.
In fact, the roses were placed to commemorate Saint Theodosia who was martyred while resisting the destruction of the icon of Holy Jesus during Iconoclasm. Church of St. Theodosia is one of the most important buildings to be seen during my Byzantine history tour in Istanbul.
Although the exact construction date of the church is not known, it is estimated that it was built at the end of the 11th century. According to some historians, it was built by Ioannes Komnenos, nephew of Emperor Alexios I Komnenos.
Built with a Greek cross plan, the church has a dome with a diameter of 8.60 meters. The wall decorations, which were renewed during the Ottoman Empire, attract attention with the Star of David.
16. Church of Saint George
Church of Saint George is the principal Greek Orthodox cathedral that is still in use today in Istanbul. The church has been reconstructed many times since it was believed to be erected as early as the 5th century and little of its original construction is left.
Today, Church of Saint George is a very popular tourist destination that houses many important artefacts, relics and holy mosaics that are well over 1,000 years old. It’s a fantastic place to learn about the history of Constantinople and is well worth a visit.
17. Church of Saint Mary of the Mongols
Church of Saint Mary of the Mongols is one of the most interesting stops of Byzantine history tour. Although this is a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary, its story is based on Maria, a Byzantine princess.
The stories associated with this church are quite interesting and I tell them on my tours. However, I can briefly say that the name of the church comes from a Byzantine princess who was a bride to the Mongolian khan.
18. Chora Church
Chora Church is undoubtedly the most special of the Byzantine sites in Istanbul. In some aspects, we can say that it is more attractive than Hagia Sophia. Because the church is home to magnificent Byzantine mosaics.
When Chora Church was first built, it was a monastic complex outside the city walls. After the Theodosian Walls were built, it remained within the new city walls. What makes Chora Church world famous is the magnificent Byzantine mosaics added in the 13th century.
Today, Chora Church serves under the name Kariye Mosque. This important Byzantine structure is located in the west of Istanbul’s Historic Peninsula, very close to the Walls of Constantinople.
Showcasing some of the most beautiful surviving Byzantine mosaics and frescoes, the Chora Church is definitely the highlight of private walking tour of Byzantine Istanbul.
19. Palace of the Porphyrogenitus
The Palace of the Porphyrogenitus is associated with Constantine VII, who lived in the 10th century. It is presumed that this building is an annex from the Palace of Blachernae, the main palace of the late Byzantine period.
The Palace of the Porphyrogenitus (known locally as Tekfur Palace) was among the Byzantine ruins in Istanbul for many years. However, the palace has recently undergone extensive restoration and now serves as the Tekfur Palace Tile Museum.
This building is an important part of Byzantine history tours in Istanbul. You can find this medieval Byzantine palace in a full day tour itinerary.
20. Walls of Constantinople
The Walls of Constantinople were revolutionary city walls built in the 5th century. The legendary walls built during the reign of Emperor Theodosius II are also known as Theodosian Walls.
The Theodosian Walls remained the strongest city walls in the world for nearly 1000 years. Consisting of three separate layers, the Walls of Constantinople were an impenetrable defensive system during the Middle Ages.
Theodosian Walls successfully defended Constantinople against Huns, Avars, Persians, Bulgarians, Arabs and Turks. Crossing these walls was only possible with the developments in artillery in the 15th century.
Byzantine History Tour in Istanbul (2023)
Byzantine history is full of mystery, wonder and beautiful architecture, and it can still be found in many historic locations within Istanbul. If you want to learn more about Byzantine art and culture, then a guided tour that will help to explain the sights is the best way to experience them.
We offer two different types of Byzantine history tour; a half-day one that covers the most important landmarks in the city and another that covers even more of the city to deliver a fuller experience of Constantinople.
Private tour of Byzantine Istanbul is organized by Serhat Engul, a licensed tour guide in Istanbul. This is considered as a private tour and there is no group tour to join. If you wish, you can organize your own private guided tour. You may kindly find the Contact Form here
1. Half-Day Byzantine History Tour in Istanbul
Half-day Byzantine history tour includes a visit of the Hippodrome, Great Palace Mosaic Museum, Little Hagia Sophia (Church of Sergius and Bacchus), Cistern of Philoxenos and Hagia Irene Museum. These are considered the essential landmarks to visit in Istanbul and this type of Istanbul Byzantine tour lasts around 3-4 hours in total.
- Hippodrome of Constantinople
- Cistern of Philoxenos
- Great Palace Mosaic Museum
- Little Hagia Sophia (Church of Sergius and Bacchus)
- Hagia Irene Museum
2. Full-Day Byzantine History Tour in Istanbul
Full-day Byzantine history tour includes the Hippodrome, Hagia Sophia, Basilica Cistern, Great Palace Mosaic Museum, Patriarchal Church of Saint George, Valens Aqueduct (from inside the taxi), Chora Church and the Palace of the Porphyrogenitus. This will give you the opportunity to see more of the wonderful city of Constantinople and marvel at the beautiful architecture that the Byzantines imbued the city with.
- Hippodrome of Constantinople
- Hagia Sophia
- Basilica Cistern
- Great Palace Mosaics Museum
- Church of Saint George
- Valens Aqueduct
- Chora Church
- Palace of the Porphyrogenitus
Byzantine ruins in Istanbul are of course not limited to those in this article. There are many other late Byzantine churches within the Historic Peninsula (former Constantinople).
If you are going to visit Istanbul and want to take a tour of the Byzantine monuments, you can organize a private guided tour with licensed tour guide Serhat Engul. So you can listen to the changes that the city has gone through in history from an insider.
Written by Serhat Engul