Despite being located by Turkey’s borders with Greece and Bulgaria, Edirne maintains a distinctly Ottoman feel. The city functioned as the empire’s capital from 1369 until the conquest of Constantinople in 1453. But Edirne wasn’t forgotten, as later sultans would continue commissioning elaborate mosques and even large hospitals here. In the following Edirne guide, we’ll be covering the best things to do and see over the course of a weekend in town.
Edirne can easily be visited from Istanbul, but at least one night is recommended. It’s also worth a stop for those making their way to or from the European Union. With only around 165,000 inhabitants, Edirne has never come close to catching up with Istanbul’s growth, but it still contains some of the country’s most important mosques.
And as we’ll go over below, a few remnants of the city’s ancient past can be found as well. Originally known as Hadrianopolis, the city was founded by Emperor Hadrian in the 2nd century AD.
Also be sure to check the end of this Edirne guide for tips on transport and accommodation.
Edirne’s most famous structure is Selimiye Mosque, commissioned by Sultan Selim II and completed in 1575 – more than a century after the shift to Constantinople. Many find it to be even more impressive than the prominent mosques of Istanbul.
In fact, the mosque’s architect, Mimar Sinan, considered Selimiye to be his masterpiece. Sinan was also behind structures like the Şehzade Mosque, Süleymaniye Mosque and the Topkapı Palace Harem. In total, he was responsible for hundreds of building projects throughout the empire.
Mimar Sinan is believed to have been a convert to Islam of Armenian or Greek origin. And the main source of inspiration for his mosques was the Hagia Sophia, constructed a thousand years before his lifetime.
This is clearly evidenced by Selimiye and its tall central dome surrounded by eighteen smaller ones, including four half domes.
Approaching the mosque, you’ll enter the huge courtyard centered around an intricate ablution fountain. Standing under the arched gallery, take note of the complex geometry used in the massive structure’s design.
Within Selimiye Mosque’s spacious interior, note how the tall central dome, which reaches 31 m off the ground, is propped up by eight huge pillars. They’re placed along the walls, forming an octagon – quite an innovation for its time.
Sinan designed this mosque so that the mihrab, or the niche which indicates the direction of Mecca, could be seen from anywhere within.
If you look carefully up at the dome, you can spot some evidence of damage in the center. This was caused by Bulgarian artillery during a siege in 1913, and the damage was considered too minor to require repair.
Surrounding the mosque are things like a hospital, theological school and even shops. In fact, a staircase just behind the courtyard will lead you to a shopping bazaar that remains busy with activity to this day.
Eski Ulu Camii
Just nearby Selimiye Mosque is Eski Uli Camii, or the ‘Old Grand Mosque.’ As the name suggests, this was the original prominent mosque in the city, and it was modeled after the Grand Mosque of Bursa, the very first Ottoman capital.
Constructed between 1403-14, it remains one of Edirne’s most impressive structures. And while surely a controversial opinion, I personally prefer this one over neighboring Selimiye.
Originally built with a single minaret, a second one with two balconies was added a few decades later. Another interesting feature of the mosque is that it’s topped with nine small domes, while several more top the portico in front.
Stepping inside the portico, you’ll notice large Arabic calligraphy on the exterior wall. Here the names of Allah and Muhammad are spelled out at either end.
All of the pillars and walls of the interior are also adorned with similar calligraphic inscriptions. Over the years, they were added by various artists from throughout the Ottoman Empire.
All of the arches feature detailed geometric patterns, while each of the nine domes has been ornately decorated as well.
Near the mimbar (pulpit), look out for a black stone in the wall that’s said to come from the Kaaba in Mecca. Known as the Rukn-u Yemani, locals pray in front of it in hopes that their wishes will be granted.
The mosque’s architect was a man named Haci Alaeddin from Konya, the former capital of the Seljuks.
As with Selimiye, there’s a covered bazaar outside which dates back to the time of the mosque’s construction. Inside, you’ll find shops selling handicrafts, souvenirs and sweets.
Three Balconies Mosque
Yet another one of Edirne’s classic mosques is the Three Balconies Mosque. Known locally as Üç Şerefeli, it was built in 1447 during the reign of Sultan Murat II.
The mosque is known for its four minarets, each of which has a distinct design. And its name is derived from the three balconies adorning the tallest one.
Stepping inside, you’ll enter the spacious porticoed courtyard, constructed over a century before that of Selimiye Mosque. And from the center, you’ll be able to view all four minarets.
At the time this mosque was built, it replaced Eski Ulu Camii as Edirne’s primary mosque. It therefore functioned as the Ottoman Empire’s main mosque until the conversion of the Hagia Sophia. Strangely, its architect remains a mystery.
The mosque’s central dome is supported by six pillars. And both the dome and the wall around the mihrab are entirely decorated with intricate geometric and floral patterns.
In contrast to the other mosques mentioned above, the Three Balconies Mosque seldom receives tourists, and you may have it all to yourself outside of prayer time.
Just across the street from one of the mosque’s entrances is the well-preserved Sokollu Mehmet Pasha Hammam, a bathhouse constructed by Mimar Sinan in the 16th century. It’s named after the Grand Vizier of the Ottoman Empire at the time, Sokollu Mehmet Pasha, who was of Bosnian origin.
The Macedonian Tower
Also across the street from the Three Balconies Mosque is another significant yet overlooked landmark. And out of all the landmarks featured in this Edirne guide, it’s the only one to predate Ottoman times. Sadly, the Ottomans demolished most of it in 1866, leaving only a few scant remains.
The Macedonian Tower is the main surviving structure of the Edirne Castle complex, built during the 2nd century AD during the reign of Emperor Hadrian. As mentioned earlier, Hadrian also named the city Hadrianopolis after himself.
The Macedonian Tower, one of four original bastions, remained in use throughout the Byzantine and Ottoman eras.
Following the demolition of the castle, a local governor decided to build a clocktower atop the bastion in 1884. But it was badly damaged by an earthquake in 1953, and subsequently brought down entirely.
A photograph on-site shows us that it once would’ve dominated the Edirne skyline together with Selimiye Mosque.
Walking around the small archaeological site, which can be explored in 10-15 minutes, you’ll spot some of the remnants of the original fortification walls. First built by the Romans, they were later added to by the Byzantines.
Inside, you can also spot the remains of a pottery oven from the 10th century. Some of the more significant finds from the site, meanwhile, are now on display at the Edirne Museum (more below).
While there’s some helpful informational signage around the site, some of the signs were knocked over while no staff or guards seem to be working here at all.
The overgrown grass is also becoming an issue and the place seems to have been completely ignored for quite some time. Given its central location, this level of neglect is puzzling.
Situated on the other side of Selimiye Mosque, the compact Edirne Museum, open daily from 10:00-16:30, is worth a quick look.
As with the Macedonian Tower mentioned above, it offers a change of pace from the numerous Ottoman monuments throughout town. The museum largely focuses on the Bronze Age, Roman and Byzantine eras of Edirne and elsewhere in Eastern Thrace.
Among the most notable items on display is a grave stele dating from the 1st-2nd centuries AD. It was discovered just outside of Edirne Castle in an area used as a necropolis in Roman times. An image of the entombed family was carved on it in high relief.
Also on display are Bronze Age artifacts from the Taslicabayir Tumulus some 5 km outside of town, in addition to a sizeable collection of ancient Greek pottery.
Outside, meanwhile, is a collection of ancient sarcophagi and gravestones discovered throughout the area. And there’s even an ancient stone dolmen found somewhere in the region.
Complex of Bayezid II Health Museum
While somewhat outside the city center, no visitor to Edirne should miss the Complex of Bayezid II Health Museum, one of the largest and most interesting historical sites in the city.
It was established by Sultan Bayezid II, the 8th sultan of the Ottoman Empire, who took the throne in 1481. His father, Mehmed the Conqueror, had already invaded Constantinople and made it the new Ottoman capital.
But later, upon Bayezid II’s visit to Edirne in 1484, he met with locals who expressed the necessity for a hospital.
The sultan agreed, and the hospital complex was constructed over the course of four years by architect Hayrettin. Now a public museum, it’s remarkable for both its architecture and the comprehensive info provided about Ottoman healing techniques.
The Ottomans worked with the theory of Humorism which dates back to ancient Greek times. They believed that vital body fluids, or humors, corresponded with the different elements that make up the universe.
For example, blood was associated with Air, yellow bile with Fire, black bile with Earth, and phlegm with Water. Furthermore, each vital fluid corresponded with a particular organ. The Ottomans believed that illnesses would arise from imbalances of these fluids within the body.
The main hospital area consists of no less than 27 exhibition rooms, though not all of them correlate with the specific treatments provided in that space.
Just about any ailment one could think of was treated at the hospital, from eye problems, ear-nose-throat diseases, dental problems and reproductive health issues.
Surgeries were routinely carried out here as well, though they were often considered a last resort. Interestingly, the Ottomans also placed a heavy emphasis on music therapy.
Although separated by nearly two thousand years, it reminded me of the large healing complex in Pergamon called the Asclepion, at which a theater was built to soothe patients’ nerves.
The hospital also treated mental illness, and patients with especially severe psychological disorders were kept isolated. The museum curators certainly did a good job at making some of these exhibits feel extra creepy.
Additionally, the hospital complex contained a medical school with eighteen classrooms, some of which now function as museum exhibitions.
One room demonstrates an interesting example of Ottoman experimental medicine in which a doctor tested some snake anti-venom on a rooster!
The health museum is also home to an elaborate mosque. And despite its great state of preservation, it’s no longer active, and the prayer hall was off-limits at the time of my visit.
Yet another structure within the large hospital complex is that of the kitchen. Here a large community of cooks would prepare food for the patients as well as all of the hospital employees.
All in all, the Complex of Bayezid II Health Museum makes for a unique visiting experience that’s unlike anything else you’ll find in Turkey.
The museum can be accessed on foot from the city center in about 25-30 minutes. And on the way there, you’ll pass by some other interesting landmarks, such as Muradiye Mosque and the former Ottoman royal palace.
Destroyed in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877, hardly anything remains of the palace complex, and getting up close was prohibited during my visit.
Edirne Old Town
During your visit to Edirne, it’s also worth taking a walk through the Old City, or Kaleiçi. Spread out over several blocks around Maarif Caddesi, you’ll encounter numerous traditional wooden houses, many of which date to the 19th century.
Some are in a better state of preservation than others, with a few of the houses having collapsed entirely.
Also in this district is a synagogue that’s said to be the largest in all of Turkey. While supposedly open now as a museum, it appeared to be closed during my visit.
A popular sunset viewing spot is Meriç Bridge, one of many Ottoman-era bridges to be found throughout the city. This one, however, is the largest and most famous of the bunch.
Located to the south of the city center, it’s about 15 minutes on foot from the Old Town district.
The bridge, named after the Meriç River, is among the most recent Ottoman landmarks in the city, having been built in the mid-19th century.
It features a total of twelve arches and stretches out to 263 meters. While probably the least essential landmark of this Edirne guide, it makes for a nice walk if you have a free evening.
Edirne is situated a few hours west of Istanbul, right by the borders with both Greece and Bulgaria. For those entering Turkey by land from the EU, consider spending a night in Edirne before making your way to Istanbul.
For those coming to Edirne from Istanbul, the easiest way to do so is by bus. There aren’t nearly as many buses to Edirne as one might think, though. Only two companies, Metro and Nilüfer, offer routes there.
Getting there, I went with Metro who were charging 75 TL, while the bus was 40 minutes late. Taking Nilüfer on the way back, they were charging the same amount.
Before your visit, it would be wise to check the timetable in advance on a site like BusBud or Obilet. Only coach buses are an option, and no minibuses run between the two cities.
Once in town, regular public buses run between the Edirne otogar (bus terminal) and the city center.
Edirne is a pretty small city, and as long as you’re relatively close to the center, all of the locations in the Edirne guide above should be walkable.
As a budget traveler, I chose a hotel called Otel 22, situated near Edirne’s Old Town. For around $10 per night, I had a basic room with a private bathroom, while a simple breakfast was included as well.
The water wasn’t working upon my arrival, but they thankfully fixed it by evening. And while not as quiet as I would’ve liked, either, Otel 22 was fine for a one-night stay.
While the Turkish government isn’t quite as extreme as China when it comes to online censorship, you’ll probably want a decent VPN before your visit.
I’ve tried out a couple of different companies and have found ExpressVPN to be the most reliable.
Booking.com is currently banned in the country (at least when you search for domestic accommodation). However, there are actually quite a few Turkish hotels listed on there anyway. And many them don’t even appear on Hotels.com, which hasn’t been banned.
Over the course of my trip, I ended up making quite a few reservations with Booking.com and was really glad I had a VPN to do so.
Another major site that’s banned is PayPal. If you want to access your account at all during your travels, a VPN is a must.
While those are the only two major sites that I noticed were banned during my trip, Turkey has even gone as far as banning Wikipedia and Twitter in the past.