I went to Turkey in winter last year, and interestingly some people thought it would be warm, as one of my colleagues put it “I always imagined Turkey as nice and warm.” I had to tell him that no, Turkey has winter too. In fact it could be very cold at some cities, it could even snow.
It might’ve been weird to choose to go to a Muslim country around Christmas time, but I guess I’m just odd that way. I have made clear in the past that I loved Turkey and loved all the 16 days I spent there. I’ve also written the itinerary, tips and tricks for traveling in Turkey, but I haven’t written specifically about Istanbul (I have even written about Safranbolu, the UNESCO World Heritage village!).
I spent about 4.5 days in Istanbul and I could easily spend more time. Some people we met in Turkey talked about how you should spend at least 10 days in it, which might be a bit of an overkill if you don’t have much time and budget (If you have 10 days I suggest you to also go to other parts of Turkey apart from Istanbul). But I would say 4-5 days is the minimum to do Istanbul justice, and that way hopefully avoiding the whole “run around, take photos, and move on” touristy shenanigans.
I’ve got most of Istanbul tips from Rick Steves’ Istanbul, which was very useful, like always (I’m a big fan of Rick Steves’ guide books). The most memorable sights for me were:
Hagia Sophia (obviously) and the Blue Mosque
These two sights are amazingly located facing each other. In fact, it’s easy to mistake Blue Mosque for Hagia Sophia, because the Blue Mosque actually looks more impressive from the outside than Hagia Sophia! (Or at least that’s what I thought. Hagia Sophia fans don’t start to bash me for this now, they both look impressive really.)
Hagia Sophia is now a museum, rightly so because it is so old, has so many interesting things inside, and easily warrants a whole post on its own. The Blue Mosque on the other hand, is a functional mosque, so people do pray inside. Unlike in Morocco where you cannot go into any mosque if you’re not Muslim, in Turkey you can, including the Blue Mosque (and unlike Hagia Sophia, it’s free!). You just need to make sure that your head is covered (you could even use your jacket hood) and that you take off your shoes before entering. Both mosques look as incredible on the inside as they are on the outside, so make sure you spare a good amount of time for these two beauties.
Also amazingly located very near to the two awesome mosques is this underground cistern that’s dated from the 6th century in the Roman period. I first knew about this amazing looking place from Simon Sebag-Montefiore BBC documentary on Istanbul, and I was super intrigued, so I made sure that we went there. Lucky we did, as it was the most atmospheric place and it blew our mind. This easily could be my favourite sight in Istanbul, it is THAT good. So please please don’t miss it. Also do not miss the two Medusa heads at the end of the cistern. Blew our mind, I’m telling you!
The Grand Bazaar is one of the oldest and largest covered markets in the world. I cannot even put into words how big it is. Let’s just say we were there for a couple of hours and felt that we had not even scratched the surface of the mighty bazaar. The corridors went on forever to multiple directions, you could easily get lost. It was amazing.
This last one isn’t really a sight, but a very unique experience. You could take ferry along the Bosphorus channel and see Europe and Asia at the same time. We did not land on the Asian shore, as that would need a much longer ferry journey somehow (6 hours to go to the Asian village on the far side and back). We did however cross the continents of Asia and Europe days later at Çanakkale (near the site of Troy). They say Istanbul and Çanakkale are the only two cities where you can cross from Europe to Asia and vice versa. Check out this post for crossing continents between Europe and Africa.
So a year later these are the memories that are vivid in my mind. I love Istanbul so much. It’s the kind of city that I want to go back to again someday :).
For deals on accommodations in Istanbul you can check venere.com and book there. We stayed near Tamsik Square for a few nights, went around other parts of Turkey, and came back for another last night (staying behind the Blue Mosque) before departing back to London. Tamsik Square is great for the proximity to shops and food, but it could be noisy at night (especially weekend). Behind the Blue Mosque is great for the proximity to major sights. Either way, it is easy to go around in Istanbul, with tram or on foot, and we only met nice people all around who were happy to help.
Historic Areas of Istanbul is a UNESCO World Heritage, inscribed in 1985.