Turkey in the winter can be cold, very cold. However the cold and the largest snow storm in over 50 years did not stop me from spending as much time hopping from one tourist attraction to the next. Over a foot and a half of snow fell in Istanbul the week I was there, and western Turkey is simply not prepared to deal with this much snow. Snow plows were non-existent, everything ground to a halt and hotel rooms filled up with Turkish workers unable to leave the city centers after work. Traffic into the city was held to an absolute standstill. Depending on your perspective, Istanbul was transformed into a wintry wonderland overnight.
You know you are in Istanbul when you see the great domed mosques their pointed turrets rising between the buildings and the multitude of minarets. If you see Istanbul for the first time at night, its a glittering magical foreign city. The main city of Istanbul with approximately 15 million people has the unique distinction of sitting on two continents. The Asian side is referred to as Anatolian Istanbul and the European side is merely called European Istanbul. These "sides" of Istanbul are separated by the Sea of Marmara which runs into the Bosphorus which is a channel of water that physically divides Istanbul. The straits of Bosphorus run into the Black Sea - which is located only about 1 hour from Istanbul by car.
Turkey is one of the most historically significant countries in the world - its home to many famous historical figures - some real, some biblical and some mythical. Turkish history starts with a tour of Istanbul. Must see historical attractions include the Hagia Sofia, the Blue Mosque, and the Topkapi Palace. If you enjoy historical attractions and big cities then spend at least a week in Istanbul if your schedule will permit it, otherwise you can cram the highlights of Istanbul into about 3 full days.
There are many car rental companies in Istanbul and you can certainly rent a car to find your way around the city. The streets tend to be narrow and quite crowded at times. Turkish drivers have their 'own' way of navigating the roads and it can be quite perturbing and downright dangerous to those who have no experience driving with a certain amount of "chaos". I don't recommend renting a car for Istanbul driving. I would say rent it when you are ready to leave for other parts of Turkey and if you must rent before you leave, keep it at your hotel parking lot and utilize public transportation. As mentioned above driving in and around Istanbul is somewhat sketchy due to the poor/crazy drivers as well as a severe lack of parking.
There are two main bridges that cross the Bosphorus connecting the European and Asian sides of Istanbul. They are the mighty Bosphorus bridge and the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge. For those people without a car, using water taxis is the best and cheapest way to cross between the two sides. Water taxis are regularly scheduled from several ports one each side of Istanbul.
Dolmus's (minibuses) run on set routes with set prices. They are relatively inexpensive and easy to use. Istanbul has its own tram, metro and underground trains. Taxis are my least recommended choice of transportation unless they are used for relatively short distances. The reason for this is they are *very* expensive. For example a 25 minute ride to the airport cost approximately $40 and that was in the low season.
Istanbul can be quite cold in the winter and usually has periods of a light snowfall. Heavier snowfalls are rare. Istanbul can have rain and can be warm in the summer. You should also know that for tourists Turkey is primarily a summer destination. Outside of Istanbul (which is fine to visit year round) in the winter time many hotels and restaurants close down especially those located in towns near water. There are just no tourists in the winter to support their business. The weather can be very bad in the winter and because of snow and rain towns east of Istanbul are often very isolated and hard to reach. Some years finds most of Turkey east of Istanbul covered in snow.
There are many individual districts in Istanbul. When you refer to certain main attractions you preface by saying they are in such and such district. Sultanahmet located on the Golden Horn is one of the most well-known districts as it contains many of the "must see attraction". It is Istanbul's main historic district and if you spend even a little time in Istanbul you will wind up here. The Golden Horn is the term used to describe the Sultanahmet area and vicinity as this area is situated on a "horn" shaped section of land.
Beyoglu is located across a waterway from The Golden Horn mentioned above, and is a very trendy popular area with young Turkish and upscale tourists. The heart of Beyoglu is definitely Taksim Square which is a hub bub of activity and often the scene for demonstrations.
Note, some of the main historical attractions are only open on certain days of the week. Many are open from Tuesday through Sunday and are closed Mondays. The following attractions were visited by Dave in January 2004.
The Blue Mosque (Sultanahmet Camii) was constructed in the early 1600's. Admission is free but donations are accepted. Because this is such a heavily visited tourist destination tourists are only allowed to enter from one of the main side doors (instead of through the main door). This is one of Istanbul's most recognizable buildings from the outside. The Blue Mosques huge dome and tall spires can be seen from all over Istanbul. The name of this Mosque is taken from the many blue tiles that line the walls. Huge pillars support the inside of this mosque. This mosque is located directly across from the Hagia Sofia.
The Dolmabahce Palace in Besiktas costs $5 for the escorted tour. If you plan on using your camera inside the palace expect to pay another $5 and you will be given a special ticket for this privilege. Note, you are required to wear green plastic booties over your shoes - this helps preserve the rugs and other walkways in the palace. This palace sits on the European side of Istanbul right next to the water. It was built in the mid 1850's as a home to some of the last Sultans. Mustafa Kemal Attaturk (the Father of the Turks) died here in 1938. This is a guided tour among very elaborately furnished rooms, hamams, and the Throne room. The Throne room is an immense room which is where you end your tour. Note the huge chandelier hanging in this room. When this room was used for ceremonies and important gathering, It took 3 days to fully heat the room before it was ready for use.
The Clock Museum is located on the grounds of this palace and you usually receive a free admission ticket to this museum with your main entrance fee.
The Hagia Sofia located in the historical section of Istanbul called Sultanahmet, is simply one of the most amazing buildings in the world. Its breathtaking because it is such an old building but also in the way that it has been constructed. It is an immense dome supported only by the walls that surround it. There are no visible columnar structures like in the neighboring Blue Mosque (the dome actually rests on huge pillars hidden inside the walls). Construction on the The Hagia Sofia was completed in the year 537 by the emperor Justinian as a Church, but was later converted to a Mosque in the year 1453.
Kemal Attaturk in 1935 converted it into a historic museum. Walking in this building is like walking into a building unlike any building you've been in before. The doors are 4x the height of a person. There are huge marble columns supporting small side rooms. The main dome towers many feet above you and you will see the sun shining through high up stained glass windows. In early 2004 restoration was being undertaken on the main dome and a series of steel girders and trestles were in place from the floor to the ceiling.
One advantage of visiting the Hagia Sofia in the wintertime is that there are very few visitors. This is in vast contrast to the summer when you may not even get into his building because the crowds are so big. When I was there in January, there were very few people in this building and because its such a large building, you hardly notice the presence of the other visitors.
Be sure to walk up to the second floor. A sloped ramp instead of stairs leads to the second floor; this ramp is very medieval looking. Restoration of the ceiling on the second floor has already been done, and you can clearly see a difference in brilliance of the restored art work. Admission is $10.
The Istanbul Archaeology Museum is often missed by tourists and is under visited for the treasures it holds. Admission is about $4. This museum is located just down the hill from the Topkapi palace well within walking distance and is composed of several buildings situated on the side of a hill. The main buildings hold the best treasures. You enter the doors of the main museum by climbing up about 20 marble steps and then entering through 4 very tall columns. A great collection of Greek and Roman antiquities including many well preserved marble statues are contained within this building. (the only defects to these statues is that many of the noses on the faces are chipped or broken off entirely) Be sure to view the Sarcophagi from the city of Lebanon. These huge stone tombs are extremely detailed and well preserved. This is one of the main highlights of this museum.
The Topkapi Palace is well worth visiting and you need at least a full day to visit. This palace was home to Ottaman sultans for many centuries and is the main attraction in Istanbul. This palace was built in the mid 1400's. Admission is separated out into three main areas, the main palace, the Harem, and the Treasury. All of these sections are well worth seeing; the downside is that it costs $10 to get into each section. If you are a student and have a student card, discounts apply.
The main palace is a collection of courts, kitchens, and a variety of special rooms all surrounding garden courtyards and open spaces. Many historical government items are on display including clothing, weaponry, paintings, silverware and porcelain. Archeology exhibits also rotate.
The Harem is quite interesting - tours are guided here. Over three hundred rooms exist in the Harem and your tour will only touch on a small number of these. Some of the walls are exquisitely painted and or laid in beautiful tile. You will see the main greeting rooms and the private rooms all on the first level.
The treasury is well worth your visit. An amazing collection of gold, silver and gemstones are on display. The highlight of the treasury is an 86 carat diamond which is surrounded by many other smaller stones. A 7 pound uncut emerald is also worth seeing as are the incredible displays of golden crowns.
The Grand Bazaar is a collection of over 4500 shops - with this many shops located in one area its quite easy to get lost (part of the fun of shopping in The Grand Bazaar). The main walkways of this Bazaar tend to be a little more touristy than the side roads and as a result the prices are a little higher. Try to walk down some of the less visited back alleys for an authentic Grand Bazaar experience. Bargaining is accepted here unless the shops say "fixed price". Jewelry, carpets, Turkish Nargile (water smoking pipes), Turkish antiquities, clothing, kitchen items, and most anything you can think of are sold here. Be very very careful with your money, purse, wallet, camera or any other valuable you are carrying here. I have heard several stories from friends who have had their valuables stolen here. Some of the vendors can also become verbally aggressive with trying to sell you their wares. If you are interested in something, shop around for it and remember, always bargain.
The Maiden Tower is one of the smaller less visited highlights of Istanbul. It is located in the Sea of Marmara on a very small Island just off the coast of the Anatolian side of Istanbul. Its amazing to think when you are standing on this island that the original tower was built here in 600BC - thats over 2600 years ago! This is a popular romantic getaway for Turkish lovers. The current tower contains a restaurant and a bar. A free non alcoholic drink at the bar is included with the price of a ticket. Boats depart from the Anatolian side of Istanbul. You can hike up to the walkway on the top of the tower for great views of Istanbul.
Hidiv Kasri is a large building that sits on a hill. Its worth visiting not only for the neat interior halls of this building, but also for the great views of Istanbul across the water. There are three main halls, the Marble Hall, the Konkav Hall, and the Crystal Hall. Each contains fountains, carved marble and other artwork.
A nargile smoking restaurant is available outside of the main building. Nargile pipe smoking is becoming more and more popular in Turkey and is a form of 'water smoking'. There are many different types of flavors you can smoke - these flavors are put in the bowl of the pipe, which leads to hot water - so whenever you inhale you hear a bubbling sound. This restaurant is a good place to meet many young Turkish people. Sometimes live music will be played also; you can request your favorite songs.
The Galata Tower is located in the district of Beyoglu and was built in 1348 by Italians. There is an observation deck on top which provides great views of Istanbul. Admission is $3.50. You can also eat dinner here, but have deep pockets. Dinner is a set meal at $80 per person!