When I reflect back on the time we have in Istanbul, I always remember how cold the weather was. But what stays on our minds are the unbelievable sights beside the freezing weather. Too many mosques, bazaars, interesting structures and charming people keep on pondering onto my memory that it is hard to narrow down what exactly drew me there. It was an absolute melting pot of everything we’ve experienced while traveling.
In here, Europe and Asia meet and this makes it the perfect spot for any travel photographer. It has more jaw dropping sights you could ever imagine and an incredible cultural experience will follow you each step of the way. There are many must visit sights and places of interest in Istanbul and I would like to share some of our favorite. Take note of the 10 sights we considered visiting during winter if you’re a first timer like us. All illustrated through the lenses of my husband’s Nikon camera, my Fujifilm snaps and a few GoPro shots.
1. Süleymaniye Mosque/Suleymaniye Camii
Süleymaniye Mosque is Istanbul’s largest and grandest mosque. The whole mosque radiated some kind of serenity with its greyish brown bricks. It has a huge courtyard and really amazing interiors. The appealing reign of its interior and exterior and its perfect proportions will surely captivates you. Make sure to dress conservatively when visiting, it would be useful to have a scarf handy but if not they do lend headscarves and long skirts if needed.
Note: Free entry, donations are accepted, closed during prayer time. Open daily from 9 to 5:30pm
2. The Sultanahmet Mosque or The Blue Mosque
We visited this architecture wonder on a freezing but sunny day with the snow glistening on us. A truly stunning piece both inside and out that’s seared on my mind for life. Located in the Sultanahmet district neighboring the Hagia Sofia. The Blue Mosque two striking features are its 6 minarets and blue domed exterior. Perhaps, the most impressive we’ve seen in Istanbul. There were few people by the time we visited that enhanced the experience even more. You don’t have to be a follower of Islam to appreciate the innate beauty and spirituality emanating from here. It’s indeed a haven from the hustle and bustle of busy Sultanahment.
Note: Open daily from 9 until 5 pm, no entrance fee, but admission is restricted during prayer service, especially on Fridays. Be respectfully dressed. You can borrow suitable attire to cover up near the entrance.
3. Hagia Sofia/Museum
Entering Aya Sofya is like stepping into thousands years ago. It is mind-boggling to think about how this structure was constructed. This huge dome is facing the Blue Mosque. It was under construction when we visited but still it’s a beauty. But the first two mosque interior are more stunning in our opinion.
Note: Open daily from 9 until 5 pm (except Monday), admission is restricted during prayer service – especially on Fridays, entrance fee is 30 TL (included in Istanbul Museum Pass), we bought our pass at our Hotel (Yasmak Sultan). You can also buy online in this website. It is a good deal and convenient as it save your time from queuing.
4. Dolmahbace Palace
Out of all sights to see in Istanbul, the most intriguing has to be the grand and impressive Dolmahbace Palace. Home to the last six sultans of the abolished Ottoman Empire according to the website, it portrays everything that was right and wrong about their rule and reign for over 600 years. The main palace is a definite must-see, the opulence and riches of the Ottoman sultans is embedded in all 260+ rooms of the palace, with lavish chandeliers and towering ceilings. Best part is the grand ceremonial hall which is absolutely awe-inspiring! It is a pity that photos are not allowed and you can only explore with guided tour, but perhaps it is an ideal opportunity to take in everything with full attention rather than behind a camera lens. Definitely worth a visit.
Note: Photos are not permitted inside the palace and it’s not allowed to tour the inside areas on your own. You have to wait to join one of the scheduled tours. Be prepared to put on plastic with your shoes and perhaps wait in line. To appreciate the palace, I suggest a bit of background reading before you go, on its history and the last days of the Ottoman Empire. Tickets cost 40 TL – full access (NOT included in museum pass). It includes a tour guide in a group of other tourist. It is a 45 minutes tour. You can easily get here by tram and have a 5 minute walk to the palace proper. Opening hours is from 9am to 4pm every day except Monday and Thursdays. Come early to avoid the long queue.
5. Topkapi Palace
The Ottoman islamic architecture of the Topkapi palace had some real beautiful tile work in the Harem section. It was set among the most beautiful surroundings of gardens and trees. There are several thousand artifacts to study, all in descriptive detail. We got to see the hammam (Turkish bath) where the different tiles amazed us and we had a stroll around some of the other buildings. The views on the Bosphorus were also gorgeous, great scenery for photos.
Note: Located near Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque and Gulhane park, entrance fee is 30 TL (included in the Museum pass), no guide service is given here, tripod is not allowed, open everyday except Tuesdays from 9 to 5 PM.
6. Spice Bazaar/Egyptian Market
Walking through the spice markets you get a glimpse of the “east”. Patrolling the narrow streets on the way to the market felt both like the most traditional yet touristic part of the city. The market offers vividly colored spices, different kinds of tea, herbs, nuts, dried fruits, turkish sweets. All are perfect for good saturated vibrant looking photos.
Note: It was very crowded during the time we visited (around 3 to 5pm), some of the more interesting vendors are actually outside the bazaar, you can find many of the same goods for sale at less touristy prices. It is a lot smaller than the Grand Bazaar, located near the new mosque, Galata bridge and Suleymaniye mosque. Open daily from 8 am to 7 pm except Sunday and religious holidays.
7. Grand Bazaar
Grand Bazaar is essentially a massive tourist trap. Products range from carpets and clothing, souvenirs, ceramics to tableware, spices and Turkish delights. Almost all products are here but at a high and fanciful price so bargaining is required, like a starting price of 500 TL leather jacket can be 100 TL when a tourist shows disinterest. You can also find restaurants, cafes and even mosques here. Despite the size and the chaos of the place, we find ourselves strangely at ease with the rhythm of the market place or maybe because I love markets. It was a maze of alleyways, bustle, atmosphere, and a lot of products. Worth a look even if you have no money to spend just because it is one of the biggest and oldest indoor shopping markets in the world.
Note: Open daily from 8:30 am to 7 pm except Sunday and religious holidays. Pickpockets are another concern because it’s a crowded/touristy area, keep an eye out and your wallet/purse/bag in front of you.
8. Galata Tower/Galata Bridge
According to Wikipidea, the Galata Tower traces its origins back to the 6th century; however, its current appearance can be credited to a 1960s restoration, which rebuilt the remarkable copula after almost a hundred years without a top. Aside from history and a view, visitors can also find a restaurant and, at night, a nightclub at the top. We haven’t got the chance to climb the tower since the weather during the time we visited is dull and the view is covered in snow. Looking from the outside, it’s still worth visiting the area. We just walk around the area’s narrow streets, a lot of interesting shops and funky restaurants surrounds the tower.
With Galata bridge, we visited it at night and check it in the morning. It’s near our hotel location so it was convenient to visit anytime. A lot of people are fishing and it’s really crowded given the fact that there’s snow and rain. Underneath are restaurants and cafes. We failed to experience İstanbul at its most magical through walking across this bridge at sunset. Maybe it’s a way of this city telling us, “hey, you need to check out the sunset some other time!”
Note: It is located near the Sishane tram station, tower is open from 9 am to 5 pm with special hours for restaurant and bar visitors. Admission costs 25 TL.
9. Istiklal Street/Taksim Plaza
Probably the liveliest street of Istanbul is the Istiklal Caddesi since the place is bustling when we visited. It’s like a midpoint for everyone that visits Istanbul. It is an elegant pedestrian street which houses boutiques, music stores, bookstores, art galleries, cinemas, theatres, libraries, cafés, patisseries and restaurants. So much fun to walk along its wide street watching people coming from around the world and enjoying food and drinks with shopping at the same time. The area is quite expensive if you consider other places in Istanbul but still within limits. There are musicians and people singing making it feel more of the European vibe.
What we loved most and the reason we went here is the red tram passing the street every around 15 minutes. Seeing the tram will simply leave you nostalgic. With its slow movement and red color, definitely it’s worth a photo. We didn’t ride it though since a lot of tourist wants to ride in it and it gets really crowded. Although it’s as much a curiosity as a means of transport, you’ll find it useful if your feet are tired while walking this avenue. You can take the tram in one direction, then walk back along İstiklal Caddesi for a closer look, or a stop at its boutiques, restaurants, bars or cafes.
Note: To go here, from Sultanahmet square to Kabatas tram station, get off at Karakoy, go across the street and take the metro tunnel. We are using a metro card bought from our hotel for 10TL (deposit fee) that needs to be loaded at the station.
10. Chora Church/Kariye Museum
Kariye Museum is most likely a once in a lifetime experience if I could say that for all the Christians who would like to enjoy first class mosaics which recreate biblical scenes. They called it the Byzantian Renaissance, I would say that every art lover no matter in which religion believes should visit it. Be aware of the fact that you won’t be able to enjoy the outside part because it’s all covered and under construction.
Note: The church is far from Sultanahmet. We took a bus from Sultanahmet that cost 2TL each. The museum is open every day except Wednesday from 9am to 7pm. Admission is 15TL (included when you buy the 5-day museum pass).
So that’s all the top sights we have visited in Istanbul. We’ve also seen the Gulhane park covered in snow, the obelisk of Hippodrome in front of the Blue mosque, the New mosque in sunrise and pass by the Taksim plaza on a rainy afternoon. We failed to see the Basilica Cistern, Archaeological museum, Museum of Islamic and Turkish art and to experience a Bosphorus cruise. The main reason was the not so good weather we faced in Istanbul. Who would like to freeze while in a cruise anyway? The Basilica is also closed during that time and for the 2 museums, we haven’t got the time to visit it at all since we stayed for 5 days only.
But still, we loved Istanbul so much despite the struggle we’ve gone through especially with the visa application and the 3 hours flight delay we encountered. Simply because of 3 facts (1) I am with the best travel buddy on earth (2) a total new experience to us since it was our first DIY tour and (3) our first -2 degrees winter experience on a holiday!
Since this is the only city that spans across two continents it is such a unique place full of character and very rich in culture. Istanbul is filled of layers, an inviting city that amuses and teases. Once you start to explore and get to know it better, peel back the layer that’s the time when it truly starts to shine. It’s a destination unlike any other, a must visit metropolitan of Turkey.