Pelin Ayan is our Social Media Director – she also lives in Istanbul and has these recommendations (PDF file) for 3 days in the capital city.
Turkiye 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 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. With so much to see in Istanbul consider taking your turkey holidays within this amazing city.
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.