Well, let’s say it right away, for the hot weather we’ll have to come back another time, because we even had a snowstorm while in Istanbul during winter!
But as a result, we took advantage of the vagaries of the weather to discover a little better the different museums and mosques of the city and taste some Turkish specialities like Turkish loukoums and baklavas accompanied by a good little coffee (Turkish of course)!
In this article we take you for a walk in Istanbul in winter! Take out the blankets, and follow the guides!)
But before we start, a small map of Istanbul to help you find your way around!
We did this trip back in 2015. Since then, the turkish Lira has evolved a lot… While the exchange rate back in 2015 was about 1€ = 2,75 TL, it is now closer to 1€ = 7 TL. Thus, most prices that are indicated in this article are no longer valid. We tried to update it (August 2019) but this might still evolve depending on the turkish currency. But despite the fact the price changes a lot in TL it actually remains pretty stable if we consider it in € or in US $
The blue mosque
Probably one of the most famous mosques in the world, the pictures of the latter at sunset are known all over the world! By the way, we would have taken some pictures of it at sunset, but unfortunately the sun played hide-and-seek with us during our stay (and the sun clearly won the game… we almost didn’t see it!)
But well, we will have seen the blue mosque it in the clouds, in the fog and even in the middle of a snowstorm! I say it may not be as photogenic as the sunny version, but it was still the class!
And well, once inside the mosque, the vagaries of the weather are quickly forgotten! Because yes, we can without further ado enter the blue mosque, the only rules to respect are not to enter at the time of prayer and for the ladies to cover their heads with a scarf…. And believe me, it would be a real shame to miss it! See for yourself….
But what makes the mosque of Sultanahmet so special are the calls to prayer! More than 100 loudspeakers broadcast the songs of the Muezzin in the neighbourhood at the time of prayer, and believe us, with a volume of more than 100 decibels, it is impossible to miss them!
- Open to the public except on Friday mornings and during prayer hours.
- Free admission
- Free rental of clothing and scarves for women to cover themselves in a way that respects Muslim culture.
- Free guided tour once a day possible
The particularity of the place? It was originally a Christian church at the time of Costantinople, but it later became a mosque! But since 1934 Hagia Sofia has no longer been a place of worship, but a museum!
Well, not the kind of museum where you come to read lots of things, huh… The explanations are really quite poor, but it is a museum that can be observed! Moreover, it is not uncommon for tourists to come out of there with a real torticoli… The ceiling and the different domes are just so sublime meaning that you quickly tend to stay for long minutes with your nose in the air!
Little Bonus…. In addition to being an absolutely sublime place it is also home to many cats! 🙂 Don’t be surprised to find little cats in every corner!
- Hagia Sofia is open every day except Monday from 9am to 7pm (5pm in winter). But be careful, we really advise you to come to the opening because after that there is a tendency to be a crowd (even out of season).
- Admission fee :
30 TL72 TL
- On GetyourGuide they also offer the option of skip-the-line ticket combined with a guided tour (and then the possibility to stay on site). This option is not bad in order to have some historical context and the price is actually really fair (17€). See this tour
The Mosque of Suleymaniye
It is the largest of the imperial mosques in Istanbul! Much less visited than the blue mosque we found it just as beautiful and obviously calmer in terms of tourists… We even had the chance to attend a photo session of a newlyweds couple who came to immortalize their union within its walls!
But what we particularly liked about this mosque were the many explanatory panels on Islam! We are poor Catholics, but we know even less about other religions! In Suleymaniye there are many panels that explain a little better the foundations of Islam, customs, but above all, many information that challenges a little to all the nonsense that can sometimes be read in the media…
A little bonus for the places? The absolutely sublime view of Istanbul! This is where we saw our only rays of sunshine! No sunset for our stay, but Benoit managed to capture a little sunrise! Well, yes, I was asleep…. Of course…..
Visit of the Grand Palais and the Harem
The heart of the Ottoman Empire, the Tokapi Palace was the home of the Sultans for more than 400 years, and the least we can say is that, at the time, guys saw things big! 700’000 square meters and has more than 100 rooms!
Built on the site of the Acropolis of Byzantium, the palace has a plunging view of the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn!
Don’t come here with the idea of coming “quickly”, eh! The visit takes at least 3 or 4 hours (see much more if you want to read all the information)…
The exhibition is really well done, and it is without the slightest trouble that we manage to get an idea of the life that the sultans were supposed to lead here!
Personally, I was very impressed by the kitchens! Huge rooms in which more than 4000 meals were prepared every day for the sultan, his court and the employees, the inhabitants of the palace! 800 people worked there full-time!
Benoit would have liked to see himself with a harem
But strangely enough, Benoit is not so much the kitchens that marked him… He rather liked the harem! Hehe what do you want, 300 rooms dedicated only to the concubines of the sultan….
Benoit was already imagining the nearly 300 women taking it easy on the many silk armchairs, lounging in the incredible rooms with incredible decorations or splashing around in the huge pool overlooking the Bosphorus!
Yes, yes, Benoit would have seen himself as a sultan! Well, at the same time, the sultan was really the only guy who was lucky in the area…. Because to watch these 300 ladies there were 100 gentlemen… but beware, nobody touches the courtesans! So the 100 guards were eunuchs… Uhhhh what? For those who would not know, eunuchs are men that are… castrated (ouch!).
- Open every day of the week except Tuesday from 9am to 5pm
30 TL72 TL for the Grand Palais and 15 TL42 TL for the harem
- Our advice: It’s crowded, so come at 9:00 sharp and go directly to the Harem!
The underground basilica
Many of you recommended a visit to the basilica cistern on our facebook page, so we weren’t going to miss it! And indeed the visit is really worth it! When we walk through the streets of the center we don’t even suspect what is actually under our feet… because Yerebatan (the Turkish name) is 1000m2 and 336 marble columns, all this under our feet!
We enter the basilica a little like in a small cellar…. The door is not very big, and the slightly slippery and dark staircase does not let you guess what awaits us down there! The place is how to say… impressive, improbable, magical and grim (yes I know these adjectives don’t go well together, but that’s really what comes to mind…)
Let’s hop over to Asia
One of the particularities of Istanbul is to be between East and West, or between Europe and Asia if you prefer… The historic centre and the blue mosque are in Europe, but all you have to do is take a ferry to find yourself on the Asian continent!
We had left Asia almost 10 months earlier, but the opportunity to return to the continent was too beautiful! By the way, if you want to read our article on our first Asian impressions again, it’s this way.
Cruise on the Bosporus
In addition we would have really liked to do a small cruise on the Bosporus, but the more than capricious weather of our stay made us give up…. So crossing by ferry was a form of small compromise! We decided to walk a little, so we took the boat to the port of Uskudär and then walked to the port of Kadiköy, a small 7-8 km walk.
Info: The ferry costs 4 TL, regular departures
Much less touristic, this side of Istanbul certainly has a lot of charm, even if we have to admit we have found the area a little quiet… Well… For the beginning of the walk especially! In the end we found ourselves in the middle of a political demonstration! We reassure you, eh, a pacifist demonstration, but for there was animation!
The big bazaar and the spice market
Almost a must in Istanbul, the big bazaar is one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world! Once inside you feel almost like in a city in the city! Merchants who solicit you to come and see their products every 2 meters, smells of spices and food soar in the atmosphere and especially an impressive crowd of tourists! (Apparently the bazaar welcomes between 250’000 and 400’000 visitors every day!!!!!)
In short, we really enjoyed the stroll, even if we found the spice market not far from the resort of Eminönü much more pleasant. In fact, in the big bazaar we quickly realized that we had not missed the solicitations of sellers as much as in Asia… We recommend the walk, but for the shopping make sure to bring enough patience (and cash)
- The Grand Bazaar is open every day from Monday to Saturday from 9am to 7pm except on public holidays. Closed on Sundays.
What do you find there? Everything! 🙂
- The spice bazaar is located within walking distance of the large bazaar towards the port of Eminönü.
- Open every day from 9am to 7pm, except on Sundays when it is open from 10am to 6pm.
What do you find there? Well as its name suggests, mainly spices (no shit!), but also many Turkish sweets like baklava, loukoums or walnuts/amonds in all forms!
The Galata Bridge
The bridge that connects the old city of Istanbul to the Taksim Square district is not in itself special in terms of its architecture, but what makes it so special is the many fishermen who gather here every day to indulge in their favourite sport!
It’s funny because we really had the impression that all the fishermen’s coolers were almost empty, but that the loot didn’t really matter! Here men meet in all weathers (yes, even when it snows!) to discuss, exchange advice and from time to time throw their line into the water while enjoying a view of the thunder on the Grand Palais and the blue mosque!
The Taksim district: street art & original shops
Once you pass the Galata bridge you will find yourself in the Beyoglu district, from there several options… Either stay on the main street to reach Taksim Square; the main street of Pera, a pedestrian avenue where many large shopping chains and restaurants follow one another. Or opt for the small alleys in the antique dealers’ district!
And to tell you the truth, we really fell in love with this part of the city! There are many small shops, bars and cafés on every street corner, but above all an impressive number of antique dealers, flea markets and other shops with a slightly more “alternative” style. In short, an ideal place to stroll and enjoy a good meal at a much more reasonable price than on the other side of the Galata Bridge!
Where to stay in Istanbul
Istanbul is a tourist city, so it is as much to say that there is no shortage of accommodation! To choose your neighbourhood there are several options….
Stay on the Asian side to be a little away from tourism and fully enjoy a more “authentic” atmosphere.
Stay directly in the vicinity of the blue mosque in the heart of the Fatih district and have the luxury of being able to visit many of the main attractions on foot, or go find your happiness in the district towards Taksim Square; a booming area that is a little more alternative (not to say hipster). 😉
For us, the choice was finally made for Sultanahmet, the historical centre! Well yes, it’s the cheapest place…. We stayed at the Istikal Hostel. We opted for a 10-bed dormitory and frankly we were very happy! Then we don’t hide from you that we were lucky! We had booked the dormitory for 10 and when we arrived it was full… So they offered us the dormitory for 6 people (at the same price), and we were lucky enough to get the dormitory just for us 4 nights (out of 5)!
In Istanbul there are also plenty of apartment rentals. The only thing is that the regulation is pretty strict (they need a licence in the center). You can compare the hotels and apartments prices on the map below:
Budget for a weekend in Istanbul
Istanbul is a city that is increasingly popular for a short weekend getaway, so it makes sense that prices are a little higher there than in Tbilisi or Vilnius!
But overall, we managed our budget well; over the 6 days we spent a total of 323€, thus, an average of 26.9€ per day and per person.
Here are our expenses in more detail:
Remarks on our budget in Istanbul:
- The official currency is the Turkish lira. 1€ = 2,75 TL (turkish Lira)
- Important: These numbers (and exchange rate) are the ones from back in 2015. There was a lot of inflation and now 1€ is closer to 7 TL. Thus all prices stated in TL below are no longer valid, but the “value” is € stayed pretty stable… Thus, Hagia Sofia now 72 TL (July 2019) which still represents about 10€.
- Visits are relatively expensive…. Count 25 TL for Hagia Sofia, 25TL for the Grand Palais + 15TL for Harem, 10 TL for the tank basilica
- To eat, we really recommend that you leave the main street and the blue mosque district! Everything is double the price!
For example, a simple kebab costs between 5 and 10 TL close to Hagia Sofia, while if you walk 3 or 4 blocks away, the latter costs 2 TL !A bus, tram or ferry trip costs 4TL and allows you to go as far as you want without change.
- In Istanbul prices fluctuate greatly according to the tourist seasons! Hotel prices can easily triple from one to three times in high season! The high season is from mid-March to the end of May and from September to the end of October.
That’s it, we’re done with this first little tour of Istanbul! The city is simply so huge and beautiful that there are of course many other things to discover… But we hope we have already given you some ideas for a short weekend in Istanbul!
We look forward to seeing you soon for a trip to Santorini! But in the meantime we give you a big hug from Switzerland…. Because yes, for those who don’t know it yet, we are now back home!!!!!! 🙂
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