Winter in Istanbul
Sometimes the best travel experiences come from not following the crowds. In fact, in one of the world’s most lauded cities, avoiding the herd can result in a far more enriching experience. Istanbul is a destination that stirs the emotions of historians, culture lovers and travelers alike. If you are prepared to visit this enigmatic city out of peak season, some of its greatest treasures can be enjoyed (almost) all to yourself. Istanbul is a dynamic, modern metropolis steeped in history, a place of continuous global significance for thousands of years. It connects Asia and Europe, straddling the Bosphorus Strait and enduring as an epicenter for culture, art and trade. Istanbul is beautiful and fascinating and it is no wonder that almost everyone with an incurable wanderlust has Istanbul high on their list. And here lies the problem.
Istanbul welcomes 13 million visitors annually and during peak travel times, congestion at many of the famous landmarks and heritage sites can be significant. Nothing crushes a sightseeing itinerary like a two-hour wait in line at each location. Winter in Istanbul has its challenges as well. Daytime temperatures can hover a little above freezing and at times the city is subject to reasonable snow falls. However, there is an undeniable romantic appeal to the seeing the towers of the ancient mosques dusted in snow. Here are six ways to skip the crowds and see the city’s less-touristy sights in the winter.
The Blue Mosque
The Sultan Ahmed Mosque, known as The Blue Mosque for the blue tiles surrounding the walls of its interior is breathtaking. The 400-year-old Mosque is beautiful and although a popular place for tourists to visit, is still a functioning mosque and not a museum. As such, at scheduled prayer times each day visitors must leave. In summer, expect a wait of several hours to get a peek inside. In the winter there were very few tourists and no lines. The majority of people inside the towering and intensely ornate main chamber were not tourists, but those reverently observing their faith. It feels like a more authentic and beautiful experience.
A small, non-descript building is the entryway to ancient Roman cisterns. The perfectly-preserved, subterranean monument is a testimony to Roman building techniques. The scale and beauty of the construction made to simply store water is stunning. The arches and columns cover several acres underground. We shared the experience with a few students and visiting historians, much different from the masses that visit during peak season.
If there is ever doubt about the engineering brilliance and sophistication of the ancient world, it is immediately removed by a visit to the Hagia Sophia museum. Built from 537 until 1453, it is the epitome of Byzantine architecture and it was the world’s largest cathedral for nearly a 1,000 years. Inside, the enormous stones at the base are rubbed smooth by the hands and feet of countless visitors over the ages. Gazing up, the cavernous expanse of the main hall is capped by magnificent domes with small windows that allow the beams of light to crisscross the room.
The fascination and reverence of art doesn’t stop with antiquities in the city. The Istanbul Modern art museum provides a contemporary and experimental contrast against the backdrop of Istanbul’s heritage. The Modern pushes boundaries in painting, sculpture and installation featuring some of Turkey’s finest contemporary artists as well as the hottest talent from around the world. It feels more poignant in the context of this city.
Even the most intrepid explorer needs a temporary respite from the cold, and a Turkish Hammam may be the greatest antidote to an over-chilled traveler. This traditional Islamic bathhouse known for heat, steam and massage must be experienced. Within the Raffles hotel, the traditional hammam offers an authentic experience and while it is a massage, it would be a misconception to think it is similar to a soothing Balinese Zen-fest. Wearing nothing but a towel, guests can prepare for the experience by acclimating in the steam room before being led to the main chamber designed with wall-to-wall stones and an altar-like slab in the center of the room. Lying on the main hot slab, hot water is rapidly poured over the body before a very firm, full body exfoliation and equally strong massage.
Istanbul has been a center of world trade for centuries, so shopping is serious business. To see where shopping malls started, visit the Grand Bazaar. This is the oldest covered market in the world and a heaving, scintillating experience with 4,000 shops employing over 30,000 people and attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors daily. Gold, leather goods and artisan rug traders are plentiful, but don’t expect a casual shopping experience. Pressure is high, bargaining is fierce and it can be difficult to leave without first having tea with the owner.