Ah, Istanbul in January. Many people scoff at travelling this winter month, but Istanbul steps up as a perfect city break destination. If you are willing to forget about sun scream, sunbathing and swimming, in return for cultural heritage and urban vibes, head to Istanbul after your new year celebrations. Benefits of visiting in January include fewer crowds at major tourist attractions, cheaper flight and hotel prices, traditional winter food and drinks like Salep. Additionally, there are fewer passengers to visit other places in Turkey via plane or coach. Istanbul also sits near some of Turkey's best skiing spots. Yes, Turkey’s numerous skiing destinations surprises many first-time visitors. So, if you plan to visit Istanbul during this month, let us look at what to expect, where to stay and things to do.
About Istanbul in January
Istanbul Weather and Temperatures in January
Daytime January temperatures in Istanbul range between 3 to 10 Celsius and dip further at night. However, these temperatures seem colder if Istanbul experiences high Balkans winds, which happens occasionally. During January, expect random snow occurrences, but not enough to stop traffic or grind public life to a halt. One downside to January visits to Istanbul is fog, hence hours of sunshine lessen to an average of 2.5 hours a day. So time your visit to attractions wisely to snap perfect holiday photographs. Temperatures are too cold to go swimming, but Istanbul does have several hotels with indoor swimming and spa facilities. Pack an umbrella because there will be days with rain.
Where to Stay in Istanbul
First-time visitors should stay in or around Sultanahmet because this area features Istanbul's most popular tourist attractions; Topkapi Palace, Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia. Alternatively, to experience shopping and nightlife, book a Turkish hotel in Taksim or other Beyoglu neighbourhoods. Visitors who want to stay away from mainstream tourist attractions and see an alternative side of Istanbul should book a hotel in the Asian Kadikoy or Uskudar neighbourhoods.
What to Do in January–Top Eight Attractions
Hagia Sophia: This building has had many purposes during its lifetime, including a museum, church and now an Istanbul Mosque. First constructed in 360AD, rioting locals destroyed the first Hagia Sophia. After rebuilding by Emperor Constantine, Hagia Sophia was the world's largest domed building, admired by everyone near and far. Given the church status, one would assume Ottomans would have destroyed the landmark when they invaded Constantinople in 1453. Yet, Mehmet the Conqueror converted it into a mosque after allowing his soldiers to pillage return for their promise to join his fight. These days, the interior of this amazing Istanbul landmark amazes everyone, with a large hall, and dome and eye-catching Islamic calligraphy plaques. A winding stone staircase leading off the main hall takes visitors to the upper level and best viewing point.
Blue Mosque: Directly opposite the Hagia Sophia of Istanbul, the Blue Mosque stands tall and proud. From the arched gateways, visitors enter a courtyard and take their shoes off to enter. This landmark building symbolised fine Ottoman architecture and was partly inspired by the opposite Hagia Sophia. Built in 1616 as an imperial Ottoman Mosque, just over 400 years later, the Blue Mosque of Istanbul still functions as an iconic place of worship and tourist attraction. Blue interior ceiling tiles gave the building its nickname, but Istanbul locals call the landmark Sultanahmet Camii. Visitors don't pay admission is free, but mosque officials accept donations via the entry box. Remember when visiting to dress accordingly and women should cover their heads.
Topkapi Palace: Stunning Topkapi Palace displays a unique architectural style representing the Ottoman sultans' first home and place where they ruled their lands worldwide. Sitting by the Bosphorus Strait of Istanbul, Sultan Mehmet II (known as The Conqueror) started the 18-year construction project in 1460. After Mehmet's death, Topkapi Palace was the home for all his successors until they moved to Dolmabahce palace at the end of the 19th century. At this point, Topkapi fell into a terrible state and hardly reflected an iconic building from which decisions made affected the world's historical timeline. Then in 1942, after restorations and renovations, the palace opened to the public as an official museum of Istanbul.
Basilica Cistern: Istanbul's iconic 6th-century structure gains fame because of its underground location, reached by a flight of stone stairs. Sitting around the corner from the Hagia Sophia, Turks call the cistern that supplied Constantinople with water Yerebatan Sarayi which means sunken palace. Some sources say 7,000 slaves built the cistern, which was rediscovered hundreds of years by Dutch traveller P.Gyllius on his visit to Istanbul. Basilica cistern covers 9,800 square metres and can hold 100,000 tons of water. 336, 9-metre-high columns sit in among the water, while purposely built walk-ways give visitors to Istanbul a chance to see them up close and head to the cistern's back where the famous upside heads of Medusa appear.
Galata Tower: Galata Tower in Beyoglu offers a fantastic panoramic view over Istanbul. First built in 528 as a watchtower over the Golden Horn, fires continued to damage the structure over many years. In 1348, the Genoese rebuilt the tower, but the 1509 earthquake caused much damage. Renovations continued to happen, and by Ottoman rule, the building became a prison. Unfortunately, luck was not on its side because two more fires occurred in 1794 and 1831. Eventually, renovations changed the appearance to the conical cone we see today. Galata tower sits in the Karakoy district of Istanbul, a delight to explore for nostalgia.
Dolmabahce Palace: Consisting of many different architectural styles, Sultan Abdulmecid, Karabet Balyan designed Dolmabahce palace that screams of luxury indulgence, a big surprise considering when it was constructed, the Ottoman Empire was virtually broke. Three floors feature two hundred rooms and forty halls, and in the selanik section, a vast ballroom was where the sultan dined his guests. Features of interior décor include pure silk carpets, crystal staircases and gold on ceilings. In addition, Istanbul’s Dolmabahce palace features a hefty four and a half tonne chandelier, one of the world's biggest and a present from Queen Victoria. An additional building houses the harem, and visitors need to purchase guided tours to see both.
Suleymaniye Mosque: Commissioned by Sultan Suleyman, in late 1549, construction took three thousand five hundred men and seven years to finish. As well as being a place to pray, locals flocked to use schools, bathhouses, hospitals, and shared kitchens. Featuring beautiful gardens, Suleymaniye mosque includes all structural appearances, Muslim place of worships should, including fountains and minarets. Yet, Suleymaniye mosque has commanded a reputation of respect and admiration for many centuries that make this Muslim landmark of Istanbul stand out. The fifty-nine metres long interior features a fifty-three metres high dome. Two hundred coloured windows let in copious amounts of natural daylight.
Grand Bazaar: Shun large, modern shopping malls favour the bustling 15th century Grand Bazaar, Istanbul's largest and oldest market and a great place to shop for souvenirs. While there, remember to practise your Turkish bargaining skills to get a good deal on the price. But take time out to wander narrow passageways featuring high vaulted roofing, colour, booth-like shops, and the general ambience of a nostalgic place rather than Istanbul’s most famous market. Covering 30,7000 square metres, there are more than 4000 stalls to navigate, and getting lost is fun.
Indoor Museums and Art Galleries
If temperatures get too cold, Istanbul features many exciting museums. Istanbul Archaeological museums is home to just over 15,000 fine artefacts admired by international historians. Including archaeological finds, other themes are ancient orient and Islamic art. Alexander the Great's sarcophagus is a prize attraction, but people flock to see the Egyptian-Hittite peace treaty and Roman collections.
Sitting within a ten-minute walk, and in the Sultanahmet district of Istanbul, the Turkish and Islamic Art Museum in a small, 16th-century house appears drab outside, yet inside holds many eye-catching pieces of Turkish and Islamic art. Rugs and textiles reflect the nomadic, 13th-century history of Turkish people. Another outstanding collection of Istanbul is Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk, Turkey's most famous male author, who named the museum after one of his books featuring two lovers separated for life. Collection on displays feature items reflecting lost love and Istanbul daily life over time.
Otherwise, see Istanbul’s Museum of Modern Arts featuring contemporary Turkish art and various exhibitions. Pera Museum houses a famous 19th-century Ottoman painting by Osman Handi Bay called the Tortoise Trainer. This painting once sold for a staggering 3.5 million dollars. In contrast, Istanbul Military Museum displays Turkish power over 1000 years. Immaculate gardens and grounds feature fighting machines like planes and tanks, while inside collections depict battles and lives of Ottoman and Turkish soldiers.
Also About Istanbul
Istanbul Area Guide: Istanbul's iconic status makes the city a high rolling global metropolis. Istanbul cannot be stereotyped or packaged into a neat tourism slogan. Understanding Istanbul behind the travel scene would take many months, but those who visit briefly will find our area information guide helpful. Listing facts travel tips, advice, and information about districts; the guide talks about more things to do and places to go to inspire anyone planning to visit Istanbul in January.
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