Make the most of Istanbul in winter with our inside tips from local writer Sean Lau. See also this article on whether Istanbul is in both Europe and Asia.
Travel Guide for Istanbul in Winter
If you’re looking for a new travel destination to explore in winter, look no further than Istanbul! While most of Europe suffers from cold and bleak winters, the winters in Istanbul are mild, thanks to its location in the Mediterranean Basin.
Though it does occasionally snow in Istanbul, visitors can still enjoy the city’s best attractions, whether that is the interesting history, rich culture, or mouth-watering food.
Visitors might even enjoy the smaller crowds, especially since Istanbul already has a population of over 15 million people! There are plenty of advantages to visiting Istanbul in the winter, so many that I actually love spending winter there.
That is why I have decided to write this article so that I can share my affection for winter in Istanbul. By the end of this, you’ll know everything from things to do in Istanbul in winter, where to stay, how to get around, and more!
The Best Things to do in Istanbul in Winter
Let’s get started by talking about the best activities to do in Istanbul in winter.
Visit Hagia Sophia
Hagia Sophia is one of the most historical Turkish landmarks in Istanbul. It is one of the oldest buildings in the city, constructed way back in 537 AD. For centuries, it served as a church under the Byzantine Empire until the Ottomans switched the city of Constantinople to Istanbul and added it to their empire.
After the fall of Constantinople in the 15th century, Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque.
Now, Hagia Sophia is one of Turkey’s most popular tourist attractions and it is not hard to grasp why. The interior of the building is absolutely breathtaking, with its massive dome, beautiful mosaics, and intricate Islamic calligraphy.
Since this is an indoor attraction, it is especially a nice place to visit in Istanbul in the winter.
Explore Basilica Cistern
The Basilica Cistern in Istanbul is a marvel of engineering. It was built by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian in the 6th century and has been well-preserved ever since.
The cistern is made up of 336 marble columns, many of which were taken from historic Roman Temples. It can hold up to 80,000 cubic meters of water and was used to provide water for the city of Constantinople and Istanbul.
Though no longer used as a water storage unit, Basilica Cistern is an incredible place to admire the engineering achievement of the Byzantine Empire, and get a nice photo for your Instagram account! Just make sure you have a good camera for low light!
Go Shopping At the Grand Bazaar
No trip to Istanbul is complete without visiting the Grand Bazaar, one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world. It was constructed in 1455 and covers over 60 streets with over 4000 shops. Now that is a shopaholic’s dream!
The Grand Bazaar is one of the best places to shop for souvenirs in Istanbul, as it has everything from Turkish carpets to spices and lanterns. And when you are tired from browsing (and haggling), there are small tea shops where you can relax and drink a cup (or three) of delicious Turkish Tea to warm you up!
Since the bazaar is covered, it is a great place to escape the cold weather in Istanbul and do some shopping. If you decide to purchase something here, make sure you haggle. I’ve seen tourists buy Turkish Delights for a price 3 times as much as the next tourist!
Marvel At The Beautiful Blue Mosque
Situated in Sultanahmet Park, just minutes away from Hagia Sophia, The Blue Mosque is another one of Istanbul’s most significant landmarks. The mosque was built in the early 1600s and gets its name from the beautiful blue Iznik tiles that adorn its interior.
Perhaps the most noticeable feature of the Blue Mosque is its six minarets. It is believed that there was a bit of a miscommunication during the construction of the Blue Mosque, and the mosque ended up with 6 minarets (which only the holiest mosque in Mecca had at the time).
Nevertheless, the Blue Mosque is one of the most beautiful places in Istanbul. But since it is an active mosque, just make sure you dress modestly (cover your shoulders and knees) before entering.
Visit The Topkapi Palace
Topkapi Palace is one of the most gorgeous palaces in Istanbul. It served as the primary residence of the Ottoman Sultans for almost 400 years. Its large complex is made up of several buildings, courtyards, gardens, and even a harem!
The palace features gorgeous interior decor with traditional Turkish elements. When you walk in, you can just feel the opulence of the place through its beautiful tiles, chandeliers, and furniture.
The Harem is a subsection of the Topkapi Palace where the female members of the sultan’s family stayed. It is one of the most well-decorated places inside the palace, with its ornate tiles, enchanting dome, and lavish furnishings.
Though there is an extra fee to enter this part of the Topkapi Palace, I would pay twice as that just to see the beauty inside the Harem.
Check Out The Views At Galata Tower
Situated across the Golden Horn from the historic centre of Istanbul, Galata Tower is one of the most historic landmarks in Istanbul. It is a medieval stone tower that was built in 1348 and stands at a height of 63 meters (205 feet). For centuries, it was the tallest building in Istanbul and was used as a surveillance tower for incoming attacks.
Nowadays, the Galata Tower is one of the best places to get a bird’s eye view of Istanbul. You can take an elevator up to its observation deck for a small fee. As you would expect from an ex-surveillance tower, the views from the Galata Tower are some of the best in Istanbul.
Visitors can see as far as Sultanahmet, the Bosphorus Strait, and even the Asian side of Istanbul on a good day.
If you have vertigo like me, just be extra careful on the observation deck!
Stroll Down Istiklal Street
Istanbul’s Istiklal Street is one of the most famous streets in the world. It’s a vibrant and lively street that is always packed with people, no matter what time of year it is. The street is full of shops, restaurants, and bars, and is considered one of the best nightlife spots in Istanbul.
It was originally named the Grand Avenue of Pera, but the street received its modern name after the Turkish War of Independence. The word Istiklal translates to Independence in Turkish. One of the most iconic features of Istiklal Street is the red historic tram. This tram has been running up and down the street since the nineteenth century.
If sightseeing is what you want, I don’t recommend getting on the Istiklal Tram. Pedestrian traffic tends to make the tram move more slowly than walking.
Explore The Hidden Gems At Balat
Balat is one of the best hidden gems in Istanbul. It is an historic neighbourhood that is situated on the European side of Istanbul. Balat was once home to a large Jewish population, and you can still see some evidence of this in the architecture and synagogues around the area.
Nowadays, this area has a high concentration of quaint cafes and colourful buildings, perfect if you are looking for a spot for an Instagram photo.
If you are tired of walking up and down the 50-plus hills of Istanbul, come for a coffee or tea in one of the numerous cafes in Balat, and have a nice relaxing day strolling around and admiring its charming buildings.
Go On A Day Trip To Princes’ Island (Adalar)
No matter how many days in Istanbul you decide to spend, taking a day trip to the Princes’ Island, or Adalar, is a must. The Princes’ Islands are a group of nine islands located in the Sea of Marmara.
The name originated from the fact that princes and princesses were exiled here during the Byzantine period. However, under the Ottoman Empire, the rich built lavish summer mansions here.
There are no fuel-driven vehicles on the islands, which means that Princes’ Island is the perfect place to get away from the hustle and bustle of Istanbul. Many of the mansions still remain here, and visitors can admire the beautiful buildings as they explore the islands.
The ferry ride from Istanbul to here is gorgeous in itself and makes the trip even more worthwhile!
Explore Camlica Mosque
Camlica Mosque is one of the latest attractions in Istanbul. Because of that, it is one that you are unlikely to find in any guidebook. However, this is a place you must not miss in Istanbul: it is the biggest mosque in Turkey!
This religious complex was completed in March 2019 and can hold up to 63,000 worshippers at the same time. Besides being a mosque, it is also a conference room, art gallery, and library. It is one of the most beautiful places of worship we have ever seen.
Even if you are not religious, we would still recommend visiting this place for its sheer beauty and size. Situated on Camlica Hill, the views from the mosque are also breathtaking. Visitors can have clear views of the Bosphorus Bridge, one of the longest suspension bridges in the world.
How to get around Istanbul
Getting around Istanbul is easy, thanks to its extensive public transportation system. There are nine types of public transportation in Istanbul, and combined can take you to pretty much anywhere in the city. Most travellers will only have to deal with the tram and metro as they connect visitors to the main tourist attractions in the city.
To use the public transport system, you’ll need to have an Istanbulkart. It is a contactless stored value card that is used to pay the fare on any public transportation. It is even used to get into paid public restrooms!
It is worth noting that you should guard your belongings on public transportation in Istanbul. Though Istanbul is generally safe, pickpockets do happen on crowded public transport.
If you don’t want to take public transportation, there is also Uber in Istanbul and plenty of Uber alternatives that are slightly cheaper. I personally don’t recommend taxis, because I’ve yet to get a taxi driver that doesn’t at least try to scam you (and I’ve gotten in plenty.)
General travel tips for Istanbul in winter
- Pack warm clothes and an umbrella – Istanbul’s winter can be unpredictable. There are years when it still feels like fall, and others when the city is blanketed in snow for weeks. There is one thing Istanbul’s winter is known for though, and that is the amount of precipitation it receives, so pack an umbrella!
- Have shoes with good grip – When it snows heavily in Istanbul, the entire city is very likely to be covered in snow for a considerable amount of time. And being a city with so many uphills, walking can become increasingly difficult, especially if you don’t have shoes with a good grip
- Drink lots of Turkish Tea – One of the best ways to bear the winters of Istanbul is by drinking lots of Turkish Tea, or çay in Turkish. Turkish locals typically drink 3 to 5 cups of Turkish tea per day, but in the winter, that number can be as high as 10. My personal record is 12 cups in one day, and that wasn’t even a challenge!
- Christmas is not heavily celebrated here – Istanbul doesn’t celebrate Christmas, and December 25th isn’t a public holiday. Though you’ll find a little bit of Christmas decor along Istiklal Street, don’t expect it to be super festive in Istanbul during that time. If you are looking for a place to celebrate Christmas, maybe Istanbul isn’t the place for you.
- Try out the special winter foods – While you are in Istanbul during winter, make sure to try out some of the special winter foods that you can only find during that season! Some of the most popular ones are salep, a traditional winter beverage perfect for the cold, and Boza, a historical drink made with fermented grains.
Where to stay In Istanbul
If you are visiting Istanbul for the first time, there is no better place to stay than Sultanahmet, the historic centre. This area has the highest concentration of historical landmarks in the city, and it is where you can find places such as Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, and more.
The only downside is that it is the most touristy place to stay in Istanbul, which means it is naturally very expensive.
If you want to stay near the action but don’t want to pay as much, staying near Taksim Square is also a great idea. That area is known as the modern centre of Istanbul, and is near many local restaurants, bars, and nightlife entertainment.
Either way, both neighbourhoods are great places to stay in Istanbul.
Where To Eat In Istanbul
- Eminonu – A neighbourhood on the European side of Istanbul. It is a popular place for those staying in Sultanahmet, which is the adjacent neighbourhood. The food here is local and you’ll find things like fish sandwiches, wet burgers, kebab, and kokorec. The price is much lower than you’d find in Sultanahmet.
- Kadikoy – One of the best neighbourhoods for street food in Istanbul. This neighbourhood is situated next to the sea on the Asian side of Istanbul, so visitors must try the seafood here. The prices are also very affordable, especially when compared to the city centre.
- Taksim – Taksim is a neighbourhood on the European side full of restaurants, cafes, and bars.Whether you are looking to try some baklava or enjoy a nice breakfast in Istanbul, Taksim is a great neighbourhood to do that in.
Here are some restaurants we recommend trying in Istanbul:
- Van Kahvalti Mutfağı – If you are looking for a cute place for a meal in Istanbul, Van Kahvalti Mutfağı is perfect for you. This well-decorated restaurant is one of the best places to try a traditional Turkish breakfast with eggs, olives, bread, honey, and cheese.
- Divella Bistro Restaurant – Situated a short walk from Hagia Sophia, Divella Bistro Restaurant is a local Turkish restaurant serving delicious seafood and traditional Turkish fare. It is on the pricey side but the quality of the food is one of the best in Istanbul.
- Eleos Restaurant – Eleos Restaurant is a beautiful restaurant located in the Taksim area. It is situated on the top floor of the beautiful, and its floor-to-ceiling windows offer diners beautiful views of the Bosphorus Strait. Make sure you try the grilled sea bass and the meze here!
- Old Ottoman Cafe & Restaurant – If you are looking for a place with great service and delicious Turkish food that won’t break the bank, then Old Ottoman Cafe & Restaurant is where you need to go. Though a little bit more expensive, it is one of the few places where visitors can try testi kebab without going to Cappadocia.
- Mivan Restaurant & Cafe – Perhaps one of the best places to try kebabs in Istanbul is Mivan Restaurant & Cafe. This chic restaurant is situated next to the Grand Bazaar, and features an extensive menu of traditional Turkish dishes. Don’t miss the chance to try Adana Kebab or Iskender Kebab. They are two of the best types of kebabs you can get!
Helpful phrases for visiting Istanbul
Even if you don’t know any Turkish, there are a few key phrases that will help make your trip to Istanbul much smoother. Here are some that you are going to need!
- Thank you – Teşekkür ederim
- The bill, please – Hesap, Lütfen
- I am fine – Iyiyim
- How much? – Ne kadar?
- You’re welcome – Rica ederim
- Hello – Merhaba
- Where is the toilet? – Tuvalet nerede?
- Where are you from? – Nerelisin?
- What is your name? – Adınız Ne?
- Bon voyage – İyi Yolculuklar
What to pack For Istanbul in Winter
Because Istanbul is relatively warm, you don’t need to pack anything extraordinary for your trip. Just make sure you pack enough warm clothes, and it is always a good idea to pack a good pair of walking shoes since you’ll be doing lots of walking while exploring Istanbul.
Consider waterproof shoes with a good grip if the weather forecast looks like it’s going to snow. Since Istanbul is very hilly, the terrain can become quite slippery and treacherous when it snows. Having shoes with a good grip will help with that.
Month by month guide to Istanbul in Winter
Things to do in Istanbul in December
December is officially the start of winter in Istanbul, which means the temperatures aren’t at their lowest yet. On average, visitors can expect average lows of 7.7°C (46°F) and average highs of 10.7°C (51°F).
Snow isn’t very common in December, with the city receiving an average of 7 mm (0.27 in) of snow in 0.9 days.
In December, don’t miss Seb-i Aruz, the death anniversary of Mevlana Celaleddin-i Rumi. Ceremonies take place at Galata Mevlevi Lodge.
And of course, don’t miss the Christmas and New Year’s Eve festivities. Though Christmas isn’t very big in Istanbul, New Year’s Eve is. You can find a lot of celebrations, parties and fireworks on New Year’s Eve.
Things to do in Istanbul in January
January is the heart of winter in Istanbul and that is when visitors will see the coldest temperatures and most snowfall. On average, you can expect an average low of 5.3°C (42°F) and an average high of 8.5°C (47°F). There is about 24mm (0.94 in) of snow in 3.7 days in January.
As the middle of the winter, there aren’t any noteworthy events in January. Locals typically like to stay home where it is warm, and just ride out the bleak winter with lots of Turkish Tea. The days are also quite shorter during January, so tourists need to make good use of their time.
Things to do in Istanbul in February
By the end of February, Istanbul is coming out of hibernation. The temperatures are starting to warm up and visitors will see an average low of 6°C (43°F) and an average high of 9.7°C (49°F). There is also an average of 15mm (0.59 in) of snow in 2 days during this month.
During February, visitors can check out the East Mediterranean International Tourism and Travel Exhibition, which is one of the biggest tourism events in Istanbul. It is a great opportunity to learn about new travel destinations, and find out about some great deals for future holidays.
Reasons to visit Istanbul in winter
- Warm weather – As Istanbul is located in the Mediterranean, the winters are quite mild. This is perfect for those who want to escape the bleak cold of European winters.
- Fewer crowds – Since most people prefer to visit during the summer months, winter is a lot more quiet, perfect for visitors who don’t like big crowds.
- Cheaper travel costs – Since winter is considered off-season, you can often find cheaper travel deals and accommodation rates. This can save you lots of money if you are travelling to Turkey on a budget!
- Istanbul is beautiful in the snow – When it snows in Istanbul, it is typically very little, but just enough to cover the buildings with a blanket of pristine white snow. This makes the city very pretty!
- Go skiing – During the winter, visitors can visit Uludağ National Park on a day trip from Istanbul and go skiing! It is quite a unique experience in Turkey, especially since the country isn’t known to be very cold in the winter!
- Great temperatures for walking around the city – Not only is the temperature in Istanbul in the winter not too cold, it is also not too cold. This is perfect for exploring the different neighbourhoods on foot because it can be quite exhausting if you are doing that in the summer heat.
- Enjoy unique Turkish winter food – There are lots of great winter foods that you can only find in Turkey during the winter months, such as the salep and Boza. It is one of the reasons that keeps me coming back to Istanbul in the winter.
Final Thoughts About Istanbul in Winter
While winter might not be the perfect place to visit many European cities, it is a wonderful time to visit Istanbul. The cost is lower at this time and you won’t run into big crowds, which is perfect for exploring the bustling city of Istanbul!
Author Bio: Sean is the co-founder of The Turkey Traveler, the #1 travel blog on all things Turkey related. Offering insider tips, recommendations, and guides, The Turkey Traveler is your ultimate resource to help you plan the perfect trip to Turkey.