I’m not going to lie. I was initially going to call this post something along the lines of ‘Turkish Winter Wonderland’. But then I felt that would be a tad misleading for those who wanted to visit Istanbul in the winter, and opted for “IstanBRR: Traveling Istanbul During Winter” instead. Plus, you know, it’s punny. Moving on…
There are lots of pros to visiting Istanbul in the winter: it’s less expensive, it’s gorgeous, and there are hardly any tourists. But, somehow, I managed to fly in on the heels of a week-long snowstorm. Yikes.
You see, Istanbul in the winter is truly a visual wonderland. But, unfortunately, it is not equipped to deal with the harsh elements of snowstorms. In fact, I spent most of my time there with wet socks and feet, wondering how people endure winter here for months at a time. My friend and I were too wimpy to deal with the weather and, frankly, spent an embarrassing amount of money on cabs instead of walking or taking public transport. Side note: I’m fully aware that this makes me sound like a whiny baby, but I’m from Southern California. We think 40 degrees Fahrenheit is cold. Despite wearing layers upon layers of clothing and trying my best to keep warm, this trip made me vow never to travel during “real winter” again…let’s see how long that lasts.
So, now that I have my warning and complaining out of the way, let me just say that I’m fully aware that all these photos will make you want to visit Istanbul in the winter. And I agree that the snow-dusted buildings are stunning. But don’t say I didn’t warn you…
Now, without further ado, I present to you – a guide on what to do in Istanbul in the winter.
1. Spend an afternoon in Beyoglu
My friend and I actually chose to stay in Beyoglu rather than the touristy area of Sultanahmet, since we were told it’s the hip and cool place for nightlife. Needless to say, I was 100% unwilling to wear anything less than my abominable snowman suit upon exiting my apartment, effectively ruling out any nightlife excursions. However, Beyoglu is home to some of the cooler local places, such as Taksim Square, Istiklal Caddesi, Aya Triada, and local and international markets alike. Our first day in Turkey was relatively mild, and we spent a lovely afternoon eating, shopping, and taking pictures in this area.
2. Marvel over the Hagia Sofia
The majority of the tourist attractions – including the Hagia Sofia – are located around an area called Sultanahmet Square. Normally I’m not one to tell you to follow the tourist attraction itinerary to a T, but the monuments and buildings of Istanbul are truly spectacular. The Hagia Sofia was once a basilica, then a mosque, and is now a museum. The size and architecture alone make it one of the most impressive buildings I’ve ever seen, and it is definitely worth waiting in line for. My friend and I waited in line during a snowstorm, so no excuses people.
3. Stare in Awe at the Blue Mosque
Guess what’s conveniently located directly across from the Hagia Sofia? That’s right…the Blue Mosque! The mosque is giant, with intricate architecture decorated with tiles, designs, and stained glass windows. For those of you who have visited mosques over the course of your lifetime, you’ll note that most are actually quite sparsely decorated on the inside. But the Blue Mosque is unique in size, architecture, and interior décor – and the sight is not to be missed! Since it’s still a functional place of worship, bear in mind that wearing appropriate clothes is a must…not that this was an issue in February.
4. Explore the Basilica Cistern
I wouldn’t necessarily label the Basilica as a must-visit in Istanbul in the winter, but it is definitely a cool site. It’s the largest of the hundreds of ancient cisterns located in Istanbul, with rows of old columns. A couple of the column bases actually have Medusa’s face on them! Apparently the cistern was a water filtration system for the palace at one point, and has been in a bunch of movies. Either way, it’s a really interesting example of ancient infrastructure.
5. Shop Til You Drop at the Grand Bazaar
Not too far from Sultanahmet Square is one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world. I mean, we’re talking thousands of shops selling everything from souvenirs and trinkets to fake bags and luxury rugs. Despite the fact that the bazaar is clearly aimed towards tourists, we spent the entire afternoon here.We made friends with several of the merchants: the purse store owner that spoke to me in Spanish so passerby wouldn’t understand the “secret price”, the shopkeepers escorting us to their brother / cousin / uncle’s shops and “secret warehouses”, and the lovely shopkeeper from Turkmenistan who eventually sold me my souvenirs. All were kind and friendly, hospitably offering tea and coffee as we crossed their paths. Definitely an aspect of merchant culture I appreciated, although it did make each transaction a bit long. Spend a good few hours here, and don’t start a bargaining deal unless you’re in it to buy it!
6. Climb Galata Tower
In all honesty, the Galata tower itself isn’t spectacular enough be a must-see on your list of places to visit in Istanbul in the winter, but the view certainly is. With access to amazing views of snow-capped Istanbul, it was totally worth the price to marvel at the view.
7. Relax at a Turkish Bath
Let the record show that I actually really hate massages. The thought of some stranger poking and prodding at me while I’m half-naked is actually far from relaxing to me. But everyone told me that I had to try a Turkish bath, so Jenny and I opted for one from Cemberlitas Hamami – one of the oldest baths in Istanbul! The experience was actually a little strange at first (an old woman scrubs and massages you to within an inch of your life), but ended up being quite relaxing overall…and my skin was super soft afterwards as well. Definitely worth experiencing!
8. Investigate the Treasures of Topkapi Palace
Back in the day, this was one of the major residences of the Ottoman sultans. Let that sink in for a second, and now imagine how large this palace is. It’s now a UNESCO heritage site and museum, and includes important relics of the Muslim world. The grounds are extremely large and impressive, as are the displays – the 84 carat diamond on display will not be easily forgotten!
9. Try ALL the Samples at the Spice Bazaar
Bustling with merchants and enchanting smells and colors, the spice bazaar is much smaller than the Grand Bazaar…and significantly less touristy too. This is where my love affair with Turkish delight started. After wandering through stalls, and sampling at least ten different flavors, I knew that I had to bring some home for family and friends. That, and saffron…and tea…and spices. Yeah, a lot of shopping happened here. I left with a full shopping bag and a fuller stomach – and a much emptier wallet. Come for the samples and leave with gifts for all your foodie friends back home.
10. Visit Cappadocia
I couldn’t resist adding this to my list of places to visit in Istanbul in the winter, although Cappadocia is quite a trek from Istanbul itself – 8 hours driving, or an hour-long flight. Most famous for its cave houses and hot air balloon rides, it’s truly a city not to be missed. There’s a separate post on all there is to do in Cappadocia, but if you have the opportunity to go – do it!
Despite the weather, Istanbul is an enchanting city at a crossroads: where East meets West, and old meets new. I find that it’s a bit overlooked as a destination, but it shouldn’t be. If you’re looking for grand buildings, delicioius food, a deep-rooted history, and a unique, Eurasian culture, then look no further than this cosmopolitan city.
Have you ever traveled somewhere and dealt with unexpected weather changes? How did you deal with it? Have you visited Istanbul in the winter? Share your story in the comments below!