Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links.
Being from Southern California, I’ll come right out and admit that winter is my least favorite season. However, I can’t deny that Istanbul in the winter is pretty magical.
I’ve been to Turkey twice, during both the summer and in the winter, and can honestly say that an Istanbul winter is unique, with special activities and food that can only be enjoyed when shivering under five layers of clothing.
But that’s enough chit-chat. Let’s get to the good stuff: the best things to do in Istanbul in winter.
Table of Contents
What It’s Like to Travel to Istanbul in the Winter
Turkey definitely has a full four seasons, so if you got here by Googling “does it snow in Turkey?” the answer is a resounding yes. When I went to Istanbul in February, my week started and ended with mild weather (think 10 degrees Celsius / 50 degrees Fahrenheit) with a lovely (and completely unexpected) snowstorm in the middle. Locals told me that the weather *typically* doesn’t dip far below 10 degrees C / 50 degrees F so I guess I just had a stroke of bad luck. Either way, check the forecast before you go and pack layers!
Why Visit Istanbul During Winter
I don’t normally choose snowy winter destinations to visit, but Istanbul is a special exception. Why? Here are a few reasons to consider it as a winter destination.
- It’s cheap: Remember when I mentioned that I’ve been in the summer and the winter? Well, here’s a secret – pretty much everything is discounted during winter. Hotels, flights, tours, you name it. Winter is the cheapest time to go to Istanbul, so you’ll get the best pick of everything without the insane high season prices. Win!
- It’s empty: Cruise ships stop coming to Istanbul during winter, as do many tourists. That means you don’t have to wait in ridiculous lines at any tourist spots AND you get to take cute photos without hordes of people in them.
- It’s gorgeous: Yeah, snow and cold aren’t exactly the most comfortable but they certainly make for spectacular views and photos.
Note: I visited Istanbul in February and I’ve heard that all of the above applies to Istanbul in January, too. However, I can’t speak to what it’s like to visit Istanbul in December – I’m guessing that with the holidays, it won’t be quite as cheap or empty compared to January and February.
The Best Things to Do in Istanbul: Winter Activities Edition
1. Spend an afternoon in Beyoğlu
My friend and I actually chose to stay in Beyoğlu 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 Airbnb, effectively ruling out any nightlife excursions. That aside, Beyoğlu 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. Pssst, get your ticket ahead of time here.
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 it 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. Note: if you want the historical lowdown on the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia, consider booking a guide as part of a small group tour.
4. Explore the Basilica Cistern
I wouldn’t necessarily label the Basilica as a must-visit in Istanbul in the winter (it’s a bit chilly and damp), 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! 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, but the view certainly is. With access to amazing views of snow-capped Istanbul, it was totally worth the price to marvel at the scenery.
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 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 afterward as well. Plus, when it’s cold out, there’s really nothing better to warm you up. 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 that 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. Ride the Tram at Taksim
Head to Taksim Square, the heart of modern Istanbul, famed for shops, hotels, and restaurants. After exploring the area, kick it old school and ride the charming historical tram down Istiklal Caddesi, an incredibly busy main shopping street. Not only is it a great way to see the neighborhood, but it’s also much more fun than walking in the cold (or snow).
11. Learn to Cook Turkish Food
View this post on Instagram
While it’s worth going out to eat all the food from my Turkish food guide, it’s even better to learn to cook it yourself so you can bring a bit of Turkey home with you. Take a cooking class from a local or simply eat with one if cooking isn’t really your jam. Not only will you leave full of yummy eats, but you’ll also be warm for a few hours without having sacrificed time for a cultural experience.
12. Visit the Other Museums
View this post on Instagram
If you’re an art or history buff, there are tons of museums besides the historical sites I mentioned above to keep you busy for days. Sakip Sabanci is excellent for those interested in fine arts, whereas Istanbul Modern is great if modern and contemporary art is more your jam. If you like history, don’t miss The Archaeological Museum of Istanbul or The Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts. If museums aren’t really your thing but you want something fun to do indoors, the Istanbul Aquarium is more than a little impressive.
13. Caffeinate and Chat
Tea is a big part of Turkish culture and you’ll find that many shopkeepers (especially those at The Grand Bazaar) offer some to customers entering their store. It’s part of Turkish hospitality so don’t be alarmed if someone invites you for a cup. Sit down, have a chat, and maybe pick up a few souvenirs at a shop. Locals drink the strong Turkish tea (çay), but apple tea (or as some cheeky locals call it, “tourist tea”) is usually available as well.
14. Get Your Fortune Told
View this post on Instagram
The Turks don’t discriminate when it comes to caffeine, so it should come to no surprise that Turkish coffee is popular amongst locals and tourists alike. What most visitors don’t know is that the grounds of your cup of Turkish coffee hold your fortune – or so some people believe. Symbol Café in Nişantaşı has one of the few English speaking coffee fortune tellers, who will tell you details of your future and past you may or may not want to hear.
15. Experience Sufism through the Whirling Dervishes
View this post on Instagram
Sufism was born in Konya, Turkey and continues to remain part of the culture today. Sufis perform religious ceremonies that involve fast-paced whirling and chanting rituals that help them get closer to God. You can witness this hypnotic ceremony at the breathtaking Hodjapasha Dance Theater in Istanbul.
16. Be Charmed by Turkey’s Best Belly Dancers
As an Arab, I’ve seen my fair share of belly dancers in different countries, so I don’t really seek the shows out. However, the dance and dinner show at Sultana’s is said to be a fun night out, and Time Out magazine says it’s “an ideal venue to sample Turkish culture and food in one place.” So there you go. Get a ticket here.
17. Sample Istanbul’s Winter Street Food
View this post on Instagram
I know you don’t want to spend a ton of time outside in Istanbul during winter but trust me, the street food and drink is worth being a little cold for. One of the most popular winter drinks is Salep, a milk-based drink made with orchid root, cinnamon, and other delicious spices. This can be found on the streets near Taksim (especially on Istiklal Caddesi). Also not to be missed: roasted chestnuts, roasted chickpeas, and pickles in their own juice.
18. 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 – even for a couple of days – do it!
What to Pack for an Istanbul Winter
So we’ve already established that Turkey is really cold in the winter. Now, it may not be snowing if you choose to go then, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t pack warm layers. Chances of rain and wind are high, which can make average winter temperatures feel even colder.
I recommend checking out my winter packing guide for a complete winter packing list plus tips on how and what to pack in a carry on when it’s cold. But if you’re too lazy to click through to that post, I’ve listed some of the below.
- (1) Warm winter coat: If you don’t already have a warm winter coat (no judgement, I didn’t buy my first one until I was 18), I really like this one. It’s warm AF, waterproof and inexpensive. However, if you want, just get a cute wool one. Your other layers should keep you pretty warm.
- (1) Packable down jacket: It’s unlikely that you’ll wear both your jacket and your coat on the same day unless it’s really cold but I still highly recommend bringing one along. Why? Well, besides the fact that it’s another warm layer, this packable one is super compressible so it hardly takes up any room in your suitcase – or in your daypack. Plus, you can wear it instead of your coat if you don’t want to wear a coat every single day. Super light and extra warm is a total win.
- (1) Long-sleeved temperature regulating top: Because Merino wool is designed to be anti-bacterial and not smelly, you’ll only need one of these tops to wear underneath your cute sweaters. Besides, on the off-chance you get sweaty, your initial layers will take care of it. One of these is totally sufficient – don’t forget you’re packing for winter travel in a carry on!
- (2) Sweaters: Bring a couple of cute sweaters to change up your outfit (especially for photos). Just two are sufficient because you can also change up your photo look with your jacket, coat, or your base layers. Make sure the sweaters are warm (wool blends are a good rule of thumb) and not bulky. I like the colors and feel of this one, personally.
- (1) Wool base layer (bottoms): I’ve already talked about the benefits of Merino wool above so I won’t gush about it again. But you definitely have to keep your bottom half warm and these wool leggings do just that!
- (1) Comfortable travel pants: Pants that are cute, comfortable and water-resistant don’t exist, right? Wrong. Here they are! These are pretty much my favorite pants because they have all the comforts of hiking pants (read: very comfortable) but they’re disguised as cute regular pants. I’m personally a fan of skinny jeans, but prAna has a ton of options if skinny isn’t your style. I wear these with the a wool base layer and voilà! Warmth.
- (1) Jeans: I’m going to be honest: I’m not a big fan of jeans so I tend to wear stretchy pants (like the prAna ones I recommended above) or loose pants (which definitely don’t work for winter). However, Aviator makes the most comfortable travel jeans for women, ever. Says I, their website, and plenty of my friends. They’re stretchy, comfy, have pockets, and are pretty much everything you’ve ever wanted in women’s jeans but can’t find. These jeans, combined with a nice pair of black or colored prAna pants and you’re all set for pants!
- (2) Bras, (1) workout bra, (7) underwear: I always bring this workout bra for outdoorsy days or if I want to hit the hotel gym because it keeps moisture and smells away. Same goes for this underwear (plus, it dries quickly for easy washing). I also pack a couple of my regular t-shirt bras and voila. Done with undergarments.
(3) Warm, moisture-wicking socks: These socks will keep your feet nice and cozy but also not sweaty which is a win-win. I use them for all my winter trips and I love them. Bring a few pairs and wash them as needed.
- (2) Warm scarves: One of my favorite minimalist hacks for travel is to bring several scarves and several basic shirts and mixing and matching them to make it look like a whole new outfit. Cool trick, right? Since it’s winter, wear one heavier scarf on the plane and pack another medium weight one. Accessories help keep you warm!
- (1) Beanie: I’m personally not a big fan of hats in general. But a good beanie goes a long way in keeping you warm since so much body heat escapes from your head. I love this beanie: not only does it match with everything and keep my head warm but it’s also knit by a women’s co-op in Nepal and all the proceeds for every product sold go directly back to an education fund for Nepalese children. Pretty good reason to buy it, right?
- (1) Gloves: I’m not a big of gloves either but I happen to like this pair cause they keep my hands warm and allow me to text. There are plenty of other technical pairs that are ultra-warm and all that good stuff but I’ve always been fine with these.
- (1) Warm, waterproof boots: Yeah, I really only bring one pair of shoes with me on winter trips. I don’t go jogging or anything so I don’t need running shoes, so as long as your pair of boots are waterproof, comfortable, and warm, you really don’t need anything else. I love this pair because it has all of the qualities I listed above but my sister swears by this pair. So either should do the trick depending on your style preference! Just make sure to break them in before you leave, of course.
- Locking Purse (optional): Let me just preface this by saying that most countries don’t have a pickpocketing or purse-snatching problem which is a reason I say this is an optional purchase. However, I’d rather be safe than sorry, which is why I bring this handy lockable purse with me everywhere I travel (especially since I already own it). Is it the most stylish purse I’ve ever owned? No. Does it keep me from worrying about pickpockets? Absolutely. Plus, it’s surprisingly roomy – I keep my water bottle, camera, wallet, and other stuff in there and they fit no problem. If a smaller purse is what you’re after, check out this one or this one. Note: If you don’t want to purchase this purse, you can always keep your smaller valuables in this secret pocket scarf instead.
- Travel Insurance: Yes, you need travel insurance for if things (hopefully don’t but often do) go wrong. I’ve been sick, needed stitches, crashed a rental car, had cash stolen and have dealt with luggage delays. Let’s just say I’ve learned my lesson about travel insurance the hard way. My go-to insurance is World Nomads cause they’re awesome. Be sure to check out the different plan options to pick one that’s right for you!
- VPN: For those of you who don’t know, a VPN (virtual private network) is a service that allows you to securely and privately route your internet through a server. Basically, it makes your internet think you’re in one place when you’re in a different one. Why do you need this? Well, if you want to access your bank account or any secure online account, the sites get super sketched out when you’re in a foreign country. It makes accessing some of these sites annoying or downright impossible. Luckily, NordVPN is powerful enough to get around all the blocks. Yay for internet security!
Where to Eat in Istanbul
There is so much good Turkish food out there, that I wrote an entire guide to the best eats. I also included some of my favorite Istanbul spots in there, for your eating pleasure. You’re welcome.
Recommended Tours and Experiences
I spent about 10 days in Turkey when I visited in winter and I had plenty of time to visit all the highlights of Istanbul and Cappadocia during that time. If you’re staying for longer than 5 days, I highly recommend getting out of Istanbul and exploring another part of the country. Here are some travel experiences I recommend:
P.S. If you’re staying in Istanbul for 5 days and traveling around independently, consider getting a museum pass / bus tour combined ticket. It can help you save on entrance fees (and transport), especially if you’re interested in multiple sites!
Outside of Istanbul:
If you have extra time in Turkey and don’t want to spend it all in Istanbul or if you simply want to pack in as much as possible, then the other cities I highly recommend are Cappadocia, Ephesus (Selçuk) and Pamukkale.
Is Istanbul Safe?
I’ve visited Istanbul twice: once in the winter of 2015 and again in the summer of 2018, shortly after elections. I also have several friends who have lived in Turkey over the past few years and I can assure you that Istanbul is safe. So are other parts of Turkey – I say this with confidence since I’ve now visited 11 cities across the country. Of course, use common sense in Istanbul – it is a big, cosmopolitan city after all – and avoid cities near the Syrian border (duh). It’s safe for solo female travelers as well, in case you’re reading this and wondering. If you’d like even more information about safety in Istanbul, check out this post.
The Best Time(s) to Visit Istanbul
Having experienced both an Istanbul winter and an Istanbul summer, I can say that there’s no right answer to this question. While visiting during winter will mean you’re in for a colder experience (and you can’t do certain outdoor activities, like a cruise down the Bosporus), the pros of visiting during winter far outweigh the cons for the reasons mentioned earlier in the post. Check out these photos of Istanbul in springtime for some extra inspiration.
Summer, while great for swimming in the Mediterranean and eating all the Turkish ice cream you can handle, is not the best time to visit Istanbul. It’s crowded, expensive, and really hot.
Spring and Autumn are good compromises if you really hate the cold, but you likely won’t find those jaw-dropping good deals like you’ll find in the winter. You still might catch some rain during those periods as well.
Where to Stay in Istanbul
Istanbul is easily walkable if it’s not too cold but if it is, there’s also an excellent rail and bus system that will take you around. That being said, there are several different neighborhood options to stay in and where you stay will entirely depend on what you’re looking for. Note: don’t rule out Airbnb in Istanbul! There are lots of great options for amazing prices.
Beyoğlu: I chose to stay here when I went and liked that it has a lively, local feel. Although it still has its fair share of tourists being near Istiklal Caddesi and all, it isn’t anywhere near the price point of Sultanahmet and has a plethora of good food and fun shops. Check out Anemon Galata Hotel, my pick for Beyoğlu.
Karaköy: If I had to choose my favorite neighborhood to stay in from these options, I’d choose this one. Karaköy is ultra hipster and totally my scene with its boutique shops and street art. It’s also a lot closer to the tourist attractions than Beyoğlu, without being in the heart of tourist central. Check out George’s Hotel Galata, my pick for Karaköy.
Sultanahmet: This is the area where most of the popular attractions are located such as The Blue Mosque, Hagia Sofia, and the Grand Bazaar. While this might be a good place to stay if you don’t want to trek too far in the cold, it’s definitely the most expensive of the options. Naturally, it’s also really touristy. Check out Hotel Ibrahim Pasha, my hotel pick for Sultanahmet.
Alternatively, check out all your hotel options on Booking.
Other Things to Know
Nowadays, Americans need to get a visa for Turkey before arriving, but it’s a really painless process with the online e-visa. It costs $20.
It’s incredibly easy to get around Istanbul, thanks to their extensive rail and bus system (walking is also great if it isn’t too cold). Taxis are readily available as well, but prices can easily add up. You can also get to most major cities outside of Istanbul via the bus or local airport. Note: you may want to arrange an airport transfer to your hotel ahead of time!
Turkey uses the Turkish Lira, and at the time of updating this post (September 2018), the rate was about USD $1 to 6 TL. Credit cards are widely accepted and there are plenty of ATM machines for withdrawing cash. If you’d like to exchange money, there are a couple of places on Hamidiye Caddesi in the Fatih neighborhood with really good rates.
Despite the weather, Istanbul is an enchanting city at a crossroads: where East meets West, and old meets new. If you’re looking for grand buildings, delicious food, a deep-rooted history, and a unique, Eurasian culture, then look no further than this cosmopolitan city.
More Turkey ResourcesPlanning a trip to Turkey soon? Check out ALL my posts on Turkey below:
- Turkey Travel Guide
- IstanBRR: The Best Things to Do in Istanbul in Winter
- Fairy Chimneys and Fairy Tales: Cappadocia in Photos
- The Foodie Guide to Turkish Cuisine
Have you ever traveled somewhere and dealt with unexpected weather changes? How did you deal with it? Share your story in the comments below!
Like this post? Pin it for later.