Ah, winter. A time for bundling up in sweaters, scarves, and hats, drinking warm beverages, and spending time by the fire. What could be more perfect? Well, how about adding a trip to Istanbul to your winter plans? With its bustling markets, ancient sites, and delicious food options, Istanbul is a city that is definitely worth exploring during the colder months.
If you want to visit Istanbul but don’t have the time to do so in the summer, there’s nothing to worry about. The Istanbul winter is a little cold, but it has its own charm.
So if you’re curious about what to see and do in Istanbul during winter, read on for some tips!
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What is the weather like in Istanbul in winter?
Istanbul experiences cold winters, with average temperatures ranging from 5-15 degrees Celsius (40-60 Fahrenheit). December, January, and February are the coldest months of the year, so pack your warm clothes if you’re planning to visit during this time!
If you’re hoping for snow, don’t worry, Istanbul is one city that still welcomes the snow. It may not be as much as it used to, but there is usually enough so that the Istanbul winter has a spellbinding feel.
Istanbul’s winters aren’t as wet as you would think. The average number of days that it rains each month is 7.
In general, though, winter in Istanbul is a cold but not a freezing season that offers plenty of opportunities for exploration and fun!
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What is Christmas in Istanbul like?
While Christmas isn’t celebrated in Istanbul, the New Year celebrations are always a joyous time and very similar to Christmas celebrations. In the run-up to New Year’s Eve, you’ll find plenty of streetlights and Christmas trees around the city, especially in malls and famous squares. Moreover, the locals call Santa Claus ‘Father Noel,’ and he gives gifts on new year’s eve.
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Is it cheaper to travel to Istanbul in winter?
While the food, museums, and shopping prices are the same all year round, certain things are cheaper in Istanbul in winter. If you avoid public holidays, flight tickets and accommodation are much more affordable in the winter than in summer. If you want to stretch your Turkish lira as far as it can go, you can save more money by investing in the Istanbul Tourist Pass.
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Why is it a good idea to visit Istanbul in winter?
Istanbul is beautiful every season, but there is undeniable magic about the winter. It’s not just the winter wonderland feel, but there’s plenty to do and see in Istanbul during the winter months. Plus, you’ll have the city largely to yourself – meaning you can explore without crowds getting in the way.
Below we’ve compiled some of the top perks of visiting Istanbul in winter. Bundle up and enjoy!
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1. There are no long lines for world-famous museums and mosques
Did you know that Istanbul is the world’s eighth most visited city, with 14 million visitors each year? The good thing is that you do not have to worry about this in winter.
In the winter, there are no long lines for attractions, museums, and mosques in Istanbul. The city is quieter, calmer, and more subdued. While the hustle and bustle of summer fill the streets with tourists and locals alike, the winter brings peace that can be enjoyed by all.
Well, suppose you want to see the top attractions in Istanbul in a short time, particularly The Blue Mosque, Topkapı Palace, and Hagia Sophia. In that case, winter is the best time. Winter travel means fewer tourists and fewer lines!
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2. Many popular tourist sites are indoors
From the Basilica Cistern to Dolmabahçe Palace to Topkapı Palace, you’ll find that most historic sites and attractions in Istanbul are a lot warmer than you imagined. Even the Grand Bazaar and Spice Market are covered.
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3. The city feels less touristy
If you want an authentic experience of Istanbul, you may want to see Istanbul in winter. There is something fascinating about sipping a Turkish tea and watching the locals rushing to and fro.
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4. Istanbul is not that crazy cold in winter
Unlike many European cities, Istanbul isn’t a city that gets to freezing temperatures often. However, the daily mean is a few degrees above 0 Celcius, so make sure you bring a warm winter coat. If you find you’re the type of person to get cold quickly, this may be an opportunity to invest in a warm hat, warm socks, and a scarf for a bargain.
Suppose you’re exploring outdoorsy touristic spots, like Istiklal street on the European side. In that case, you may want to browse around for street food. There are many warming street foods and drinks available such as roasted chestnuts, boiled corn, a cup of tea, or sahlep. They’ll keep you warm even when you’re way up in the Galata Tower.
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5. Flights and hotels are cheaper
The prices do get jacked up for the Christmas holidays and New Year celebrations; overall, they are much cheaper in winter than in summer. You want to avoid public holidays to get a discount.
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6. You can go skiing to Kartepe and Uludağ
Uludağ and Kartepe are both within a few hours of Istanbul. Kartepe is a fairly new skiing area with slopes suitable for beginners and intermediates. They have several hotels and a cable car to help access the slopes.
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10 best things to do in Istanbul in winter
If you’re looking for things to do in Istanbul in winter, you’ll be spoilt for choice! There are plenty of activities on offer, both inside and outside, so you can make the most of your visit. Here are some ideas to get you started.
1. Visit indoor attractions
The summer months are lovely to wander around the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus to see the hustle and bustle of the city. However, the winter months make a great trip if you want to see the museums and the main attractions of the city. You can see the exhibits on display at the Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum or the Military Museum without too many tourists getting in the way.
Visiting Istanbul in the winter means you can see the sights without waiting in line for too long. Dolmabahçe Palace, for example, is a tourist hotspot and while you have to wait in line for hours in the summer months, there is hardly any wait in winter.
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You can take a picture with the Blue Mosque in the background without being photobombed by another tourist. The Basilica Cistern, Hagia Sophia, and Chora Church are more contemplative during the winter months. If you want to see how the Ottoman Sultans lived, there won’t be as much of a queue in Topkapı Palace. Plus the souvenir shops will have fewer queues too!
If you can handle the cold, try visiting the Galata Tower towards the evening to see the Bosphorus Bridge light up. Another idea may be to take a Bosphorus cruise in a boat that has a warm, indoor section.
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2. Visit a Hamam
If there were ever a time to visit a historical Turkish bath in Istanbul, it would be winter. There’s a reason why the locals have been publicly bathing (especially in winter) since before the Ottoman Empire. Ensure that you bring along your winter coat for when you leave. Also, don’t forget to allow yourself to unwind inside fully.
If you want insider tips, you may want to lean towards the more historical Turkish bath buildings instead of the new ones. Though you may pay a little extra, you are usually offered snacks and refreshments like sherbet or Turkish coffee. That’s essential to ensuring your body temperature is lowered back to normal before you leave.
Another reason for our insider tips of choosing the more historic baths is the following: you may want to watch the steam dance before your eyes during the steam bath section. This creates a transcendent, almost spiritual experience in the older architecture buildings.
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3. Shop in the Grand Bazaar and Spice Market
Whether you’re a shopaholic or a fan of history, it would be strange to visit Istanbul and not stop by one of the oldest covered markets. If you want to see architecture dating to the Ottoman empire or if you want a bargain, you may want to stop by.
Oh yes, the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Bazaar are both covered markets that warm the inside. Aside from seeing all the ingredients that go into Turkish food, both bazaars are surrounded by street food that the locals love.
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4. Visit shopping malls for winter sales
One of the most incredible things about visiting Istanbul in winter is the shopping malls’ sales. While the Blue Mosque and Topkapı Palace are fabulous for those who love history, shopaholics may be more enthusiastic about the colorful decorations and the deals in malls. The locals pride themselves on their fashion know-how, so it’s unlikely that you’ll find anything in these malls that’ll have the fashion police chasing you.
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5. Visit a wine bar
You may be forgiven for thinking that Istanbul is a sober city. Turkey is home to a selection of rare grapes and a couple of bottles of wine that win worldwide awards. If you want to warm yourself up with a bottle, Beyoğlu (where Istiklal street is) is popular with the drinking crowd. However, if you’re going to get away from the masses of the city center, Viktor Levi Wine Bar is on the Asian side.
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6. Drink Boza and Salep
Boza is a thick, fermented beverage made from grains. It has a sweet yet slightly acidic taste to it. It’s such a vital part of Turkish culture, perhaps more so than Turkish coffee, that its features in Orhan Pamuk’s stories. In his 2014 novel, one of his characters sold this warming winter drink.
Another winter drink is salep. Salep is made from the orchid root, one of the more expensive ‘spices.’ It’s an endangered and rare spice, and the Turkish government has banned its export. You can only drink this warm, milky drink in Turkey. It tastes similar to a chai latte without caffeine and a velvety undertaste.
You can find both boza and salep in the winter, and both are served with cinnamon.
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7. Visit Kadıköy and Nişantaşı
If you’re visiting Istanbul in winter, you may be eager to see the Christmassy vibe you get back home. If so, you may be pleased to find out the Kadıköy and Nişantaşı streets are aglow with lights and decorations. Plenty of shops will decorate their shopfronts with fairy lights to welcome the new year.
Moreover, there are usually Christmas trees in Nişantaşı and Kadıköy during the Christmas and New Years holidays. There’s a brilliant patisserie and dessert shop in Kadıköy, called Şekerci Cafer Erol, that always goes all out. You’ll find moving Santa pieces and candy canes there. Combining the lights with the street art in Kadıköy may be a chilly day, but it’s worth it. The best thing is that you can grab salep and begin exploring by yourself – you don’t need a guided tour to absorb the winter wonderland vibe.
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8. Watch the whirling dervishes
If you’ve ever visited Istanbul without seeing the whirling dervishes, you may find yourself regretting it! The whirling dervishes are an essential part of Turkish culture and history and, at the same time, are just fascinating to watch!
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9. Visit art galleries
Though the Republic attempted to shift the cultural hub to Ankara, the magical city quickly regained its place as the artistic center of Turkey by the 1980s. If you’re spending winter in Istanbul, why not check out one of the city’s many galleries or art museums? You can pick up lovely souvenirs from the gift shop in each of these galleries.
Suppose you’re unsure where to start or only have a few days. In that case, you can try checking out the following galleries: Pera Museum, Salt Galata, and Istanbul Modern. If your interest is in history and religion, you can find Islamic art in the Sakıp Sabancı Museum and the Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum.
You can also go off the touristic track by visiting the Sadberk Hanım Museum, Istanbul Contemporary Art Museum, and the National Palaces Painting Museum. These museums are an excellent alternative to the street art you may miss due to the cold weather.
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If all of this has you excited to explore Istanbul in winter for yourself, be sure to join us on one of our food tours. We would love to show you around and introduce you to some of the best culinary experiences the city has to offer. Winter is a beautiful time to visit Istanbul and we are confident you will love it!
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