Istanbul in Winter: A Beautiful Time to Visit
I really enjoyed staying in Istanbul in winter. If you’ve read my post, Christmas In Istanbul: What It’s Like you’ll know I spend the festive season there in 2022/23.
See also: How To Support Turkey’s Earthquake Emergency Relief Effort
What’s it Like to Visit Istanbul in Winter?
The winter months are much quieter than the peak months although there’s still a healthy flow of tourists. The colder months make walking around the various sites more pleasant to me than 30+ degrees in summer.
It might not be the best time to make the most of Istanbul’s nearest beaches or the Princes Islands, but the winter season has its own charm.
In the past, the Istanbul winter has been really quite cold. But they seem to be getting milder. You might still encounter a snowy day but the rain’s more likely. Sunny days are absolutely possible. In fact, there was more sun when I visited Istanbul in December/January than when I was there in November.
With the vast majority of historical sites being undercover, and plenty of Turkish coffee to keep you warm, you needn’t worry too much about inclement weather.
- Is It Safe To Travel To Istanbul Turkey?
- The Best 7-Day Turkey Itinerary: 5 Options
- 33 Turkish Souvenirs: Popular Gifts From Turkey
Istanbul Winter Weather
The average temperatures over winter are between about 3°C and 11°C. December is slightly milder than January and February which are the coldest months of the year.
It’s likely to be foggy in the mornings with some rainy days. You can still get a decent amount of sun even though it’s cold. And you might experience a little snow here and there.
Things to Do in Istanbul in Winter
See also: The Best Istanbul Museums You Must Visit
Sultanahmet Square is the home of several of the main attractions you’ll want to visit during your first trip to Istanbul. If you can stay near this part of the Old City it’s one of the best places since you’re within walking distance of these tourist attractions.
Originally a church, Hagia Sophia is now a working mosque. It’s a beautiful, huge building and one of the most popular places to visit. Because it’s used as a mosque it’s closed on Friday mornings so avoid visiting before around 2.30pm.
To go into the building you’ll need to cover your head. Ideally have a pashmina with you. If you forget or don’t have anything suitable you can buy a disposable hooded jacket thing. But it’s best to take your own scarf. You’ll also need to take your shoes off when you get inside.
Although there are fewer tourists around Istanbul in the winter, you’ll still find long lines of people queuing up here. It’s ideal if you can go first thing in the morning to beat the crowds (and guided tour groups if you’re not in one).
But the church is open until late so if you need to maximise your time in the city you can go there at night. If you need more suggestions, I’ve got loads of ideas for things to do in the evening: 31 Things To Do In Istanbul At Night
Blue Mosque / Sultan Ahmed Mosque
The Blue Mosque, officially known as Sultan Ahmed Mosque is right opposite Hagia Sofia and it’s another huge mosque. Unfortunately, it’s closed until spring 2023 for renovations but it’ll be open again in good time for winter.
This is another of the main tourist stops and also gets busy with people queuing up to enter. As with Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosques closes on Friday mornings until around 2.30pm.
Topkapi palace from the Ottoman Empire is fascinating to visit. It’s quite a large area with several different rooms and exhibitions to explore, some extremely ornate. If you don’t have a museum pass (see below) you’ll need to pay extra to visit some areas, like the Harem and Agia Irene church in the grounds.
Istanbul Archaeological Museum
Istanbul Archaeological Museum is actually a museum complex of three museums: The Archaeology Museum, The Museum of the Ancient Orient and The Tiled Kiosk Museum/ Tiled Pavilion Museum.
Apparently, there are over a million historical artefacts on display, which is pretty impressive. And I did find the marble statues on display quite imposing. When I visited in 2023 the ancient orient museum was closed for restoration works. You can check up on how that’s progressing with the official site.
Top Tip: Look for signs directing you straight through to the turnstiles if you already have the Museum Pass ticket. Note the three museums are in the same entrance/garden so stay and look at everything that’s open.
The Basilica Cistern is rather spectacular and as such, it’s another popular museum in Sultanahmet. Close to Hagia Sophia, this museum’s not included in the museum pass but it’s worth paying to go in. The Cistern was built during the Byzantine period and supplied water to the Great Palace and beyond.
Since its creation, the Cistern has been restored many times most recently in 2022. The structure was reinforced for earthquake protection and sculptures and lighting installation were added to a most atmospheric effect.
It also houses concerts and other events that you can find on Passo. (You’ll need to set up a free account to buy tickets through that site.)
Museum of Great Palace Mosaics
The Museum of Great Palace Mosaics is quite a small museum but an interesting one to pop into especially since it’s just behind the Blue Mosque in Sultanahmet. The exhibits reminded me of the mosaics from the House of Dionysos on Delos island.
Some of the mosaics are wall-mounted. Others are on the floor and you can view them from the walkway above. The museum is just off Kabasakal Street where you can top up on souvenirs too if you need to.
Climb Galata Tower
Galata Tower is a great place to see the sunset or get a view over the city day or night. But it also gets quite busy on the viewing deck so expect to be squashed up among lots of other people.
If you don’t already have a ticket or museum card you need to queue up at the tram car outside to pay. Then you join the queue for actually getting into the tower. You can go straight to that line if you already have your ticket.
Once inside, you’ll go straight up several floors in the lift. After that, you can wander around as you, please. There’s a steep spiral staircase that takes you up to the open viewing area outside. Then there are narrow tunnelled staircases taking you down to the various floors with exhibits and information on each.
Watch the Sunset from Galata Bridge
Galata Bridge is the place to head for the sunset. If you’re going on a Bosphorus Cruise from the Old City you’ll probably meet at Eminönü port below the bridge.
Discover the Modern City Centre
Istiklal Street and Taksim Square are considered the modern city center. While they’re still on the city’s European side, they’re on the north side rather than the south where the bulk of these attractions are.
Istiklal is a bustling, busy street filled with high-street stores, places to eat, museums, churches and the historic tram. Taksim Square with its hotels, eateries, mosque and nightclubs is at one end. At the other, you’ll come to Galata Tower and the
Brave the Grand Bazaar
The Grand Bazaar is within walking distance (17-ish minutes) of Hagia Sophia and The Blue Mosque. It’s a labyrinthine, covered market with thousands of shops. It’s the perfect place for immersing yourself in a bit of culture/people-watching and souvenir shopping.
Savour the Spice Bazaar
Less than 10 minutes away from the Grand Bazaar is the Spice Bazaar. This place is a sensory delight and you’re immediately hit by a smell blend of incense and spice.
Dried fruits and sweets and Turkish delight are all piled high in colourful mounds. It’s nothing like as big as the Grand Bazaar but I do prefer it. This bazaar is open on Sundays.
Visit Dolmabahçe Palace
Dolmabahce Palace was Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s home for the last years of his life. He was the first President of the Republic of Turkey and he passed away in the palace on 1938.
The palace is absolutely beautiful and a large site to visit. The gardens are very pleasant and if the weather’s nice you’ll get a lovely view of the water.
Sail the Water on a Bosphorus Cruise
Cruises normally include sailing past Dolmabahçe Palace and Mosque, Bosphorus Bridge, Galata Bridge and Golden Horn.
Obviously, the cruises are weather dependent, but there are plenty of days during the winter when the cruises run normally. If you prefer to be more sheltered you could choose a dinner cruise with show.
This is a little away from the other sights around the Old City. But avoiding the summer months probably means you can do a bit more with your time because of shorter entry queues. So this is a quieter spot to visit a mosque and get a great view of the Bosphorus too.
Visit the Asian Side of Istanbul
Most people only visit the European side, and the south side of it at that. If it’s your first visit and you only have a couple of days in Istanbul then realistically you probably aren’t going to make it to the Anatolian side.
But if you have an extra day then it’s worth popping over to explore. If you take a food tour on that side it’ll take you through some of the streets worth discovering.
Otherwise, get a boat over from the Eminönü port or one of the stops further up the coast if that’s nearer where you’re staying.
Go on a Turkish Food Tour
This is such a fun activity and a great way to embroil yourself in Turkish culture. There are various tours of different lengths that cover an assortment food types.
If you have enough time do one of the Taste of Two Continents tours. They generally take a whole day but you discover loads of different food types plus get an introduction to the Asian side of the city. I can recommend the company Yummy Istanbul who I did the full-day tour with.
Warm Up with Some Sahlep
One of my favourite Istanbul winter activities is enjoying a cup of sahlep. It’s a milky alternative to Turkish tea or coffee and it’s very tasty. I recommend trying it.
Take a Turkish Bath
Winter’s the best season to enjoy a Turkish bath. Escape the cold weather with a traditional hammam. Get lathered until you’re squeaky clean and enjoy relaxing in the steam bath. Often the baths are open until very late in the evening so you might manage to squeeze in a session even if you’re on a flying visit.
On the south European side along Golden Horn is the traditionally Jewish neighbourhood of Balat. It’s one of the city’s oldest neighbourhoods and becoming quite trendy now. (Popular with the Instagram set.)
There are several churches there to visit including St George Church and Ecumenical Patriarchate and St Stephen’s Bulgarian Church/The Iron Church.
Head to the Shopping Malls
Istanbul is a great place for shopping. These are the best shopping malls in Istanbul for tourists if you want a rainy day activity. As well as shopping the malls usually have some other kind of entertainment like cinemas, theme parks, bowling or a performance centre.
All are quite cheap to reach by taxi and some are fairly easy to reach by public transport.
Go on a Day Trip to Cappadocia
I love Cappadocia in winter and it’s a great time of year to experience the magic. It’s possible to fly there and back in a day, all the details are here: How To Do A Day Trip To Cappadocia From Istanbul.
However, if you want to experience flying in a hot air balloon at sunrise, then I’d recommend going for at least one night.
I actually haven’t been to Bursa yet but it’s supposed to be a lovely green area to visit in the warmer months. Day tours still run in the winter and the fliers I picked up about them snowy pictures. (Bursa’s close to the ski resort of Uludağ.)
If you have time to kill during your winter break to Istanbul then look into whether this might be a good trip for you.
Go to a Christmas Service or Concert
If you’re in Istanbul over the festive season you can find a few churches offering Christmas services in English. Check out the post I mentioned about Christmas in Istanbul for details of which churches. When I was there, there were also one or two places hosting short concerts as well as mass.
Visit the Four Season’s Winter Wonderland
Similarly, you can take a peak at the winter wonderland that runs at the Four Seasons Bosphorus hotel around Christmas and New Year. Before 25th December it’s a Christmas Market with various gift stalls and food stands.
And then from 26th December, it turns into a winter wonderland with an ice rink. You will need to buy tickets but it’s a dash of Christmas spirit if you fancy it while you’re there.
What to Wear in Istanbul in the Winter Months
Even if a mild winter is becoming more the norm, you’ll definitely need to take some warm clothes with you. I particularly suggest a warm winter coat and a decent pair of winter boots/shoes that’ll stand up to the cold and rain.
Other than that it’s a good idea to wear layers. I got quite warm while I was walking about sometimes and you might want to strip off a bit when you go inside the various attractions.
I lived in jeans and jumpers with short and/or long vest tops and similar underneath and a long woollen coat to go out. Sometimes I wore leggings and a long jumper. But that’s better on the milder days unless you’ve got some of those fleecy leggings I keep seeing advertised on social media.
Do wrap up if you go on a Bosphorus Cruise as it’s cold on the water. A scarf is one of the best things to have tucked in your bag for things like that and visits to the mosques. The only thing you might want to pick up there rather than carry is an umbrella.
Visiting Istanbul in Winter: What Else to Know
Travelling to Istanbul in the winter is likely to be a lot cheaper than in the summer. Hotel room rates do go up around New Year, but Christmas Day is a normal day in Turkey so that’s not really affected.
Other dates through the winter are lower than peak season and some of the activities and attractions have offers on their pricing too.
For most activities/attractions, the opening times are reduced in winter. I’ve found that sites are a bit hit-and-miss about updating their opening times on Google Maps so it’s worth checking the official websites. (Although even then they’re not always quite accurate.)
It’s probably worth your while getting a museum pass. I’ve put all the details in this post about the best Istanbul museums you must visit. But basically, it costs 700 TL and last 5 days from your visit to the first museum. I bought mine from the little booth by Hagia Sophia but you can also buy them from these other museum locations.
The pass is called an e-pass but it’s a physical plastic card. It’s useful to have as it saves you money over the museums and in some places you can jump the queue/skip the line because you already have your ticket.
In other places, everyone has to go through security first so it doesn’t matter whether you have a ticket already. At the museum entrances you either scan the code on your card in a turnstile. Or you hand it to an attendant who scans it on a handheld machine for entry.
The official Istanbul Museum Pass includes this list of museums:
- Galata Tower Museum
- Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts
- Galata Mevlevihouse
- Great Palace Mosaics Museum
- Museum of the History of Science and Technology in Islam
- Istanbul Archaeology Museums
- Hagia Irene Monument Museum
- Topkapi Palace Museum
- Topkapı Palace Museum Harem Apartments
- Rumeli Fortress Museum
- Turbes Museum
- Adam Mickiewicz Museum
There’s also the Istanbul Tourist Pass which covers entry to the museums above plus a comprehensive list of other attractions. (Including a number of the other museums mentioned in this post.)
The all-inclusive pass does look attractive as it also includes guided museum tours to many of the best places. You can also choose various durations for the pass from 1 – 10 days.
However, the price reflects the additional services included and is considerably more expensive than the official pass. As an example, the 5-day Istanbul Tourist Pass is 150 euro.
Because a number of them are on at the same time it seems like it can be hard to get around enough of them to make it worthwhile. But you can see their schedule here for yourself.
As a side note, the company also offer an unlimited travel card. The prices seem extortionate compared to what I paid with the official travel card that I topped up whenever I needed it. Plus taxis are really cheap so be wary if you see it advertised.
Is Istanbul Worth it In the Winter?
I have to say that Istanbul in winter is absolutely worth it.