Things to do in Istanbul in winter (everything you need to know!)

Blue mosque and hagia sophia ..

Are you looking for things to do in Istanbul in winter? 

With world-class attractions like the Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace and Hagia Sofia that are open year-round, the winter season in Istanbul has plenty to offer. 

The city is beautiful in the summertime, but in the winter months, you’ll find fewer crowds, plenty of indoor attractions and cheaper prices.

Plus, Istanbul can be sweltering in the summer months; it’s such a big, busy, cosmopolitan city that cold weather is preferable for many! 

Most of Istanbul’s draws – its charming history, its glorious architecture, its fascinating markets and its incredible food scene – are all things that can be enjoyed year-round.

Attractions in Istanbul don’t close in the winter and the weather is often mild enough to enjoy being outdoors anyway!

Bearing all of that in mind, let’s take a look at what Istanbul’s really like as a winter city break.

What’s Istanbul like during winter?

Istanbul is one of my favourite cities in the world, and I’ve visited it during winter four times.

I actually prefer visiting in the cooler months, because there are smaller lines for attractions and way less people.

Plus, the hotels and flights are usually really cheap too.

None of Istanbul’s attractions close in winter, and while it can be a bit chilly, it’s usually warmer than Northern Europe. In fact, at the start and end of the winter, it could be considered a European winter sun destination!

Here’s a breakdown of Istanbul in November, December, January, February and March!

Istanbul in November

Thanks to Istanbul’s southern location, the weather can still be fairly warm in November. I visited at the start of November one year and had plenty of sunshine!

Expect highs of about 15°C / 60°F and lows of around 8°C / 46°F. It can be quite a rainy month, but that doesn’t necessarily happen every year!

The most important day is November 10th which is the day Atatürk, who’s known as “Father of the Turks” died. It’s not a national holiday and shops, restaurants and attractions will stay open, but there is a minute’s silence for him.

Istanbul in December

It does start getting a bit chilly in December, but again, it’s generally warmer than other places in Europe and you can get nice crisp sunny days.

The temperatures range from about 11°C / 51°F to 5°C / 41°F. Again, it can be a wet month, but you should still have plenty of sunshine.

Turkey is non-secular, but it is a majority Muslim country. This means that businesses stay open at Christmas, but there are plenty of Christians here and you should experience some festive Christmas cheer!

However, if you’re looking for somewhere very festive, I’d recommend heading to another European metropolis, like Prague or Vienna.

However, did you know that Santa Claus actually came from Turkey originally? You can read all about the story of Santa in my Kas in winter post.

Istanbul in January

Hagia Sophia in winter

January is the coldest month in Istanbul, with an average temperature of  8°C/ 46°F. However, snow is rare. I visited once in January and had a mixed bag of weather, with some sunny days and some rain thrown into the mix!

There are celebrations for Western New Year on 31st December and 1st January.

Istanbul in February

Cityscape of Istanbul in snow

The temperature also hovers around  8°C/ 46°F in February, although it’s slightly less rainy/ snowier than November, December and January!

I’ve personally visited Istanbul in February twice and had completely different weather both times. The first time, it was freezing cold, not much warmer than England in winter – the second, it was like Spring had truly sprung, and my friend and I enjoyed a Turkish-style picnic in the park!

Istanbul in March

In March, Istanbul starts warming up, with temperatures reaching up to 12°C/ 54°F to 5°C/ 41°F. It also becomes a lot drier.

By the end of the month, it starts heating up considerably, with some lovely sunny spring days!

Things to do in Istanbul in winter

Do a walking tour of the city

Girl standing infront of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. The sky is grey and she is wearing trousers and a coat.

Istanbul is a city that’s teeming with history on virtually every street corner. 

The best way to learn about the city’s fascinating tales is to do a walking tour, where a local guide will detail interesting haunts, following the steps of the Romans, the Ottomans and many other historical groups that have called this city home over the centuries. 

I’d recommend booking a tour with Get Your Guide. Online tickets will confirm that you have a space in advance and ensure you know where to meet!

You can see all Istanbul guided tours by clicking here.

Explore the Hagia Sophia

The Hagia Sophia is one of the most mesmerising attractions in all of Istanbul, and it stays open throughout the winter and summer months. 

Dating back to 360 AD originally, the Hagia Sophia used to be a Greek Orthodox Church. 

The current building, however, dates back to 537 AD. 

During this time, it was a Byzantine hub and emperors were crowned here. 

However, when Constantinople (which is what Istanbul was called at the time!) fell, the Hagia Sophia was administered by the Romans. 

Then, Constantinople fell again – this time to the Ottomans in 1453 AD.

They changed the building into a mosque, adding beautiful Islamic calligraphy on the ceiling which you can still see to this day. 

The Hagia Sophia operated as a mosque until 1935 and then a museum until 2020; you used to have to pay to enter. 

But nowadays, it’s a mosque and is free to enter (but is closed during prayer times). 

During the winter, the Hagia Sophia closes at 5pm; it’s free for everyone, but if you have a museum pass you’ll have a skip the line ticket. 

If you’re interested in learning more about the history of the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque, I’d highly recommend doing a guided tour. Click here to read more.

Admire the Blue Mosque

Inside the courtyard of the Blue mosque. Two turrets are on either side. The sky is cloudy.

The Blue Mosque – sometimes called the Sultan Ahmet Mosque – boasts six minarets which stand against the skyline.

Decorated in gorgeous blue tiles, it stands in a contrast to its neighbour the Hagia Sophia. 

Built between 1609 – 1616, the mosque incorporates a tomb for Ahmed I, a hospice, a working mosque and madrasa. 

The Blue Mosque at night. The sky is indigo and the building is lit up.

Like the Hagia Sophia, guests can only visit the mosque outside of prayer time. 

Women need to wear a head covering when entering the mosque, and everyone should dress conservatively, wearing long trousers and covering their arms. Plus, everyone needs to take their shoes off. 

It’s free to enter the Blue Mosque. 

See Istanbul’s many museums

One of the prime reasons to visit Istanbul in the winter is to see its many museums.

Here are some of the best:

  • The Museum of Innocence: This is a fascinating museum that’s based on a book that was set in Istanbul. It also gives a snapshot into Istanbul in the 1970s!
  • The Istanbul Toy Museum: One of the best things to do in Istanbul with kids in winter, this museum has toys dating all the way back to the 18th century.
  • The Quincentennial Foundation of Turkish Jews: This is all about the Jewish community in Turkey and their history.
  • The Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts: This is a huge art gallery with artwork from Turkey and the Middle East.
  • The Istanbul Archaeology Museum: This focuses on Turkish architecture, from the Ottoman days to today.

Walk around the bazaars

Spice bazaar in Istanbul

The Middle East and Central Asia region, spanning into Turkey, is famous for its bazaars.

These are large markets, sometimes covered, that sell spice, Turkish delight, local fabrics and other items.

The two most well-known in Istanbul are the Grand Bazaar and Spice Bazaar.

The Grand Bazaar is the largest covered market in the world, and it dates back to 1455 when Mehmet, Ottoman ruler of Istanbul, ordered it to be established.

It was created to be a space where locals could sell any products they made or traded for, and ultimately, some of the profits would go back to the Hagia Sophia.

Thanks to where Istanbul is located, between Europe and Asia and not far from Africa, the Grand Bazaar became an important market for the whole reason and brought in an international community of sellers and buyers.

Nowadays, it sells traditional products but also clothing and souvenirs, so it’s a fantastic place to shop while you’re in the city. It’s free to enter, so you could also just visit for the atmosphere!

The Spice Bazaar dates back to 1664, and as the name suggests, it sells all different kinds of spice!

The smell is heavenly when you walk in here, and the colours are a sensation that are perfect for taking photos.

Plus, they also sell Turkish delight and a few other local treats. And you can sample many of the goods on offer!

Learn about Topkapi Palace

Topkapi Palace dates back to 1478 and served as a royal Ottoman Palace until 1856. 

Nowadays, it stands as a museum, documenting exhibits from the Ottoman period. There’s also gorgeous architecture to take in here as well. 

It’s mainly indoors, so it’s ideal if the weather is chilly while you’re in Istanbul! 

See a Whirling Dervish show

The Whirling Dervishes are mystical dancers, clad in white robes and a tall hat, that perform an enchanting dance.

This dance has roots in Sufism; it was a whirling prayer ceremony and watching the Whirling Dervishes is supposed to be a relaxing and meditative experience!

The Whirling Dervishes come from Konya, a city further south in Turkey, but it’s actually quite hard to see a show there – I was in Konya in winter a few years ago and it was only on once per week.

But in Istanbul, there are nightly shows year-round. Granted, it’s a bit touristy, but it’s still worth checking out!

You can book your whirling dervish show on Get Your Guide – book early to avoid missing out! Click here to see all shows and reserve.

Shop at Istiklal Street

This famous street is the “Oxford Street” of Istanbul, with tonnes of shops and restaurants. 

It’s a pedestrian street, although an old-fashioned train does trundle through every so often. 

Here, you’ll find lots of popular chains, both Turkish and international.

Plus, there are tonnes of Turkish delight vendors and Turkish ice cream salesmen, who, if you buy an ice cream, will put on a theatrical performance while making it! It’s perfect for a sunny winter’s day.

If you’re hungry, I’m a huge fan of Falafel Tyros. Yes, it’s Lebanese food – not Turkish – but it’s cheap and absolutely scrumptious.

Ascend the Galata Tower

Dating back to 1348, the Galata Tower is a landmark in the Galata area of the city. 

When it was built, the area around Galata Tower was a Genoese colony. 

The colony held out for a while but eventually fell to the Ottomans as well. 

After the fall of Constantinople, the tower was mainly used as a watchtower. 

Today, it’s a great spot to get an incredible view of Istanbul. It’s one of the best things to do in Istanbul in the winter because queues are a lot shorter. 

Descend into the Basilica Cistern Museum!

Once you’ve gone up the Galata Tower, head down into the Basilica Cistern! 

This is a huge underground vault, built in 532 AD, that was used to transport water to destinations around the city. 

You can do an audio tour around the attraction to learn about its history and significance to Istanbul. 

It’s a bit of an eerie place to visit, but perfect for chilly days – as you won’t notice it’s cold underground! 

Do a Bosphorus River Cruise

The Bosphorus is an almighty stretch of water that spans between Europe and Asia. 

Its historical importance and sightseeing opportunities mean that it’s a perfect destination for boat trips! 

Bosphorus river cruises are open year-round – although it’s a good idea to wrap up warm in the winter, as most of the viewing decks are outside!

If you want to do a longer cruise, some venture up to the Black Sea or are a longer experience with dinner. 

If you want to book your Bosphorous Cruise in advance, you can see what Get Your Guide offer by clicking here.

Have a hammam experience

TURKEY, ISTANBUL - June 4, 2021: Selimiye Hammam .Traditional Historical Ottoman Bath in Uskudar, Istanbul. It was commissioned by Ottoman Sultan Selim III  in 1802 . It is used as Nevmekan Libraries and cafe after restoration.

Hammams are ideal to visit in the winter months; these Turkish Baths are certainly an authentic experience, and if it’s cold outside you’ll soon warm up inside!

One thing that you should know about a Turkish hammam is that they’re more than just a steam bath. 

In fact, you can choose from just enjoying the sauna and steam facilities or having a full scrub and massage.

The scrub and massage is definitely an experience – make sure you know what to expect before going! This is a good article about things to know before your first time in a hammam.

Some of the best hammams in Istanbul include Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamamı and Gedikpasa Hamamı.

Where to eat in Istanbul

full spread of delicious turkish breakfast

One of the best experiences that any traveller can have in Istanbul is to EAT! 

Its position between east and west means that it is home to one of the world’s most diverse food scenes. Here, you’ll find traditional Turkish food and cusine from the Caucuses, Central Asia and the Middle East. 

Here are some of my favourite restaurants! 

  • Van Kahvalti Evi is the best place for full Turkish breakfasts. Think olives, cheese, eggs, bread and various dips, and much more!
  • Galaktion this is a Georgian restaurant near Galata Tower. Here, you can eat classic Georgian meals like Kanchapuri and Khinkali.
  • Tyros Falafel this is an incredible Lebanese fast-food style restaurant, serving authentic falafel wraps and hummus
  • Khave 6 offers tasty breakfasts, including a vegan Turkish breakfast. 
  • Parsifal is a vegetarian restaurant with Turkish and international food. 
  • Köklem Uygur Yemekleri is a Uygur restaurant, with delicious udon noodles and other amazing Uygur food. 
  • The Galata House Restaurant offers Georgian and Russian cuisine in a cosy atmosphere.

Where to stay in Istanbul

Hotels and rentals in Istanbul are perfect for winter, with sophisticated heating systems and even hammams that you can warm up in.

Here are some of my favourite centrally-located hotels in Istanbul!

Vogue Hotel Supreme Istanbul

Situated in the Fatih area, this hotel is in the centre of Istanbul’s historic area, close to attractions like Topkapi Palace and the Blue Mosque. 

It’s a five-star hotel, with huge spacious rooms and luxury bathrooms. There’s also a restaurant on site. Click here to read more.

Pera Center Hotel and Spa

Located in the Taksim area, Pera Center Hotel and Spa is a comfy, great-value hotel, with a restaurant served on a rooftop terrace and a basement hammam. Click here to read more.

Honey Hotel

This is a budget hotel located in the touristy area of Istanbul. Although it’s great value, it has cosy and clean rooms and offers free tea and coffee. Click here to read more.

Cheers Hostel

Close to Sultanahmet’s main attractions, Cheers Hostel is one of the best places to stay in Istanbul if you’re a backpacker. There are private and dorm rooms available, and you can enjoy breakfast on the covered terrace every day! Click here to read more.

What to pack for Istanbul in winter? 

No matter what the weather forecast advises, take a coat!

If you’re visiting in November or after mid-February, you shouldn’t need a scarf and gloves, but you might do if you’re there in the depths of winter!

Otherwise, I’d pack layers. Generally, you’ll need long pants/ trousers, t shirts, sweaters, and socks. You’ll likely be doing a lot of walking while you’re in Istanbul, so I’d recommend wearing comfortable shoes.

I’ve always felt completely safe during my trips to Istanbul, but I’d recommend taking a bumbag or cross-shoulder bag for your valuables.

What is Christmas in Istanbul like? 

Istanbul, Turkey - September 21, 2012: the former tram on Istiklal Street in Istanbul, Taksim-Tunel carry passengers. A cold winter day.

Personally, I’ve never been to Istanbul at Christmas. 

However, friends who have spent the festive season have told me that some people celebrate, and it’s easy to find festive decorations. 

However, being a majority Muslim country, not much will close around December 25th.

So if you want to spend Christmas somewhere, but not quite at the same level as other countries, then Christmas in Istanbul could be perfect for you!

How to get around the city

Istanbul has a fantastic public transportation network, with trams, metros and buses. You can easily use these to get around the city. 

Alternatively, taxis are cheap and usually run on meter. 

Where to go from Istanbul

Istanbul Airport (IST) and Sabina Gohken (SAW) International Airport both to so many destinations, including tonnes in Turkey. 

If you’re looking for a true winter wonderland, I highly recommend Cappadocia, or for some winter sun in Turkey, head to the Antalya region. I especially love the town of Kas!

Istanbul in winter FAQ

The Blue Mosque, The Hagia Sophia and the Istanbul roofs, beautiful sunny panorama.

Is December a good time to visit Istanbul? 

Yes, December is a great time to visit Istanbul!

It can be quite mild here, and although it’s a Muslim majority country, there’s still a fair amount of festive cheer, with Christmas lights in Istiklal Street and lots of Christmas-themed menus and decor throughout the city.

If you want somewhere that’s really Christmassy, there are other places to visit, but Istanbul’s still a wonderful December city break.

For me, it’s a great city break any month of the year!

Does it snow in Istanbul in winter? 

Yes, it can snow in Istanbul in the winter, however, it usually won’t settle for very long. Check out my full guide to snow in Istanbul by clicking here.

Why is Istanbul so cold in winter? 

A common perception is that Istanbul is warm throughout the year, but it isn’t quite south enough to have year-round warm temperatures!

Due to its position against two seas, Istanbul can be quite windy, which brings the temperature down a few degrees.

If you go further east in Turkey you’ll find mountains and plenty of snow in the winter.

If you’ve been wondering does it snow in Turkey? you can check out my full guide here!

However, Istanbul’s temperatures are mild compared to many other European nations; sometimes it can even be considered a winter sun destination.

How do people dress in Istanbul in winter? 

Istanbul is quite a liberal city, and there isn’t really a dress code throughout the year.

However, if you experience cooler weather during winter, you might want to wear a coat and long trousers/ pants!

You usually won’t need a scarf or gloves, but might do in particularly chilly weather.

Is Istanbul a good city for the winter? 

Yes, I think Istanbul is a great city any time of year – but I especially love it in winter.

It’s never too cold, you’ll have the wonderful architecture of the Ottoman Empire virtually to yourself, hotel prices are affordable and when you get hungry, you can keep warm with plate after plate of hearty Turkish food…

Istanbul is a city like no other!

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