I keep returning to Istanbul over and over again. It was this city that first prompted me to start traveling internationally. This was back in 2011 before I’d been anywhere outside of the US except for a day trip to Mexico. But the call of Istanbul was too much for me to ignore, and I booked my first big international trip.
And while I’ve returned again and again, it was my most recent trip (my fifth!) that was my first time experiencing Istanbul in winter. And I can wholeheartedly say that even in winter, Istanbul is a fantastic place to be!
What is Istanbul Winter Weather Like?
While Istanbul is part of Europe, many people probably have a mistaken idea that Istanbul is further south (and thus warmer in winter) than it actually is. While we were there, I was glad to have layers of warmth, but I was still a tad underdressed.
The average temperature in Istanbul from December through March is technically in the mid-forties Fahrenheit (around 6-8 degrees Celcius). The average low temperature is slightly below this, though never dipping below freezing. However, because of the windchill of being on the water, expect it to feel windier and colder than the temperature states. And of course, individual days can always dip below freezing.
A good rule of thumb for packing for any trip in winter is to pack layers, expect to be outside much more often than at home, and dress for everything to feel colder than you expect.
While I was there, I found it nice enough to walk around, but I would have been even happier with gloves, a hat, and maybe a thermal layer under my clothes. My friends who were bundled up far more than I was were much less affected by the temperature.
Where to Stay in Istanbul
Accommodations in Istanbul offer a great value compared to other cities in Europe. Here is a general range of what we mean by each budget category:
- Budget: A room in a hostel, usually $5-12 USD per night for a dorm bed or under $40 for a double.
- Mid-range: Around $40-80
- Luxury: Around $100 per night or more
Budget: For a great budget-friendly hotel, you can stay in the single or double rooms at the Dreamers B&B. Colorful and cozy, the B&B boasts a fabulous location in Beyoglu, less than a kilometer from Taksim Square. You can explore all of Beyoglu from here, and then head to Sultanahmet when you’re ready to see the old city. Check pricing, reviews, and availability here.
Mid-Range: For an affordable, yet trendy boutique hotel, we recommend Peradays. It’s perfect for all Istanbul visitors, from first-timers to Istanbul veterans. The lofted rooms are generously large, so you can spread out and relax after a long day of sightseeing. They also have two cats that live here, Pera and Daisy, which you’ll be happy to greet after counting cats all day when out in the city. Check pricing, reviews, and availability here.
Luxury: Istanbul has no shortage of fabulous hotels, but we love Hammamhane, a boutique apartment-hotel that was originally a hammam, and the sister hotel of Peradays. Built in a historic hammam (Turkish bath), the suites are spacious and luxurious. Located in the heart of Cukurcuma, the antiques district, Hammamhane is within walking distance to art galleries, design stores, antique shops, and chic cafés. Check pricing, reviews, and availability here.
Our Favorite Things to Do in Istanbul in Winter
For our list of things to do in winter, we’re focusing on a mix of classic Istanbul activities, things that will keep you warm or indoors, a few hidden gems, seasonal activities, and exploring Istanbul’s amazing food scene. For the few outdoor activities here, bundle up so you can enjoy them, but pop in somewhere to enjoy a coffee or something else delicious whenever you find yourself needing a reprieve from the cold.
Warm Up and Relax at a Historic Turkish Bath
A Turkish bath, the ultimate in Istanbul luxury, just also happens to be delightfully steamy and warm. Honestly, if I was going to be in Istanbul for five days, I could easily justify visiting five separate hammams and by the time I left the city, I’d be scrubbed and as exfoliated as a newborn baby.
There are dozens (possibly hundreds) of hammams across Istanbul, so you can choose a historic one, one near your accommodations, or even go for the most Instagrammable one.
If you want to have everything arranged before you go, you can book your Turkish bath ahead of time for the Çemberlitas Bath. I’ve been to this one and I can vouch that it is completely and utterly relaxing. Plus it was built in the sixteenth century, which is so cool to think about.
Pro Tip: Book your Turkish bath here and then grab lunch or dinner afterward at the cheap and tasty falafel restaurant next door. Click here to check reviews, prices, and schedules.
Eat a Turkish Breakfast…the Most Delicious Meal in the World
If there’s a more delicious meal in the entire world than Turkish breakfast, I’ve yet to find it. Here breakfast, or kahvalti, is practically a sport.Make sure to arrive hungry, but you won’t stay hungry long as you’re about to be served plate after plate covered with local cheeses, homemade jams, fried eggs, honey, clotted cream, pancakes, meats, tomato dishes, olives, hand-churned butter, and breakfast meats.
I had my first Turkish breakfast with my friend Chris from Traveling Mitch, who lived in Istanbul for three years. Since that trip, I’ve scarcely let a day in Istanbul go by without indulging in this most important meal of the day.
If you want to enjoy a Turkish breakfast as part of a food tour where you can learn Turkish food history, this Istanbul food tour includes breakfast as well as a guided tour of local markets and other important Istanbul food gems. Check prices and availability here.
Shop until You Drop at the Grand Bazaar
With over four thousand shops, the Grand Bazaar is one of the oldest and largest covered markets in the world. Spending an afternoon at the bazaar is thrilling and chaotic. You can find everything here from knock-off Chanel bags to Turkish lanterns to every kind of typical Turkish souvenir imaginable. Just make sure you bring cash and prepare to haggle your way into a good bargain.
See Istanbul from Above in the Galata Tower
Istanbul is one of those cities that just beg you to go up to appreciate the views. Whether dining overlooking the Bosphorus or sipping cocktails on a rooftop bar while taking in the views of Sultanahmet, you will never be disappointed when looking out across the city.
A trip to the top of Galata Tower is another highpoint in the city. This fourteenth-century Genoese tower is the most prominent landmark in Beyoğlu, From the top, you can see Galata bridge all the way to Sultanahmet across the Golden Horn.
Admission to the Galata Tower is twenty-five lira, or about $5 USD.
Peruse the Fabulous Galata Art Galleries
I love wandering the area around the Galata Tower because mixed in between the Turkish souvenir shops are a few fabulous art galleries. It’s almost impossible for me to go to Istanbul and not buy a new photograph or print now that I know where to look for them. I also find that the local art scene in Istanbul is priced for amateur collectors and art enthusiasts. You can find something beautiful and unique (and even framed!) for under thirty dollars USD.
My absolute favorite shop for photography and prints is Amant Turc, located less than a block from Galata Tower, However, if you wander the streets nearby, you’ll stumble across several more hidden art gems.
Escape the Cold in the Hagia Sophia
Technically the Hagia Sophia serves as a museum these days, but the historic great Orthodox church-turned-mosque is one of the most famous religious buildings in the world and receives nearly four million visitors per year. No first-time visitor to Istanbul should miss a visit here, but I’ve been several times, finding something new to appreciate with each visit.
This is also a great winter activity in Istanbul since you will appreciate the time indoors admiring the Ottoman and Byzantine artworks and the masonry.
Marvel at the Tilework in the Blue Mosque
After traveling through the Balkans, as well as parts of the Middle East and North Africa, it’s hard to remember a time before I’d been inside a beautiful mosque. However, my first trip to Istanbul was actually my first foray into the world of Islamic architecture, and the Blue Mosque was the first one I ever set foot in.
I was immediately transfixed by the amazing tilework, in intricate patterns of red, blue, and teal. On my most recent trip inside, I noticed that the tiles are undergoing a restoration and parts are covered by paneling. However, even during the restoration, my mind was blown by the beauty inside.
It’s impossible to visit Sultanahmet and not notice the beautiful Blue Mosque towering above the city, but you shouldn’t skip a visit inside! This makes the Blue Mosque an even more excellent activity to do during the Istanbul winter since you can take your time inside and really explore this historic marvel.
Visiting inside the mosque is free. You’ll take your shoes off before going in. Men will need to remove their hats, and women will need to wear headscarves and dress modestly. Another great reason to visit a mosque in winter: you’re unlikely to be underdressed!
Head Underground to the Basilica Cistern
Across the street from the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque lies the Basilica Cistern, the subterranean cistern built by Emperor Justinian in the sixth century. This is one of the hundreds of cisterns that kept the city’s water supply safe for use.
A trip here is rather…trippy. The underground columns make for an entirely different experience than the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque, which is why these three together make such a fantastic morning or afternoon together.
For an Instant Jolt of Warmth, Enjoy a Thick Turkish Coffee
Nothing says “I’m in Istanbul” quite like a thick Turkish coffee. While similar (err…identical) versions are found throughout the Balkans under various names, Turkish coffee originated in the Ottoman Empire.
You can indulge in a Turkish coffee in hundreds of restaurants and cafes across the city. If you would like to discover Turkish coffee culture and learn how to make it yourself, you can go on a Turkish Coffee and Tasting Tour. Just make sure to book early, since this tour sells-out. Check the prices, reviews, and availability here.
Or Indulge Your Sweet Tooth with Some Turkish Delight
Have you heard the modern saying, “C.S. Lewis’ greatest fiction was convincing kids that they’d like Turkish Delight?” Well, the saying may be clever but it’s not accurate. Turkish Delight is, yes I’ll say it, delightful
Dating back to at least the eighteenth century, you can still find this traditional dessert all over Istanbul. No first-time trip to Turkey is complete without at least sampling some, though you will find a box also makes a great gift for those back home.
Walk Along the Bosphorus from Bebek to Arnavutköy
Another gem I learned about from my friend Chris is the gorgeous wooden Ottoman houses in Arnavutköy. If you start with Turkish breakfast or a coffee in Bebek, you can walk along the Bosphorus, seeing the Istanbul neighborhoods of Bebek and Arnavutköy while also getting to take in the gorgeous sites on the water. I’ve done this walk now three times, and each time I spot something new to enjoy. My most recent time it was seeing the men lined up fishing on the water even in early January.
While it is colder on the water in winter than the rest of the year, if you have on the right clothes for the weather you’ll find this walk is delightful year-round. During the warmer months, I like to grab a cocktail outside once I’ve reached Arnavutköy, but in winter we went inside for a coffee instead.
Visit the Stunning (and Infinitely Instagrammable) Ortaköy Mosque
After exploring Bebek and Arnavutköy, you really must stop by Ortaköy and see the gorgeous mosque on the water. Even though this is one of the city’s most famous landmarks, on each of my three visits here I haven’t run into American or British tourists here, even in the height of summer.
You’ll want to take the time to go inside, where you’ll find a lovely frosting-pink mosque that looks right out of a fairy tale. On one of my trips inside, I saw an absolutely stunning bride taking wedding photos inside against the gorgeous pink walls. As with the Blue Mosque, you’ll take off your shoes to go inside. Women will need to wear headscarves and dress modestly, while men will need to remove their hats.
This is one of the most beautiful sites in the city, which is why we have it listed on our Istanbul Instagram guide.
Enjoy the Fantastic Window Dressing on Çukur Cuma Street
Another spot we have listed as one of the best Istanbul Instagram spots is the beautiful antiques row on Çukur Cuma Street. I’ll admit this is one I missed until my most recent trip when I accidentally stumbled across it while getting completely lost. However, one glance at this street and you’ll see why this is a worthy destination in its own right.
Spend an Afternoon Diving into Turkish History at the Archaeology Museum
If you’re as fascinated by Byzantine history as I am, you won’t want to miss a trip to the Istanbul Archaeology Museum, where you’ll see the famous chain that was raised across the Golden Horn and protected the city from invaders. While I went because I was particularly interested in Byzantine history, the museum holds nearly a million artifacts from the civilizations that existed in the lands that were eventually part of the Ottoman empire.
For those who love Ottoman tiles, make sure to stop by the Istanbul Tiled Kiosk Museum, which is a part of the museum.
Entrance to the museum is included with the Istanbul Welcome Card. You can check prices, reviews, and what is included here.
Sip on Some Turkish Raki Or Local Wines
Although Turkey is a famously affordable place to travel, alcohol is pricier here than you might expect. However, it’s worth every penny. Raki is the local liquor, nicknamed “Lion’s milk.” Different than Cretan raki or Balkan rakia, Turkish raki is anise-flavored, rather than a fruit brandy. The popular drink became prominent in the nineteenth century and has been part of Turkish culture ever since.
After tasting a bit of Turkish history, you’ll also want to try local Turkish wines, which are a new and exciting venture for post-Ottoman Turkey. While the country produced wines for millennia, strict alcohol consumption laws under the Ottoman Empire squashed production for centuries.
Kemal Atatürk established the country’s first commercial winery in 1925, but production has become increasingly popular in the twenty-first century as wine consumption has increased worldwide. So while in Istanbul, skip the imported section and opt to ask for your server’s recommendations for local wines.
Ride (Or Photograph) the Iconic Taksim Tram on İstiklal Caddesi
Is anything quite as delightful as a beautiful vintage tram? They’re some of our favorite sites in Sofia and Belgrade, and you know that we find them just as pleasing in Istanbul. You’ll find these red trolleys running on the Taksim-Tünel Nostalgia Tramway or the T2 line. You’re sure to spot one if you go for a walk down İstiklal Caddesi, though you can also find them on the Asian side on the Kadıköy-Moda Nostalgia Tramway or T3 line.
Prepare for Christmas in the Former Capital of Christendom
While Turkey is both a secular country and a Muslim-majority nation, there are Christmas festivities to be enjoyed here. Even in January, I stumbled across this beautiful Gingerbread house displayed in Bebek. The shop owner assured me that it was entirely edible, should I wish to test it out!
Check the holiday festival schedules before planning your trip if you’d like to visit one of the holiday markets. While there aren’t big, European-style Christmas markets, the combination of specialty holiday markets and Istanbul’s regular markets makes this a fantastic city to do your holiday shopping in!
More Istanbul Travel Resources
We have a ton of resources to help you plan your trip to Istanbul! We’re working on our massive things to do post in Istanbul, plus you can check out our guide to the best Instagram spots around Istanbul, our favorite Istanbul neighborhoods and where to stay, what to do in Istanbul at night, and tips for shopping in Istanbul.
If you want to be in the city for just a few days (four or less), check out our Istanbul city break guide, which breaks down the best of the city so you won’t miss anything!
For more general Turkey information, check out this guide to planning a trip to Turkey (including visa information) and this guide to other beautiful places to visit in Turkey. You can also check out our Balkan currency guide, which explains how the Turkish lira works and guidelines for tipping in Istanbul.
If you will also be traveling to Cappadocia, we have this massive DIY Cappadocia itinerary post that will be helpful to read if you are not going on a guided excursion. If you’re curious about the most Instagrammable places in Cappadocia, we’ve got you covered. We’ve also written extensively about the best cave hotels for all budgets here in Cappadocia.
Don’t Leave without Travel Insurance!
Finally, make sure you always travel to Turkey or anywhere in Europe with a valid travel insurance policy. Istanbul is a very safe place to travel, but accidents or theft can easily ruin your trip if you don’t have the travel insurance coverage to recover the losses. Recently my aunt fell on a train in France and needed surgery, but luckily her travel insurance covered the costs in full. Thank goodness!
For travel insurance, I use World Nomads. I’ve been a happy customer of theirs for almost three years, and I’ve never had an issue when making a claim. I’m happy to refer them to anyone I meet.
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Stephanie has been living in and traveling around the Balkans for the past three years. She’s written for National Geographic Online, appeared on CNN Arabic and in the New York Times, and ridden more Balkan buses than is good for a person.