You may be thinking, why would anyone choose to go to Istanbul in Winter? However, Istanbul is arguably one of the most enchanting and fascinating cities on the planet, with plenty of places to explore, both indoors and out. Its beauty can be appreciated and admired just as much during the winter months as during the rest of the year. In fact, there are even some positives to visiting the city when it’s colder.
One of the major advantages of going to Istanbul in winter is that you can avoid the hordes of tourists and long lines that are inevitable during the high and shoulder seasons, which can mean a calmer, quieter, and, yes, cheaper holiday.
Istanbul has a plethora of indoor places to see, and you’ll most likely avoid the long lines to enter museums and popular places like the Topkapi Palace if you go during the winter season. Plus, you won’t have to compete with crowds inside places like the Grand Bazar or the Spice Market. Essentially, you will have the city a little more to yourselves, which can be a huge plus.
With fewer tourists in town, you can usually find more available accommodation options, many of which may even be cheaper during the off-season. If you want to rent an apartment or Airbnb, this is the period when it’s possible to try and negotiate the prices.
In addition, as compared to other destinations in Europe and North America, where conditions are considerably more severe, winter in Istanbul is not too bad weather-wise. Cold and rainy, yes, but typically not bone chilling, especially if you pack well. (More on that below.) And because the city can be extremely hot during the summer months, some even prefer it in cold weather.
Just be sure to pack well and do a little planning ahead of time. The city does slow down during the winter, so it’s good to double-check the opening times of any places you want to go.
Winter Weather in Istanbul
Istanbul’s climate is transitional Mediterranean, which means that the winters can be quite cold, but summers are hot and sunny. Compared to winter in most of Europe and North America, however, winter in Istanbul is generally milder, albeit damp, rainy and windy. You may experience a snowy day during January or February, making the city very picturesque. But beware that the snow tends to melt quickly.
December, January and February are the coldest months of the year in Istanbul and fall within what’s considered the low season for tourism, which for Turkey in winter runs from mid-November to March.
December in Istanbul sees average temperatures between 5 – 15 degrees Celsius. The average temperature range during Istanbul in January and Istanbul in February is slightly colder, with lows of 3 degrees and highs of 9 degrees Celsius. And there are also days when the temperature can drop below 0 degrees.
The weather can also frequently change over the course of the day. The sun does come out for brief periods and warm things up, but be aware that the day can quickly become cold and windy. The wind coming off the sea can make things significantly colder, so be sure to keep this in mind if you’re outside.
What to Pack for Istanbul in Winter
Packing the proper clothing is part of making your winter trip to Istanbul enjoyable. Layers are key, as is staying dry.
Recommended items to bring include:
- A warm winter coat and a windbreaker jacket and/or raincoat
- Warm sweater(s)
- Long-sleeved shirts/merino wool base layers
- Scarf, winter hat, and gloves
- Waterproof shoes or boots
- A good umbrella that will withstand wind
- A headscarf for women or teenagers, just in case you will be visiting any mosques.
You’ll find our complete Turkey packing list here.
Getting Around Istanbul in Winter
Istanbul is a large city and the only one to straddle two continents, Europe and Asia. Most of what tourists come to see is located on the European side of the city, with the main attractions primarily located in Sultanahmet. This is convenient if you want to visit a few in the same day on foot.
Just remember that there are many things outside Sultanahmet that are very much worth experiencing.
Istanbul in December may be more pleasant for walking around the city as it’s slightly less cold. Otherwise, if you want to avoid too much walking outdoors, the most convenient way to get around Istanbul is by taxi. Just make sure the meter is working before you accept a ride because there are plenty of scammers.
Istanbul has an extensive bus system, but you need to know where you’re going beforehand. Timetables are available on the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality’s Search page.
Istanbul also has a few tram lines, one of which is the T1 tram which runs passes sights like the Galata Tower and Hagia Sophia. Istanbul’s Metro also serve mainly the European side of the city although it may not be the most convenient way to get to tourist attractions. If you’re planning to use public transport look into getting an Istanbulkart to have your tickets ready in advance.
Best Things to Do in Istanbul in Winter
As we said, Istanbul gets cold during the winter. Fortunately, it’s a city with a lot of indoor sights and attractions. But it can also be nice to get out and about outside—provided you are dressed properly—and enjoy this picturesque city, especially if you have some sunny days or a snowy day.
Again, this is the time to really take advantage of the lack of crowds. Museums are likely to be significantly less crowded so you and your family are likely to have these and other attractions mostly to yourselves, creating a more authentic experience (and not to mention nicer photos).
Also, when you need a break, there are many nice cafes and restaurants where you can tuck yourselves away to warm up. (More on that below.)
The Top Istanbul Attractions to Visit in Winter
Many of these places are located in Sultanahmet, making them convenient to get to on foot.
One of (if not the) top attractions in Turkey, the Hagia Sofia (or Aya Sofia) dates back to the 6th century when it was constructed as a Greek Orthodox church. It was later converted into a mosque in the 15th century, and then into a museum in 1934 until it was changed back into a mosque in 2020.
It remains open to the public for visitation outside of prayer times, and admission is now free.
The building itself is an amazing example of Byzantine architecture and exploring the inside is an astounding tale of history told through stunning mosaics, interior domes, and arches.
The building itself is one of the defining aspects of Istanbul’s skyline, but since it is an indoor experience, it can be easily visited in any season. This is a place where it would be great to take advantage of fewer people during winter.
The other iconic sight of Istanbul, the Blue Mosque (or Sultanahmet Camii), is just across from the Hagia Sofia. It, too, is a classic piece of the Istanbul skyline and one of its most beautiful mosques, with both Byzantine and Ottoman designs incorporated into its architecture.
This smaller bazaar just next to the Blue Mosque is more low-key than the Grand Bazaar, for example, but still has plenty of nice shopping options. It also contains the Museum of Great Palace Mosaics, which houses the mosaics salvaged from the Great Palace of Constantinople. They depict scenes from daily life, nature and mythology.
Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum
Also next to the Blue Mosque, this museum contains a large collection of Turkish-Islamic artwork and artifacts, including an impressively extensive collection of carpets, as well as manuscripts, wooden doors, ceramics and glassware. Its terrace offers a nice view of Sultanahmet Square.
A rather extraordinary glimpse into the life of the sultans during the Ottoman Empire, Topkapi Palace has amazing gardens to visit during the spring and summer, but it’s also a good place to see during winter as its stunning interior architecture is a wonder in itself. Wintertime is really a great opportunity to take a tour of the inside without the crowds.
Basilica Cistern (Yerebatan Sarayi)
The most well-known of Istanbul’s underground cisterns, Basilica Cistern, used to provide the water for the Great Palace of Constantinople and the Topkapi Palace. Rows of columns rise up out of the pool of groundwater and continue along the length of the space, and visitors can traverse it via metal walkways. Be sure to bundle up here because it can be a bit cold. It’s a unique place to see; both eerie and beautiful, it’s a nice subterranean adventure for the little ones. Don’t miss the famous stone-carved Medusa head.
Istanbul Archeology Museums
This is actually three museums in one—The Archeology Museum, the Museum of Islamic Art and the Museum of the Ancient Orient. It contains an extensive collection and is considered one of the world’s largest archeological museums, with items garnered from the vast Ottoman Empire.
Get lost (but not literally) in the labyrinth that is Istanbul’s—and arguably the world’s—greatest market. It is completely indoors, and it’s a delight for the senses, with corridors jammed full of vendors where you can buy anything from carpets to jewellery to textiles to lamps, ceramics, and antiques.
The hallways themselves are beautiful, adorned with tilework and arched ceilings. With fewer tourists around during winter, you’ll likely have a calmer experience and a greater likelihood of nailing a bargain. You can also take a break while shopping and eat in the market or just have a coffee. Outside, the bazaar is also surrounded by many street food vendors.
The third iconic piece of the Istanbul skyline, the Galata Tower, is located in Karaköy, which is across the river from Sultanahmet. It is famous for its panoramic view of Istanbul at the top. Take in the view at night to see the Bosphorous Bridge and skyline of Sultanhamet aglow. If you happen to be in Istanbul on a snowy day, then the Galata Tower is a great spot to see a snow-swept Istanbul skyline.
A long line typically snakes around the base of the tower in summer, so you may be able to avoid the crowds during winter. Plus, the surrounding neighbourhood is atmospheric, with plenty of options to stop for something to eat or drink.
Spice Bazaar (Misi Carsisi)
Another cool market experience with mountains of spices on display, along with cheeses, nuts, and desserts. It’s also an indoor market and a fun way to sample local specialties.
Other Interesting Istanbul Sites and Child-Focused Attractions
Istanbul Toy Museum
Yes, toys. This museum is located in a mansion in Kadiköy on the Asian side of Istanbul and contains a display of 4,000 toys and miniatures from Turkey and around the world, some of which are almost 200 years old. The museum was started by the poet Sunay Akin who bought all the toys over the course of 20 years in 40 different countries.
Rahmi M. Koç Museum
For the transport lovers, this is a private museum housing the private collection of Rahmi M. Koç, one of Turkey’s wealthiest men. Exhibits focus on the history of road, maritime, and aviation transport, as well as communication and industry.
Tours of a submarine, ferry and tug boats are available, and there are cafes and snack bars on site. There’s also a carousel and playground on site, and the Hasköy – Sütlüce Railway offers a short nostalgic train tour along the shore of the Golden Horn during the weekends.
Istanbul Chocolate Museum
While it’s located outside the city centre in Esenyurt, this museum is a great option for kids and chocolate lovers. Not only does it show the history of chocolate production, but it has hundreds of objects on display made out of chocolate, including Istanbul landmarks like the Hagia Sofia and the Galata Tower. Naturally, tastings are available on-site.
If you happen upon good weather during your winter visit and don’t mind spending some time outdoors, Miniatürk is Turkey in miniature, with 136 models of selected natural and human-made landmarks important to Turkish culture and history, including 13 pieces from Ottoman territory outside of Turkey. The park also has a train to ride, a playground, a labyrinth park and chess area, and a 3D Flyride Chopper Tour.
An impressive facility, the Istanbul Aquarium has about 1,500 species on-premises and 17,000 creatures to see through its interactive and immersive exhibits. They include an impressive shark tank (with possibilities to dive with them), and Amazon rainforest, in addition to many interactive games and films and extensive exhibits. There are cafeterias on site as well.
The Aquarium is located outside the city center, not far from the IST airport. While there are buses and metros that can get you there, they involve some transfers and short walks; the simplest way to get to the airport during winter is probably to go by taxi/car if you have one. It’s an approximately 25-minute ride from Taksim Square.
Turkua Sea Life Istanbul/Istanbul Sea Life Aquarium
This is another impressive and large public aquarium located in Bayrampasa. It has an immersive ocean tunnel, a touch tank, a children’s play area, and many shows with themes for kids.
Legoland Discovery Center
Next to Turkua Sea Life Aquarium is Istanbul’s own amusement park, where children can play and build with LEGO, watch LEGO films, and take a ride through a miniature city. The park also offers rides and creative workshops for kids.
Located on the Golden Horn of Istanbul, this indoor sea park offers opportunities for visitors to get an up-close, interactive experience with dolphins, as well as see dolphin shows and various ways to learn more about them. There are also beluga whales, walruses and seals on site.
You May Also Want to Include on Your Istanbul Itinerary…
Watch a Whirling Dervish Ceremony
Another image synonymous with Turkey is that of the Whirling Dervish. The dervishes are part of the Mevlevi order of Islamic Sufiism which revere the scholar Jamaluddin Rumi. The dervishes’ act of whirling is a way to turn closer toward the truth of God. There are many places to see a show. Recommended spots include:
- Galata Mevlevi Lodge – Located in Beyoglu, the Galata Mevlei Lodge was the first house for the Whirling Dervishes in Istanbul. It is now a museum about the culture and traditions of the Mevlevi Sufi Islam sect and one place where you can watch a Whirling Dervish ceremony.
- Hodjapasha Culture Center – One of the most popular places to see a show, it is located in an Ottoman-Turkish bath house in Sirkeci.
- Sirkeci Orient Express Hall – Near the Sirkeci Train Station, this is another popular place to see a Whirling Dervish performance.
Visit a Haman
The Turkish bath or hammam is a special way to “deep cleanse” through a hot bath, steam rooms, massages and/or exfoliation. It’s a great option to relax or to warm up during the winter. Baths are separated for men and women. Even if it’s not something for the whole family, it can be a great opportunity for one parent to take a break.
Try Some Special Winter Beverages
Istanbul is a great place to find a nice café and enjoy a cup of Turkish coffee or ubiquitous tea (çay) any time of year. In winter, it’s a great opportunity to try salep or boza. Salep is a hot drink from orchid root and milk with sugar and cinnamon. Boza is made of fermenting wheat, corn, and millet. Pair them with Turkish simit, a crispy dough ring topped with sesame seeds. You can easily buy these on the street as well, a good way to warm up if spending time outside.
Take a Walk down Istiklal Street
This is a wide pedestrian-friendly street in Beyoglu with tons of stores, cafes and restaurants. It runs from Taksim Square to Galata and is good for shopping or a long wander. During Christmastime, it’s fully decorated.
It’s also great to take a ride on the Nostalgic Tram Ride, or the Taksim Tram, which runs along Istiklal Street. It’s a classic red cable car, a restored version of the original tramway, which was closed in 1966. It’s the best way for the family to see this part of town. Tickets are available at kiosks at every stop.
There is another Tramway on the Asian side of the city as well called the Kadiköy-Moda Nostalgia Tramway.
Take a ferry ride or Bosphorous Boat Tour
You can still enjoy the scenic coastal view of Istanbul during the winter with a cruise of the Bosphorous; just make sure you can sit indoors. A cheaper alternative is to take a public ferry across to the Asian side of the city to enjoy the lovely views of the Golden Horn.
Other Istanbul Sights of Interest
With a longer trip to Istanbul, you may also want to include stops at:
Dolmabahçe Palace: A former Ottoman palace located in the Besikitas district, which was home to six sultans and was the summer residence of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.
Chora Museum (Kariya Mosque): Formerly a church, Chora was converted into a museum, then back to a mosque. It also boasts stunning interior architecture and mosaics. It’s free entry for visitors outside of prayer times.
Ortakoy Mosque: A gorgeous mosque in a scenic spot set against the Bosphorous Bridge
Carpet Museum – A small museum that often changes locations. You can learn about the symbols and details of carpet making. Some of the carpets date back to the 13th century and many of them used to be on display at The Blue Mosque and other prominent mosques.
Pera Museum – An art museum with an extensive collection that focuses on the ancient orient.
SALT Galata – A modern art museum and a research institution with a focus on Turkey.
Istanbul Museum of Modern Art – A nice way to experience the art of contemporary Turkish artists.
Where to stay in Istanbul
Use this map to find the best value deals visiting Istanbul this winter:
More on Visiting Istanbul and Turkiye in Winter
As you can see, Istanbul still makes a fabulous destination for exploring, even in the coldest winter months. If you are planning a family trip to Turkey, you may also be interested to read next:
- What to Wear in Turkey – a guide to Turkish dress code for men, women, and children
- Fabulous Family Fun with things to do in Istanbul with Kids – our complete city guide including hotel recommendations and more fun kid-friendly activities in Turkey’s largest city
- The best times to visit Turkey we take an in-depth look at all the seasons and what to expect on a trip to Istanbul and Turkey
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