Istanbul in Winter: Where to Go and What to Do
To visit Istanbul in winter is to see an alternative face to Turkey’s biggest and most prominent city. Summer in the metropolis is fun but winter can be as well because there are significant benefits you won’t get during any other season.
First, you can avoid the crowds and in a city with an average population of 15 million people, this is a biggie. Although Istanbul is a year-round city break destination, many people visit during the primary tourism season running from May to October. Some tourist attractions have massive queues, and it is impossible to take a photo without many random strangers in it.
Second, because winter is out of season or downtime in the tourist trade, hotels drop to their lower tariff rate. Some souvenir shops or private vendors in the Grand Bazaar also drop prices, and there are some bargain flights, so wherever you go, there are opportunities to save money.
Everyone wants to know what the weather in Istanbul is like during these months. Well, sitting in Turkey’s northwest corner, Istanbul has a colder temperature than other places in Turkey. Expect between 5 to 10 degrees, so items to put in your suitcase include gloves, hat, jumpers, jacket, long trousers, and a scarf.
Some days can be rainy but everywhere sells umbrellas and expect to see a blanket of snow in either January or February that makes the urban landscape the perfect picture postcard scene.
Things to Do in Istanbul in Winter
1: The Iconic Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia
The excellent news is that Istanbul’s top tourist attractions are all indoors and within a short walking distance of each other. Start at the famous 16th century Blue Mosque, former imperial place of worship for the Ottoman sultans and their entourage. This article about this iconic landmark building talks about what to expect and etiquette for visiting a mosque.
When leaving, turn right, walk through the gates and across the square to the famous Hagia Sophia. Once the world’s largest domed building, it has served as a church, mosque and now a museum displaying marvellous Islamic calligraphy side by side with ancient frescoes.
2: The Royal Topkapi Palace
Just a short walk around the corner sits the Topkapi Palace, the first home of the Ottoman sultans when they invaded Constantinople, and from where they ruled over their empire. Touring each section and courtyard gives a fantastic insight into how ottoman royalty lived, from the circumcision rooms, kitchens, armoury, and jewellery displays. The most popular section, which requires an additional entrance fee is the harem where intrigue, suspense, and untold secrets of Ottoman women throughout history hang in the air.
Other indoor attractions, just a short walk away, include the Basilica Cistern, Istanbul Archaeology Museum, and Museum of Turkish and Islamic arts. But if Ottoman palaces intrigue you, and you want to see more, head across the Golden Horn to Dolmabahce Palace, last home of the sultans and the place where Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the Turkish Republic, passed away.
3: Shop in the Grand Bazaar
Everyone goes home with souvenirs, and the best place to shop for them in Istanbul is the sprawling Grand Bazaar, a maze of alleyways and small shops making up one of the world’s largest markets. A stroll around is about more than splashing the cash though.
The age-old practice of bargaining over prices, welcoming hospitality with many cups of Turkish tea, and the way vendors are grouped according to what they sell, give great cultural insight, both past and present into the enjoyable art of shopping in Turkey. Read more about Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar and how it stands the test of time despite modern shopping developments.
4: Visit Istanbul Akvaryum
Welcome to Istanbul, the world’s biggest themed aquarium adored by young and old alike. Open every day from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., and using innovative technology and themed experiences, Istanbul Aquarium is home to thousands of species of fish. Visitors follow a set route through the aquarium, that takes them through 17 different geographical areas including a rainforest.
Along the way, see species from various continents, movies, and interactive games, which also makes this a fun learning experience for children. Ready and waiting for viewing are 66 tanks, and 17,000 land and sea creatures. Shop for souvenirs and enjoy three on-site cafes or sign up for themed activities like the fish feeding, and diving with sharks.
5: Istiklal Avenue: A Winter Delight
Stretching for 1.4 kilometres, Istiklal avenue, Turkey’s most famous and busiest street, is home to many shops, but also cultural sites that are a delight to explore. In between spending the cash in modern brand name stalls, nip in and explore the stunning architecture of Saint Anthony Padua church, and Flower Passage where you can grab a bite to eat and refreshments.
Further along the avenue, the Galata Whirling Dervish museum tells the story of Islam’s Sufi sect and sells tickets to the whirling dervish Sema shows that see followers twirl around in a mystifying way to be at one with God.
To know more about Istanbul’s history away from the much-publicised tales of Ottoman and Byzantine days, take a slight detour to Cukurcuma district. Famous throughout the city, for its old antique shops, it is also home to the Museum of Innocence, a project by Turkey’s most renowned author Orhan Pamuk.
6: Galata Tower (Weather Depending)
During summer, queues to enter Galata Tower stretch around the block but in winter, you can get in quickly. Although the landmark building itself is a marvellous piece of ancient architecture, our favourite reason for visiting is the spectacular panoramic view from the top.
Looking out over the Golden Horn, the experience amplifies, if you time your visit with the call to prayer when the azan reverberates across the city. Galata Tower also has a restaurant that at night puts on Turkish shows featuring traditional dances and a buffer selection of Turkish food.
7: Explore the Eminonu Neighbourhood
Many travel publications talk about the Sultanahmet district, but an equally important area is the Eminonu neighbourhood. Covering the side of Galata Bridge that stretches over the Golden Horn into the new part of Istanbul, the most famous landmark building of Eminonu is the Grand Bazaar yet there is more to see.
Wander through the Spice Bazaar, that gives off a pleasant aroma and displays stunning architecture on its ceiling. The imperial Suleymaniye Mosque, another place of worship sits on the third hill of Istanbul, and its interior design wows everyone who walks through its doors.
8: Bosphorus Cruise (Weather Depending)
To do as the locals do, a ferry ride is a must. If it is a clear day, with low winds, head to Eminonu ferry dock, buy a cheap ticket and jump on board a Bosphorus ferry cruise. For style and finesse, some excursion shops sell evening dining cruises with entertainment. The downside of these is you can’t see the marvellous buildings sitting on the Bosphorus shorelines.
Examples include Yali mansions, and old wooden Ottoman homes that are Turkey’s most expensive real estate market, with some selling for 100 million euros or more. Ottoman palaces and mosques portray bygone eras, and if the weather is beautiful, hop on and hop off to explore small villages like Arnavutkoy.
9: Indulge in a Turkish Bath
One way to keep warm and destress at the same time is a traditional Turkish bath of which Istanbul has many. The tradition stems from the old Roman baths and starts with a sweating session in a sauna. If the heat is too much to bear, dowse yourself down with water before jumping on the slabs to be covered from head to toe in soapy olive oil suds.
The attendant scrubs you down with a loafer, and you will be surprised at just how many dead skin falls off. Optional choices after, are an olive oil massage and a traditional cup of tea. Out of all the cultural experiences to be had in Istanbul, this is the most popular, and you can find out where to go in this article about Istanbul’s oldest Turkish hammams.
10: Stroll Around Art Galleries
As Turkey’s most prominent city, Istanbul is a hub of shopping, nightlife, food, education, tourism, and of course, art. Many famous Turkish and international artists rise to fame by featuring their work in various exhibitions and displays. An excellent place to start is the Pera Museum in Beyoglu district.
Featuring artwork from famous artists in history, a popular piece is the tortoise trainer by Osman Hamdi Bey, that sold in 2004 for a staggering 3.5 million USD. Istanbul Modern Art Museum also features contemporary pieces, while other art galleries making a name for themselves include the Yapi Kredi Culture Museum, Art on Istanbul, and the Sakip Sabanci Museum.
To know more about Istanbul in winter, where to go, and what to do, see our blog post archives containing many articles of use to both travellers and people intending to live in this great city. While exploring, we also recommended keeping an eye out for vendors selling street food. Delicious food to go contributes as much towards Istanbul’s foodie scene as five-star restaurants, and popular choices in winter include roasted chestnuts, corn on the cob, and the winter warmer drink of Salep.
About Us: We are Turkey Homes, a leading property, investment and lifestyle company operating all over Turkey. Our team, with years of combined experience, has in-depth local knowledge of many areas of Istanbul and other prominent destinations. To stay updated with news, feature articles and events coming out of Turkey, follow us on Facebook or download our apps on Google Play and iTunes.
Also Read Istanbul New Airport: The new airport will be the world’s biggest air travel hub. Opened to the public in 2019, to date, it has received much praise. If you plan on visiting Istanbul from another country, you will most likely arrive via the airport, so this article talks about what to expect, dining, duty-free, Wi-Fi and more.