10 Cool Things to Do in Istanbul in Winter
Istanbul shines in winter! Since the city has relatively mild winters, you can enjoy it without a problem. Besides, far fewer tourists visit Istanbul in winter than in summer. To be honest, we’ve been in summer too, and the heat can be too much to deal with. That’s why we try to always travel to Istanbul off-season.
We’ve been going to Istanbul for the last 25 years and still can’t have enough. To us, it is the nicest city on the earth. There’s so much to do and see in Istanbul that you can spend months discovering it. We have selected the 10 coolest things to do in Istanbul in winter. We know you’ll have as much fun as we do!
Why Visit Istanbul in Winter
Splendid Weather is Everything
Compared to most European capitals, Istanbul in winter has mild temperatures. It seldom goes below 0 degrees Celsius (32 F) the whole winter. However, it does occasionally snow. You will be delighted if it does. Istanbul is even prettier under a thin blanket of snow. Besides, all you need is a good coat to walk about and admire the city.
The average temperature in Istanbul in December and March is 8 Celsius (47 F), while in January and February 6.5 Celsius (44 F). December and January are the wettest months, with an average of 110 millimeters (4.3 inches) of rain. As you can see, there’s nothing to worry about. Not even about your pictures, since the sun does go out to embellishing the city.
With a population of almost 16 million people, Istanbul is one of the biggest cities on the planet. In addition, some 15 million people visit the city throughout the year. As you can imagine, the city is packed during the summer. We simply cannot overstress the perils of visiting Istanbul in 32 degrees of heat (90 F), surrounded by masses of tourists.
Don’t get us wrong, any time is a good time to visit Istanbul. However, to us, winter is the best. So if you are wondering what to do in Istanbul in winter, we’ve got great news for you. You can shop, eat, walk, rest, visit museums, temples, mingle with the locals, and do just about anything you could do in summer but bathe in the sea. And all of the latter, with a lot of space!
As you know, fewer visitors mean lower prices all over the world. Istanbul is no exception and offers unbelievable deals during the winter. The latter is especially true for hotels. Since the city receives so many tourists during summer, it has a lot of hotels. These have to lower their prices considerably to attract visitors in winter.
The same can be said regarding shops. You will get awesome deals in the bazaars and shops in the city. When it comes to food, you will have an endless array of restaurants, street stalls, bakeries, and all types of eateries to choose from. There’s no need to queue or elbow yourself to order. Walkabout, relax, and choose your favorite place!
Things to Do in Istanbul in Winter
1 Visit Hagia Sophia Without the Crowds
Of all the things to do in Istanbul in winter, visiting Hagia Sophia should be your top priority. To us, it’s the grandest temple in the world. Actually, we encourage you to visit it several times during your stay. The temple was converted back into a mosque last year. Thus, it isn’t a museum anymore, so you don’t have to pay for an entrance ticket.
However, take note that Hagia Sophia is a place of worship. Consequently, dress and behave accordingly. Since tourists and locals flock to the temple during summer, it can be hard to visit in peace. Such is not the case in winter. You will get to experience this UNESCO Listed World Heritage Place and never forget it.
2 Admire Topkapi Palace under the Winter Sun
The grandest palace in the country deserves your full attention. And you deserve to explore it with time and space. Topkapi is so grand, beautiful, and unique that it attracts 2.7 million visitors each year. Fortunately, there are fewer visitors in winter. Thus, you can wander in awe through every corner of this UNESCO-listed World Heritage Site.
Before you enter Topkapi, be sure to explore Gulhane Park, adjacent to the park. Go in through the southern gate, one of the grandest of the palace. The park used to be part of the palace but opened to the public in 1912. Buy the full ticket to the palace, including the harem, and take your time. You’ve got several buildings and splendid gardens to visit.
3 Shop in Historic Markets
Istanbul has two historic markets that will take your breath away. In fact, you don’t need to buy a thing to enjoy them. The Spice Market is close to Eminonu. Go inside and prepare to be dazzled. The place is beautiful and offers the most delicious spices in the world. The 17th century building is part of the New Mosque. Be sure to go inside too.
With its 61 streets and 4000 shops, the Grand Bazaar is a sight to behold. As soon as you enter the 15th century building you will feel the magic. The array and quality of products under the vaults and archers are mind-blowing. You can also sit down, have tea, and people watch. Tourists are a minority in winter in Istanbul, so you get to mingle with the local shoppers.
4 Enjoy the Light Show in the Historic Cistern
No matter how many times we’ve visited, the Basilica Cistern never ceases to amaze us. We are talking about a massive structure: 138 meters (453 ft) by 65 meters (213 ft) capable of holding almost three million cubic ft of water. Built in the 6th century, it is the biggest in the city. Be sure to check all of the 336 marble columns. Look out for the hen’s eye and two medusa columns.
You have two more cisterns to visit. Theodosius Cistern opened a couple of years ago in Fatih. With 32 columns, the 5th century building is smaller than the Basilica Cistern but offers an incredible laser show. The other cistern is in Sultanahmet. Philoxenos or Bindirdirek Cistern is less popular but equally gorgeous. The building dates back to the 5th century and is a must!
5 Enter the Ottoman Era Mosques
There are mosques from every historical period in the city. Mosques play an essential role in everyday life, and visiting them is one of the best things to do in Istanbul. A visit to Sulemaniye mosque is a must. Suleiman the Magnificent had it built in 1557. The huge temple sits on a hill and offers killer views.
Nuruosmaniye Mosque from 1857 is the nicest in Camberlitas. Go to Fatih to visit the Zeyrek Mosque, made out of two orthodox temples. The Empress of Hungary built the original monastery in 1122. Nearby is the impressive Fatih Mosque. Every neighborhood has several gorgeous mosques! The Blue Mosque is currently under renovations.
6 Explore Istanbul’s Nicest Neighborhoods
Due to its history, Istanbul’s neighborhoods are quite different. Explore the neighborhoods around Sulemaniye and Zeyrek. You will find coffee houses, historic buildings, and shops in a lively atmosphere. The same can be said for Karakoy, and the area around Dolmabace palace. Further to the east of Besiktas, next to the sea is Buyuk, with epic views of the bridge.
Our favorite traditional neighborhood is south of Sultanahmet. Of course, spend time in the one and only Sultanhamet. Don’t forget to walk in between Agia Sophia and Topkapi too. Even if a bit gentrified, it’s still amazing. However, the area to the sea and south remains untouched. Get lost amongst the little streets and alleys. Don’t forget to check Little Agia Sophia, next to a lovely park.
7 Discover the Coffee Culture of Beyoglu
As you probably know, Turkey is famous for, well, Turkish coffee. Thus, fantastic coffee houses line Istanbul’s streets. However, the last decade has seen a boom in western-style coffee houses. Without exaggerating, Istanbul has one of the best coffee scenes in the world. Though scattered all around the city, the coffee culture of Beyoglu is the best.
Beyoglu is the area around Galata Tower, across Istiklal street, and Pera. Locals and tourists flock to the long and wide pedestrian street. Incredible buildings, shops, and restaurants line both sides of the street. Every little street from there to Galata is fascinating. That’s where the coffee houses are. Go at night to the rooftop terraces for spellbinding views.
8 Get to Know the Christian and Jewish Neighborhoods
As mentioned above, people from different cultures and religions have lived in Istanbul for centuries. The area between Fatih, Balat, and Fener is a testament to this fascinating melting pot. Balat used to be the Jewish quarter. Greeks used to live in Fener. Thus, the area boasts synagogues, churches, and mosques.
Today, Balat is known as the city’s most colorful neighborhood. After decades of neglect, and extensive renovations, the area shines in different colors. Fortunately, loads of historic buildings have survived. The atmosphere here is young and vibrant. You can spend hours sitting at a cafe, watching life go by.
9 Take a Boat to Kadikoy
As you’ve heard countless times, Istanbul sprawls along two continents, Asia and Europe. The European side of the city is on both sides of the Golden Horn. Kadikoy is one of the nicest neighborhoods on the Asian side of the city. You could spend here quite some time. At least take the ferry there. The journey is an attraction in itself so grab a window seat.
Boats depart from both sides of the Bosphorus. On the way to Kadikoy you will see the famous Leander’s Tower floating on the sea. Another site to behold is the majestic Haydarpasa Train Station. Once in Kadikoy, all you have to do is walk along its pedestrian streets looking for historic churches, palaces, and trams. Go in the afternoon and come back at night for the best views ever.
10 Spend a Night on a Princess Island
Just a step away, but in a different world altogether, the Princes’ Islands are the city’s best-kept secret. Four islands and several islets make up the archipelago. Though popular in summer, you will have them all to yourself in winter. The islands have so much to offer that you won’t miss the beach.
Our favorite is Buyukada, the largest. This little piece of heaven combines incredible historic architecture with unspoiled nature. Besides, no cars are allowed inside the island! We loved walking everywhere! You can also take the electric bus around the island. We always stay at the historic Ada Palas Hotel Buyukada. Unbeatable location, comfort, and impeccable service!
Where to Stay in Istanbul
We usually stay in Beyoglu, our favorite neighborhood. Though there are hotels, it doesn’t feel touristy at all. Regarding food, some of the best restaurants in the city are here. We love Cezayir Rooms, in the heart of Beyoglu. It’s an old traditional building with personalized service. Do yourself a favor and book the suite for the best views in the city.
For class and tradition, book a room at the Pera Palace Hotel. The interior is spectacular, and the rooms are super comfortable. Unbelievable views, impeccable service, and a spa complete the feast. Sultanahmet is your other option. Our favorite hotel is Sirkeci Mansion, overlooking Gulheme Park. It offers great rooms in the heart of the city, while being peaceful. Plus it has a spa with a pool!
Moving Around Istanbul
You have a lot to cover in Istanbul. That’s why staying in Beyoglu and Sultanhamed makes sense. The tram is the best way to cross the Golden Horn. Get several tickets at the machine, so you don’t have to line each time. Remember that, once in Beyoglu, you can take the funicular up to Istiklal, in Karakoy and Cabatas.
The green metro line crosses most of the historical city, from Taksim, through Eminomu, to Sultanahmet. Taxis are quite hard to get in Istanbul. Though not expensive, they take longer than the metro and tram. You have to take a boat too. The ride is an attraction in itself and is the best way to go to Asia. You can cross from side to side by boat!
Nothing Beats the Mediterranean in Winter!
The Mediterranean is famous for its beaches. That’s why it gets so crowded in summer. As much as we love it, we do not love crowds. Since we live in Greece, we go to its incredible islands all year round. Therefore, we travel around the Mediterranean off-season, when the crowds left.
We’ve been to Nice, Malta, Mallorca, and other Mediterranean cities in winter and had a ball. The weather around the sea tends to be mild, and the sun always shines. All you need is a jacket, and you get to enjoy the wonders of this sea in peace. It’s kind of a tradition for us, waiting to travel to the Mediterranean in winter!