Best Things to do in Istanbul Turkey
If you have yet to experience Istanbul, you're truly missing out. And if you've been to Turkey's largest city but skipped the winter season, you've missed a significant part of the charm!
Winter in Istanbul is a delightful mix of enchantment, beauty, and occasionally, a dusting of snow. While the air may be a bit brisk, there are still enjoyable days along the Bosphorus.
Picture this: a city spanning two continents, holding more history in one spot than entire countries. Istanbul witnessed battles, sieges, and the rise and fall of the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires before embracing successful modernization, rendering it one of the world's most cosmopolitan cities.
Calling Istanbul a must-visit in Turkey during winter is no exaggeration. Whether you're into food, shopping, history, culture, entertainment, or nightlife, Istanbul has everything. Even in winter, the city remains a vibrant, lively, and bustling metropolis.
For those considering a winter trip to Istanbul, let's delve into what awaits you and explore some valuable tips to ensure you make the most of your time there.
What Makes Winter in Istanbul so Special?
With iconic sites such as the Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, and Hagia Sophia welcoming visitors year-round, you'll find an atmosphere of intimacy. Embrace the cooler climate, a refreshing departure from the summertime heat in this bustling metropolis.
What's the Winter Weather Like?
Istanbul surprisingly maintains mild temperatures in winter. Frequent visitors have admitted relishing shorter queues at attractions and economical lodgings. Temperatures in November hover around 15°C / 60°F, December witnesses crisp days ranging from 11°C / 51°F to 5°C / 41°F, and January, the coldest at 8°C / 46°F.
Activities for the Winter Explorer in Istanbul
- Walking Tours
Istanbul buzzes with history at every turn, making it a captivating city to explore. A great way to delve into its fascinating stories is by taking a walking tour. A local guide will lead you through intriguing spots, recounting tales of the Romans, Ottomans, and various historical groups who have left their mark on this city throughout the centuries.
- Hagia Sophia Exploration
The Hagia Sophia stands as a captivating landmark in Istanbul, welcoming visitors year-round. Originally constructed in 360 AD, it served as a Greek Orthodox Church. The existing structure, dating back to 537 AD, was once a focal point of the Byzantine Empire, witnessing imperial coronations.
After the fall of Constantinople in 1453 AD, the Romans took control of the Hagia Sophia, only to yield it to the Ottomans. In their hands, the building transformed into a mosque, adorned with exquisite Islamic calligraphy on the ceiling—a feature still visible today.
From 1935 until 2020, the Hagia Sophia operated as a museum, requiring an entrance fee. However, it has now returned to its mosque status, welcoming visitors for free, with closures during prayer times.
In the winter, the Hagia Sophia closes its doors at 5 pm. Admission is free for everyone, and those with a museum pass enjoy the added benefit of a skip-the-line ticket.
- Blue Mosque Admiration
The Blue Mosque, also known as the Sultan Ahmet Mosque, stands out with its six minarets that grace the skyline. Adorned in beautiful blue tiles, it presents a striking contrast to its neighbor, the Hagia Sophia.
Constructed between 1609 and 1616, the mosque encompasses a tomb for Ahmed I, a hospice, a functioning mosque, and a madrasa. As night falls, the Blue Mosque is bathed in a soft glow against the indigo sky.
Similar to the Hagia Sophia, visitors are welcome outside of prayer hours. For women entering the mosque, a head covering is required, and everyone should dress modestly with long trousers and covered arms. Additionally, visitors are kindly asked to remove their shoes. Entrance to the Blue Mosque is free of charge.
- Suleymaniye Mosque, Fatih
Don't forget to put on comfy shoes for this adventure—it involves a bit of uphill walking. Yet, the breathtaking views from the summit make the effort worthwhile. The mosque is a true beauty, with a history dating back to 1557. Like any mosque, you're welcome to explore the interior if you're dressed appropriately. However, simply strolling around the complex and soaking in the scenic views is a delightful experience.
- Museum Delving
- The Museum of Innocence
Immerse yourself in this captivating museum inspired by a novel set in Istanbul. Gain a glimpse into the city's life during the 1970s.
- The Istanbul Toy Museum
For a family-friendly winter activity, head to this museum showcasing toys dating back to the 18th century. It's a delightful experience, especially for kids.
- The Quincentennial Foundation of Turkish Jews
Learn about the rich history of the Jewish community in Turkey at this museum, offering insights into their cultural heritage.
- The Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts
Explore a vast art gallery featuring works from Turkey and the Middle East, providing a comprehensive view of Turkish and Islamic artistic traditions.
- The Istanbul Archaeology Museum
Dive into the architectural history of Turkey, spanning from the Ottoman era to the present day, at this museum dedicated to Turkish archaeology.
- Bazaar Rambling
These expansive marketplaces, often covered, offer a diverse array of products such as spices, Turkish delight, local fabrics, and more.
In Istanbul, two standout markets are the Grand Bazaar and the Egyptian Spice Bazaar.
The Grand Bazaar holds the title of the world's largest covered market, dating back to 1455 when Mehmet, the Ottoman ruler of Istanbul, ordered its establishment. Originally designed as a space for locals to sell their handmade or traded goods, a portion of the profits contributed to the Hagia Sophia.
Situated strategically between Europe, Asia, and in proximity to Africa, the Grand Bazaar evolved into a crucial market, attracting an international community of sellers and buyers.
Today, it offers not only traditional products but also clothing and souvenirs, making it an excellent destination for shopping in the city. The entrance is free, allowing visitors to soak in the vibrant atmosphere.
The Egyptian Spice Market, dating back to 1664, lives up to its name by offering a wide variety of spices. Upon entering, the aromatic blend is enchanting, and the vibrant colors create a visually striking scene perfect for photography. Additionally, the Spice Bazaar features Turkish delight and other local treats, allowing visitors to sample many of the delightful goods on offer.
- Topkapi Palace Exploration
The history of Topkapi Palace traces back to 1478 when it was a majestic Ottoman Palace until 1856. Presently, it has transformed into a museum, showcasing artifacts from the Ottoman era. Additionally, the palace boasts stunning architecture, offering visitors a visual feast. Since most of the attractions are indoors, it's a perfect choice for exploring during cooler weather in Istanbul!
- Whirling Dervish Showcase
The Whirling Dervishes are captivating performers, dressed in white robes and tall hats, engaging in a mesmerizing dance. This dance finds its origins in Sufism, originally a whirling prayer ceremony. Observing the Whirling Dervishes is intended to provide a calming and meditative experience.
Hailing from Konya, a city in southern Turkey, these mystical dancers are known for their unique art form. However, catching a live show in Konya can be challenging. I visited the city during winter a few years ago, and performances were only held once a week.
- Istiklal Street Stroll
This renowned street is Istanbul's equivalent of "Oxford Street," featuring numerous shops and restaurants. It's a pedestrian-friendly zone, though occasionally an old-fashioned train passes through.
You'll discover a variety of popular chains here, representing both Turkish and international brands. Additionally, the street is lined with vendors offering Turkish delight and energetic Turkish ice cream salesmen. Purchasing an ice cream comes with a bonus theatrical performance – a delightful experience, especially on a sunny winter day.
If you find yourself craving a bite, Falafel Tyros is highly recommended. Despite being Lebanese cuisine rather than Turkish, it's affordable and delicious.
- Galata Tower Ascent
Originating in 1348, the Galata Tower stands as a prominent landmark in the Galata district of the city. During its construction, the vicinity surrounding the Galata Tower served as a Genoese colony. While the colony resisted for a considerable period, it eventually succumbed to the Ottomans.
Following the capture of Constantinople, the tower primarily functioned as a watchtower. In the present day, the Galata Tower offers a fantastic vantage point for an awe-inspiring view of Istanbul. Particularly during the winter months, it ranks among the top activities in Istanbul due to significantly shorter queues.
- Basilica Cistern Descent
After ascending the Galata Tower, venture into the Basilica Cistern! This expansive underground chamber, constructed in 532 AD, served as a conduit for water distribution across the city.
Explore the attraction with an audio tour, delving into its rich history and importance to Istanbul. Despite its somewhat eerie atmosphere, it provides an ideal refuge on chilly days, with the underground setting keeping you comfortably unaware of the cold!
- Bosphorus River Journey
The Bosphorus stands as a majestic waterway connecting Europe and Asia. Its rich history and scenic wonders make it an ideal spot for boat excursions! You can enjoy Bosphorus river cruises throughout the year. It's advisable to dress warmly during winter since many observation decks are open to the elements!
For those seeking a lengthier journey, some cruises extend to the Black Sea or offer a more extended experience complete with a dinner option.
- The Communal Bathhouse Experience - Hammam
Turkish baths, known as hammams, offer an ideal retreat during the winter months. These authentic experiences are perfect for warming up when the weather is chilly. It's important to understand that a Turkish hammam goes beyond being a simple steam bath. You have the option to enjoy the sauna and steam facilities or indulge in a comprehensive scrub and massage.
The scrub and massage combination is truly an exceptional experience, but it's essential to be aware of what to anticipate before you go! Notable hammams in Istanbul, such as Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamamı and Gedikpasa Hamamı, are highly recommended for a memorable experience.
- Dolmabahce Palace
Dolmabahce Palace in Besiktas is undeniably a must-visit spot in Istanbul. Whether you're exploring in the heat of summer or the chill of winter, expect a line—it's that popular. The Ottoman Empire constructed this magnificent palace as a newer alternative to Topkapi, and it later served as the official residence of Ataturk. Notably, it's where Ataturk passed away on November 10, 1938.
Best Places to Eat During Winters in Istanbul
Discovering the culinary delights of Istanbul is a must for any traveler! The city's unique location, bridging the gap between East and West, gives rise to a truly diverse food scene. Istanbul is a culinary melting pot, featuring not only traditional Turkish cuisine but also dishes from the Caucasus, Central Asia, and the Middle East.
If you're a food enthusiast, here are some standout restaurants you won't want to miss:
- Van Kahvalti Evi: This spot is renowned for serving the ultimate Turkish breakfast experience. Picture a spread of olives, cheese, eggs, bread, various dips, and much more!
- Galaktion: For a taste of Georgia near the Galata Tower, visit Galaktion. This Georgian restaurant offers classic meals like Kanchapuri and Khinkali.
- Tyros Falafel: Indulge in the flavors of Lebanon at this fantastic fast-food-style restaurant. Tyros Falafel is your go-to for authentic falafel wraps and hummus.
- Khave 6: If you're a breakfast lover, Khave 6 is a must-visit. Enjoy a variety of tasty breakfast options, including a vegan Turkish breakfast.
- Parsifal: For a vegetarian culinary adventure featuring both Turkish and international dishes, Parsifal is the place to be.
- Köklem Uygur Yemekleri: Savor the delicious offerings at this Uygur restaurant, specializing in delectable udon noodles and other fantastic Uygur cuisine.
- Galata House Restaurant: Immerse yourself in the cozy atmosphere of the Galata House Restaurant, where Georgian and Russian cuisine come together for a delightful dining experience.
Embark on a culinary journey through Istanbul, where each restaurant promises a unique and delicious experience, showcasing the rich tapestry of flavors from the region and beyond.
What Should You Pack if You Are Visiting Istanbul in Winters?
Regardless of what the weather forecast suggests, be sure to bring a coat! If your visit falls in November or extends beyond mid-February, a scarf and gloves may not be essential, but they could come in handy during the peak of winter.
In other cases, it's advisable to pack layers, including long pants, t-shirts, sweaters, and socks. Given the likelihood of extensive walking in Istanbul, opt for comfortable shoes.
- Outer Garment: Essential, irrespective of the forecast.
- Layering: Pack long pants, sweaters, and comfortable shoes for extensive walks.
- Valuables: Carry a bumbag or cross-shoulder bag for added security.
Is Snowfall Common in Istanbul?
Indeed, Istanbul does experience occasional snowfall, although it has become less frequent in recent years. In the past, the city used to receive abundant snowfall annually, but this pattern has changed.
Despite the decreased snowfall, rain is a more common occurrence. Being a coastal city, clouds are a regular feature. However, this shouldn't discourage you, as Istanbul has its share of beautiful sunny days. Even when it does rain, there's a unique charm about the city that makes you forget the need for an umbrella.
How is Christmas Celebrated in Istanbul?
Turkish Christmas traditions provide a captivating fusion of cultures, showcasing the vibrant diversity of Istanbul. In December, this enchanting city becomes a magical intersection where Eastern and Western customs converge, crafting a one-of-a-kind and memorable holiday atmosphere.
Experiencing Christmas in Istanbul is extraordinary, with the city adorned with festive decorations. However, despite the festive ambiance, daily life continues without the usual holiday closures of businesses and attractions. Istanbul maintains its regular rhythm, offering a distinctive combination of holiday cheer and everyday activities.
This unique blend makes Istanbul a perfect destination for those seeking to bask in the Christmas magic without interruptions to their plans.
In conclusion, experiencing Istanbul in winter unveils a city of captivating history, diverse activities, and culinary delights. From iconic landmarks like the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque to immersive museum experiences and delightful culinary journeys, winter in Istanbul is a unique blend of enchantment and cultural richness.
Don't forget to explore the Grand Bazaar and spice markets, ascend the Galata Tower for panoramic views, and indulge in the warmth of a Turkish hammam. While snowfall is occasional, the city's charm remains unaffected even on rainy days.
Pack wisely for cooler temperatures, and if you happen to visit during December, embrace the unique fusion of Eastern and Western Christmas traditions. Istanbul in winter is a must for those seeking a vibrant and culturally rich escape.