Come late November, winter arrives in Istanbul and stays until the end of February. While the crowds thin, there’s plenty of things to do for those wanting to take advantage of lineup-free sightseeing and low-season pricing.
Below we’ve included activities with a winter theme, as well as some advantageous things to do in wintertime Istanbul. In general, there will be some nice days no matter which month you choose, but January will offer the best chance to see snow-covered attractions.
Visit a Warm Turkish Bath
The Hamams of Istanbul start to get pretty busy when it’s chilly outside. The traditional Turkish bath is a centuries-old practice that been around since ancient times. In general, they consist of a lay-down scrub with a soapy massage followed by time in a steamy sauna.
Men and women are separated in the baths the same as in the old days while prices vary depending on the level of luxury you desire. and then have a soap massage. There are also historical baths in Sultanahmet and Galata where you can truly live history while relaxing in their warmth.
Enjoy Crowd-Free Sightseeing
Istanbul is crazy busy in summer, but other than Christmas and New Years, you can pretty much have the run of the place in winter months. If your goal is to visit the museums and the main tourist attractions, note that most of them are indoors.
Summer months bring long queues, while winter means you can get fast-track service without actually paying for it. The smaller crowds also mean you easily contemplate pieces of art in peaceful serenity.
While it’s a little chilly to take a Bosphorus cruise at times in winter, it’s very much worthwhile for all the extra space you’ll have on the boats. If you’re lucky to find a nice sunny day during the week, you might even be able to imagine that the Princes Islands are yours and yours alone.
View the Attractions in the Snow
The Ottoman sultans reveled in winter and so should you. Late December (3cm) through January (9cm) is your best bet to see snowy landscapes in Istanbul.
The palaces, mosques and history museums of Istanbul all look quite amazing when covered in the fluffy white stuff. As soon as the first snowflakes start to fall you’ll see many photographers come out of hibernation in search of that perfect picture. Anywhere on the famous hills or by the Bosphorus also provide great opportunities for scenic views.
Mostly it’s just a light dusting or some flurries, but even these can light up Isikital Avenue and riding the historic tram through an oncoming flurry can feel pretty special.
Take Advantage of Low-Season Pricing
If you’ve ever wanted to stay in a luxury hotel in Istanbul, you’ll know how expensive it can be. When the warm sunny weather heads south for winter, many of the city’s luxury hotels offer very good prices to attract more guests.
Why not surround yourself in lavishness while pampering yourself in the best spas which all offer the same great services no matter which month it is.
Grab a Hot Drink
While getting some street food, while not try out a traditional Turkish hot beverage to ward off the chills. You can easily purchase them a variety of coffee shops, street vendors and restaurants.
Made with hot milk mixed with root orchid, and come with sprinkles of cinnamon on top. It’s kinda like a Turkish of hot chocolate, without the chocolate.
A fermented, non-alcoholic drink that is made out of grains like wheat or millen (gluten-free) and comes with chickpeas, sugar, vanilla, and yogurt ferments. The fermentation process takes a full-five days after which cinnamon is sprinkled on top.
Flavored with anise, this alcoholic liquor goes down nicely and is a winter favorite with locals. That feeling when you drain a shot of raki sure feels pretty warm all the way down. Experienced raki drinkers however, sip it slowly for a lasting warming effect.
It’s always a good time to enjoy a Turkish coffee or tea, but the extra warmth it provides during winter months makes this necessary for some.
No matter where you are in Istanbul, you’re like only just a few steps from a decent cafe or a a nice restaurant serving Istanbul’s finest.
Try the Catch-of-the-Day
With Istanbul being surrounded by the Black Sea in the north and Marmara Sea to the south, you can bet the catch-of-the-day to be plentiful all year long.
From November through February you can enjoy fresh bluefish, grey mullet, and anchovy (lufer, kefal, and hamsi). Sea bream (cipura) is still in season in November as are mackerel and strip red mullet (uskumru and tekir) which both last through December.
Horse mackerel and Bonito (istavrit and palamut) make their appearance in December through January. Turbot and big bonito (kalkan and turbot), come next in January through February while sea bass and whiting (levrek and mezgit) arrive as February starts.
Try Some Hot Street Food
Several street food vendors have more noticeable lineups when the weather takes a turn.
The roasted chestnuts carts along on Isikital Street gathers many a passerby while the baked potatoes (kumpir) in Ortakoy warm up those near Bosphorus.
Corn on the cob is sold on pretty much every street corner and the vendors are easy to spot by the billowing smoke. It’s often sold for just 1₺, so you might just hear the call of bira lira (one lira) before you notice the aroma of freshly grilled corn.
Go on a Ski Weekend or Day Trip
While the city is located in northern Turkey and although it does snow in Istanbul, you’ll need to head east and south to find the mountains for skiing.
At roughly 140 km away, Kartepe is the closest ski destination near Istanbul and easily reachable on a day trip.
The Kartepe Ski Resort is the biggest and most popular, and you’ll find The Green Park Kartepe Resort & Spa with ski-in access.
There’s also the Atmaca Mountain and Ski Slope, but this is more small children who want to go on an easy tube or toboggan ride.
With it being roughly 200 km from Istanbul, the Uludag Ski Center is best left to an overnight stay. There are plenty of hotels and chalets at the mountain base.
For those who want to brave this on a day trip, we’d suggest you catch the fast car-ferry from Besiktas or Kadikoy to Bursa and then do the 50km drive from there. This will make travel time 3-4 hours each way, but most of that will be spent relaxing on the ferry.