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11 Useful Things to Know Before Visiting Istanbul in Winter

Turkey is generally considered a summer destination, with the vast majority of tourists visiting in the five month season. We visited from January until March to find out how it is to travel in Turkey in winter. Our first stop was two weeks exploring Istanbul, which is now one of our absolute favourite cities.

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1. Is Istanbul worth visiting in winter?

Istanbul is a lively, thriving and fascinating place to visit year round. If you prefer cooler weather, like to avoid the crowds, or have a limited budget, then it’s actually the perfect time to explore the most visited city of 2023.

2. How is the weather in Istanbul in Winter?

Istanbul has hot summers but can be cold and wet in winter. Compared to continental Europe, the winters are relatively mild with average highs of 10° C (50° F) and lows of 5°C (41° F) in January and February. December and January are the wettest months; you can expect around 17-18 days of rain. Bring a big coat but you might not need it every day.

We visited in January for two weeks; there were a couple of days with bad rain but the rest of the time, the weather was fairly good.

3. Where to Stay in Istanbul

If you have a very short time in Istanbul and want to visit as many attractions as possible, then the best place to stay is Istanbul centre (Eminönü). This area has tons of museums and attractions but is more touristy and expensive.

For a longer stay, I’d recommend staying on the other side of the bridge to the north in Beyoğlu. The are of Karaköy is a beautiful part of the city and packed with trendy cafes, lively bars, diverse restaurants and anything else you could need. From Karaköy, you can walk to the centre in 20-30 minutes, enjoying the most beautiful views from the bridge.

4. Winter is a great time to visit Istanbul for budget-conscious travelers

Away from the high season is the perfect time to bag yourself a good deal on accommodation! Istanbul has a huge range of accommodation options to choose from. If, like us, you prefer your own space, then don’t be afraid to try to negotiate a good price on a rental apartment. Check out my guide on How to Find the Best Airbnb Deals.

If you’re planning a hotel stay, don’t forget to shop around. Be aware that Booking.com is blocked within Turkey and can only be accessed through a VPN. Turkish hotels still advertise there but it’s worth looking around and also contacting the hotel for the best prices.

5. Tourist Activities Can Be Pricey

Istanbul is a walk-through museum. There is so much history here, it’s not possible to take it all in. Some museums and historical buildings have high entrance fees, which can make for an expensive trip. To visit all parts of Topkapi Palace, for instance, will set you back 45 Euro (winter 2024 prices). Be aware that that the Hagia Sophia, previously free to enter, recently introduced an entrance fee of 25 Euro and new visiting rules.

If you’re planning on visiting a lot of museums and attractions, have a look at the museum passes and the Istanbul Pass which could save you money.

The Hagia Sophia was built during the reign of Justinian I, in the heyday of the Byzantine Empire. It was the largest religious building for over 1000 years. When Constantinople finally succumbed to the Ottoman invasion in 1453, it was in the Hagia Sophia that Mehmed II claimed the city in the name of Allah. After being designed a museum several years after the Turkish Republic’s establishment, since 2020 the Hagia Sophia is controversially again a mosque.

That being said, there is still so much to see in Istanbul that doesn’t require money. One of my favourites to visit is the Blue Mosque which doesn’t charge an entrance fee. Non-Muslims can enter as long as it’s not prayer time and they’re appropriately dressed. The Grand Bazaar is another one not to miss. The city is so huge and packed with beautiful buildings, it would take a lifetime to explore it all.

6. Make sure you wander around the side streets near the Galata Tower

Another free (although potentially dangerous for your wallet) place to visit, this area is packed with fascinating shops. Some of them are like walk through museums. You can find all sorts: independent clothing stores, vintage shops, artisanal chess boards. Very worth a look, even if you’re window shopping like we were!

7. Is Istanbul Safe to Visit?

Yes, we felt very safe the whole time in Istanbul. It is however the largest city in Europe – way bigger than London – so common sense must always apply.

Scammers and Saints

We got scammed in Istanbul! Wooo! We could have avoided this by reading about common scams first. If being scammed is something you’re worried about, that’s the best way to prepare. We don’t usually bother, and this is the only time we’ve actually ever been scammed. A humbling experience. Don’t trust shoe cleaners.

On the other hand, Turkish people in general are incredibly generous and helpful to strangers. We asked a random guy how to buy tickets for the metro and he simply paid for both of us. We ended up chatting and he invited us to stay at his home, if we’re ever back in the region. For me, that far outweighs any down-and-out scammer on the street.

8. Cats

Cat lovers rejoice! And people that are allergic to the purring terrors, probably less so. Istanbul is a city of dedicated cat-worshippers and, arguably, street cats have no better life anywhere in the world. Yes, there are tons of them and they are always breeding. However, people put out food, water and even beds for the cats (and dogs). Pet shop owners here are millionaires (probably). Cuddling cats in cosy cafes is the perfect thing for a winter afternoon in Istanbul.

9. Try Fish Dürüm

Trust me… If you’re familiar with Turkish cuisine either from Turkey or abroad, you’ll know that a dürüm is a delicious wrap usually containing meat or sometimes falafel with salad. Well, in Istanbul we discovered the fish dürüm. It’s one of the most delicious things I’ve eaten in my life. We found a guy with a tiny shop (Yıldırım usta fish wrap) on the street and wow it had so much flavour. There are other shops in this area that also sell fish dürüm but this guy is special. I would go back to Istanbul again just to eat this and I’m not joking! That brings me on to the best thing to drink with a fish dürüm which has to be…

10. Ayran

Ayran is a drink made yoghurt mixed with water and usually a bit of salt . Sometimes mint or other ingredients are added. Fresh ayran with foam on is the best :). It’s also super hydrating so perfect for hot weather too.

11. Don’t leave Istanbul without having a Turkish Breakfast

I can honestly say, the more time I spend in Turkey, the more I appreciate how much better breakfast is out of tiny bowls. Turkish breakfast (Kahvalti) is kind of like tapas; lots of small plates of delicious things, both sweet and salty. Breakfast is such a special meal in Turkey that there are specific breakfast restaurants. Usually people go with a big group of family or friends and spend a long time over the most important meal of the deal. If you’re visiting Istanbul in winter and are unlucky with the weather, at least you have the perfect excuse for an extended Turkish breakfast.

A Turkish breakfast tends to vary but usually includes:

  • Eggs, in various forms
  • A cheese plate
  • Breads
  • Tahini, honey (usually honeycomb), jams and preserves
  • Kaymak – Turkish clotted cream
  • Sucuk – a delicious fried Turkish sausage
  • Salad, olives and fruit
  • And, of course, plenty of tea!

We really enjoyed visiting Istanbul in winter. Even though the weather wasn’t amazing in January, it was less crowded and a good temperature for walking around a lot.

If you’re not a fan of winter, the south of Turkey is much warmer, even in January. Take a look at my post Visiting Tlos Ancient City and Saklikent Canyon | Daytrip from Kalkan or Fethiye for some inspiration on travelling to this region.

Did you enjoy reading this post? Is there’s anything else you want to know? Let me know in the comments or write to me on Facebook (Hopelessly Nomantic), Instagram (Hopelessly_Nomantic) or Twitter (HopelesNomantic). Happy Travels!

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