Istanbul, Turkey, might be snowy during the winter, but visiting during this time — low season — means more discounts, fewer crowds, and warming up in cafés like the renowned Mado Café by snuggling up to traditional drinks like Turkish tea, Turkish coffee, and sahlep, a sweet, creamy, and cinnamon-y beverage. It's also not too cold to shop your way through Istanbul's famous street markets, though you can always warm up by visiting one of the city's many historic museums and contemporary art galleries.
Read on for the ultimate guide to visiting Istanbul in the winter.
Neighborhoods to Explore
Beyoğlu and Çukurcuma
Beyoğlu is known for its vibrant atmosphere and many great restaurants and bars, though it's probably most famous for being home to Istiklal Caddesi, a bustling street that pulses with visitors well into winter. Some of Istanbul's most popular attractions, like Taksim Square and the Galata Tower, are also in Beyoğlu.
Enjoy popping in and out of the area's many boutiques and grab some roasted chestnuts and toasted simits (similar to a sesame bagel) from one of the street vendors lining the sidewalks.
Within the area, you'll also find the hip Çukurcuma neighborhood, which is dotted with quaint cafés, antique shops, and the award-winning Museum of Innocence.
Speaking of art, Istanbul has established itself as a hotspot for contemporary art — and winter is the perfect time to duck into one of the city's many museums, including SALT Beyoğlu. The six-floor building it occupies is a destination in and of itself, too: Once the former Imperial Ottoman Bank, the 19th-century landmark now boasts several floors of exhibition space, a cinema that hosts performances, screenings, and workshops, and a gorgeous indoor garden. Bonus: Admission is free.
Also known as Istanbul's Old City, Sultanahmet is easily among the city's most beautiful — and centrally located! — neighborhoods. It's also home to top attractions like the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, and Sultanahmet Square. And, since it's the off-season, they'll barely have lines!
Visitors are permitted inside mosques in Turkey outside of prayer time, and entrance is free. Remember that dressing modestly is key and that women need to cover their heads (we recommend using a warm winter scarf). While the Hagia Sophia is a must-visit, don't miss out on the spectacular Suleymaniye Mosque, whose hilltop location offers breathtaking city views. From there, it's a short walk to the Grand Bazaar, an ancient covered market that's often crowded and overwhelming in high season but much more manageable in the winter. Plan to bargain with shopkeepers for whatever you buy there.
Nişantaşı is Istanbul's main shopping district — if you can afford it. While the somewhat residential neighborhood has food, fashion, and culture in spades, it's all pretty luxurious and expensive. When you've had enough of ogling the wares at the likes of Prada and Louis Vuitton, head to nearby Maçka Park, a rare park in central Istanbul that's perfect for strolling.
Best Places to Stay
Following a fun-filled day spent sightseeing, rest your head at one of Beyoğlu's many wallet-friendly boutique hotels. Trend-forward travelers will especially love the Room Mate Emir Hotel, which has stylish common spaces and rooms that feature chic pops of pink and striking artwork.
If you want to stay in the middle of all the action in Istanbul's Old City, you can't go wrong with Hotel Empress Zoe. Once a historic townhouse, the property boasts differently decorated rooms that feature Turkish textiles and furnishings; select accommodations also boast private courtyards, marble bathrooms, and separate living areas. And while you might want to skip the beautiful hotel garden in the winter, you can always curl up by the bar's fireplace. Book directly through the hotel's website to snag an additional 10% off as well as a complimentary buffet breakfast spread.
Best Places to Eat
Istanbul represents a melting pot of cultures and cuisines, which means the food scene here is, in a word, incredible. Eclectic dining options abound, from Michelin-starred mainstays to hidden-gem haunts and everything in between. For a worth-it splurge, book a table at Turk Fatih Tutak. The stylish two Michelin-star eatery, named among the World's 50 Best Restaurants, uses locally and sustainably grown ingredients to create mouthwatering dishes like mati (pasta stuffed with lamb).
Mikla is another critically acclaimed restaurant and is perched on the rooftop of the Marmara Pera hotel, offering postcard-worthy views of the city and its most famous attractions, like the Hagia Sophia. For a true treat, consider the tasting menu and wine pairing option and feast on dishes like octopus and braised lamb; a vegan version is also available.
Those craving a more casual atmosphere can visit Apartıman Yeniköy, a family-owned neighborhood haunt that's popular with locals and visitors. Here, dine on farm-to-table fare like sardines served with dill and white wine sauce over rice, roasted cauliflower with spices, or lamb neck with mixed mushrooms. Wash down your meal with a craft cocktail or two: The rum Negroni is an ultra-refreshing fan favorite.
Dating back to 1966, Kıyı (which translates to "coast" in Turkish) is one of Istanbul's best seafood spots — and its prime waterfront location is an incredible added bonus. Nab a seat out on the terrace and bask in the picturesque sea views while digging into staples like fried calamari, octopus salad, and fish cakes.
How to Get Around
Istanbul is pretty easy to navigate thanks to multiple metro lines, an above-ground tram line, two funiculars, and many buses.
You should consider purchasing an Istanbulkart, which can be used on buses, trams, metros, and ferries. For an upfront cost of just 6 Turkish lira (around 20 cents), this reloadable plastic card offers discounts on public transportation, making getting around the city both accessible and affordable.