Istanbul might be snowy during the winter, but visiting in low season means more discounts, fewer crowds, and time for (warm) pleasures like historic museums and contemporary art galleries. While it’s not too cold to shop your way through Istanbul’s famous street markets during the day, it's easy to relax in cafés like the renown Mado Café when the sun sets, snuggling up to traditional drinks like Turkish tea, Turkish coffee, and sahlep -- a sweet, milky, and cinnamon-y beverage. Here's a guide:
With a cool vibe and modern, sleek design, the boutique hotel Mama Shelter Istanbul has rates starting as low as €69 (about $86) in the winter, and the earlier you book, the better the rate. Mama Shelter is located in Beyoğlu, where the main street, Istiklal Caddesi, remains throbbing with shoppers in winter and street vendors selling roasted chestnuts and toasted simits (similar to a sesame bagel). Don’t miss the Çukurcuma neighborhood near the hotel, where quaint cafés and antique shops dot the streets and novelist Orhan Pamuk’s award-winning Museum of Innocence is located.
With the growing contemporary art scene in Istanbul, winter is the perfect time to duck into a warm museum and linger over an exhibit. Lebanese artist Akram Zaatari, who was in the 2013 Venice Biennale, is taking over three floors at SALT Beyoğlu with his cutting-edge photography and video work. International and Turkish artists wrestle with questions of religion and art in the Rainbow in the Dark exhibit at sister gallery SALT Galata. (Entry at both SALT spaces is free.) The SALT Galata building itself, by the way, is a worthy attraction. Once the former Imperial Ottoman Bank, the 19th century landmark now houses a beautiful library, museum dedicated to the bank, and a casual café with free WiFi in addition to the galleries -- making it a great place to pop into as you gallery hop throughout the neighborhood.
If you want to stay in the heart of the Sultanahmet, then the charming Empress Zoe boutique is the place. Once a historic townhouse, the property boasts differently decorated rooms featuring Turkish textiles and furnishing. And though you might want to skip the beautiful hotel garden in winter, curling up by the fireplace in the hotel bar is tops. Rates include a generous breakfast buffet and start at €65 for single and €120 double in winter. That's about 20 percent off the high season rate, and you get an additional 10 percent off by paying in cash. Top attractions like Haghia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, and Topkapi Palace are all within walking distance -- and barely have lines, if any, in winter. You'll find fewer hawkers bothering you in this area in down season, too.
Visitors are permitted in 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 (your winter scarf can help with that). We particularly recommend the 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 is much more manageable in the winter. Plan to bargain with shopkeepers for whatever you buy there.
If you’re keen to explore both the Sultanahmet and Beyoğlu, you'll save by purchasing an Istanbulkart (Istanbul card) for use on the Metro, tram, commuter ferries, and funicular. For an upfront cost of 6 Turkish lira (about $2.55), you get about 40 percent off regular fares when you use the card -- 2.15 lira a ride and 1.45 lira for the first transfer. Otherwise, it's 4 lira per ride using the traditional token called a jeton.
Efendi Tours is a well-established travel agency that offers some low-season discounts. Check out their winter promotion for a full-day tour, including the opulent Ottoman Dolmabahçe Palace, the foodie Spice Market, the beautifully tiled Rüstem Paşa Mosque, and a boat trip up the Bosphorus for €60 with lunch (versus the usual €70). Half-day tours around Istanbul are also available.