Last Updated September, 2020
If you tell people that you are planning a trip to the largest city in Turkey in late December, January, or early February, most likely they will answer that winter in Istanbul is not the best season to go. Wouldn’t it be better to wait until spring or even summer?
I have no doubt that visiting Istanbul, as Napoleon Bonaparte once said, is wonderful when you can walk around it without a jacket and scarf. But in my experience, Istanbul is totally awesome regardless of the cold weather outside the window.
In fact, last December when Mark and I moved to Istanbul, we learned that for ourselves. At first, we thought to go spend winter in Bali. But remembering how much we actually enjoyed Istanbul on our first visit, we decided to come here and make a base. And to be honest, after spending so much time in this amazing city and seeing all four seasons, both of us drew a conclusion that winter here is actually not bad at all. For us personally it is much better than summer.
Are you planning a trip to Turkey in winter and wondering why to visit Istanbul too? See below why I think it is a wonderful season for this city and what you should expect.
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Istanbul Winter Weather Quick Guide
Before I start telling you the reasons why we loved spending winter in Istanbul, I would like at first to talk briefly about the winter season as such.
A lot of travelers who come to Istanbul during the coldest months agree that the weather in Istanbul is very changeable. After spending my first winter in this city, I am going to confirm and agree with this statement. But also, based on my own experience, I am going to say the next: do not believe long-term forecasts. The maximum that you can hope for is a forecast for 1 or 2 days. But even then it can change a dozen times.
Generally, there is no real winter in Istanbul in our understanding of this word. There can be some wet snow but it doesn’t last long. In January and February, we had only a couple of nights when it was snowing but the snow melted the first things in the morning.
When I talked to locals showing them photos of the Istanbul winter season having a lot of snow, they were amused and surprised at the same time. They were saying that for many years they haven’t seen winters like that. But even before, when winters were colder, snow didn’t stay on the ground for too long.
Usually, photographers try to “catch” this weather and take such photos in the early morning. But that in turn creates a belief that this beautifully snowy city stays like that for days. And it doesn’t. The snow melts and becomes slush fast enough.
For the most part, Istanbul winter months see cold winds with damp, frequent precipitation. The average temperature ranges from + 3°С to + 9°С (37F to 48F). And there may be also days when it can drop below 0°С (32F). During the last winter, we didn’t have a single day with such a low temperature though.
Istanbul Weather in December
Last December in Istanbul did not even feel like December at all. The weather was sunny and warm that it felt like September somewhere else in Europe. The temperature was more than 20°С (68F) and people were sunbathing on beaches. It was like this until the last week of December when everything drastically changed and the temperature dropped. Locals told us it was the second winter in a row with such warm December.
Nonetheless, the typical Istanbul temperature in December during the day is about +10 +13°С (50F-60F). However, a cold wind constantly blows from the sea. Rainy days prevail, the sun rarely shines. Some forecasts say that December is the rainiest month of the year, although in our case, it was the sunniest one.
Overall, the weather in Istanbul in December can change several times during the day. So it is very important to be ready with proper clothing and an umbrella. But despite this weather, Istanbul is still a popular destination for New Year celebrations among foreigners.
Istanbul Weather in January
Compared to December, January weather in Istanbul is characterized by lower temperatures. The thermometer in the daytime usually stands at around +4+6°С (39F-43F). At night sometimes it drops to 0-2°С (32F-28F).
January also sees a lot of frequent rains and during this month it can snow sometimes. Being outdoors during an extended period of time can be very unpleasant due to high humidity and strong winds.
On average, there are only 9 sunny days in January and the rest of the time, the sky is covered with dense clouds. It rains for about half a time and the rest of the time is mainly cloudy and grey.
Last year, January was really windy and rainy. We constantly carried an umbrella with us because the rain could start unexpectedly. The boat to Adalar Islands was canceled a few times during the month because the wind was so strong that it wasn’t safe to go. I remember spending our free time in January mainly on mosques, museums, Basilica Cistern, and many cups of hot Turkish coffee! There was not much desire to be outside.
Average Istanbul Weather in February
February in Istanbul is a somewhat interesting month when it comes to weather since it can change dozens of times during one day.
The sun can be shining one minute and you take your jacket off but then 20 minutes later the clouds come and rain starts. In February, you also cannot trust the weather forecast simply for that reason that it’s never exact and second because in different parts of the city the weather can be dramatically different. It can be raining on the Asian side in Kadikoy while across the Bosporus in Karakoy (20 min by boat) it’s sunny and a few degrees warmer. And you can see that when standing on the pier.
In February, on average, the air temperature is +6+ 8°С (43F-46F). On some days, the thermometer rises to +10+14°С (50F-57F). Although at the end of February the number of days with precipitation drops, Istanbul still stays damp and cloudy. From the side of the sea, piercing sea winds blow.
In fact, when my parents were visiting they said that Istanbul in February was colder than winter Kyiv, Ukraine. We all wore warm clothes as we would there. But then the sun would come out and it could get even hot for a moment.
If you are visiting Istanbul in February, do not forget to bring a windproof jacket, a nice sweater, scarf, gloves, and a warm hat! But be ready to spend most of the time indoors.
By the way, Istanbul museums in winter are pretty chilly too, so dress warmly.
And Here Are the Reasons Why We Loved Living & Traveling in Istanbul in Winter
1. Istanbul in Winter Is Actually Not That Cold
Thank you the Bosporus and Marmara Sea for this. Or maybe no thank you, as I’ve actually heard from some visitors how disappointed they were at the lack of snow when visiting Istanbul in the winter. I guess people see snowy photos of Istanbul (which looks totally awesome) thinking that’s what they are going to get on their trip on any winter day.
At the same time, I personally know folks who believe in something completely opposite. They think that Istanbul in winter is pretty warm and you can even swim in the sea.
Both of these types of weather can be true to some extent. Istanbul weather is so unpredictable (and if you are lucky), it can get unexpectedly warm for sunbathing in the middle of winter. But it can also get pretty cold and snowy and the city becomes a winter wonderland (very rare).
However, overall, Istanbul almost never gets summer-like weather in winter, and almost never it gets as cold winter as most of Europe. Yes, it gets cold, windy, and rainy. But if you take proper clothes, waterproof shoes (very important), and an umbrella (must-have in Istanbul) you will be comfortable on the streets of the city. But even if you get a bit unlucky and it drizzles all the time, why not arrange a tour which includes activities inside.
2. It’s Much Cheaper
Any city where besides the tourists there are more than 17 million (and according to some sources already 20 million) permanent residents can be quite expensive. Although there is an opinion that Turkey is a fairly cheap country in Europe, prices in Istanbul are not that low. However, when booking a hotel or apartment in winter, you may be pleasantly surprised by prices for accommodation, especially in January and February.
Winter season in Istanbul is considered an offseason. And as any destination in the offseason, it’s much cheaper. While grocery prices, restaurants, and transportation costs stay the same, prices for hotel stays, Airbnbs, airfare, and some excursions drop significantly.
You can rent an Airbnb flat, for example, twice cheaper than in summer. Hotel and hostel stays are always cheaper too. Ever during the Christmas and New Year time, accommodation is much cheaper than anywhere in Europe. Turkey celebrates neither of these holidays, so not many people flock here. Yet, Istanbul has a nice holiday atmosphere and there are still many festive things to do on New Years’ Eve and the following day.
Also, winter is a perfect time for moving to Istanbul and finding an apartment for the long term. Since not many people visit and there are hundreds of reasonably priced accommodation options on the market, you can rent a flat on Airbnb for a month or so and start looking for another apartment on a long-term basis. From April to November you can’t easily do that since the majority of nice flats are booked with a lot of time in advance.
TIP: Do not hesitate to send a hotel or Airbnb host a message and ask for an additional discount. Especially if you are planning to stay in Istanbul for more than a couple of days. There is so much availability around that hosts will prefer to decrease the price instead of having their accommodation sit empty.
3. There are NO Long Lines
In winter, there are fewer tourists in Istanbul, so you will not have to wait in lines for a long time and will have more time to enjoy the city and its attractions. It applies to everything. Exceptions may be places like the Blue Mosque where there is always a line to get in. But even that does not compare with the number of people in the summer.
Also, while traveling by ferry from the European side of Istanbul to the Asian side (or vice versa), you can always find a seat by the window and enjoy the beautiful view (sunset) over the Bosphorus.
Besides attractions and ferries, lodging places stay half empty too. I know a lot of people don’t feel comfortable in crowds and prefer quieter hotels. In summer all types of accommodation are packed with people. But in winter hotels’ occupancy rate is down by half. Yes, even after the pandemic. Many hotels made safety changes but they still operate at maximum capacity.
4. Winter is a Perfect Season For Museums & Indoor Activities
Even though winter in Istanbul is not usually that cold, it still rains a lot. If I could compare, I’d say that on some days it rains as much as in Portland, Oregon or London. If you are planning to visit Istanbul in the second part of December, January, or the first part of February, you should expect unpredictable weather with windy and rainy days. And this is the perfect time for museums or any other indoor activities!
And when to go to museums if not in winter or when it rains? Winter is the best season for museums anywhere in the world, and especially in Istanbul! There will be no crowds of tourists, no need to wake up with the first Azan and run to take a place in line.
In winter, especially during the week, museums in Istanbul are empty and you will be one of a few visitors only no matter at what time of the day you show up. And to be honest, Istanbul museums are so awesome that there will be no regrets. The most important is to choose what interests you more.
But besides the museums for every taste, there are also underground water cisterns, aquariums, and ancient mosques. There is just so much to see! You can plan your Istanbul itinerary for many days with visits to all these places but at the end of your trip there still will be a place that you haven’t covered. Like us. We have been living in Istanbul for a long time and visited quite a few museums. But there are still many more left and we are planning to visit them this coming winter.
TIP: If you are going to spend more than 3 days in Istanbul and plan to visit all city’s main landmarks, do not forget to purchase a museum pass. With it, you’ll save money, skip the line, and get your own English speaking guide.
5. Also, Winter is the Right Season For Cozy & Quirky Istanbul Cafes
After spending so much time in Istanbul and visiting more than a hundred of its lovely cafes on European and Asian sides, I can say with confidence that the Istanbul food scene deserves a separate trip. You can easily come here for 3-4 days and dedicate this time only to sampling local food and checking out numerous cafes, street food stalls, diners, and fine dining restaurants. There is just so much.
And the majority of those places are an attraction of their own. Some are located in old historic buildings while others look like museums or antique shops. You really want to pop into each of them, try famous Turkish foods (and there are tons of them!), sip the most delicious tea, take in the atmosphere, and dozens of Instagram worthy pics. Besides quirky cafes and restaurants, Istanbul is also famous for traditional tea houses and Turkish coffee shops.
It is in the winter that you can taste the traditional drink of this time – salep. Turks make this hot drink from the orchid root and milk with sugar and cinnamon. It is good for people with breathing problems. And the second traditional Istanbul winter drink is boza. It is made by fermenting wheat, corn, and millet and is one of the oldest Turkish drinks.
Of course, any time of the year works great for a foodie and for a cafe visit. However, in summer, a lot of those places are hot (since using AC after covid is not allowed or there is no AC at all) and crowded. Spring and autumn are perfect for walks, excursions, and terrace cafes (many of them close for the winter), so you don’t really want to be indoors. But winters, when many days are rainy, are absolutely perfect for a cafe crawl.
Check some of the coolest places where to eat and drink in Istanbul in my guide.
6. Shopping in Istanbul in Winter is the Best
If you find yourself in Istanbul in January or February, wanting to visit its rich cultural attractions, it is useful to know how to get the most out of shopping too. Because these two months offer a lot of reduced prices.
Istanbul does not have such a clear sales schedule as in Europe. However, in recent years Turkey has tried to adhere to it due to many tourists in the country who count on shopping at certain times of the year.
So the sales season in Istanbul happens twice a year. First time in summer (in July and August) and second time in winter (from mid-January to late February – early March).
During this time, sales start with 30% discounts, then prices drop by about half, and towards the end of the winter season, you can buy things with a discount of up to 70%. And that’s the discount not only for clothes, jewelry, or furnishings. But also for electronics of any brand and household appliances. Although do not expect the same discount in every store.
You can literally go shopping in Istanbul all day long, tirelessly, and never cease to be amazed at the variety of chic shopping centers, pavilions, and boutiques offering products for all occasions. And then return to shop more the following day. Or go to a museum or Sultan’s palace in between.
Last winter in February Mark and I bought so many things that I had to ship one huge suitcase to my home city in Ukraine. I hate shopping but I started to love it in Istanbul. In February, there were so many discounts on leather boots (between $25-$50 for a pair instead of regular $175-$350) and bags that I couldn’t stop buying them (ugh). Turkish leather jackets and designer clothing were so cheap during winter sales too.
Thus, if you want to renew your wardrobe while visiting one of the most ancient cities in the world, come to Istanbul in winter!
Conclusion – So Is Istanbul a Good City For Winter Travel?
Despite the fact that Istanbul in winter sees rain, wind, and wet snow, it is still incredible and grand. You just need to pack a windproof jacket, warm scarf, waterproof boots, and a wind-resistant umbrella. There is no such thing as bad weather in Istanbul if you have proper clothes.
And although most locals at this time prefer to stay at home or run from one cafe to another to warm up with hot tea, it doesn’t mean that there is nothing else to do. Quite on contrary, you’ll find plenty of activities. Plus, it is much better to enjoy the city in a warm coat than to sweat and cry during the hot summer wading through crowds of people (and tourists).
Of course, in the end, you are the only one who decides if Istanbul in winter is right for you. But I really hope through this post you were able to get an idea of what to expect.
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Have you been to Istanbul in the wintertime? Did you enjoy it? If you feel like adding anything or sharing about your experience, drop a comment!