Istanbul is a fantastic sight in December, with an air of festivity dominating the ambiance. You will find the city decorated to welcome the upcoming New Year. The city will be less crowded, making your stay more comfortable. Don’t worry about being too cold, as most of the attractions are indoors!
As a culturally diverse and historically significant city of Turkey, Istanbul is dotted with many sites to explore and interesting things to do even during winter. Keep reading to find out how you can make the most out of your trip to Istanbul in December!
A bit about the weather – December is the beginning of winter, and the weather is cold and windy, with days being shorter than nights. Istanbul temperature in December ranges from 5.6°C -10.8°C, but it can drop a bit further on some days.
Top 10 Things to Do in Istanbul in December
Visit Hagia Sophia Museum
As an emblem of the intricate history of Turkey, Hagia Sophia won’t fail to fascinate anyone. Its architecture is a fusion of both Byzantine and Ottoman empires, reflecting the confluence of two cultures. Constructed around 1500 years back, Hagia Sophia was primarily a Church, then a mosque, a museum, and now converted into a mosque again. The grand interior is elaborately designed with artistic elements and is very interesting to observe. This monumental structure continues to be a significant element for both religion and politics today. The entrance is free.If you want to get the full experience of visiting both of these Istanbul highlights, you can take a guided tour of the Hagia Sophia and Topkapi Palace. I love having a guide to show me around a new city fo the first time, I find it makes the experience of a new city much more fulfilling.
Visit the Sultan Ahmed Mosque
Built next to Hagia Sophia as a rival construction, the Sultan Mosque is an iconic construction from the Ottoman Empire. It’s also renowned as the Blue Mosque due to its elegant blue-tiled interior. Besides admiring the grand architecture, it’s also interesting to observe how the glass-stained windows colorfully light up the mosque during the day. The entrance is free, but as the mosque is a place of worship, you will have to observe a particular dress code and remove your shoes at the entrance. Veils and long cloaks are available at the mosque for visitors to wear and enter.If you are looking for a guided tour of the Hagia Sophia and the Blue mosque, check out this one!
Treat Yourself to a Turkish Bath
A Turkish bath at one of the Hammams in Istanbul is definitely a one-of-a-kind experience. It’s the perfect pampering session during winter in Turkey because it’s rejuvenating, soothing, and most importantly, warming! The steam bath and exfoliating massage will easily switch you to Zen mode, energizing your body. We recommend you to pick a traditional, ancient-style Hammam as it will not only gift you the authentic experience but also reflect the luxurious lifestyle of the Ottoman Turks then. But, there are modern-styled Hammams as well.
The cost of a Turkish bath can range from 30 – 50 USD.
Explore the Basilica Cistern
As your next activity, brace yourself for a gothic tour underneath the city of Istanbul. Basilica Cistern is an engineering marvel from the Byzantine Empire that was used to supply water to the city. The place features 336 columns precisely distanced from each other, and two Gorgon heads believed to have been placed for protection. As you walk through the dim cistern, you will hear the faint sound of water dripping. A chill down your spine is usually because it’s cold inside, but tales of corpses being dumped in the cistern exist too. The entrance is located close to Hagia Sophia and the ticket costs around 4 USD.
Enjoy New Year Celebrations
While Istanbul at Christmas isn’t very special, it’s not rare to see stores being lit with decorations. But what the city is really enthusiastic about celebrating is the New Year. You will come across a lot of festive preparations happening in the city towards the end of December. If you are looking for the best place to enjoy New Year’s Eve and the spectacular display of fireworks that lights up the city at night, head to the Bosporus strait. You can even go on a sunset cruise, enjoy great food, and watch the fireworks from the boat. Enjoy with your special someone and call it a romantic night!One of the benefits of going to Istanbul in December is that there are plenty of deals on tours to be had. check out the price for this evening cruise.
Shop at the Grand Bazaar
Whether you want to do some random shopping or bag some souvenirs to take home, Grand Bazaar is the ultimate local market. You will be spoilt for choices here as stalls feature a variety of items such as local artisan jewelry, perfume, hand-embroidered table mats, ceramics, Turkish lamps, and other ornaments. The Grand Bazaar is also the best place to get hold of Turkish sweets, spices, dried fruits, and even fresh produce. Don’t forget to allocate a few hours to wander in the Bazaar and make good bargains!
Watch the Performance of Whirling Dervishes
For travelers seeking unique things to do in Istanbul in December, the Whirling Dervishes Performance is a must-see activity. Known as the Sema Ceremony, this live performance features a traditional and ritualistic dance that originated around 800 years ago. It’s hosted by Hodjapasha Cultural Center located in Istanbul. The spellbinding dance moves of the performers and the exotic music will captivate your attention right away. The dance reflects the spiritual journey of a man to attain perfection through divine love. There’s also an exhibition featuring information on the ceremony, objects used by dervishes, and samples of sufi music and poetry. The show lasts for an hour and tickets can be found here.
Indulge in Turkish Food
A lot of local dishes hail from the traditional Ottoman cuisine with a modern twist, and they are largely a combination of Mediterranean, Middle-eastern, and Asian meals. While most of the food varieties are meat-based, you will also find plenty of vegan options on the menu. Don’t forget to try the classic Baklava, kebabs, Köfte, Kumpir, and Pide. If you like the idea of trying multiple dishes at once, Meze is what you should order. On another note, trying out Turkish coffee or wine varieties is a great way to stay warm during your stay in Istanbul in December!If you want to get a complete experience of food during your time in Istanbul, take this evening food tour. Savor the flavors of Asia and Europe on a 5-hour food tour of Istanbul, and conquer the cuisines of the city’s 7 hills. A local guide will take you on a leisurely stroll to neighborhood cafés to find Kurdish food, typical drinks, and much more.
Go on a Traditional Tram Ride
No visit to Istanbul is complete until you go on the historic tram ride in Istiklal Street. The tram service was first established in the 19th century and was taken out when buses replaced it. It was later restored in 1990 as a mode of transport between Taksim Square and Tünel Square. The journey in these antique trams is slow and short, but it’s a great way to enjoy the views of the snow-covered street of Istanbul in winter. It has only a few stops along the way, the most notable one being Galatasaray Square when it crosses paths with the other tram.
Skiing is one of the most popular activities to do in winter in Turkey. While Istanbul doesn’t have an ideal place for skiing, a 2-hour ferry ride from the city can easily get you to Uludag National Park, the best place for a skiing adventure. You can reach the skiing resort by bus or cable car. We recommend you allocate a day at least to get the most out of your journey. The park is a great place for skiing enthusiasts looking for an easy, fun-filled experience but may not appeal to advanced skiers. You can also go on hiking, snowboarding, and sledding here.
More Turkey Travel Resources
Weather in Istanbul in TurkeyAs mentioned above, the cool temperatures in Istanbul keep many tourists away. But that gives you all the better opportunity to enjoy all that the city has to offer without the crowds. Average highs are 11C and lows are 5C (that is 51F to 41F). On average December sees over 17 days of rain and snow is not uncommon. While the South of Turkey has much warmer temperatures, do not expect Istanbul in December to be a warm weather getaway!
What to Pack for Istanbul in DecemberAs mentioned above, ensure you are prepared for cold and wet weather. Women should pack warm sweaters and jeans, a sweater dress with leggings, and a good winter coat. I love smartwool base layers and they are the perfect option to keep warm in the winter in Istanbul. Men should also pack pants and sweaters. Ensure you have a warm hat, , scarf, gloves, boots, warm socks. If you happen to forget something, do not worry too much, Istanbul has great shopping (especially bargain shopping) and you will be able to pick up whatever you need while you are there. I had the misfortune of breaking a sandal while walking in Istanbul and was quickly able to replace it for just a few dollars. For more packing tips, check out this comprehensive packing list for Turkey. You are going to want to decide if you want to lug a rolling suitcase on uneven cobblestones and on and off transit. While I personally prefer a suitcase, you may prefer a travel backpack like this one or this one. These are made for light packers, if you need something larger, look at this one! An inexpensive Universal Travel Adapter is a must for Turkey. You will find an assortment of 220V plugs, from European 2 pin, another style of 2 pin and UK Plugs. While European 2 pin is most common, it is best to carry one of these adapters with you. With a handy USB input, you do not need to bring your plugs from home. Motion Sickness Pills might be needed if you are prone to motion sickness and plan on traveling by bus or in the back of the car. There are many long bus journeys in the country and if you end up at the back, you will wish you had these. Sea Bands might work for you if you are prone to motion sickness.
Day Tours in IstanbulIf you are looking for great day tour options, check out Get Your Guide. They offer a beat price guarantee and have excellent cancellation options if your trip has to be changed.
COVID 19 in Istanbul at this Time
At present, there are certain travel restrictions in place due to COVID-19. As an example, travelers who visit Istanbul have to undergo mandatory medical tests and adhere to the health and safety regulations outlined by the authorities. Admission to attractions may also be limited, so make sure you check into current protocols as things change often.