Last Updated on: 26th February 2024, 01:05 pm

As winter settles over Istanbul, December brings festive vibes and cooler weather perfect for exploring this enchanting city.

Here’s a complete guide on what to expect with weather, events, attractions, and tips for visiting Istanbul in December.

Before you go, make sure you learn how to say Thank You in Turkish. You can thank me later for this tip.

Istanbul Weather in December

December in Istanbul brings cooler winter temperatures, with average highs around 50°F and average lows around 37°F. However, it’s important to note these are just averages. In reality, temperatures can vary quite a bit.

During the day, highs generally reach 45-55°F, allowing for comfortable sightseeing as long as you dress in layers. The coldest periods are at night and early mornings, when temperatures can occasionally dip below freezing to 30-35°F. Winter snow in Istanbul is rare, but light snowfall does occur some years.

Precipitation is significant in December, with rainfall on average 15-20 days of the month. Istanbul locals would describe the winter rain as more of a constant drizzle rather than major downpours. Bring a waterproof jacket and shoes that can handle wet cobblestone streets and paths.

It’s also key to note that increased humidity in December can make the cooler temps feel harsher than they actually are. With the combination of cooler air, precipitation, and higher humidity, the winter chill can seep through layers if you’re not equipped with proper warm clothing and accessories.

Packing for fluctuating conditions is essential. Focus on waterproof outer layers, as well as plenty of sweaters, scarves, gloves and a winter hat to bundle up from gusty winds and cold moisture coming off the sea. Monitoring weather forecasts before and during your trip will also help ensure you’re prepared for the day-to-day variation in December’s winter weather.

Getting to Istanbul in December

December is an ideal time to find cheaper flights to Istanbul since it’s just outside of peak summer travel season. The two main international airports are Istanbul Airport (IST) on the European side and Sabiha Gokcen Airport (SAW) on the Asian side.

Istanbul Airport is one of the busiest in Europe. However, passenger traffic lightens up a bit after the summer rush. Expect fewer crowds at IST in December, though it still buzzes with holiday travelers. The smaller Sabiha Gokcen Airport is also less crowded in winter.

Average round-trip flights in December on major carriers like Turkish Airlines, Lufthansa, and British Airways run around $600-800 from New York, $800-1,200 from Chicago, $1,000-1,200 from Los Angeles, and $800-1,200 from other major US cities.

Please bear in mind that I’m located in Europe, so I can only give you rough estimates on Istanbul flights to and from the main US airports. Do the research yourself, don’t trust my figures.

Shop around for deals, especially if flying in early December before the holiday travel frenzy. Some budget European carriers like Norwegian or Vueling offer cheaper nonstop flights from select cities.

Give yourself plenty of connection time at the airports, both coming and going. Lines can still get lengthy at security and passport control during busy departure and arrival times. All in all, December is a great time to score deals on flights and avoid extreme crowds at Istanbul’s airports.

Festivals and Events in December in Istanbul

New Year’s Celebrations

New Year’s Eve fireworks light up the Bosphorus around Ortakoy Mosque. Head to buzzing Taksim Square for a giant party and concert welcoming the New Year.

There are also many New Year’s Eve Bosphorus cruises with live music, food and good entertainment. I had the intention to take one of these boat trips with festive dinner in Istanbul, but I had to give up because of the very expensive flights from Bucharest.

Istanbul Marathon

This hugely popular marathon takes over the city on one Sunday in November or December. 15,000 runners race over the Bosphorus bridges.

The Istanbul Marathon is the only such event that begins in Asia and finishes in Europe.

In 2023, the Istanbul Marathon took place on November 5th, on a Sunday.

Christmas Concerts & Markets

Istanbul celebrates Christmas with festive markets and concerts, including Handel’s Messiah at the Hagia Sophia.

The German Christmas Market at Taksim Square is a must.

I’m not a big fan of Christmas markets, so I don’t have any photos to show you. Nevertheless, if you enjoy these winter events, make sure you schedule a visit to Istanbul in December.

Top Attractions and Activities

You can check my article about a three-day Istanbul itinerary to see how it suits you.

Sultanahmet Square & Blue Mosque

Istanbul’s majestic mosques are even more stunning dusted with snow. Visit the awe-inspiring Blue Mosque and historic Hagia Sophia.

blue mosque sultanahmet camii istanbul

Topkapi Palace

This stunning Ottoman palace complex overlooks the Bosphorus Strait. Wander its lavish courtyards and royal exhibits.

Istanbul Topkapi interior yard

Yerebatan Sarnici (Basilica Cistern)

The Basilica Cistern in one of the most intriguing places in Istanbul. This underground cathedral is the former water tank that supplied water to the old city of Constantinople.

Should you want to know more, read my article about Yerebatan Sarnici.

Basilica Cistern Istanbul - pillars

The heads of the pillars are either in Corinthian or Dorian style. It seems stone pillars from old temples were used for building Yerebatan Sarnici

Grand Bazaar

Meander under vaulted ceilings through this massive covered market with over 3,000 shops full of handmade crafts, lamps, carpets, and more.

I love haggling over all kinds of stuff. In Istanbul, merchants expect you to haggle, so there’s nothing to be ashamed of.

I’ve got a lovely leather jacket for $50 and some pillow cases with Turkish patterns for a couple of dollars or so.

Bosphorus Cruise

Take a ferry ride up Istanbul’s Bosphorus Strait to see sprawling palaces, mosques, and medieval fortresses lining the banks.

Turkish Baths

Warm up at a traditional hamam, or Turkish bathhouse. The 16th-century Cemberlitas Hammam is a beautiful historic choice.

Cooking Class

Take a Turkish cooking class to learn regional specialties like kebabs, lentil soups, and baklava sweets.

The Asian Side of Istanbul in December

The Asian side of Istanbul absolutely deserves a visit in December too.

Here are some highlights and tips for exploring the Asian side in winter:

– Uskudar – This historic area offers charming cobblestone streets, Ottoman mansions, and centuries-old mosques like the Mihrimah Sultan Mosque. Drink warming Turkish tea in cozy cafes.

– Kadikoy – Istanbul’s busiest district on the Asian side bustles with food markets, shops, and nightlife. Try street foods at the bazaar and walk the lively harbor.

– Beylerbeyi Palace – This ornate 19th-century Ottoman palace sits on the Bosphorus Strait. Its grounds and gardens make a peaceful winter escape.

– Moda – Hip Moda has a trendy, artsy vibe with boutiques, coffee houses, and bars. Browse books at cozy Cafe Moka.

– Haydarpasha Train Station – The neoclassical station built in 1908 makes a photographic stop with its romantic, turreted architecture.

– Ferry Rides – Hopping on ferries between Europe and Asia is fast, fun local transportation with amazing Istanbul views.

– Markets – Stock up on fresh olives, nuts, breads and other provisions at lively Kadikoy Food Market or Bayrampasha Pazari.

Some tips: Dress very warmly for being outside near the Bosphorus Strait. Have some cash on hand as some small shops and food stalls may not accept credit cards. Budget extra time for potentially delayed ferry service due to rough winter water conditions. With proper precautions, Asia side offers a wonderful off-the-beaten path experience.

Where to Stay

Boutique hotels like the Four Seasons Istanbul at Sultanahmet offer 5-star luxury.

For budget stays, look in more residential areas like Karaköy or near Istiklal Street.Yaksim Square is another nice place to stay in Istanbul, as the area is scattered with small hotels, restaurants,  cafes and shops.

Plan on spending $50-150 per night for good hotels. Book at least 2 months ahead for the winter holidays.

Getting Around

Istanbul’s walkable historic core is best explored on foot. Try the metro and ferries to venture further out.

Taxis abound, though driving can be hectic.

For iconic views, take a private boat tour on the Bosphorus.

Day Trip Ideas

– Ephesus: Visit well-preserved Greek and Roman ruins including the massive amphitheater.
– Princes Islands: Escape to these charming islands in the Sea of Marmara for a break from the city.
– Çatalhöyük: Tour Turkey’s largest Neolithic archaeological site dating back over 9,000 years.

What to Eat and Drink in Istanbul in December

Savor kebabs, stuffed grape leaves, baklava pastries, and Turkish coffee from local cafés.

Try Istanbul’s street food like simit (sesame bread rings), kokoreç (spiced lamb intestine wraps), and roasted chestnuts. Sample Turkish wines or rakı, an anise-flavored liquor.

Shopping in December in Istanbul

The Grand Bazaar has over 3,000 stores and stalls selling handmade crafts, textiles, ceramics, and more. Spice Market overflows with herbs, nuts, and sweets.

Find boutiques in Nisantasi and trendy art galleries in Karaköy and Tophane.

With its alluring mix of history, culture, and natural beauty, Istanbul in December shines with seasonal magic. Experience the festive holiday spirit and cooler winter weather perfect for exploring this iconic city.

Istanbul bazaar foods and spices

Most Important Thing To Know When Going To Istanbul in the Winter

If I had to choose the most important thing for travelers to know about visiting Istanbul in December, it would be to come prepared for colder weather.

Even though Istanbul has relatively mild winters, December is the start of the colder season with average low temperatures around 37°F and occasional snow or rainy days. After enjoying Istanbul’s warmer summer months, many visitors may be surprised by the chilly temperatures and rain showers in December.

The wind can be quite tough, especially near the water. Galata Bridge is one of the windiest places in Istanbul that come to mind when I think about winter in Türkiye.

Galata Bridge in Istanbul with Restaurants

Galata Bridge in Istanbul – quite windy in December (and not only) but still charming

It’s crucial to pack proper layers, gloves, hats, warm coats, and waterproof boots/shoes. Cold rain or even snow is not uncommon, especially at night and in the mornings. I’d advise bringing clothes you can layer, like long sleeve shirts, sweaters, and jackets. A good winter coat, gloves, scarf, and hat are essential too.

Comfortable yet sturdy waterproof shoes or boots are also a must in December. The cobblestone streets and paths can get slippery when wet. Proper footwear along with watching your step will prevent any dangerous spills or falls.

Also, make sure accommodations have adequate heating and hot water for showers. In budget hotels, heating may be minimal, so you’ll want warm sleepwear and extra blankets.

I had the pleasure to sleep in a very cheap hotel during a long layover in the month of January. I was on my way back home from Thailand, so you can imagine I was not prepared at all for what was going to be a freezing night in Istanbul.

While Istanbul still has plenty of magic to offer in December, preparing for colder, wetter weather will ensure you stay warm, safe and comfortable while enjoying the sights. Focusing on winter-appropriate packing and footwear will allow you fully embrace Istanbul’s beauty during the cooler season.

Violeta Matei