The 5 Best Winter Experiences in Turkey

Winter in Istanbul can be cold and windy. But it’s the annual snowfall that turns it into a winter wonderland. Snow on the seaside promenades and its ferry stations, the domes of grand mosques, the rooftop of the Grand Bazaar, for instance and indeed, on the rooftops of apartments. Winter in Istanbul can be magical! 

Istanbul as well as Turkey should be considered a holiday destination throughout the year, not just during the summer season. The country is an amazing choice for a unique winter getaway – it is low season, so its calmer and you’ll deal with lesser crowds than during high season. Actually, it isn’t just Istanbul that experiences snowy winters. Cities throughout Central and East Turkey deal with a lot of snowy weather. Winters across the country differ a bit as Turkey has different climate zones. Most winters start in December and end three months later in March. It can be snowy, rainy, cold and dry and in some places, mild with no snow.

Temperatures can range from -15C to 20C, with the coldest places being Central Anatolia. This area and the east of Turkey have cold, snowy winters and hot summers. The province of Sivas was the coldest this winter. Turkey’s coldest town was Imranlı in Sivas which saw -26C temperatures in December 2021.

Nuruosmaniye Mosque, Photo by Serkan Atay from Pexels

Winter sports enthusiasts will be delighted to know there are tons of resorts and some amazing powder for them to try. There are tons of outdoor sports centres and resorts that offer some of the best powder for snowboarding and skiing. Check out some more winter activities below and take your pick, book your ticket for the winter months and enjoy some unique experiences in Turkey!

1. Winter Wonderland in Istanbul

Winter in Istanbul is a chilly affair. Temperatures dip below zero fairly often, which requires you to dress warmly. A winter jacket or parka is a must, and gloves and a winter beanie are a necessity on very chilly days.

Image sourced from Wikimedia Commons

A city that hardly sleeps can come to a standstill with a snowstorm. There’s usually at least one each winter. The Bosphorus can also freeze and its a wonderful scene with its unique mix of ancient buildings, monuments and skyscrapers.

The city transforms into a winter wonderful on both sides of the Bosphorus waterway. If you want a view of the city from the top to see the snowy rooftops as far as the eye can see, head to the Galata Tower. But luckily, the snow doesn’t stay for long and melts away in a day or two.

“Istanbul im Winter” (1921) – Painting by Fausto Zonaro, Image sourced from Wikimedia Commons

Winters and snow in Istanbul are quite common and has been so even during Ottoman times. Fausto Zonaro, an Ottoman court painter, even has a painting of the city from 1921. It shows rising minarets and the hustle and bustle of the busy streets of a bazaar with snowy rooftops and domes.

Even hotel prices drop during the colder months and due to the snow, there are more options as tourists choose to stay home. You get to see the famous landmarks such as the Hagia Sofia, Topkapı Palace and the Grand Bazaar without the huge crowds.

Image sourced from Pixabay

For instance, the snowy domes of the grand mosques in the old city in the Golden Horn, the slow rhythm of the tramways of Taksim on snowy streets, can become great inspirations for photographers.

Moreover, winter means that you’ll get to experience winter favourites such as roasted chestnuts, hot saleps  and even roasted intestines called Kokoreç. Learn more about street here in our article about Top 10 Turkish Street Foods to Try.

2. Cappadocia

Cappadocia, Photo by Alain Bonnardeaux on Unsplash

The Cappadocia region is usually known for the familiar sight of hot-air balloons rising over an otherworldly landscape. The unique rock formations or “fairy chimneys” and spiky rock formations are due to volcanic formations and erosions. But have you tried it in winter? It can be one of the best winter destinations in Turkey.

The region is blanketed in snowy layers each winter but the unique landscape makes it a great spot for photographers and tourists. The aerial view is picturesque with the snow and hot air balloons rising  up which is usually done at dawn.

Photo by Bhargava Marripati from Pexels

It is one of the most popular activities and top of the list of things to do – even more beautiful during the snowy months of December to February. It can also be relatively cheaper in winter and less crowded.

Some hotels and ride companies even arrange the activity for you and provide transportation to and from the site. The usual time for the ride is right before sunrise, around 5:30-6:00 am.

Cappadocia, Image by GLady from Pixabay

However, there are other things to consider too such as unpredictable weather which can make exploring a bit difficult in the winter, especially for hot-air balloon rides. As such, dressing warmly is key and having enough time to try it on another day is recommended. Enjoy this magical experience with your loved ones at dawn and take home an amazing once in a life time experience!

3. Palandöken

Palandöken centre can be considered the country’s best winter sports centre and popular for winter tourism. It is situated on the snowy slopes of Mt. Palandöken, a few kilometres away from the city of Erzurum, in the northeast of the country. Palandöken was ranked 18th among 41 ski resorts in the world according to the New York Times.

Image by izmiray from Pixabay

Palandöken is one of the most important ski centers in the world for skiing for 5 months of the year. It has great snow quality and long tracks. Equipped with excellent facilities, ski lifts, slopes, pistes and also a cable car, this ski resort sits at 2,200 meters — the highest in the country. As such, you can expect ski season to last longer, until April some years. You can try alpine skiing, freestyle and snowboarding and even slalom.

Palandöken is a popular place for winter sports enthusiasts. There’s also an annual festival that brings in popular singers and entertainers. There’s plenty of high altitude slopes for experienced skiers and even a tobogganing park for children. If you don’t want to ski, Palandöken also offers tandem paragliding.

Due to its climate , Palandoken maintains its powdery snow that allows skiing throughout the whole ski season. There are 10 chair lifts, 1 teleski, 2 baby lifts and 1 gondola lift serve on the slopes of the Palandöken ski Center, located between 2000-3176 meters. Reach the Ejder 3200 hill (the toughest one) with a 1000-meter climb on the gondola lift. There are 7 easy, 8 medium and 4 scenic tracks. On all tracks, approximately 12,000 people are offered the opportunity to ski at the same time!

Erzurum is well-connected to the ski resorts and hotels in the area by public transportation. There are a few well-known hotels, some with restaurants, cafes and even spa facilities: Polat Hotel, Dedeman Ski Lodge, and the exclusive Xanadu Snow White. Make a plan to come on weekdays, if possible, to avoid the crowds.

4. Doğu Ekspresi Tren or The Eastern Express

The Eastern Express is Turkey’s most famous and most scenic train route. It can probably be considered one of the most beautiful travel routes in the world! The ride is all about the scenery and during winter, the landscape of Turkey’s northeast is breathtaking with mountains and plateaus blanketed with snow.

Image sourced from the State Railways of Turkey

Winter is the most popular season to jump aboard the train and see the natural landscape. The journey operates between Ankara and Kars and is approximately 26 hours. The train departing from Ankara passes through these cities: Kırıkkale, Kayseri, Sivas, Erzincan, Erzurum and Kars provinces, respectively.

The train itself consists of a pullman, covered couchette and dining wagons. There are 10 compartments in couchette wagons, and 4 people can travel in each compartment. Bed linen, pique and pillow are provided by The State Railways of the Republic of Turkey (TCDD), and the seats in the compartments can be used as beds when requested. The dining car has 14 tables and seating varying between 47-52. Dining wagons consist of tables and a restaurant with everything you need.

Most foreigners know little about this beautiful train route but it is wildly popular with locals. The train is booked months in advance so it is better to inquire and get your tickets early on and between the months of December and March. 

5. Kars and Ani

Image by alperkures from Pixabay

Kars is a small city in Turkey’s northeast and is one of Turkey’s prime bases for winter escapades. In recent years, it has become a popular winter destination. The Eastern train ride ends in this city, and from where you can explore the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Ani, as well as Lake Çıldır. You can choose to do skating on one-horse sleighs on this beautiful lake, which is the second largest lake in the region. 

Kars also has a castle and historic mosques. The city is also known for its “gravyer” cheese, a cheese similar to the gruyere cheese and a special roast goose dish. 

Image by Alanyadk from Pixabay

Ani is a fascinating Armenian archaeological ruin to explore especially with the snow. It is located in the Merkez district and on the border with Armenia and Turkey. It was city on the Silk Road trading route and was the capital of a 10th century Armenian Kingdom. The region was conquered by many: Byzantines, Seljuk, Georgian, Kurds, Mongols and then the Turks. It was later abandoned and only recently rediscovered. Today, Ani’s red stone Armenian era church lies in ruins on the Kars plateau, unfortunately but can be an interesting subject for photography enthusiasts.

Bonus: Uludağ in Bursa

Snow-covered Uludağ mountain in the distance, from Asian Istanbul, Image sourced from Wikimedia Commons

The beautiful mythical mountain of Uludağ is located in Western Anatolia. It is the region’s highest mountain and is located 36 km south of Bursa. Its highest peak is Kartal Kaya Tepe at 2543m. On clear days, you can see it from Istanbul, as seen in the photo above.

The area is covered by lush forests and serves as a skiing resort in the winter months. The season is open from October to April, with the best times being December to March for powdery snow.

The altitude of the area ranges between 1700m to over 2500 m. You can choose between skiing, snowboarding, biathlon, sledding or skibob. A winter festival and après ski parties with popular DJs and musicians or singers takes place annually. New Year’s is an especially popular time for tourists and local visitors.

Resort hotels in Uludag, Image sourced from Ets Tur

The many hotels in the area are available for all kings of budgets. There are even day trip tours offered from the other big cities such as Istanbul, Izmir and Ankar. All three cities offer buses to Uludağ and you can be there in just a few hours! Ski rentals, chair lifts and t-bars offer the best winter sports for those interested.

The Uludağ ski center covers an area of ​​11,338 hectares, including the National Park. It offers modern hotels and holiday villages, special facilities for daily ski tours and excursions, shopping centers, dance and entertainment centers, ski equipment rental services offered by businesses, private lessons given by ski experts and many other privileges.

Uludağ was declared a National Park in 1961. It is located 36 km from Bursa city centre. The Ski Center is the center of winter tourism in this part of Turkey.

However, roads leading to the resorts and park can be dangerous and filled with snow when the weather is quite bad. As such, snow tires and chains are recommend in winter as it can be tricky and dangerous to drive on mountainous roads. Small shared taxis from Bursa take about an hour to the area and then cable car to the skiing resort.