The Holiday Guide: How to Celebrate the Holidays in Istanbul

Celebrating Christmas and New Year’s in Istanbul may not be the first choice for many, but you get to  spend this holiday in low season. Is December a good time to visit Istanbul? Absolutely, Istanbul is a great choice! If you happen to be in the city during the most wonderful time of the year, then don’t miss out on some special festivities away from the crowds (sans the non-stop Christmas songs) in this beautiful city! 

Image by vedat zorluer from Pixabay

Those familiar with Istanbul might remember the familiar scene of the Bosphorus bridges but now with either rain at times or with snow everywhere: on the seaside promenades and its ferry stations, the domes of grand mosques, the rooftop of the Grand Bazaar, for instance and indeed, the rooftops of apartments. Winter in Istanbul can be magical! 

Winter in Istanbul

On occasion, snow covers the city’s unique mix of ancient building, monuments and skyscrapers. One such place is the Sultanahmet Square with the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia. The city transforms into a winter wonderland on both sides of the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus! Take a walk up the Galata Tower to see the city from the top and as far as the eye can see! 

Image sourced from Wikimedia Commons

The weather is usually quite chilly with the temperature dipping below zero fairly often. You should dress appropriately and wear a winter parka or a jacket with a warm wool beanie and sturdy boots! Sometimes you may even need gloves because it can be freezing in the mornings and nights! 

Luckily, the snow usually melts away in a few days. Nonetheless, you can expect some snow and some good opportunities to photograph them around the city. Or if you’re a painter you can try your hand at painting some street scenes such as the one below from 1921 by the Ottoman court painter Fausto Zonaro!

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

St. Nick’s of Myra or “Noel Baba”

Did you know that St. Nicholas also known as “Noel Baba”  (translates as Father Christmas) in Turkey was born in the city of Patara in the 3rd century? St. Nicks’ generosity, gift-giving and miracles made him popular. St. Nicholas then went on to become the bishop of ancient Myra, now called Demre, in modern-day Antalya region.

Statue of St. Nicholas in the St. Nicholas Church Museum – a gift from Russia, Image sourced from Wikimedia Commons

He’s the inspiration for the modern-day Santa Claus via the Dutch tradition of Sinterklaas. Perhaps, Santa is also inspired by the Slavic/Russian fairy tale of Ded Moroz or Ayaz Ata as it’s called in some Turkic cultures. Moreover, there’s some debate about Christmas/New Year’s trees being inspired by a wish-making tree common in some Turkic cultures, with it being used for winter solstice. 

Today, the 11th century church and adjacent monastery in Demre, which is also his burial place, serves as the Santa Claus Museum, otherwise known as the St. Nicholas Museum. The place is the town’s most visited site with its beautiful frescoes, hard-stone carvings and not far away you can visit the town’s ancient ruins and its rock-cut Lycian-era tombs. 

Christmas & New Year’s

The city is decked out in preparation for New Year’s eve celebrations with street lights and decorations and visual merchandizing in the shops, especially in commercial areas and busy pedestrian parts of the city. These include places such as Taksim area and long and well-known Istiklal Avenue, Nisantasi area and Kadıköy Market. 

Photo by Ahmet Sali on Unsplash

In areas with a significant expat population as well as other religious minorities, prayer services are held in the churches. For example, Nişantaşı has a high number of expatriates living there. New Years, Christmas and other national and religious holidays are celebrated with aplomb in this neighbourhood’s streets. These types of upscale neighbourhoods also have many local fashion boutiques alongside trendy cafes and restaurants. For instance, the most expensive street in the city, Abdi Ipekçi Street, is a favourite among foreigners. Discover Istanbul through its most popular streets with our guide here

Nişantaşı at New Year’s, image sourced from Wikimedia Commons

For the holidays, there are also special concerts and street celebrations for New Year’s! Families and friends gather and celebrate around a table with a family dinner with delicious food and exchange gifts with each other. 

After, there’s always an option to either stay in or go out to various street celebrations in different parts of the city and enjoy ringing in the New Year with family, close friends and even strangers on the street.

In Asia, places such as Bağdat avenue and Caddebostan seaside, Kadikoy downtown are where people gather and count the year down! Fireworks are also an important part of the celebrations and the best place is near by the Bosphorus! 

The city is often decked out in lots of street lights! Some well-known restaurants, shopping malls and sweet shops go all out decorating their façades and interiors in wonderful string of lights, Christmas trees and decorations.

New Year’s fireworks in Istanbul, Image sourced from Hurriyet

Alternatively, most hotels have special menus for both Christmas and New Year’s eve. Take a look at their websites for special deals, call ahead and reserve a table for two and enjoy a dinner and a show! Most places organize a show or a live show for their patrons.

In recent years, a few have used holiday colours of red, green and white and other familiar holidays decorations making them a popular choice for Instagram pictures and selfies, such as at the candy shop Sekerci Cafer Erol in Kadıköy

Image by Ertan Gundem, sourced from Google Maps

Funnily in Turkey, these  are considered New Year decor rather than just for Christmas. In modern Turkey, these decorations are increasingly popular and some people even put up Christmas trees in their houses as a way to celebrate the New Year instead!

Image sourced from Reddit

Now, let’s check them out some activities that you can do during winter and the holiday season in the city and in the country!  

Christmas in Istanbul

To celebrate Christmas specifically, there are a few things you can do, starting with attending mass in one of the biggest churches in the city! Moreover, there are some special buffets and menus available at some of the best hotels in the city. There are also a few Christmas markets and fairs held especially this time of the year.

Istanbul is a city of minarets but it also has some churches and synagogues. You’ll find Christmas mass services in some popular churches in the city! These include the biggest Roman Catholic Church of St. Anthony of Padua on Istiklal Avenue or the Greek Orthodox Hagia Triada. There’s also the Armenian St. George Church and on the Asian side, you’ve got the Virgin Mary de l’Assomption Church  in Caferağa. And lastly, the All Saints Anglican Church in Moda, Kadıköy. 

The city’s churches have beautiful lights with nativity scenes, hymn singing, candles and prayer services on Christmas Eve every year! So if there’s one close to your hotel, drop by on Christmas eve and stay for the hymns and the important mass, usually start at 7 or 9 pm onwards!

Seasonal Markets & Concerts

The city has a number of seasonal charity bake sales in international schools such as the German School as well as the St. Joseph French School. Then there’s also the International Women of Istanbul’s Christmas Charity event. Together with delicious food and excellent expat networking opportunities, the proceeds of the event go to local charities. 

Alternatively, you can also plan ahead and buy tickets to concerts and enjoy the music in some good venues. Concerts are held around the city especially for New Year’s at the city’s concert houses or bars including Babylon at Bomonti Ada or at Dorock XL in Asia. 

Food & Drinks

Winter in Istanbul brings a few distinct dishes, drinks and sweets that are seasonal favourites!

Of course, there’s tea and coffee but try warm Salep made with milk and dried orchid tubers. It is enjoyed with a sprinkle of cinnamon powder on top and especially enjoyed during cold Istanbul nights. 

Image sourced from Wikimedia Commons

Another drink you can try is Boza, a soupy drink sprinkled with cinnamon on top! Vefa Bozacısı is where you can have this weird but unique drink in the city. Grab a bag of roasted chestnuts from a street peddlers, one of the most beloved street foods in winter, while admiring the season’s lights and the wintery milieu.

In winter, one should also enjoy warm wholesome soups from the Turkish cuisine: lentil ones and especially, the late-night garlicky tripe soup called İşkembe çorbası. that’s certainly not for the faint of heart.(Check out some more weird but interesting Turksih dishes here.) This particular traditional soup is made with pieces of tripe, flour and egg yolks, it’s  served with vinegar, red pepper and garlic. Its bold tangy flavour will certainly warm you up! Restaurants called ‘İşkembecisi’ are ones that specialize in this particular soup and this one is particular is one of the most popular soups in the country! Do give it a try after a night of bar-hopping in Taksim or elsewhere in the city. 

Image sourced from Wikimedia Commons

For special days such as Christmas and New Year’s, turkey or chicken is the bird of choice in the urban cities, with a choice of mezes. Some families also choose to enjoy a drink or two! Dinners at home usually involve soup, roasted lamb, deep fried meat. There’s also stuffed chicken, rice with pine nuts, currants and chestnuts or Keşkek, a dish popular in Izmir. It is a warm porridge-like dish with meat, grains such as barley and bulgur, served with chilli butter on top – delicious! Moreover, you can take some desserts home such as the Yule Log from Baylan in Kadıköy or Bebek. Or quench your thirst with freshly squeezed pomegranate juice at the street stalls!

World-renowed rooftop bars and rooftop restaurants that the city has to offer. These include such high-end places such as Sunset Grill, Ulus 29, Mikla, 16 Roof or Spago. They are all amazing choices not only for their food but for their unparalled and magnificent views! Moreover, hotels such as Swissotel The Bosphorus, the Çırağan Palace Kempinski, the Four Seasons, Raffles and Hilton or the Ritz-Carlton all have special brunches or buffets! Seafood or roasted Turkey are on most menus. You can also find lobster, duck and even caviar and you’ll be paying for it! Live orchestra, jazz or Ottoman fasıl are also options. You’ll find some places also engage local musicians and DJs to entertain you at dinner. You can certainly have an amazing time at Christmas or saying goodbye to the old and hello to the new year!

Image by Colin Craig, via Yabangee

If you like experiencing travel with more culture, might we suggest you venture out to the neighbourhood’s weekly farmer’s markets?! You’ll immerse yourself in their dizzying array of local produce, affordable clothes and kitchen utensils. Here, you can grab seasonal favourites such as beetroots and persimmons, alongside other local fruits and vegetables and undertake a true local experience! Enjoy the market while locals shop for their weekly groceries and experience a different side of the city! Take home a few souvenirs even! Check our markets and bazaars guide here.

Mevlana Rumi

Muslim Sufi, scholar and mystic Mevlana Jalaluddin Muhammed Rumi is important for a lot of countries. His death is commemorated each year on December 17th every year. It’s called the Seb-i Arus ceremony in Turkish. In Sufism, it’s the night of the reunion with the divine.

Image sourced from Wikimedia Commons

The Whirling Dervish order and the lodge now serves as a museum and  mausoleum with a distinct green dome in the city of Konya in Central Turkey.  It’s also Rumi’s resting place and is a popular destination for a lot of Muslims and non-Muslims and if you have time, a must-visit! 

In Istanbul, you can visit  the Mevlevihanesi Museum in the Galata area, one of the best areas to stay, offers insights into the Sufi dervishes. Here you can catch a mesmerising ceremonial dance called the ‘Sema‘, for 100 TL per person. You can take home a lovely and unique experience with you after having spent the holiday season in the city.