Since Turkey’s an Islamic country, Istanbul might not be the first place that comes to mind for Christmas holidays. December 25th is just a normal day but the city still has a very festive atmosphere at Christmas time.
In this post, I’m going to give you some more information about how you can spend the holiday season in Istanbul without missing out on the festivities.
Merry Christmas from Turkey
From about the second week in December, you’ll start seeing seasonal decorations. All the main streets have “Christmas lights” and shops decorate for the New Year. You’ll see Christmas trees in hotels, stores and restaurants although in Turkey they’re actually New Year’s Trees.
The Turks go big at New Year and you might be surprised to learn that some of their other festive traditions aren’t too far from what we’re used to. Good old Saint Nicholas / Santa Claus is known as Noel Baba and is said to be St Nicholas of Myra (Bishop of Myra) who originated in Turkey.
Although the Turkish population is overwhelmingly Muslim, Istanbul’s a cosmopolitan city with several churches. Church services run in various languages, including English, across Christmas Eve and the big day.
And while the city’s restaurants won’t generally be serving Christmas dinner, it’s not impossible to find while you’re there.
Just Another Normal Winter’s Day
Other good news is that all the usual tourist attractions are open on 25th because it’s not a special day. So you can visit the historic sites and classics like Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, Galata Tower, Grand Bazaar and the Spice Bazaar without the crowds of summer.
New Year’s Day IS a public holiday so some places will close and others will be open and busy with both Turkish and foreign tourists. Hotel rates will be a bit higher around New Year but not so much over the 24/25th.
In terms of weather in December, you’re more likely to see rain at this time of the year than a white Christmas. But don’t rule it out entirely because it does get chilly.
Unless you’re travelling solo you might want to do a bit of Christmas shopping so you have gifts to give on 25th. The shopping streets and malls are all open as usual at Christmas. Some of the malls have a sprinkling of festive spirit with decorations and little Christmas markets.
In Turkey, these aren’t like what you’d find in Berlin or Strasbourg so don’t get your hopes up. I found a small one at Besiktas Square beside the Naval Museum, close to the Four Seasons. And at the Zorlu Centre, there were some nice stalls set up outside. But I wouldn’t make a special trip for either of them.
I heard that the Kanyon Mall not far from Zorlu historically offered a good festive experience. But there wasn’t too much going on in 2022. They had a couple of food stalls with Christmas bits and pieces. And an orchestra was getting set up to play Christmas music when I was there. But overall there wasn’t much.
Next door, ÖzdilekPark shopping centre felt much more festive. I even saw an advent calendar for sale in the Hypermarket.
The Four Seasons Bosphorus Hotel has hosted a ticketed Christmas market for the last few years. This is one of the best places you can come for Christmas celebrations and feel the Christmas atmosphere. There are loads of little stalls with a variety of things from skincare, to candles, to ceramics and festive food.
In 2022, the market ran from 16 – 25 December. Tickets were sold for either the 11am (weekends) or 12 noon (weekdays) daytime session which allowed one entry up until 4:30pm. Or for the evening session that ran from 6pm until 11pm. I went to the daytime session which felt very much geared towards families.
To get a ticket I had to sign up for a free Passo account and then buy the e-ticket online through that site . It was 650 lira and there were different entertainment running in each session daily.
From the 26th the Christmas Market turns into their Winter City with ice skating open from 11am (weekends)/12 noon (weekdays) until 11pm. Hotel guests get free 30-minute skating sessions. Outside guests pay 225 TL for half an hour or you can choose to have a private lesson for 450 TL per person.
Mostly you’ll find Christmas meals at some of the large hotel chains. They tend to offer a special menu with a Christmas dinner type of meal on Christmas Eve.
And then on Christmas Day, they have a Christmas brunch. The food isn’t like a traditional Christmas lunch but they offer all sorts of exquisite foods. Here are some examples of what was running in 2022.
Four Seasons at the Bosphorus
The Four Seasons had a “magical dinner service” at the Aqua Restaurant for Christmas Eve. It was a set menu of delicious food prepared by their Executive Chef Görkem Özkan and team. The cost was 3150 TL per person (drinks not included). Bookings were reservation only
On Christmas Day they held a glamorous Christmas Brunch (buffet-style festival). Again bookings were by reservation at a cost of 2250 TRY per person (including a welcome glass of prosecco) and held between 12:30 – 3:30pm.
Apparently, they had delicacies ranging from a live sushi station, raw bar, cold cuts, local and international cheeses, a variety of freshly baked bread and a host of live-cooked barbeque options. The Ata Marin band provided entertainment throughout.
I walked past this (Michelin-recommended) boutique luxury hotel in Galata and noticed they were advertising Christmas brunch on 24th and 25th. They have a gorgeous rooftop restaurant so it sounds like a unique experience. Find them on Instagram for more information.
The Swisshotel hosted festive family affairs on Christmas Eve in both their main restaurant, Sabrosa, and the cosy Chalet.
Chalet is a gorgeous 120-year-old chalet from Switzerland that’s stunning in the winter. For Christmas, they set up an exclusive Christmas dinner with a fairytale atmosphere at a cost of 1500 TL per person.
Sabrosa was all decked out in Christmas regalia and they provided an amazing traditional-style menu for 1250 TL per person.
Conrad Istanbul Bosphorus
Another Christmas Eve dinner taking place was at Conrad Istanbul’s Manzara Restaurant. This set menu was created by Executive Chef Ziya Çıkrıkçı and team for guests of the hotel.
For hotel guests and non-guests they hosted a Christmas Day Brunch from 12:30 – 3:30pm. To see the details plus information about their New Year’s Eve festivities see their flyer.
Christmas Services in English
As I said above, you will find churches in Istanbul. Here are the main ones holding services in English. The service times are printed out and hung outside the churches. So you can check in advance what’s on and when. The examples below are from 2022.
Church of St. Anthony of Padua
St Anthony’s, known in Turkish as Sent Antuan Kilisesi is the city’s largest Catholic church. It’s right on Istiklal Street amongst all the shops and restaurants. In 2022 it held a Christmas Eve service with Christmas carols at 9pm. And Mass was held in English at 10am on Christmas Day.
I stopped by on Christmas Eve and it was absolutely packed. I thought it’d be quite a calm, quiet service. But the place was absolutely rammed. A lot of people were seated and attending and lots were passing by to watch.
The Crimean Church in 2022 held Christmas Masses at 8pm on 24th December and 11am on the 25th. It’s another of the city’s historical churches but much smaller and simpler than St Anthony’s. (I liked the chickens outside!)
There was also a Christmas Concert of organ music that ran from 5 – 5.40pm on 25th for a requested donation of 50 Turkish Lira.
British Consulate Chapel of Saint Helena
I’ve heard there’s a Christmas service held in English at this chapel too. I went to investigate but I was too intimated to go into the consulate itself. I think the chapel is accessible only from within the compound as I couldn’t find a separate entrance
If you’re braver than me I’m sure you could pop in and ask, or contact them via email. If not, join one of the services above.
New Year Celebrations
There’s loads going on for New Year’s Eve in Istanbul if you stay on after Christmas. Usually, the private businesses organise big fireworks displays along the Bosphorus. For a good vantage point head to the Bosphorus shore, a rooftop bar or one of the city’s hills.
Celebrating the Turkish Way
Traditionally family dinners take place with a turkey meal then a big national lottery draw just before midnight. This is followed by big fireworks displays in the towns and cities and the giving of small gifts.
Apparently, it’s good luck to wear red underwear at New Year so you’ll see a lot of it in the shops. It feels like Valentine’s!
New Year’s Eve Cruise
If you’re visiting, and not joining a local family then I think one of the best things you can do is a cruise along the Bosphorus Strait. Cruises run all year round but NYE is special!
You’ll get treated to all sorts of traditional and belly dance performances while you eat dinner. And you’ll see the beautiful city lit up and of course, see the fireworks from the water.
Viator and Get Your Guide have options available, as does Airbnb Experiences. You’re accommodation probably has some recommendations for other cruises too.
Head to Taksim Square
There are street parties in all neighbourhoods but one of the main ones is in Taksim Square. Wrap up warm against the chilly weather and be prepared for crowds.
Night Clubs and Bars
Alternatively, there are umpteen NYE Galas at the big hotels and party nights at the various clubs and rooftop bars. They’re literally too numerous to mention and with details changing all the time. If you’re looking for a particular type of place or budget it’s a good idea to ask your accommodation for suggestions.
Christmas In Istanbul
I hope you’ve seen that Istanbul can be a great place to spend the festive season so don’t rule it out. In some ways, with the lack of summer crowds, cooler weather and Christmas atmosphere it’s the best time of year to come. Just bring a warm coat and a couple of jumpers and you’re all set.
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