Istanbul at Christmas time makes a great getaway: the city is wintry, festive-feeling (technically for New Year) yet without the Christmas overwhelm that’s often found in other parts of the world.
The first time I came to Istanbul myself was a mid-December, in the hope of escaping the highly commercialised festive fever gripping my home, England. With the population of Turkey 98% Muslim, it was unclear what I’d find.
The idea was to search for – and hopefully photograph – the December 17th celebrations that mark the life and death of the Sufi philosopher Mevlâna Jelaleddin Rumî. I arrived on this mission but it turned out that my own life was spun around very like the whirling dervishes I was trying to find. A week into my trip I descended a spiral staircase and met Tarkan at the bottom. Within a year we were living together in this, his city, later followed by the birth of our son and the evolution of our business Istanbul Place Apartments – a new life like nothing I’d previously known.
So OF COURSE we recommend spending Christmas in Istanbul!
Here’s a look at what will be waiting for you:
Street lights and ‘Christmas’ trees in Istanbul
Many main streets, particularly famous Istiklal, will be strung with stylish festive lights between buildings. In our Galata neighbourhood there’ll be views of the tower with sparkling street lights too. You’ll also see decorated pine trees, particularly in public spaces and shopping malls.
All this is actually intended to celebrate New Year, just around the corner, but the atmosphere is much the same as Christmas. Wrap up well and treat yourself to some hot, freshly roasted chestnuts from a street seller – you might feel even more ‘Christmassy’ than home!
Very little fuss
December 25th is just another normal day in Istanbul. Shops, banks, businesses, restaurants and tourist attractions will have their usual opening hours for that day of the week. Some larger shops might include Christmas music in their playlists but there’s no super-saturation with it as we experience in the West. Commercial pressure is at ordinary levels. Phew.
Crisp, cold weather and sometimes snow
We can’t promise it, but the city smothered in snow is a distinct possibility. The weather will certainly be cold and it can be wet, so do come prepared for all eventualities. If snow does arrive during your stay then city views will be magical and make life-time memories. Head straight up to the roof terrace if you’re staying in one of our Petraki Place Apartments to share the winter wonderland cityscape with seagulls and cats.
Saint Nicholas lived in Turkey
The boy who became St Nicholas lived in the ancient province of Lycia in southern Turkey, during the 3rd century. He was orphaned young and became generous with his inherited wealth, dedicating his life to helping the poor. He became famous for secret gift-giving and was soon ordained as a priest, later Bishop of Myra.
Legend has it that one local family couldn’t afford dowries for their 3 daughters but found bags of gold mysteriously thrown through their open window. The gold is said to have landed in the girls’ stockings which were hanging by the fire – starting the tradition we now know so well.
Christmas celebrations to be found
If you’d like to attend a Christmas service or mass, they do happen in several of Istanbul’s historic city churches. The British Consulate Chapel of Saint Helena, up the hill from our apartments, has a Christmas Eve service and our lovely local Crimean Memorial Church, just along Serdar-i Ekrem, holds a service on Christmas Morning. Grand Saint Anthony of Padua, the city’s largest Catholic church, is on Istiklal Caddesi and holds Christmas masses throughout Christmas Day in Polish, English, Italian and Turkish.
Many big International hotels offer Christmas meals, often buffet-style, and will need to be booked in advance.
However it’s a challenge to find the ingredients to make your own traditional meal, let alone all the trimmings. You’ll need to be creative on this one! Or just enjoy what is available: the many local restaurants will be open as usual with their own wonderful menus.
There are usually a few events held amongst the city’s welcoming expat community. A personal favourite of ours is ‘The Handmade Istanbul Holiday Market‘. It’s a craft fair usually held in Saint Helena Chapel in early December. The long established IWI Winter Festival, organised by the International Women of Istanbul, tends to get very busy but is also interesting and full of festive feels.
Alternatively, if you welcome the excuse to just forget about the whole thing, that’s absolutely possible too! We provide a mini Christmas tree with fairy lights in your apartment, but will happily hide it all away if you ask, without so much as a ‘bah humbug!‘.
Do you have questions?
We love Christmas in Istanbul – and throughout the rest of the year too.
Do feel free to ask us any questions you may have in the comments section below.
If you’d like to book an apartment with us for this Christmas or later into the New Year, we do still have some availability: ENQUIRE