If you’re spending Christmas in Istanbul and wondering what to do, you’re in the right place! Exploring the architectural and historical marvels, where churches stay beside the mosques, and navigating the crowded streets from Karaköy to Eminönü, promises a serene and enriching experience during Christmas. Step into Istanbul for once at Christmas, and it will be one of your most memorable experiences.
Walk Around the Streets of Galata
Watching the view from the Galata Tower early in the morning would be a great way to start your day in Istanbul. Regarded as one of the oldest towers globally and an iconic symbol of Istanbul, the Galata Tower was added to the UNESCO World Heritage Temporary List in 2013. Originally constructed by the Byzantine Emperor Justinianos in 507-508 AD, the Tower was later handed over to the Ottomans after Fatih Sultan Mehmet’s conquest of Istanbul. Because of its intriguing past and astonishing present, many tourists and natives are drawn to this location, regardless of the date and time.
Hence, most of the time, the Tower has hours-long queues, but the wait always pays off in the end. Alternatively, if you have the energy to visit this location early in the morning, you won’t have to worry about these long queues. With the accompany of seagulls, you can enjoy the panoramic view of Istanbul as a serene experience. Once you finish scrutinizing this spectacular view from the narrow balconies of the Galata Tower, you can go down the street and be welcomed by various stunning restaurants, cafes, and ancient monuments surrounded by festive decorations for celebrating Christmas. Moving from the Tower, you can either visit Karaköy and enjoy a traditional Turkish street food called “Balık Ekmek,” or take a walk along Istiklal Street to complete some (necessary!) shopping. Don’t forget that during this time of the year, Galata, Istiklal Street, and Karaköy are adorned with Christmas decorations, which adds an unforgettable touch to your trip!
Enjoy the Christmas Delicacies
Much like in many countries, food is a massive part of Christmas celebrations in Türkiye as well. With Christmas on the door, you can encounter numerous traditional and seasonal dishes along the streets of Istanbul.
A favored beverage during the Christmas season among Istanbul's residents is "Salep," a blend of boiling milk, cinnamon, and a special powder. The history of this drink traces back to the Ottoman Empire when it was enjoyed by highly respected and esteemed individuals like the Kings before the rise of coffee and tea. It is mostly consumed by Turkish people during the winter since it plays a major role in human health by increasing the body temperature, providing protection against the cold, and treating illnesses such as flu.
Another winter classic, known as “Boza,” is a drink made from the fermentation of breadfruit seeds and often served with roasted chickpeas and cinnamon on top. Similar to “Salep,” “Boza” gained popularity among the Ottomans, particularly in the 17th century, when it was widely consumed and there were approximately three hundred boza shops in Istanbul alone. Even though “Boza” isn’t a hot beverage, it is mostly consumed during winter due to its tendency to quickly become stale in hot weather.
Apart from these drinks, during your walk on the streets, you will also come across various food stalls offering tempting scents of roasted chestnuts and sweet corn. If you’ve never tried roasted chestnuts before, it means that you’ve missed an exceptional flavor as its roasting process adds a delicious smokiness to its taste. While chestnuts might not be the initial treat that comes to your mind during Christmas, there is a symbolic reason why they are particularly enjoyed at this time of the year. On Martinstag, a special feast for Catholics celebrating the birth of Saint Martin, just like rice and canned foods today, the poor were given chestnuts as a treat. This act of sharing then eventually gave rise to the unexpected yet meaningful Christmas tradition of roasting chestnuts on an open fire and spread among Europe, as the tradition also arrived in Istanbul.
I would recommend you do your best to not miss out on benefiting from the gastronomic delicacies of Istanbul because you will undoubtedly be astonished by the variety of spices and flavors!
Attend the Traditional “Cockerel Mass”
An alternative way to spend Christmas in Istanbul is by immersing yourself in different cultures. One traditional Western-style celebration is the "Cockerel Mass." For those unfamiliar with this traditional celebration, a “Cockerel Mass” is a religious ceremony held annually to commemorate the birth of Jesus Christ. Istanbul’s rich history is marked by the presence of Jews, Armenians, Christians, and Greeks, proving the city's cultural diversity. Therefore, during your trip to Istanbul, you might discover Catholic churches and attend their traditional Christmas masses held on December 24th. Among many other churches, the Church of St. Anthony of Padua and Maria Draperis Church are both situated in Beyoğlu, near popular touristic attractions and Istiklal Street. Specifically, Maria Draperis Church has a pretty interesting background, as the original Church was established in 1584 in the Tophane district along the Bosphorus, and suffered significant damage from multiple fires over the centuries, resulting in its partial destruction. Despite the challenges, the church was rebuilt in 1769, with only the icon of the Virgin Mary surviving from the original structure. Reserving the original Venetian paintings and sculptures depicting Saint Anthony, this church is a must-visit destination in Istanbul, especially for its unique New Year decorations.
Watch Istanbul from Pierre Loti and Shop in the Grand Bazaar
Pierre Loti Hill, found in Eyüpsultan/ Fatih, is a place to stop by after shopping in the Grand Bazaar of Istanbul. The well-known café named after the notable French writer Pierre Loti is situated on top of the hill, offering an impressive view of the Golden Horn. According to past accounts, during the end of the 1800s, the writer, Pierre Loti, used to visit the café which was first named "Rabia Kadın Kahvesi,” and he wrote his novel, Aziyade, by being captivated by the astonishing view.
In our present day, especially during the Christmas season, you can indulge in a hot beverage on the terrace of Pierre Loti while appreciating the festive lights surrounding the city. In the Grand Bazaar, on the other hand, which has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1985, you can lose yourself in a shopping buster, and by diving into the breathtakingly beautiful shops, you can buy anything you wish, from jewelry to carpets. Not only immersing yourself in an unparalleled shopping experience, but you can also taste a distinctive atmosphere that reflects the spirit of Christmas in Istanbul. And, of course, during this time of the year, explore the Bazaar for Christmas-themed products; it’s an opportunity you would definitely not want to miss! It's no surprise that the Grand Bazaar stands as one of Istanbul's essential attractions, drawing in over half a million visitors daily.
Altogether, if you are visiting Istanbul during the Christmas season, you will be provided with an abundance of chances to explore and enjoy the attractions of the city. Prepare for a journey that will fascinate you with different historical backgrounds, attention-seeking Christmas adornments, and authentic culinary delights. Seize the opportunity for a holiday in Istanbul, and you won't regret it!
"Galata Tower Museum." Müzegen. Accessed 23 Dec. 2023.
Autumn. "The Symbolic Reason Chestnuts Are Eaten On Christmas”, TastingTable, 10 Nov. 2023. Accessed 23 Dec. 2023.