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For those willing to brave the cold – and the occasional snow flurry – winter in Istanbul can be even more charming, and certainly less crowded and expensive than summer. This is a great time of year to visit if you like any kind of cultural activities, as sights like museums and famous mosques will offer a respite from the cold, without the queues of the high season.
Though it is predominantly a Muslim country, many Istanbulites celebrate Christmas, and New Year’s is one of the biggest events of the year. If you may have never considered spending the holidays in Istanbul before, it may be time to take a trip to this surprisingly festive city during December.
See the Decorations Along İstiklal Caddesi
During the winter, İstiklal gets all dressed up in lights. You’ll find them wrapped around trees, decorating storefronts, and even draped between buildings. Though Turks are erecting these displays for New Year’s, you’ll find the vibe feels just like Christmas. Of all the major streets and public spaces that are decorated similarly, İstiklal is famous for being the most dramatic.
Do Some Holiday Shopping at the Grand Bazaar
If you haven’t yet finished your holiday shopping, be sure to make a stop at Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar. This is the oldest covered market in the world, and stalls are filled with merchants selling everything from traditional Turkish coffee cups and saucers to peshtamels and keses, or Turkish towels and scrubbing mitts. If you visit the market, know that merchants here can feel aggressive, but this is just part of the experience. And remember: a bit of haggling can often bring prices down considerably.
Try the Turkish Winter Drink, Salep
Made from the ground roots of several different species of orchids, salep has long been a cold-weather tradition in Turkey. It came to Anatolia via the Ottoman Empire, which revered it as an aphrodisiac.
Today, you’ll find salep at most Turkish coffee shops, often served with a dusting or stick of cinnamon. It’s served hot and sweet, so feel free to savor it like a dessert.
Get Your Fortune Told
There may be no better time to find out what your future holds than when you’re right about to usher in the New Year. The practice of fortune telling from the spent grounds left in a cup of Turkish coffee is an age-old tradition called tasseography. In Istanbul, there is no shortage of folks who can do it for you, though it’s much harder to find one of these soothsayers that speaks English.
Thankfully, you can book a private fortune-telling session in English on Airbnb. Your host, Roza, will meet you on İstiklal Caddesi before guiding you to one of Beyoğlu’s best coffee shops. There, she will teach you about the ritual and tradition of Turkish coffee, as well as perform a tasseography reading.
Visit a Christmas Market
Several Christmas markets have popped up in Istanbul in the past few years. Unlike the month-long style markets in, say, Austria or Germany, the Turkish varieties are usually much smaller and are scheduled on a single day or over the weekend rather than the entire month.
Probably the most well-known fair in the area is hosted by Handmade Turkey, who carefully curates vendors who create holiday and winter-themed goods by hand. Well Works Turkey, though they’ve only been organizing their Christmas Market for a few years, has seen a lot of success and attendance at their annual event at the Four Seasons Bosphorus, and the International Women of Istanbul hold an annual Winter Bazaar that’s open to everyone, not just members.
Relax at a Hammam
A scrub, massage, and soak in the warm baths is a perfect way to warm chilly bones midst a cold December in Istanbul, and that’s exactly what you’ll find at one of the city’s hammams.
Traditionally, a visit to a hammam lasts about 45 minutes to an hour. It begins in separate change rooms for men and women where you’ll find a place to store your things and be given Turkish towels. After you’ve changed from your street clothes, you’ll be taken to a booth where your attendant will scrub you clean from tip to tail, followed by a hot foam bath. Afterward, you can have any special services you’ve arranged in advance, like a facial or oil treatment.
A trip to a hammam isn’t just about getting clean, it’s for relaxing and rejuvenating. Don’t feel like you need to rush out: when your treatments are completed, take some time to soak in the bath.
Try the Roasted Chestnuts
Though you can find them year-round, there may be nothing more tempting during a chilly Istanbul evening than a small bag of kestane, or Turkish roasted chestnuts. They’re pretty hard to miss: you’ll generally find a chestnut monger or two right out on the street in most busy areas.
A kestane cart is equipped with a propane stove, and they roast chestnuts right out in the open. The signature, smoky smell that wafts down the street and beckons tourists and locals alike is all part of the experience.
Take a Cooking Class
If you’re spending Christmas or New Year’s Eve in Istanbul and want to incorporate some classic Turkish dishes into your family meal, a cooking class may be in order. While Istanbul is home to some of the finest culinary schools in the world, there are also some one-off classes that visitors can take to learn a couple of Turkish staples.
A very popular class geared specifically to tourists is led by a young graduate of Istanbul Nişantaşı University of Gastronomy and Culinary Arts named Furkan Tunç. His highly reviewed class will guide you through the preparation of mantı and yaprak sarması: a delicate, meat-filled pasta and stuffed grape leaves. For dessert, you will learn the famed Ottoman dessert, künefe.
Marvel at the Christmas Display at Şekerci Cafer Erol
The current iteration of a long confectionary family legacy stemming back to the 18th century, Şekerci Cafer Erol is one of Turkey’s premier sweets shops. They now have several locations, though the flagship store, which originally opened in 1945, lies in Kadıköy.
Although they certainly sell sweets year-round, the Christmas season is particularly busy and lucrative for them. To help get into the holiday spirit, they dress their historic facade in an elaborate Christmas display every year. Inside, you’ll find a special selection of treats and gift boxes made specifically for the season. If you’re trying to get the perfect holiday shot for your Instagram, go at night when it’s lit up.
Visit Hagia Triada
Of course, followers of Greek Orthodoxy have long known the particular charms of Hagia Triada, but even those who don’t are welcome to join for their Christmas Eve Mass. A perfect example of Neo-Baroque architecture, the church was originally built in the late 1800s on the site of what was a Greek cemetery and hospital and was the first domed Christian church built in Istanbul after the fall of Constantinople in the mid-1400s.
Inside, you’ll find an impressive decor featuring gilded accents, crystal chandeliers, and artfully crafted stained glass surrounded by plenty of marble.
Indulge in Some Turkish Delight
If you’ve never had it before, Turkish delight is extremely sweet and has a texture that infuriates dentists and parents alike. It’s for this reason that many European kids grow up knowing Turkish delight is reserved for special occasions; some only ever have it on Christmas.
If you’d like to try some for yourself, the descendants of Bekir Efendi, the man credited with inventing lokum, still run the small chain of confectionaries that he founded in 1777. Called Haci Bekir, you’ll find several around town, including two in Eminonu and one in Istiklal.
Check out the Holiday Decorations at Vadistanbul Mall
Step into any mall in Istanbul during December and you’re bound to find massive displays of lights and New Year’s trees. But the Vadistanbul Mall, which nearly exclusively houses high-end and luxury brands, goes completely over the top. Their displays are legendary, so it’s the perfect spot to grab that perfect holiday selfie and finish any Christmas shopping you have left at the same time.
Celebrate with Some Raki
Like many nations nearby, especially those with a tradition of winemaking, Turkey has its own national spirit made from the spent grape skins after pressing: raki. If you’ve ever had Greek ouzo or arak from the Levant, you’re already a bit familiar as raki is made in a similar process and has the same distinct anisette flavor.
Though not exclusively, it is frequently served with water and ice, which makes this famously potent liquor turn from clear into a milky white. It is famous for warming the bones on a chilly day, so when you’re visiting Istanbul in December, you don’t necessarily have to wait for a holiday to indulge.
Go Skiing in Uludağ National Park
Less than three hours away from Istanbul is Uludağ Ski Area. Though not quite as impressive as its counterparts in Austria or Italy, the small ski area in a national park is beloved by Istanbulites for its proximity to the city and reasonable prices.
There are several ferries a day that can take you to Bursa from Yenikapi. From there, you can take a shuttle or taxi to the ski area. Don’t fret if you haven’t brought your own equipment: there is an on-mountain facility where you can rent gear for the day.
Celebrate New Year’s Eve the Turkish Way
New Year’s Eve in Istanbul is a big celebration, and Turks have their unique ways of celebrating. It’s treated almost like Christmas: families will frequently cook a roast turkey dinner, exchange gifts, and it’s not uncommon to see Noel Baba, or Santa Claus, out in the streets.
In Istanbul, the highlight of the New Year’s Eve celebrations is the massive fireworks display over the Bosphorus. It begins at midnight, with the best views found from Uskudar and Ortakoy. Even if you’re not in one of those neighborhoods, anyplace high enough with a clear sightline to the Bosphorus Bridge will give you an impressive view and a night to remember.