Although Istanbul has a predominantly Muslim population, you’ll find Christmas trees in shopping malls and hotels being decorated like they’re shooting a Santa Goes to Turkey film here.
Unlike their western counterparts, there are very few holiday closures with most of the main tourist attractions, stores, and restaurants being open on Christmas Day.
You won’t have to look far to find a Christmas tree in Istanbul. All the major hotels like the Four Seasons Bosphorus, Ciragan Palace Kempeski, Hilton Bosphorus, and the Swissotel Bosphorus have Xmas decorations that are Instagram sensations during the holiday festive season.
A festive lights are present everywhere you look in Istanbul with famous tourist areas like Istiklal Street and Taksim Square shining bright. The exterior of buildings like Vadistanbul Mall and shops like Sekerci Cafer Erol is also decked out to the x-mas nines.
Then there are the light shows that decorate the Galata Tower, the Maiden Tower, and all of the bridges that span the Bosphorus Strait. On top of that, there are all restaurants, cafes, and bars that do their very best to attract holiday crowds.
The large chain-hotels of Istanbul have gotten very creative with their room service, as you can now order-in all those wonderfully festive meals they serve up during the holidays.
While these lovely desserts are available year-round, they do tend to sell a lot more during the festive season in Istanbul. Confectionary stores across the city have them on display in abundance and you’ll find almost all of these sweets are decorated in red and green Christmas colors.
Charles Dickenson of A Christmas Carol fame was a big fan of Turkish Delights, so much so that they appeared in many of his novels. Narnia’s hero, Aslan, is even named after the Turkish word for lion, so it’s no surprise that he too loved to snack on Turkish delights.
Business as Usual
On Christmas, Istanbul functions just like on any other day with locals running errands and going about their normal activities. The opening and closing hours for most shops, businesses, banks, tourist attractions, and restaurants are at the same time as they normally are.
You might still hear Christmas music in shopping malls and other big shops, but it won’t be as overwhelming as it is back home.
Free Skip-The-Line Access
If you wanted to visit Istanbul on a particular day where there’s the least number of tourists running about, December 25th would be near the top of the list. A shorter queue and smaller crowds make for quick-and-easy access to all the historical sites and museums that are open on Christmas Day.
Mass & Services
Several old churches in the city hold Christmas services and mass. The city’s largest Catholic church, St. Anthony of Padua (Sent Antuan Kilisesi) on Istiklal Street in Beyoglu conducts several Christmas masses with services in English, Italian, Polish, and Turkish.
Unlike the famous Christmas markets found in Europe, the ones in Istanbul are a small and quaint affair. You won’t find gluhwein or famous glass blowing artists here, but you will find some friendly vendors some warm raki nearby.
Some of the Christmas markets are also run by ex-pats who’ve settled in Turkey, so they’re a great spot for insider information should you choose to live in Istanbul.
Unfortunately, COVID-19 has dimmed the lights and shut the doors of the 2020 markets, but they’ll be back next year, strong as ever.
Popular for its bright red and green leaves, Poinsettia plants are a common Christmas decoration In Turkey. They are even often referred to as Ataturk cicegi, which translates as Ataturk flower, but it’s only a myth poinsettias are Turkish.
Mustafa Kemal Atatürk is the founding father of Turkey, a highly-revered revolutionist, and former first President. His favorite flower, the poinsettia is now considered by many to be a symbol of Turkish patriotism due to his efforts in encouraging its cultivation in the country. You will see a lot of these red flowers in Istanbul during Christmas time, as well as around holiday observances like Ataturk Memorial Day, and National Holidays like Victory Day and Republic Day.
Just like on New Year’s Eve, you normally have to be prepared for cold and possibly wet weather on Christmas Day. In 2020, however, the weather is looking better than average with an expected daytime high of 15°C (59°F) and a nighttime low of 11°C (52°F). In fact, it’s a pretty nice day for December and much better than it has been for the last few weeks.
The warm spell is slightly above 2019’s temperatures of 12°C | 9°C (52°F | 48°F), and well above the average December 25th temperatures of 9°C | 4°C (48°F | 39°F).
It has not snowed on Christmas in Istanbul is more than ten years, but you might see snow closer to New Years’ as temperatures dip slightly. If this were to happen while you’re there, be sure to head to high ground or one of the seven hills of Istanbul to see that magical, snowy rooftop view.
Below you find answer to our frequently asking question regarding Christmas in Istanbul.
Turkey Christmas Myths
No, poinsettias are native to Central America. The reason you see so many of them in Turkey is because they are a symbol of Turkish patriotism.
The myth of Turkish poinsettias began because they are the favorite flower of the founding father of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who cultivated their growth across the country. Locals now commonly refer to them as the Ataturk flower (Ataturk cicegi).
The Aztecs, however, first called them cuetlaxochitl, meaning the flower that grows in residues or soil. In Mexico and Guatemala, they are known today as flor de Noche Buena, which translates as flowers of the holy night. They are also known in Central America as the Christmas Eve flower, which is in reference to the holy night being the one when Jesus was born.
No, turkey birds are native to North America. Contrary to the urban legend, those gobble-gobblers of Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner fame have no known association with Turkey. In fact, the Republic of Turkey only became a country in 1923 long after Thanksgiving turkey dinners became a thing in 17th-century America.
No, Saint Nicholas, whom the legend of Sinterklaas was based on (also known as the myth of the Turkish Santa Claus of western world fame), was born in the Greek seaport town of Patara to wealthy Christian parents.
In his youth be started out as the Bishop of Myra whose habit of secretly gift-giving away his inherited wealth was well known in the region. The reference to Jolly Old Saint Nick (a short form of Nicholas) pays homage to the real-life Saint Nicholas of Myra.
The ancient Greek city of Myra passed through many ruling hands over the hands and is known today as Demre and found in the province of Antalya, Turkey. The ruins of the St. Nicholas Church is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site now. This church turned museum receives over 500,000 visitors a year who want to glimpse Saint Nicholas’ tomb.