New Year’s Eve in Istanbul has long been proclaimed one of the best parties in the world, and for good reason. Traditionally, it is a day spent at home with family and friends, but since the 1920s, people have increasingly taken to the streets all over Turkey to celebrate the beginning of a new year. Known in Turkey as ‘Yeni Yıl’, New Year’s Eve has become a nationwide, secular celebration which presents a huge array of festivities for locals, tourists and expats alike, and each year, the city of Istanbul becomes a colourful and lively playground with a fascinating mix of old and new that no other city in the world can offer. Turkey is well known for its hospitality and Istanbul goes out of its way to entertain and welcome everyone. Every venue in the city attempts to outdo itself and others, to make the transition from the old year to new and make it as uniquely special as possible, creating an unrivalled atmosphere.
Why Celebrate New Year’s Eve in Istanbul?
Well, where else in the world can you welcome the new year in two continents at the same time? As the city of Istanbul stretches across the mighty Bosphorus river, both Europe and Asia are visible from most popular vantage points. One of the most popular ways to spend the special evening is on one of the city’s boats, upon which you can literally straddle both continents as you count down to midnight. The famous Bosphorus Bridge is also the focal point of that countdown, the very core of the city’s magnificent New Year’s Eve fireworks display and where better to bear witness to this extravagant symphony of colours than just beneath it, on the ripples of the most famous waterway in the world?
Istanbul is one of Europe’s largest urban centres and is the world’s second largest city by population within the city limits. There is always something new and wonderful going on in Istanbul, now a major metropolis centred around art, tradition and technology. Istanbul is at the forefront of Turkish culture and is always full of surprises. There is something for everyone on a normal day in the city, but this is equally as true on New Year’s Eve. History buffs can celebrate amongst remarkable history, surrounded by Roman ruins and remnants of the Byzantine Empire, not to mention the incredible display of over 600 years of Ottoman Empire glory at every turn. Art and architecture lovers can enjoy the wonders of hundreds of churches and palaces, millennia-old bazaars and historic streets. In Istanbul, modern meets traditional in the most sophisticated way, in a city which surely knows how to throw a party.
The festive season is also one of the best times of year to visit the city of two continents. While the temperature remains moderate compared to the sweltering summers, there are fewer tourists in Istanbul at this time of year. This provides a much better deal for those looking for a winter getaway. Price are better and the streets are far less crowded. While New Year’s Eve itself will bring everybody to the streets, tourists can enjoy a relaxed schedule of sightseeing before and after the main event. Queues will be shorter for main attractions, such as Hagia Sophia and Topkapı Palace and shopping for bargains will be a much more pleasant ordeal, with more opportunities to haggle. Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar is the perfect place to find fragrant spices, exquisite carpets, delicate glassware, intricate tiles and ceramics and beautiful fabrics, all at fantastic prices.
If you choose to spend New Year’s Eve in Istanbul, you might be surprised to find the streets looking as festive as any other European city. Bright lights decorate the main squares and cobbled streets, large pine trees adorned with trinkets sit on street corners and inside large shopping malls and you might even find Santa ringing his bell as you wander around the city. It is well known that the Muslim community don’t celebrate Christmas, but there is a strange sense of familiarity in the sparkling scene to be found in Istanbul. The lights and facades that Europeans associate with Christmas are traditional motifs of new year celebrations in Turkey, with some interesting, and perhaps surprising, historical connections.
Following the modernisation of Turkey, the Islamic calendar and the fiscal calendar were replaced by the Gregorian calendar and New Year celebrations started in the late 1920s. Perhaps with some western influence, these celebrations became incredibly popular in Turkey and Christmas trees were brought into the country, named ‘New Year Trees’. Since then, the custom of setting up a tree for the new year has become a traditional event across the country. Some wait until after Christmas to buy their trees, but in the big cities like Istanbul, large, decorated spruce trees can be found on the streets from the beginning of December. Families place gifts under the trees to exchange on New Year’s Eve.
Controversially, some believe that the western Christmas tree actually stems from an old Turkish custom, in which people decorated a special tree to offer their thanks to God. They would put special items under a white pine tree as a present to God to thank him for a good year. They would also tie some pieces of cloth to its branches and make a wish for the following year. It isn’t known whether this custom really marks the beginnings of the iconic Christmas tree, which historically has been a Nordic custom, but the ‘New Year Tree’ has become a treasured secular tradition in Turkey today.
Tourists and travellers should also not be too confused by the presence of Father Christmas lookalikes who wander the streets of the city at New Year. ‘Noel Baba’, or St Nicholas, was actually born in Turkey! The saint was a 4th century Bishop of Myra and was born in Patara, near Antalya. Legend has it that he would drop small bags of gold coins down the chimneys of houses with poor girls who are old enough to marry but had no dowry. Another story is that he would leave gold coins in the shoes of the poor who left them out for him. In modern times, ’Noel Baba’ is the bearer of gifts to children and adults for the new year and he is expected to leave his gifts under the ‘New Year Tree’. While the Turkish Father Christmas was once St Nicholas, he does not represent a religious persona, he is a secular imaginary figure, who adds a slice of magic to the celebrations of the new year.
Four Fantastic Ways to Celebrate New Year’s Eve in Istanbul
The most popular way to see in the new year for locals is on the cobbles at one of the city’s specially organised street parties, particular in Taksim Square and the adjoining İstiklal Cadessi on the European side and Bağdat Caddesi on the Asian side. Taksim Square is where the liveliest and the busiest party can be found, attracting thousands of Turks who want to party at midnight. While the square itself can be a little intimidating for the average tourist, filled with loud and raucous Turks rushing towards the Republic Monument, a large police presence and a reputation for harassment and pickpockets, the surrounding Beyoğlu District is the commercial and entertainment centre of Istanbul and certainly promises to show you a good time on New Year’s Eve. İstikal Cadessi is lined with boutique shops, music stores, bookstores and art galleries which stay open until the final hour to make the most of the busy footfall, and the hundreds of cafes, pubs, nightclubs and live music venues will lure you in to continue the party.
Bağdat Cadessi, the main shopping centre of the Asian side, stretching from Kadıköy to Maltepe, presents a similar fare, though less busy, with live music, street performers, artificial snow and laser shows. This year, it seems the place to be is Nişantaşı, at the Eitler Street Party which will be held in front of the Akmerkez shopping centre. Like the Asian party, the streets will be showered with artificial snow as Turkish pop star sensation, Hande Yener, performs alongside French DJ David Vendetta and Micah the Violinist.
While street parties may be popular with the locals, for tourists, the best place to be is on the river. Hundreds of companies offer the opportunity to see in the new year between two continents, with delicious Turkish food and phenomenal entertainment, alongside unlimited drinks and the best view in the whole city as the clock strikes midnight. The boats and yachts leave the shores at around 8pm as guests are greeted with cocktails before enjoying dinner with stunning views of the palaces, bridges and mansions that line the coast. As the stars come out, diners are treated with performances by traditional Turkish dancers, showcasing dances from various regions of Turkey, such as the Asuk Mask which belongs to the Taseli district of Silifke, and of course belly dancing.
Musicians are employed to give visitors a taste of Turkish culture with traditional Anatolian folk tunes and the famous Istanbul türkü, ‘Uskudara Gideriken’, a song about a woman and her clerk travelling to Üsküdar. As midnight draws closer, DJs are presented and guests are encouraged to dance on the decks as they pass the city lights and head for the Bosphorus Bridge. Here, they will have the best view of anybody in the city as midnight strikes and the most incredible fireworks display is unleashed to the skies. The party continues of course, with unlimited drinks, until the boats once again reach the shores.
The Burgazada Bonfire Party
Those looking for something a little quieter tend to head to Burgazada, the third largest of the Prince’s Islands in the Sea of Marmara. Only 1.5 km squared, Burgazada offers a neighbourhood experience in Istanbul and is now an island home to many city commuters. If crowds and noise is not your thing, this small island, once home to Sait Faik Abasıyanık, one of the greatest Turkish writers of the 20th century, can offer a quirky alternative to the street parties and nightclubs in the city. Make your way down to the pier and enjoy a bonfire party as you watch the Istanbul festivities from afar.
Restaurants, Bars and Clubs
Istanbul is certainly not short of venues and like the city itself, there is something for everyone. Wether it is an upmarket rooftop bar like 360 Istanbul, which offers great cuisine, a trendy atmosphere and incredible views or the more budget friendly package deal of venues like Gar Music Hall, which offers food, drink and entertainment for a ticket price, you can find your kind of scene in Istanbul. To immerse yourself in history as you celebrate, try your luck at getting a ticket for the Galata Tower New Year’s Eve Party, which offers sumptuous food and fantastically fun entertainment.
The nightclub Reina is a popular after dinner choice for those who like to party, having attracted celebrities like Jennifer Lopez, Paris Hilton and Kevin Costner in the past. Three things are very much for sure though; firstly, you will be spoiled for choice when it comes to finding your perfect New Year’s Eve venue, secondly, you must book in advance to avoid disappointment and lastly, no matter where you are or what you do, make sure that you don’t miss the incredible fireworks display that marks the beginning of the new year. Better still, choose a venue that has a view!
If Time Out magazine declared Istanbul as one of the top places in the world to see in the New Year, then it must be true! The atmosphere in the city is truly electric and as a visitor, not only to you get to enjoy the true charm of this ancient city, but you become a part of its culture as you immerse yourself in tradition. From belly dancers and turkish musicians, to waving at the hundreds of cars that blare their horns at midnight and parade the streets, New Year’s Eve in Istanbul is truly like no other experience and one that you will never forget.
However you choose to celebrate, Turkey Homes would like to wish you a very happy New Year; ‘Mutlu Yıllar’!