There’s rarely a dull moment in vibrant Istanbul. The city's historic attractions can be appreciated any time of year, but its vibe does change dramatically with the seasons, from wet and moody winters to sunny and sticky summers – and accommodation prices vary accordingly.
When planning a trip, it’s worth noting the upcoming dates of the two biggest Muslim holidays, Ramazan Bayramı (Ramadan, or Eid Al Fitr) and Kurban Bayramı (Eid Al Adha), which shift by about 10 days each year. Both are big travel periods in Turkey, comparable to Thanksgiving or Christmas in the United States, with corresponding effects on costs, crowds and vacation-related closures. Here are our picks for the best times to enjoy Turkey’s largest city.
June to August is best for outdoor dining and concerts in Istanbul
Summer is peak tourism season in Istanbul. Many residents decamp for vacation or family homes elsewhere in Turkey, so costs for accommodations can be high and lines long at major attractions. The weather is hot and humid, but the sun sparkling off the Bosphorus is glorious, and a slew of outdoor seating at cafes, restaurants and bars makes for a lively urban scene. Concerts, festivals and other events are staged in the open air too.
The shoulder season is best for sightseeing and cultural events
The long, mostly pleasant spring and fall seasons (March to May and September to November ) are ideal for seeing the sights and wandering the neighborhoods of Istanbul, a city that rewards exploration by foot. There's a drop off in tourist crowds, and local urban life is in full swing, including a busy calendar of arts and cultural events.
Istanbul in December? Winter is ideal for travel on a budget
The gray, rainy and surprisingly chilly winter months aren’t the most appealing time to visit Istanbul, though they do lend the city a certain romantically melancholy mood. On the plus side, it won’t be difficult or expensive to find accommodations, and Istanbul’s many museums, mosques and other sights provide plenty of indoor activities.
Istanbul by month
The start of the year in Istanbul is usually quiet and cold with a chance of snow, though there’s always plenty of hot tea around to warm you up. Keep an eye out for salep, a creamy, cinnamon-topped hot drink served mainly in winter.
Key events: Greek Orthodox Epiphany
The winds off the Bosphorus are still bracing, but the meyhanes (taverns) are cozy, and their tables continue to be filled with the winter’s bounty of fresh fish.
Key events: Baklahorani (Tatavla Festivali)
The Newroz festival marks the beginning of spring and the Kurdish (and Persian) new year, and indeed, things are starting to wake up in Istanbul in March, with warmer days and livelier nights.
Key events: Newroz (Nevruz), 19th Akbank Short Film Festival
Tulips planted in parks across the city come into bloom, and the fair weather starts luring people outside, while the annual film festival draws them into cinemas as well.
Key events: Tulip Festival (Lale Festivali), 42nd Istanbul Film Festival, Sonar Istanbul
Warm and sunny but not yet sweltering, May is an ideal time to visit Istanbul, with outdoor eating and drinking coming into full swing.
Key events: Hıdrellez, Chill-Out Festival
The summer festival season begins with the classical-heavy Istanbul Music Festival. Weekends see droves of locals heading to the Princes’ Islands, the Belgrad Forest, and parks and picnic areas around the city.
Key events: Istanbul Music Festival
As the temperatures rise, those who can escape the city while the tourists pour in. Music festivals are still kicking, and rooftop bars and Bosphorus-side cafes are the place to be.
Key events: Istanbul Jazz Festival, Bosphorus Cross-Continental Swimming Race, Istanbul Opera Festival
A ferry ride is the best – and cheapest – way to get a reprieve from Istanbul’s heat and humidity, which are starting to feel oppressive.
The start of the school year is also when Istanbul’s cultural calendar begins to get crowded again, especially in the alternating years when the Istanbul Biennial is held. Just about every gallery, museum and arts organization in the city takes that as an opportunity to open its own new exhibits and events as well.
Key events: Istanbul Biennial, XJazz Festival, Bosphorus Cup Istanbul Regatta
October’s still generally clement weather, with cooler evenings, means it’s the last hurrah of the year for most outdoor activities.
Key events: Akbank Jazz Festival, Istanbul Design Biennial, Filmekimi, Republic Day, Mamut Art Project, 212 Photography Festival
November in Istanbul is not totally devoid of nice days, but you may be happy to see the ever-present şemsiye (umbrella) sellers who pop up – seemingly out of nowhere – at the first sign of rain.
Key events: Istanbul Marathon, Istanbul Theater Festival, Istanbul Puppet Festival
Istanbul’s many museums welcome visitors in from the cold, as do evenings by the hot grill of an ocakbaşı, a traditional type of restaurant serving hearty plates of grilled meats. Winter is also a great time of year for a visit to a steamy hammam, or Turkish bath.