Sun in the summer, snow in the winter, but the humidity is a constant in sea-encircled Istanbul. Festival-filled spring and autumn are the best times to visit Istanbul, but the chill of the winter is enlivened by magical snowfalls and languid evenings by the Bosphorus is the upside of the humid heat in the summer.
Weather & climate
Between December and March Istanbul is cold, grey and blustery. Temperatures average 5C (42F), but humidity and windchill make it feel much colder. Sleet and snow showers are not uncommon; the city is usually buried under several feet of snow at least once every winter – a magical sight, even if it means life grinds to a halt.
Summers can be oppressive; temperatures average 25-30C (78-88F) from June to August, occasionally rising beyond 35C (104F). The heat and humidity can be draining during the day, but when things cool down at sunset city dwellers descend to the Bosphorus to enjoy languid evenings at waterfront cafés.
The best weather is in spring and autumn, when days are temperate and evenings mild. Occasionally, poyraz, a chill Balkan wind, and lodos, hot, humid gusts from the south, can result in a ‘four seasons in a single day’ effect. Both spring and autumn are busy festival seasons.
January – 3-8ºC
February – 2-9ºC
March – 3-11ºC
April – 7-16ºC
May – 12-21ºC
June – 16-25ºC
July – 18-28ºC
August – 19-28ºC
September – 16-24ºC
October – 13-20ºC
November – 9-15ºC
December – 5-11ºC
Festivals & events
Tents sewn with tulips and candle-bearing tortoises went out with the Ottomans, in their place the Republic added a dour bunch of annual excuses for flag-waving, such as Republic Day (29 October) and Victory Day (30 August). The late 20th century brought a slew of heavily marketed imports like Sevgililer Günü (Valentine’s Day), Mothers’ Day and even Christmas.
Thankfully, the full-blown festive spirit has returned in recent years. Nowadays, winter apart, every month sees a festival of some kind, with the city’s youthful population giving these events a dynamism that more than makes up for any lack of experience.
Public & religious holidays
Turkey’s five secular public holidays last one day each. Banks, offices and post offices are closed, but many shops stay open and public transport runs as usual. Religious holidays are different. They last three or four days; if these happen to be midweek, the government often extends the holiday to cover the whole working week. The city shuts down as Istanbullus flock to the country. Coaches and flights are jammed, so book ahead if your travel plans coincide.
Observance of Ramazan, the Islamic month of fasting, is widespread. Many Turks abstain from food, drink and cigarettes between sunrise and sunset. This has little impact on visitors, as most bars and restaurants remain open, but it’s bad form to flaunt your non-participation by smoking or eating in the street, especially in religious districts, such as Fatih and Üsküdar. Here, Ramazan nights are the busiest of the year.
At sundown, eateries are packed with large groups breaking their fast together with iftar (‘breakfast’). Sultanahmet Square turns into an extravaganza of food and music at twilight – a revival of an old Ottoman tradition. The end of Ramazan is marked by the three-day şeker Bayramı, or ‘Sugar Holiday’, when sweets are traditionally given to friends and family.
Feast of the Sacrifice
The main event in the Islamic calendar is Kurban Bayramı (the Feast of the Sacrifice), which marks Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac. While Isaac escaped the knife, the local livestock aren’t so lucky. Traditionally, families buy a kurban, which could be a sheep, bull, goat or camel, which they sacrifice on the first or second day of the feast. The meat is shared with relatives, neighbours and the poor. There are now stricter regulations on slaughtering sites and methods, which has reduced the bloodbath effect, but the faint-hearted are advised to keep away from mosques around this time.
Islamic religious holidays are based on a lunar calendar, approximately 11 days shorter than the Gregorian (Western) calendar. Consequently, Islamic holidays shift forward by ten or 12 days each year:
New Year’s Day (Yılbaşı Günü) 1 Jan
National Sovereignty & Children’s Day (Ulusal Egemenlik ve Çocuk Bayramı) 23 Apr
Youth & Sports Day (Gençlik ve Spor Bayramı) 19 May
Victory Day (Zafer Bayramı) 30 Aug
Republic Day (Cumhuriyet Bayramı) 29 Oct