When to go to Istanbul

Istanbul buzzes all year round, though at a noticeably subdued pace during winter, when the short days, frequent rain, and occasional snow imbue the city with a melancholy air. Summers are typically hot and humid; residents who can afford to flee to the beach often do, making room for the hordes of tourists who descend on the city. Spring and autumn generally find Istanbul at its best. The city’s many art, music, and cultural festivals (the biggest organised by the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts, or İKSV) add extra spice to any visit.

Spring - the curtain rises on cultural events and traditional celebrations

The municipality-organised Tulip (Lale) Festival sees Taksim Square, Gülhane Park, and other popular spots bursting with colour from the thousands of tulips planted around the city. The Ahırkapı/Cankurtan area of Sultanahmet (between the main sights and the Marmara Sea) ushers in the warmer weather with two traditional spring festivals, Hidrellez (www.hidrellez.org) and Nevruz.

Spring also sees the International Istanbul Film Festival (www.iksv.org/film), the biggest cinema event of the year - be sure to buy tickets in advance - and the biennial International Istanbul Theatre Festival (www.iksv.org/tiyatro).

Summer - life moves outdoors and music fills the city

As the weather heats up, cafés and restaurants move their tables onto the pavements and rooftop bars are the place to be. Some big venues (eg Babylon) and restaurants (eg Changa) decamp to cooler climes, whether up the Bosphorus or all the way down to the İzmir coast.

Summer is the time for open-air concerts and big rock shows, including the popular Efes Pilsen One Love Festival (www.efespilsenonelove.com) at SantralIstanbul. The season also sees the International Istanbul Music Festival (www.iksv.org/muzik) bring big-name classical and jazz acts to the city. Keep an eye out for performances at special venues such as Hagia Eirene (a 6th-century church not typically open to the public), the Istanbul Archaeological Museums, or Rumeli Fortress.

For the next few years, the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan (known as Ramazan in Turkey) will fall entirely during the summer. Few restaurants in touristy areas close their doors, though travellers visiting more conservative parts of the city should avoid eating on the street to show respect for people who are fasting. The Hippodrome area of Sultanahmet becomes lively each night with picnicking families breaking their fasts.

Autumn - cultural festivals galore

Autumn finds the city packed with festivals of an artistic bent; 2011 sees the return of the Istanbul Biennial (www.iksv.org/bienal), held in odd-numbered years. Annual events include the Contemporary Istanbul art fair (www.contemporaryistanbul.com), Istanbul Design Week (www.istanbuldesignweek.com), the Istanbul Book Fair (www.istanbulbookfair.com), and the Akbank Jazz Festival (www.akbanksanat.com/jazz_festival/), while Filmekimi (www.iksv.org/filmekimi_2010) kicks off the film festival season.

For the next few years the Muslim holiday of Kurban Bayramı (Eid al-Adha) will occur during the autumn months; tourists will likely not see any of the traditional slaughtering of sheep and cows, though they will encounter closed banks and government offices. Some shopkeepers take time off for the holiday as well.

Winter - time to hibernate

Winter sees few festivals or other activities on the calendar, but the independent !f Istanbul film fest (www.ifistanbul.com) gives movie-lovers something to look forward to during the long, cold nights.