Istanbul Festivals and Events

Istanbul hosts an array of festivals and events during the hottest months of the year.

by Erlend Geerts

in Practical Information, Sightseeing

Winter apart, Istanbul is awash with arts festivals and music events, giving visitors a vast amount of choice when it comes to entertainment. The purpose of this article is not to list every single Istanbul festival or event. Instead, I’ll highlight the most important or best-known activities which you shouldn’t miss, organized by season.

Promotion and Tickets

A great number of these events are brilliantly managed and promoted via the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts (Istanbul Kültür ve Sanat Vakfı), which consistently attracts a roster of international big names. Tickets to most events are available from Biletix.

Spring

  • International Istanbul Film Festival — An annual highlight since the program features retrospectives and new releases from Turkey and around the world. Try to get your tickets in advance, because tickets sell out quickly. (late March – mid April; mainly in and around Istiklal Caddesi)
  • Tulip Festival — Tulips originated more or less in Turkey. So, if you happen to be in Istanbul during this time of the year, you’re in luck. For more info: The International Istanbul Tulip Festival (April, Emirgan Park)
  • Commemoration of the Anzac Landings — Australians and New Zealanders gather at the location of the Anzac landings in Gallipoli during World War I (25 April, Gallipoli)
  • International Istanbul Theater Festival — Turkey’s major theater festival alternates every year with the International Biennial (see Autumn/Fall). One of the few opportunities to see international theater in Istanbul. The program also features a selection of the best Turkish play of the last years. (May – even years only, Atatürk Cultural Center (AKM) in Taksim and other venues)
  • International Istanbul Puppet Festival — This now almost forgotten art was once big in Ottoman times. A great chance to catch puppet, marionette and shadow theater. Most plays are silent, so suitable for children and adults. (2nd week of May, small venues all over town)
  • Conquest of Istanbul — A lively reenactment of Mehmet the Conqueror’s conquest of Constantinople in 1453. This day also features exhibitions of traditional Turkish arts, parades by the ‘Ottoman’ Mehter band and fireworks. (29 May, between Tophane and Karaköy, and on the shores of the upper Bosphorus)

Summer

  • International Istanbul Music Festival — This is the most prestigious event on the city’s calendar. It consists of no less than 30 performances of classical music, opera and dance performed in historic locations, among which the Haghia Irene church – a unique chance the get a glimpse of its interior. (mid June – July, various venues)
  • International Istanbul Jazz festival — An international event with a collection of conventional jazz, drum ‘n’ bass, world music and even some rock. Previous performers include Keith Jarret, Wynton Marsalis, Dizzy Gillespie as well as Miles Davis, Lou Reed and Patti Smith. (July, various venues)
  • Grease Wrestling — Admitted, this one may be a bit of track since it’s held quite a distance from the city center, but this competition of wrestlers smeared in olive oil attracts a big crowd every year (July, Kırkpınar-Edirne)
  • Rock ‘n’ Coke — Not only Istanbul’s but also Turkey’s biggest open-air music festival, spread out over two days. In the past Moby, Peter Gabriel, Muse, Placebo, the Cure and Manu Chao performed at it. (Early September, Hezarfen Airfield)

Autumn / Fall

  • International Istanbul Biennial — An thematic exhibition of paintings, installations, screenings, walk-abouts, films, discussions and guided tours done by over 50 artists from at least as many countries. The theme is set by a guest curator. (September – November, odd years only, various venues)
  • Akbank Jazz Festival — Contrary to the International Istanbul Jazz festival, this event focuses on traditional and avant-garde jazz. Daily a dozen bands perform over a two week period. (late September – October, various venues – http://www.akbanksanat.com/caz_festivali)
  • Tüyap Book Fair — Istanbul’s premier publishing event showcasing prominent writers, academics and intellectuals. Attendees get discounts on new publications. (late October – November, Tüyap Fair Center – Beylikdüzü)

Winter

  • Efes Pilsen Blues Festival — This hugely popular Istanbul event has been entertaining fans of the Blues since 1990. Every night three foreign or local bands perform. It is also a showcase for new talent. (November – selected venues)

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