Everything you need to know before you go to Istanbul
Istanbul is an awesome travel destination where everyone can find something for their taste. In this 15 million big city you can dive deep into history and travel between two continents at the same day. The key to truly enjoy your urban adventure in Istanbul is to be well prepared. Let me help you with it.
- History: No matter what you do don’t miss to witness the world history from the first hand.
- Geographical uniqueness: In which other city can you travel between two continents within half an hour.
- Cultural diversity: Istanbul is about the amazing mix of eastern and western cultures which reflects itself in its daily life everywhere.
- Culinary variety: Wow… the food in Istanbul is simply awesome. It has a wide variety from eastern to western cuisine.
I put together all the highlights in my blog post “3 days in Istanbul” which includes a complete 3 days stay and even more for Istanbul.
Where to stay?
I’d recommend to stay in Beyoglu to be close to restaurants, bars, live music venues and clubs where you probably would end your evening. This way you can avoid driving or walking longer distances at night. Walking from here to the historical centre Sultanahmet is easy-peasy anyway. Also this area is very well connected with nostalgic tram, funicular, Tünel, metro, bus, tram, dolmus, etc.
If you want to stay near to the historical sights, Sultanahmet area is a good choice. And as it is the most touristic area you have thousands of options in this area. However, check carefully in google maps in which part of Sultanahmet area the hotel is. Laleli for example is not the best area.
“Topkapi” area is not to mistake with the historical sight Topkapi Palace in Sultanahmet. I’d not recommend staying in Topkapi area as it is not that central like Sultanahmet or Beyoglu.
Search for the best deals at booking.com or agoda.com. Couch surfing and airbnb are also very common in Istanbul.
What to eat?
Start your day with a Turkish breakfast which has actually everything. From cow, sheep or goat cheese, ham, jam, butter, olives, eggs, tomatoes, cucumbers, honey, sucuk (spicy turkish sausage) to pastirma (spicy air-dried cured beef)
There are endless choices. You just need to walk around and you’ll find something yummy to eat within 5 min.
Almost in every corner you can get a simit (sesame ring) from street vendors for 1TL. There are also lots of typical Turkish fast food chains called “Simitci” where you can have wide variety of simit and similar pastry products. In every pastry you’ll find hundreds of versions of börek filled with either cheese, spinach, meet or potato or a mix of it. Gözleme, dough leaves filled with various toppings and cooked over saç (kind of a griddle) and Pide, pastry topped with meat, cheese, spinach, etc. are also only some of those awesome snacks you can get. Kokorec, made of lamb intestines, is maybe not for everyone but who is brave enough to try won’t regret it. Just make sure to get it from well known vendors, like Sampiyon in Balik Pazari. Kumpir is one of healthiest snack I guess. It is baked potato filled with lot of stuff, which you can yourself choose from a long list. The best Kumpir is in Ortaköy.
Fish and Sea food
Balik ekmek (fish sandwich), grilled and salted mackerel fillet served with onion and a little bit lettuce inside a white fluffy bread, is a really traditional Istanbuler snack. The best balik ekmek can be found in Karaköy at a waterfront restaurant or in the Bosphorus promenade from Ortaköy to Emirgan in one of the fisher boats grilling their daily catch. Just avoid the big touristic boats in Eminönü!
In Balik Pazari in Istiklal Street you have access to all sorts of fish and sea food. Midye Tava (breaded and fried muscles) with garlic sauce, Midye Dolma (muscles filled spice rice), breaded and fried Calamares are absolutely my favourites. Mercan has reasonable prices and you can sit inside or outside and have your beer while you snack a mix of typical turkish sea food.
Well, hundreds of different types of Kebap are pretty well known to everyone I guess, so I’ll skip this part. But I can’t skip Meze (similar to Tapas in Spain). The best thing you can do in Istanbul is to go to one of the restaurants around Nevizade Street or Cicek Pasaji in Beyoglu to have a Raki Sofrasi (raki table), especially if you are a larger group. Order a selection of small cold or warm dishes called meze accompanied by Raki and enjoy the Turkish taverna typical music.
What to drink?
Raki is the national alcoholic drink in Turkey. This anise-flavored drink can be served either straight (sek) with water on the side or mixed with water. I prefer mixed with water. When Raki is mixed with water it turns into a milky-white colour, which is the reason for its slang name aslan sütü (lion’s milk).
There are also locally produced wine and beer. Some of the good turkish wine brands are Doluca (Safir), Kavaklidere (Yakut, Angora, Ancyra, Öküzgözü) and Sarafin. The well known local beer brands are Efes and Bomonti.
When it comes to non-alcoholic traditional drinks, Ayran (simple mix of yoghurt, water and salt) is the first drink I can think of which is the best way to cool off in hot days. Of course Turkish Coffee and Turkish Tea (chai) are indispensable at any time of the day.
Get Istanbul Card directly at the airport and you won’t regret it. With this card you travel for almost half of the regular price and you can use for public transport everywhere.
From the Istanbul International Atatürk Airport (in the European side) to get to your hotel you can take one of the official airport taxis, but don’t be fooled by paying ridiculously high prices. At this Taxi Fee Calculator site you can check how much it would cost approximately and agree with driver before you get in. Warning: The shuttle bus service of Havaş in Istanbul (both airports) is no longer available.
The cheapest way however to get to/from the airport is using the Metro (subway). Tramvay, the street tram, is one of the public transport mediums you’ll use a lot to get from/to the touristic areas like Sultanahmet. Funicular in Karaköy (Galata Bridge) takes you to Beyoglu, Tünel Square. And the funicular in Kabatas takes you to Taksim. The Nostalgic Tram (similar to the Tram 28 in Lisbon) takes you from Tünel to Taksim Square, the beginning of Istiklal Street.
Metrobus and Bus are probably the mediums you will not need as much as Tramway or Metro but in case you do check the routes of the bus lines here.
To across continents avoid the way over the Bosphorus Bridge or Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge, unless you have fun getting stuck in traffic jam for hours. Vapur (ferry) is the best way to get to the Asian side. And it is beautiful to sit on the deck, having a tea while absorbing the silhouette of the city.
With Fast Ferry of IDO you can quickly cross the Bosphorus and get from Bakirköy (area near to Airport) to Kadiköy in 20 minutes.
If public transport is not operating anymore you could take Yellow Dolmuş (sari dolmush), which is a good alternative to taxi. They take 8 people from/to pre-defined stops in central areas. For example from Kadiköy to Taksim Square you pay only about 6TL.
Driving your own car? Don’t! It might feel like Kamikaze.
No matter what you do, just avoid rush hours (07-10am and 4-7pm).
Tipping behaviour is similar to European and other western countries. In a restaurant leave 10% tip, even though a 10-15% service charge is included. In bars and cafés leave 5-10% tip for the waitress or barkeeper. In the hotel tip your baggage carriers with €/$2. If you participate in an organised tour, tip your guide with around €/$10-20 per person and the tour driver with €/$5-10. In a taxi round up the taxi fee. You don’t need to tip in fast food restaurants or in places where you get only a small snack.
If you plan to visit most of the museum, consider buying the museum pass with which you also have the advantage of “fast track”. For 5 days you pay 85TL and have free entrance to most of the museums, Hagia Sophia Museum, Topkapı Palace Museum, İstanbul Archaeological Museums, İstanbul Mosaic Museum, Museum of Turkish and İslamic Arts, Museum for the History of Science and Technology in Islam, Chora Museum, Galata Mevlevi House Museum, Yıldız Palace, Rumeli Hisar Museum, Fethiye Museum.
Best time to go to Istanbul
Nobody likes to walk around whole day when it is cold, dark, grey cloudy and rainy. However too hot, over 30˚-40˚, is also not good for city trips. So all you need to do is to simply avoid winter and summer. The months from April to June (Tulip time) or from September to October are the best time to go to Istanbul.
What to wear?
Turkey is a secular country with a muslim majority, which obviously does NOT mean you need to wear a scarf and cover your body (I hate it when people ask me if I have to wear a scarf when I visit my family in Istanbul). Wear anything you would wear in your home country too. With a smart-casual style you’ll be fine like anywhere else.
Check my Pack List not to forget anything.
In Istanbul you’ll encounter all kind of practices of world religions. Currently there are millions of refugees from Syria and other tourists from other Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia where women cover their whole bodies and faces. Inform yourself abut such practices and be respectful even if you don’t agree with those practices.
When you visit a mosque, always keep in mind that these places are not museums. People go to mosques to pray indeed and therefore show and give them space. Also don’t forget that you’ll need to cover your shoulders and legs (women and men) and take your shoes off. In touristic mosques such as Sultanahmet Mosques it is well organised and you get clothes and a plastic bag for your shoes, but don’t expect this service in all mosques.
In all touristic places everyone speaks English. In bazaars the vendors can sell their products almost in every language including Russian, German, Spanish, French, Italian, Chinese, Japanese, Arabic, etc. Apart of the touristic places younger generations are more likely to speak English, German or French.
Of course learning couple of phrases will help you a lot and the Turkish people will love it hearing a foreigner (trying) talking Turkish.
Do I need a visa for Turkey?
Most probably, yes. Check the official site of the Turkish government “Visa Information for foreigners” to see if you need a visa. If yes, you can easily apply for e-visa online at the official site of the government. It is also possible to buy your visa in cash at Istanbul International Ataturk Airport.
Almost everywhere, especially in the Sultanahmet area, there are many exchange offices where you can easily exchange your money to Turkish Lira. Check the exchange rate at oando.com or via XE currency app (which also works offline). I’d recommend to exchange or get from an ATM at least a little bit directly at the airport (even though the rate might be higher) as you’ll need Turkish Lira for taxi, for public transport, etc.
There is not reason to carry too much cash with you. In Turkey credit cards (VISA is most common one) are very commonly in use. With credit card you can pay almost everywhere and get money easily from ATMs. I’d recommend to have a second credit card as back up.
Internet usage in Istanbul
As usual in hotels, bars, restaurants, cafés, etc you have wi-fi. So don’t worry you can stay connected. If you need mobile internet (LTE, 3G, 4G, etc.), Vodafone has good short-term packages with pre-paid cards. The pre-paid card costs about 35TL and 500MB internet package for 1 week costs only 5TL.
What vaccinations do I need for Turkey?
For Turkey you don’t need any special vaccinations. However it is good to get the routine vaccines such as diptheria, tetanus, pertussis, chickenpox, polio, Hepatitis A, Typhoid, etc. Check recommended vaccinations for detailed info.
There is no Malaria risk in Turkey, however mosquito bites are annoying as hell. An effective way is a Mosquito Net which you can hang around your bed if the hotel room does not offer it.
Tab water is supposed to be good to drink BUT I would not. Simply because it smells awful. You can brush your teeth with it though.
Get a travel insurance before you leave home.
Is it safe?
I recommend the same I’d do for any other big city. Especially in touristic areas be aware of pickpocketing. I use the handbag of Pacsafe which has some pretty cool safety features, like “imbedded steel web” and “slashguard strap” which is cut-through resistant. I can only recommend this bag. And it is big enough for a 13″ macbook, iPad, kindle, camera, lens, headphones and all that.
Don’t carry too much money, keep your valuables in the hotel room in the safe. If the hotel room doesn’t have a safe use Pacsafe Travelsafe 12L.
Check my Pack List for more useful travel items.
Currently, due to the unstable political situation and conflict between the Turkish government and Kurdish PKK there is a low risk of terrorist attacks.
Typical Scams in Istanbul
The most common 3 scams are as followed:
- Shoe cleaners: They offer you their service for free if you talk to them in English as they want to practice their English skills. If you agree, at the end you need to pay for their service anyway. It is maybe not that much money but you feel fooled and you shouldn’t.
- Shoe cleaner kids: You most probably will feel sorry seeing a child carrying a huge shoe cleaning box around. If this kid drops the brush you will of course help to pick it up. Then he’ll offer his service as appreciation for free. But you’ll have to pay for it at the end anyway.
- Especially solo male travelers will be approached by another male who present himself also as solo traveler or a local who wants to practice English and invite you for a few drinks in his favorite bar. He insists even to pay for it. You order drinks, the guy goes to the toilet, never comes back, you need to pay hundreds of dollars for two drinks. If you resist you’ll get a beating. If you say you don’t have enough money, they’ll accompany you to ATM and your loss will be as high as your daily limit of your credit card.
There is no doubt you’ll enjoy your stay in Istanbul. No matter what you do, it will be unique.
Read my travel tips for things to do in 3 days in Istanbul.
For more insights get Lonely Planet Travel Guide Istanbul.
For accommodation check Booking.com or Agoda.com or airbnb.com.
Don’t forget to check my Packing List for useful travel gear.
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We just got back from Istanbul, and I absolutely adored it. We stayed in Beyoglu completely by chance and I’m very glad, it was a great base. I loved wandering around the streets, and getting the ferry was pretty cool too. We sadly fell foul of the brush dropping shoe cleaner scam (by a grownup though!) but only lost 5TL so not a disaster. It’s just upsetting to have good nature exploited 😦
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I came back yesterday too. I fall in love with Istanbul every time I’m there. Beyoglu is absolutely the best place to stay. You did all right!
Great, interesting and full report of my favorite city! Congratulations!
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Thanks Jacint for your kind words. Istanbul is definitely my most favourite city to visit frequently and this not only because it is my home town 🙂