Last updated on August 16th, 2023
After living in the largest city of Turkey for more than a year, I thought it was finally time to share the most practical travel tips for Istanbul that help to plan a stress-free vacation and get the most out of your trip.
Istanbul is that destination where you need to come prepared. Plan in advance not only where to stay, what to see, and where to eat but to book in advance tours you like, transfers, shows, and excursions. You also need to know ahead of time where to go and areas to avoid, learn about the famous scams and activities. Leaving everything for the last day will cost you much in terms of time and money.
There are really many things to know about traveling in Istanbul and many things to tell. Of course, this vast city with a thousand-year history hides many untold stories and leaves a lot of questions. Answering those questions and sharing some hacks made me write the whole Istanbul tourism guide with many insider tips for first-time visitors, people on a short or long vacation, and everyone else who just wants to have the best Istanbul vacation!
So get yourself a cup of tea and dedicate your tea time to some inspiration about Istanbul. Because this post is long! Learn everything you need to know before traveling to this amazing city on any visit. I include much advice, including Istanbul tips and tricks for tourists on a budget, for first-time travelers to Istanbul, and those who return after a long period of time.
And then if you fancy a read about some interesting facts about Turkish culture, check them out here. Also, find out about the common mistakes that tourists make when planning their Turkey holidays. Make sure to avoid them!
Quick Istanbul Insider Tips
Planning your trip to Istanbul last minute? If yes, here are the first-hand resources and insider tips that you’ll need!
Apply for E-Visa
- Turkey E-Visa for individuals – check if you need it
Top Private Transfer from Istanbul Airport
Best Places (Locations) to Stay in Istanbul for Mid-Budget
- Zeyn Otel Istanbul (Sultanahmet – 9.6)
- Walton Hotel (Galata – 9.4)
- Room Mate Emir (Taksim – 9)
- Ikiz Konak Boutique Hotel (Kadikoy, Asian side – 9.6)
Top Tours in Istanbul
- Evening Walking and Food Tasting Tour (best for short visits!)
- Tour Around Colorful Neighborhoods of Istanbul (small group tour!)
- Mosques of Istanbul Walking Tour (with expert guide!)
- Secrets of Istanbul Tour (best city tour!)
- Asian Side Walking Tour With Ferry Ride (best for budget travelers!)
- Best Bosphorus Cruise (skip the line!)
Other Useful Resources to Have
Must-Know Travel Tips For Istanbul Before a Trip
What is Istanbul Like?
Oh well, where to start, there are just so many things to know about Istanbul.
First of all, Istanbul is huge. It is a many-sided, multifaceted city which you can visit endless times because on every visit it opens up from a new angle. Some parts of it remind developed neighborhoods of Bangkok or Saigon. Others look more like somewhere in Europe and there are also other areas where mysterious Doha or old quarters of Dubai come to mind.
Istanbul has amazing ancient historic architecture, thousands of quirky cafes and restaurants, and incredible views that you can access from anywhere, in any part.
This city, like many others that may come to mind, has its own smell and different neighborhoods smell in different ways. At the same time, it has many dirty, hectic, old streets and also very dangerous, sketchy-looking parts to avoid.
At times, Istanbul can be overwhelming with its sellers and bazaars, constant traffic, crowds of people, and noise from bars. And then, on other occasions, it is calming, exotic, and charming with all the cats, hospitable people, delicious foods, and a vibrant atmosphere.
In just this one city, you can live a very different life and have a different experience as a tourist, depending on the neighborhood and activities you choose.
Istanbul is a destination of incredible size. More than 15 million people live there on 2 continents while every day covering very long distances and spending time in traffic jams comparable to those in Los Angeles or New York.
Do not expect to find a distinct downtown or city center because there is none. Instead, Istanbul is divided into districts that have their own separate mini centers that are steeped in history and enriched with attractions.
This is why it’s best to make a plan of what you want to see and where you’re going to visit when you will be in the city. Istanbul is not a destination where you can go unprepared. It is absolutely not going to open up with a swoop, but instead can easily stun by the number of people on the streets or in the main tourist places as well as upset with tourist-oriented eateries and too annoying sellers.
Best Time to Travel to Istanbul
The best time for Istanbul travel depends on the goal of your visit. While one season can be great for shopping or fewer crowds, it can be not the right time for cruises and sightseeing. So it all depends.
However in general, no matter what’s the goal of travel is, the best season to visit Istanbul is spring and autumn. But to be more precise – April, May, September throughout November are the best months.
At this time, the weather is very pleasant, everything blooms (in November there is foliage), prices are noticeably lower, getting reservations is easy, and many festivals all over the city take place. And the best part – crowds of tourists do not storm every landmark and religious site.
I lived in Istanbul through all seasons and can say with confidence that spring and fall are really great for everything – for shopping, visiting palaces and museums, for walks in nature and even for some sunbathing if you wish.
Summers are usually too hot (especially July and August) and overwhelmingly crowded. Winters are rainy and chilly. Although for us personally, for many reasons, winter is an absolutely wonderful time to be here (and this is why).
So if you try to understand what is the best time to travel to Istanbul, look at the second part of spring and the entire season of autumn.
Is It Safe to Travel to Istanbul?
What do you imply by “safe travel to Istanbul”? If there are no terrorist attacks, no pickpocketing or if it is safe enough to wear short skirts and tops or drink beer in the middle of the main square?
I know and remember how in 2017, there was an explosion near Sultanahmet Square and another explosion on Istiklal Street (a popular walking street with shops). Also, there was a shooting in one night club on New Year’s Eve and a terrorist attack at Ataturk Airport. Oh, and then another explosion near the Besiktas stadium after the match. Yeah, there were some terrifying events.
In connection with what happened, Istanbul authorities started to increase the level of security in the city and since 2017 everything was quiet. The airports have enforced stronger security (it starts at the entrance, where the police inspect each car and also inside the airport where everyone is checked before entering the airport building).
In places of various events and crowds, there are always police officers. In Sultanahmet – the most popular tourist neighborhood in Istanbul, the police are always on duty. Istiklal Street and Taksim Square also always have police officers around.
That being said, Istanbul is a safe destination and welcoming to foreign visitors. But it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be aware of your surroundings. Of course, like any huge multimillion city, Istanbul has good areas and those that are better to avoid, scams, pickpockets, mugging, snatching, and crazy drivers take place too. But the same applies to Barcelona, Rome or Lisbon.
Nowadays, the biggest problem in Istanbul is corruption but it won’t affect you as a tourist. We, after living here for a while, haven’t experienced any of that, although heard many stories from locals.
The best part about travel to Istanbul for tourists is the fact that this city is very open and receiving of different nationalities and cultures. No matter what your race, religion or culture is, you are very welcome.
NOTE: When walking around the city you should probably have a copy of a document confirming your identity, no need to carry an original.
How Many Days to Spend in Istanbul
I would put it this way. There are too many places in Istanbul that are worth seeing. One and two days are never enough.
If you are visiting Istanbul for the first time, that’s the only city you plan to see in Turkey and your goal is in one trip to see as much as possible, then plan at least a week. This is enough time to see all major attractions, explore one neighborhood at a time, visit a hammam, get acquainted with local cuisine in full, go on a day trip to the Princes Islands or the Black Sea, and even drive a bit outside Istanbul.
If your goal is to travel to Turkey and only get a quick introduction to Istanbul, then the ideal time would be 3-4 days.
Honestly, only the main touristy attractions in Sultanahmet (such as Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, Topkapi, one of the underground cisterns) will take the whole day, if not more. Then you can devote another day to a walk along Istiklal, Galata Tower, Karakoy, and a cruise along the Bosphorus. Another day – a walk through museums, parks, and/or other lesser-visited quirky neighborhoods. And you also must spend at least one day on the Asian side.
Two days is too little. One day in Istanbul is usually better than nothing when you are on a long layover. But don’t deliberately plan a trip for this time since this is definitely not enough. With only 2 days in Istanbul, you may even get a wrong impression of the city.
I invite you to check my favorite Istanbul itineraries to choose the one which suits your needs better.
Do You Need a Visa to Istanbul?
Turkish government often changes visa rules for various countries. For example, some time ago many European countries, as well as travelers from the US, needed to apply for a visa in the embassy of their country. Then that rule was changed to visa on arrival but later it changed to e-visa obtained in advance.
Some countries are exempted from visas for their travels for up to 90 days like most countries in the Schengen Area and the United Kingdom. For Americans traveling to Istanbul (or Turkey in general) visa situation changes often. So make sure to always double-check the rules even if you think you know them.
The website of the ministry of foreign affairs of Turkey has the latest information. And our favorite resource where to get a visa (and check if you need it at all) is this one. We use it every time to apply for Mark’s visa.
Depending on the nationality, the price of a visa is different but the process of applying is the same for everyone.
To anticipate a question about whether a visa on arrival is available, I’ll say that yes but my number one travel tip here is not to take this route. The reason for this is that airline staff often isn’t willing to register a passenger on a flight without seeing the visa first. And if you do manage to fly, you’ll end up paying $30 more at the border in Turkey than for the online application.
And What About Insurance, Do You Need Travel Insurance for Turkey?
Travel insurance as such – no, but medical yes. All visitors to Turkey are required to purchase medical insurance before they enter the country. There is no minimum amount required, however, the condition is to obtain insurance for the length of the entire trip.
From July 1, 2020, Turkish Embassy also recommends adding coverage for treatment in case of covid. It is not mandatory but recommended.
When you choose medical insurance, do not purchase the most basic package unless you are 100% sure about your health.
Medical services in Turkey, and especially in Istanbul, are quite expensive for foreigners (unless you speak Turkish and can pretend you are a local). There is always a ‘special’ rate for foreigners who pay 3-4 times more than Turkish people when visiting a clinic.
Besides health insurance, it is always smart to add travel insurance which also covers medical emergencies, trip cancellations or interruptions, delays, evacuations in force majeure situations, and lost, damaged or stolen luggage.
For short or long trip medical insurance, I recommend referring to SafetyWing. We have been using this company for many years and like their seasonal deals and a good variety of policies available. Click here to get a quote from them.
Where to Stay in Istanbul
Where to stay in Istanbul is a very important question to ask since it will determine the quality of your trip. Staying in the wrong area can spoil any vacation. You need to learn about each neighborhood and district and decide if it will suit your needs.
In this guide to areas in Istanbul you can learn what to expect from each neighborhood and how to understand which one is better for you personally. Some of the neighborhoods suit better families with children, others are best for budget travelers, party lovers or business people. Study up on this topic before making any reservations.
And don’t forget to read my posts on cool and unusual hotels and Airbnbs in Istanbul. We stayed in some of them and I saved others to recommend on this blog. And here are a few more nice hotels that I like:
BEETHOVEN HOTEL & SUIT: A beautiful, yet budget-friendly clean hotel with friendly staff, delicious breakfasts and great sea views from the restaurant. The location is great since it’s very close to the main sights in Sultanahmet and a tram stop is right there nearby. Reviews are great and ratings are high! Check them out.
ZEYNEP SULTAN HOTEL: Clean, cozy and quiet hotel a few steps away from Hagia Sophia and Basilica Cistern. It is a perfect option for travelers on a budget who want to stay in the most famous part of Istanbul. Rooms have everything you need, including electric hot pots. Breakfast is served on a beautiful open terrace and in the evening, you can have tea and baked goodies.
THE MARMARA PERA: A stylish hotel in the area of Istiklal street, not far from the Galata Tower and Taksim Square. Being located in a busy neighborhood, this hotel is quiet and offers amazing views of Istanbul. There is also a rooftop pool and restaurant on the premises.
GEORGES HOTEL GALATA: Boutique hotel on a quiet cobblestone street in the very heart of the city. Everything is nearby, the rooms are beautiful, the food is good, service is exceptional, and views from the rooftop restaurant and spectacular! We’ve been there twice and loved it, I am sure you will love it too!
Why Not Forget to Pre-Book Your Accommodation
When planning a trip to Istanbul or any other popular tourist destination in Turkey, it is essential to pre-book your accommodation for a few reasons. First, because some resources for finding accommodation (like Booking.com for example) don’t work in Turkey. And second, because the best options are taken quickly.
Even if you use VPN or refer to another aggregator to book a hotel or flat, most of the time you’ll be left with not-so-good choices if booking accommodation at the last minute. Because best deals are booked well in advance.
Turkey is one of a few countries where I personally reserve our accommodation ahead of time because I know if I wait for too long, we’ll be overpaying for poor quality. Particularly when planning travel for the prime season and summer. During those times prices also go up, so the same hotel will cost differently for the same dates if booked with a small time gap.
That being said, if you want to score your best accommodation option and not overpay, book it in advance and as soon as you like it. It is better to cancel it later if you find something else that you prefer more.
How to Get From Istanbul Airport to the City
At present time Istanbul has three airports but only two are open to commercial passenger flights – Sabiha Gökçen airport and IGA (often marked as IST). Getting to and from each of them to different parts of the city is pretty easy.
The cheapest (and very comfortable) way to reach Istanbul center from the airport is by bus, either by:
- Havaist bus that provides transfers from Istanbul (IST) airport to many areas of the city.
- Havabus that runs between Sabiha Gokcen Airport and Kadikoy Pier or Taksim Square.
To find the Havaist bus in Istanbul airport after receiving the luggage, follow the signs indicating bus transfers. And if for some reason you don’t see them, then just look for the escalator going down (to the -2nd floor), where the Havaist buses stop. Besides the escalator, there is also an elevator.
To find the Havabus shuttle at the Sabiha airport, just proceed outside to the front part of the arrivals terminal, cross the road and you’ll find buses near the parking lot.
The fare depends on the distance of the route, so each route has its own ticket price. Prices start from $2 (that’s the price for the most popular transfers to Taksim square and Kadikoy) and payment is made on the bus by card or cash (in local currency if paying with cash).
If you prefer a private transfer with a meet and greet service, you can pre-book it online for a very reasonable price.
I also have a guide to Istanbul airport transfer from all airports if you’d like to get a more in-depth look.
How to Get Around Istanbul
Istanbul has modern and very diverse transportation. Some types of it are not very fast due to traffic jams but they are clean and safe. Istanbul has a metro, tram, buses, ferries, dolmush buses (shared taxis similar to marshrutka), and of course taxis with Uber.
For us, who live in Istanbul for a few months each year, using local taxis and dolmushes is not a very pleasant experience and I am not sure it will be for you.
With taxis, it is not so much about the high cost as the possibility of fraud by unscrupulous drivers. While cabs are supposed to have meters, not all drivers use them. Those that do can take a longer route to get to a needed destination, in this way making a foreigner pay more. But I guess this is a common problem for many cities, Istanbul is not the only one. Also, as a rule, at night, taxis increase the tariff.
Dolmushes or as they are also called local shared taxis, operate on most routes. However, you need to know exactly which one to take and how much it costs. Since drivers don’t speak any English, there will be no chance to ask about the route and price.
Another disadvantage of taking a taxi, dolmush or even a bus is traffic. It is a nightmare during peak hours every day.
This is why the best way to get around Istanbul is by tram, ferry, metro, Marmaray, and Uber.
Istanbul metro is clean and extremely safe. All stations are equipped with security posts and cameras. Until recently, the metro worked from 6.00 to 00.00. However, now it works around the clock on the night from Friday to Saturday and from Saturday to Sunday. This is great news for nightlife activists.
To find out how much each type of transportation costs and how to purchase tickets, see my Istanbul travel budget guide.
What to Wear in Istanbul
The question of the dress code for Istanbul constantly arises among tourists. I know that because I was asking myself hundreds of questions before my first trip. And until this day I have friends and family members who are constantly asking me the same.
When packing for Istanbul, you need to remember that despite the official status of Turkey as a Muslim country, most of the Turkish laws related to morals are based on secular ethics. In Istanbul, you clearly see the trends of Europe that have touches of the East. Jeans, blouses, dresses, ponchos, waistcoats, jackets are all popular here. Istanbul is not very conservative but Islamic traditions still influence local clothing.
The general law of the Turkish clothing style is maximum simplicity. Don’t wear too revealing clothes which show too much body. Although Turkish women may wear tight or fairly open outfits, women in short skirts and a low neckline may face condemnation and censure. You don’t need others to talk behind your back and point at you.
If you are a woman, choose to pack elegant dresses, modest and neat outfits that cover the hips, shoulders, and upper arms. In colder weather in Istanbul, you can wear a sweater with long sleeves, a skirt, or a dress to the knees. If planning to visit mosques and don’t want to wear scarves given at the entrance, choose a hoody. A hood can cover your head instead of a scarf.
In summer, Turkish men and women rarely wear shorts outdoors. They prefer them only if the shorts reach a knee. If you don’t want to stand out as a tourist whom people will be staring at, try not to wear very short shorts in Istanbul. Also, this applies to both men and women, it is better not to wear sleeveless shirts on the street.
If you see a guy in Istanbul wearing bright colors, most likely that’s a tourist. Local men prefer the restrained colors of shirts and trousers – from white and black to several shades of cream and blue. Women, on the contrary, love to combine lots of bright colors.
What to Know About Turkish Culture & Etiquette
Istanbul throughout its history has always been either the capital or an important trading center of many civilizations. Thanks to this, the city has absorbed completely different religions, cultures, customs, and architectural styles. It is home to representatives of 72 nations who have contributed to making Istanbul a cosmopolitan city.
Turkish people are generally very friendly and helpful. You may find some of them a bit intrusive and even cloying but that is just the wrong impression because they really try to be nice to all tourists and each other. That’s part of the culture.
They love music, parties, and getting together with families and friends in the evenings after work or during the weekends. This is why you’ll be noticing many groups of people by the sea or in the parks (or anywhere in the city where there is a green lawn) with their own camp chairs and tables, and food (and always sunflower seeds, haha). They can be spending hours having picnics or just enjoying a beautiful setting in each other company.
For the same reason, there are tons of cafes, bars, restaurants, and just street food kiosks that are always full of people. Because the food culture in Istanbul is massive. It is customary to eat out and actually spend a good chunk of time in restaurants while slowly eating or prolonging the pleasure of tea drinking.
Turkish people also have a reputation for politeness, so you’ll often hear ‘pardon’ on the streets of Istanbul or ‘teşekkürler’ (thank you) which they also expect to hear from others.
The culture in Istanbul is also very diverse, which is one of the many reasons why I love spending a few months a year there!
Besides Turkish rich cuisine, you can find cuisines of other nations together with various celebrations and festivals. There is always something going on in Istanbul, including the world’s largest conferences, forums, concerts, and shows.
Istanbul can definitely stand in line with such cities as London, Brussels, Amsterdam, Vienna, and others where life abounds around the clock and where you can feel welcome.
Istanbul Travel Tips for First-Time Visitors
Know Turkish Money
This isn’t really an Istanbul travel tip, more of a Turkey travel tip, but you still need to know that wrapping your head around the currency is all-important.
In Turkey, the national currency is the lira. If you are wondering what money to carry with you, then it does not matter. You can come with dollars, euros, pounds, swiss francs. Many types of currency can be exchanged in banks or exchange offices. In addition to them, you can also exchange currency in chain stores (like Migros for example). There you will receive change in lira at a good rate.
The Turkish lira is very unstable and with each year keeps losing its value. This is why the exchange rate is always floating and it doesn’t even make any sense to write down here what it is. At the moment of updating this post, $1 equals 18 lira but it may change in a week or month. So I always recommend checking the rate closer to a trip once again.
Do not exchange money at the airport (unless you need a bit to pay for the bus) or at the hotel reception. The exchange rate there is always low.
Take Some Cash With You Before Arriving But Not Too Much
It will be smart to bring some cash with you instead of getting it from Turkish ATMs. Almost all of ATM machines charge a withdrawal fee in the amount of 5-7% and some give out money at a lower exchange rate. The fee comes either as a percentage or a flat rate, but you still get to pay a high amount for a transaction.
But the thing is, you don’t even need much cash in Istanbul. The payment system in the city is very well technologically advanced, so you can pay by card or contactless pay almost anywhere you go. Only except for some street food stalls, markets (although we paid by card there too), and small convenience stores.
This is why in order not to hustle, just take some cash with you from home and pay for the rest by card.
Other times when you’d need to have cash are when you want to tip, pay for dolmush or cab. In all other cases, you can do a cashless transaction.
In fact, in many places (like grocery stores or restaurants) there is even no limit set on card purchases. After so much time spent in Istanbul, I still can’t get used to the fact that in a store you can even pay by card for one tomato, which costs 20 cents.
Get Istanbul Transport Pass Right Away!
Istanbul is a city where public transportation can be expensive and cheap at the same time. It all depends on how you pay for it. If buying a ticket from the ticket booth every time before taking a metro, bus or tram, it’s going to be 35%-50% more expensive than when paying the fare with a transport pass called IstanbulKart.
There are many types of transport passes available but the best one for tourists is Anonymous IstanbulKart which costs around $1.5 (25TRY) and comes without credit. It is great for couples or families who can use it for up to 5 people. With this card, you get a discount for each ride on public transport. Also, if making a transit within 30 minutes after the payment for the first ride, you’ll have another discount for the second ride, third, etc.
It is well worth buying IstanbulKart even if you might use public transport only a few times. It’s not going to be only cheaper but will save you time. Lines for Marmaray, ferry or tram tickets are often long.
NOTE: You can buy IstanbulKart pass in many kiosks, newspaper stands, metro and ferry stations around Istanbul. It is also available via the yellow/blue vending machines by the majority of public bus stops and metro/ferry stations. Lately, also another option came up when pass is available for purchase online. Just type ‘IstanbulKart’ on Google Play or App Store to find out the details.
And then you can always order it online with a pre-charged travel balance for 5 or 10 journeys and have it delivered to your accommodation in the Taksim area or Sultanahmet. This is a very convenient service for travelers who have a short trip to Istanbul.
Buy a Sim Card to Make Things Easier
How are things in Turkey with mobile services and Internet for travelers? Well, that’s a good question. While buying a sim card is not a problem, the choice of options is very narrow.
Turkey is not like many other countries where sim cards are either free or very cheap to get. Quite the opposite, they are on the more expensive side and have some limitations. Yet, you’d still want to purchase one to stay in touch without restrictions and overpayments.
So the thing that you need to know is that Turkey has 3 main mobile operators which are TurkTelekom, TurkCell, and Vodafone. Each of them has almost identical list of services and a similar cost. Internet speed level and connection quality are the same.
The only feature that makes Vodafone stand out is their “like at home” rate which has some great benefits for those tourists who already have a SIM card from Vodafone in one of the European countries. Other than that, it offers the same packages as other companies. All mobile operators are good enough and which one to choose depends more on personal preference.
On average, the most popular package for tourists that includes decent internet coverage, some minutes and messages costs around $20. The duration of this sim depends on the country of origin a tourist is from. Since some nationalities are allowed to enter Turkey for different duration (from 1 to 3 months), the expiration date of a sim card will depend on that.
Besides a sim card, many people also choose pocket wifi. While this is a much more expensive option, it is very reliable and easy to get (by delivery). It works best for short-term visitors who come for a maximum of up to 2 weeks and also need to work remotely while on their Istanbul vacation.
Download These Helpful Apps Before You Travel
Use your phone not only for taking photos but as a personal travel guide by downloading these apps that are very helpful on a trip to Istanbul:
- Google App – particularly a ‘translation’ feature where you can translate anything with your camera. Very convenient when you need to translate quickly signs on the street, menus, items in the grocery store, etc.
- Google Maps App – is very precise about transportation schedules and routes as well as traffic gems. Download a map of Istanbul so you can use it without data when offline.
- Uber – officially back in Turkey and is slightly a cheaper alternative to taxis.
- BiTaksi – Turkish version of Uber which is very popular among locals. It will help you get a cab in less than 5 minutes and you can pay for a ride with a card.
- Yemeksepeti – the most popular app in Turkey for ordering food (in case you don’t feel like eating out) with the biggest database of restaurants. Everything gets delivered within 15-30 minutes.
- Getir – alternative to yemeksepeti that let’s you do grocery shopping online and all other items that are on sale in grocery store, be it dog’s food, hygiene products or even basic clothes.
Stay as Centrally as You Can Afford
Different people have different views on this tip for the Istanbul trip. Some may advise staying further out and taking advantage of Istanbul’s extensive, cheap, and reliable public transport system. While others will recommend fancy but distant neighborhoods like Nisantasi in Sisli, Besiktas, Balat, or even Sultanahmet.
My mind is set differently. I’ll keep saying again and again that you should stay as centrally as you can afford. And none of these neighborhoods is central.
When you’re trying to see as much of Istanbul as possible, you want somewhere that’s well-connected, from where you can get to other parts of the city within equal time without too many transfers, and from where you can walk to many of the sights without using transportation.
For the first trip to Istanbul, I recommend staying in Karakoy, Eminonu, Cihangir, Kabatas, and the area around Galata Tower. But you can also read my extensive guide to the best areas in Istanbul to help you choose the best neighborhood where to stay.
Do Not Drink Tap Water in Istanbul
Tap water in Istanbul is not safe to drink. The reason for that is the amount of chlorine and alkaline substances in it which are added in increased concentration not safe for drinking. Most government officials claim that the water pumped into the city is within the safety standards, yet they also talk about the higher levels of chlorine added to water to kill the bacteria.
Another reason not to drink tap water is the old pipeline system which has a high level of lead and rust.
There are two ways out of this situation – buy bottled water or use city fountains with drinking water. There are quite a few fountains in the city center and the water there is coming from underground springs. It is clean and you shouldn’t worry about drinking it.
For bottled water, it is cheaper to buy bigger (5 or even 10 liters) canisters.
Learn Some Basic Turkish to Make It Easier to Communicate
I get that. Trying to learn even a few words and sentences in a new language can be tough. But if you put some effort, it can be very helpful for many reasons. People in any country always appreciate when foreign guests try to speak the local language even with 1000 mistakes and a horrible accent.
In Istanbul, Turkish people will be amazed and grateful for that even more.
If you already speak a few languages, picking a few words in Turkish will be easy. Even if you don’t speak any foreign languages, don’t assume that Turkish is hard. In fact, it is not. Learn the alphabet which will help you read a lot of words and remember that all words in Turkish are read the way you see them with emphasis on the last syllable.
Some useful phrases that you might want to learn before your trip to Istanbul and Turkey in general include:
MERHABA – Hello
PARDON – Sorry
LÜTFEN – Please
TEŞEKKÜR EDERIM – Thank you very much
NE KADAR – How much?
EVET – Yes
Hayir – No
Be Meticulous When Packing Your Suitcase
Besides those tips on what to pack for Istanbul that I mentioned above, you should also remember a few others.
First one is that pharmacies (Eczane) in Istanbul, and throughout Turkey, do not work at night and on Sundays. Usually, they are open from 09:00 to 20:00 on weekdays. There is only a small number of “pharmacies on duty” that work at night and on Sundays and the addresses for them can be found on any door of a pharmacy that is closed during this time.
With a big number of pharmacies around each corner, buying most medicines is very difficult since they need a prescription. This is why do not forget to pack a first aid kit with the essentials and travel medical insurance.
Those who love taking a bath should bring along a universal bathtub drain stopper (no kidding). If you plan to take a bath in Istanbul (or in Turkey in general) then such devices are practically not available (except for luxury hotels).
Also, it is difficult to find an insect repellent on sale in Istanbul (and during summer evenings bugs will definitely bother you). If traveling in summer, don’t forget to take it along with sunscreen and a hat. The sun here is merciless, and you can burn in literally half an hour.
Visit Mosques & Churches for Free!
And here is my Istanbul tip for tourists who love seeing religious sites – remember that all functioning mosques and churches are free to visit.
With more than 3,360 mosques in Istanbul among which some are true architectural masterpieces, you shouldn’t miss an opportunity to see the most significant of them. At any time on any day, all mosques are open to all tourists except for the time during prayers.
This means that one of the most famous mosques (actually Byzantine churches in the past) Hagia Sophia is also free to visit now (good news to budget travelers!). It has been turned into a mosque since 2020 and the entrance fee was dropped.
You can read more about the most beautiful mosques and religious sites in Istanbul to decide which ones to add to your Turkey itinerary. And scroll down to find out about the etiquette for visiting mosques.
All churches in Istanbul that are active (not museums) also do not charge any entrance fee. Although many of them open only for service time, on Sundays and Christian holidays.
Helpful Istanbul Tips and Tricks for the Best Experience
Always Bargain When Shopping in the Markets
When buying something in Istanbul bazaars, be sure to bargain. In this way, you won’t only reduce the price (which is initially very high), but also pay tribute to local customs. Bargaining is part of a local culture and every local does it.
In order to successfully haggle in Istanbul (and all over Turkey), you need to prepare a bit for this exciting process.
On arrival, do not rush to buy things in the first shop you come across. In the beginning, get acquainted with prices in the market. In Turkey, prices for everything are always and everywhere too high. So it would be smarter to visit at first at least 3-4 stores to get an idea of how much things cost and only then return to the store where you intend to buy something.
When entering the store, do not rush to demonstrate your interest in the item you like. Try to behave as indifferently as possible. Act like you don’t need anything and pretend that you are just looking around without a goal to shop.
Istanbul markets never have price tags, so the best discount to aim for ranges between 20-80%, depending on the product. Among all items on the market, leather products are most of all overpriced up to 80% when prices for excursions or souvenirs are only 20% higher. Feel free to tell any price you want and then go from there.
But no matter what, remember this one important tourist advice – in no case should you say anything negative about the product. If you don’t like it, better regretfully say that you cannot afford it.
If you don’t feel comfortable haggling, then better go shopping at malls and shops. There is no shortage of them.
Do Not Skip Asian Side
Many tourists who visit Istanbul mainly concentrate on the European side of the city, skipping the charms of the Asian side full of many cute neighborhoods. Even if you are on a 2 or 3-day trip to Istanbul, find time to hop on a ferry from Karakoy or Eminonu and go at least to Kadikoy.
“Asia” of Istanbul is a long strip of land that stretches along the coast of the Bosphorus and is conventionally divided into three main regions – Kadikoy, Uskudar, and Beykoz. Each of them is full of hidden gems and authentic treasures. Although the easiest one to visit is Kadikoy as it is well connected with many neighborhoods on the European side.
In fact, Istanbul actually began as an Asian city in the oldest district of Kadikoy. Its progenitor was the ancient city of Chalcedon, which the Dorians founded even before the creation of the mighty Byzantine Empire in 680 BC. e. From that time, streets with descriptive names like ‘Moda’ (meaning fashion), ‘Sanatkarlar’ (craftsmen) or ‘Antik’ (meaning antique) and many markets have been preserved here.
And today they have a huge historic value for the tourists. So the oldest settlement on the Asian side today is a rich, spacious and respectable area where people come to take a break from the bustle of old Istanbul.
Do Not Bother Driving
Driving in Istanbul is a headache I really wouldn’t put yourself through unless you absolutely have to. But you really don’t need to thanks to a wonderful transportation system.
During the time when I lived in Istanbul and since then when I return for 2-3 months each year, I rent a car only on those days when Mark and I go to the Black Sea coast, on a day trip south or east, or when we want to road trip to Fethiye or Bodrum.
If you also want to go on a few day trips from Istanbul and see what is there outside the city, the best company to rent a car is DiscoverCars. It is a great pick for people on a short Istanbul holiday as all companies listed on their aggregator are located at the airport, service is wonderful and prices are the lowest. Getting to the airport is always easy and quick and companies work around the clock.
There is also another company that I like to rent from that represents only local agencies but they work better for other goals. You can read more about it as well as about all driving tips in my guide to car rent in Istanbul and Turkey.
Take a Day Trip Out of Istanbul
In continuation of my previous thought – I strongly encourage you to go out of Istanbul and learn more about Turkey through a visit to another destination. Particularly knowing how many cool places are easily day-trippable from the big smoke.
One of Princess Islands, for example, is the first one that should be on your list. With its age-old architecture, dreamy beaches, and easy access, you can add it to your itinerary without too much extra planning.
Among other places, some of my favorites are Garipce village and Kumkoy on the European side of the Black Sea coast, Silivri with organic farms, Anadolu Kavağı, and others that you can find in my guide to self-guided daycations from Istanbul.
Use a Bosphorus Ferry Instead of Taking a Bosphorus Cruise
There are plenty of touristy yacht cruises plying the Bosphorus Strait. Like a guided half-day Bosphorus cruise or a longer version of a day cruise with lunch. There’s nothing wrong with them and they have their own benefits. But did you know that you can hop on a public ferry from one continent to another and pay less than for a cup of cappuccino?
It’s one of the best Istanbul tips for tourists that many people don’t know about.
When you get to Istanbul, you’ll notice how many vessels loaded with passengers scurry along the shores on a daily basis. Some of those vessels are public ferries while others are private ones on a tour.
You also want to experience a public ferry ride and see the city from the water. It is one of the must-do things in Istanbul that doesn’t cost much. And if budget with time allows, only then go on a private cruise.
TIP: For the best experience with a public ferry, at the port, buy some Turkish delight or baklava, and on the ferry order Turkish tea in miniature glass cups. Also, stock on bread and feed the seagulls. They are going to be an amazing addition in your photos.
Do Not Book Your Accommodation Near the Mosque if You’re Not an Early Person
You can easily apply this Istanbul advice to any other city in Turkey, really. If you don’t want to ruin your trip, then before booking accommodation, check if there is no minaret with loudspeakers to your hotel or Airbnb.
Being anywhere near the mosque means that Azan will wake you up every single night. Since almost all mosques have loudspeakers that are used five times a day (sometimes even more) and they are so powerful, everybody within a 5 km distance can hear the message.
The earliest prayer is performed at dawn (the time depends on the time of the year) and usually lasts between 20 to 30 minutes. The second call to prayer takes place in about 2 hours right after that which will be waking you up again.
Even though the first early Azan is incredibly melodic, it still serves as an alarm clock for everyone in close proximity. Especially for those tourists who come from small quiet towns or countryside.
In fact, one of the most unique things to do in Istanbul is to get up in the middle of the night and head to a nearby mosque to listen to the call to prayer and watch others come for prayer. But waking up every night because of it can be somewhat stressful for most people.
Not all mosques have loudspeakers. So to be completely sure, you’d need to contact the host to clarify this question if you see a mosque on the map near the potential accommodation.
Remember About the Cats When Booking a Place to Stay
My other Istanbul insider tip is specifically for people who are allergic to cats as cats’ culture in this city is enormous and they are always kings.
Cats are really everywhere and they seem to have their own life separate from people. Today, interestingly, cats are one of the attractions of Istanbul to that point when “pat and feed attraction” is even included in the tourist list of “must do” things in Istanbul.
Only here, in this city, visitors can get cats’ food in special vending machines in exchange for plastic waste. Only here, the mustachioed tabby cats are regarded as community pets who are allowed everything. They can jump on a table in a cafe, walk into someone’s house, steal food from merchants, or lie down in the middle of the sidewalk. No one will ever think to drive them away or do anything harmful. In Islam, there is a belief that the one who killed the cat will beg for forgiveness from God only if he builds a mosque.
So, no matter what you think of cats, you need to get used to the fact that they will be surrounding you in Istanbul everywhere. Also, that many people owe cats and rent their flats out to others who come with cats on a vacation too.
Due to this, many hosts don’t clean their homes for pet allergies. Most just do a regular cleaning that even worsens a problem for sensitive guests.
I lived in many apartments around Istanbul and in each of them, there were cats. I knew it right from the first minutes after crossing the threshold of the house. One time it was so bad that we asked a host to arrange a deep pet-allergen cleanup.
Thus, if you are severely allergic to cats too, you need to make extra preparation for a visit. First of all, don’t be afraid to contact the host and let them know about your allergy and second, don’t forget to pack antihistamines.
Try to Avoid Staying Near Taksim If You Love Peace & Quiet
When it comes to accommodation, my number one Istanbul tourist advice for everyone who loves quietness is not to stay near Taksim Square and Istiklal street. The Taksim area almost never sleeps and is always incredibly loud.
With all the bars and restaurants where music is on until 5 am and with constant crowds and noise, you won’t be able to sleep. Even soundproof windows won’t help.
Staying in Taksim is great for party lovers and everyone who is planning to stay up all night long. Others, especially those who travel to Istanbul with kids, should avoid this area. Come to visit but not to stay.
Do Not Start Your Day With Coffee & Don’t Drink It With Milk
My other Istanbul advice for tourists is about the famous Turkish coffee. In Turkey, people take coffee seriously and believe brewing it is a form of art.
They never drink it before breakfast or with milk. Local baristas keep their recipes a secret and claim that you can brew the right coffee after you have already done it 300 times. Before that, it’s just continuous training.
If you want to feel like a local, don’t drink coffee first thing in the morning. Have it after breakfast or better leave for early afternoon. Instead, start your morning with traditional black tea (cay) in a tulip-shaped tea glass.
Be Sure to Indulge in a Street Food in Istanbul
When it comes to food, my all in all Istanbul tip for tourists – you have to try the street food! And not only if you are a budget traveler.
The street food scene in Istanbul is incredibly rich (as rich as street food in Vietnam or local eats in Ubud) and inexpensive. There are hundreds of cafes that don’t look very presentable but the food they offer is heavenly.
For the most part, street food in Istanbul has a high standard of hygiene (except for several individual sellers but you can easily spot them) and is fresh. Many times, it is also as good (or even better) as restaurant food.
Some of the must-try Istanbul street food picks are: pilav with various toppings, kumpir (stuffed baked potato), grilled corn and chestnuts, kokorec (sandwich with lamb or goat intestines), gozleme (flatbread with different fillings), icli Koftecisi (Turkish type of meatballs), borek (pastry with cheese, potatoes or spinach) and balik ekmek (fish sandwich).
One of the best ways to learn about the food, especially if you are short on time, is to join a food tour. I personally had a chance to go on two tours 10 tastings of Istanbul and a food tour on two continents. Both of them taught me a lot about Istanbul’s food even though I spent so much time in the city discovering food scenes on my own.
Oh, And Don’t Skip Breakfast
Where, where, but in Istanbul, you just can’t skip breakfast!
Because Turkish breakfast in Istanbul is a whole ritual of delicious food and small plates. It is popular both at home and in cafes with restaurants, and the main day for breakfast is Sunday. Since Sunday is a day off and there is an opportunity to gather with the whole family while taking it slowly.
The first meal of the day in Istanbul is always filling although not always expensive. You can choose one of many foods or go with the largest plate suitable for your budget, the choice is big! Just follow my tips for Turkish breakfast ideas to understand what people eat in Istanbul in the morning.
And remember one golden rule – many cafes serve breakfast all day long!
Istanbul Tips for Tourists to Make Things Easier
Purchase Istanbul Museum Pass
Almost every European city sells museum passes that save on entrance tickets to some attractions or give discounts on them, offer different bonuses and the right to travel for free on public transport. Istanbul is not an exception here.
Its Museum Pass, which is valid for 5 consecutive days, allows visiting many municipal museums together with some major historical monuments without a queue and for free.
However, among all Istanbul hacks, this one will work best for people who plan to spend at least 3 days in the city and complete a program “maximum” during each day. The card is especially helpful during the high season when queues are very long at many attractions and you don’t want to waste time waiting.
To save time and not stand in line for a card, you can buy it online and use its QR code on the mobile at the entrance to sites. And to learn more about the pass, its alternatives, and evaluate if buying it is going to make much sense for you, read my review of the Istanbul museum pass.
Do Not Forget Comfortable Shoes
Istanbul is called the “City on Seven Hills” for a reason. The Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman empires built Istanbul on 7 hills that make up the historic parts of the city today. Besides hilly neighborhoods, many streets are either cobbled or have relief stones. This in turn makes walking a bit harder.
Considering this and the fact that Istanbul needs to be explored on foot, you need to take care of comfortable shoes. Do not take shoes with heels, on a large platform, and flip-flops for summer. Pack comfortable footwear.
The ‘most challenging’ hills are in Kabatas/Galata area as well as in Besiktas. To conquer some of them, you can always hop on the old tram or underground funicular (Tunel). This Tunel is the second oldest subway in the world (after London) with the shortest subway line. Located in the European part of Istanbul, it serves to simplify and speed up the movement of passengers between two areas – Galata, which was once the financial and commercial center, and Beyoglu, the heart of social life.
Here is Where to Find Public Bathrooms in Istanbul
There are no problems with finding a bathroom in Istanbul. Toilets are everywhere in tourist places, including almost every cafe with the exception of small tea shops or kiosks.
You can find free toilets in:
- Museums and culturally significant places and parks. Almost all parks have free public toilets.
- Close to some bus stops that have attached shopping centers (free public bathrooms are inside centers and you need to go through the entire hall to find it).
- In all mosques.
Public toilets cost less than $0.50 (3-5 TRY) and you can pay with IstanbulKart (in many) or cash. You’ll find them:
- At some metro stations, underground passageways, and near major stops. For example, there is a public toilet in Gulhane Park, next to Sultanahmet Square, in the passage under the Galata Bridge. Another one is near the Kadikoy metro station (across the road).
- At railway and bus stations.
Things to Know About Visiting Istanbul Mosques & Religious Sites
If on your trip you are planning to visit mosques (which most tourists do), at the entrance you must take your shoes off. If you are not wearing socks, take them with you. Dress as modest as possible: cover your shoulders, legs, and head (for women).
Keep in mind that it is forbidden to eat or drink inside mosques as well as to speak loudly, laugh or do anything else that attracts attention.
It is not recommended to stand by or walk in front of people in prayer. Also, never ever take pictures of those who pray or wash before/after the prayer.
No one is allowed to visit mosques during the prayer at noon. It is better to visit between services. For example, in the Blue Mosque, visiting hours are from 8:30–12:45, 14:00–16:45, 17:45–18:30.
By the way, it is better to find out in advance about the schedule when mosques are open. It changes every season and each mosque has its own hours.
Pay Attention to What You Take Photos Of
Many tourists, carried away by capturing pictures on a trip, do not pay attention to what falls into their frame.
In a Muslim country, it’s worth looking around. In Istanbul (and anywhere in Turkey), it is not recommended to photograph women in black hijabs and ask men for permission to take photos of them.
For various reasons, sometimes, it is not allowed to take photos and videos near some mosques, on the territory of ancient temples, and in excavation zones. You can always find out about the ban by carefully looking around – a sign with information on photos should be nearby. Respect that and don’t take pictures on the sly if there is a warning not to photograph.
Also, photos and videos are not allowed anywhere near military bases. You can get a fine and deportation for this mistake.
Don’t Forget About Tipping
During our time in Turkey, we learned that this country is almost like the United States in terms of tips. People who work in service don’t make enough and depend on tips a lot.
Although gratitude in the form of money is not required, it is very much appreciated. Waiters, hotel porters, guides often expect a tip in the amount of 10-20% of the amount you pay (street food places don’t count). Taxi drivers expect that the amount will be rounded up.
In Turkish baths (hammams), it is customary to add a fourth part of the invoice amount to encourage all attendants. And you will definitely not forget about it as all of them will gather before your departure, waiting for the tips.
Again, you don’t have to leave anything on top of your bill. So don’t feel pressured and don’t overthink it but it is a nice gesture.
We personally tip only in those cases when we are happy with the service.
Tip For Tourists on a Budget – You Can Explore Istanbul For Free
If you have a limited budget, keep in mind that you can get acquainted with Istanbul for free. This city has many attractions that you can visit without paying a dime.
For example, if you want to learn how Ottomans lived then I advise you to get around the Yildiz palace and park complex. This area is full of ancient Ottoman houses and offers incredible views of the Bosphorus. And the best part – all of that is absolutely free.
For lovers of intellectual activities, the Elgiz and Doganchay museums on the European side of Istanbul don’t have any fees. The first museum contains works of famous European and Turkish masters. The second exhibits paintings, sculptures, photos, and drawings by a modernist artist, in whose honor the museum is actually named.
Another free thing to do in Istanbul is to go on a free walking tour (or almost free). While you don’t need to pay anything for the tour, guides still expect some remuneration in the form of tips. In the end of a tour, you can decide on the amount convenient for you.
We personally like this company with free walking tours but there are a few others offering similar routes.
An Egyptian bazaar is also a great option for those on a budget who want to plunge into the atmosphere of the East. Spices and dry fruits, nuts, cheeses, sweets – you can find so many tasty things there on the cheap. A nice bonus is that you can taste the goods for free, so having a walk around the market gives you lots of impressions and snacks.
Istanbul Travel Advice on What Not to Do (!)
Do Not Call Istanbul Constantinople & Don’t Talk About Greece
Officially, Istanbul became Istanbul and not Constantinople in 1930, 7 years after the establishment of Turkey as a country. But unofficially, Istanbul stopped being Constantinople in 1453 when it was conquered by Turks and became the capital of the Ottoman Empire.
Calling Istanbul Constantinople is wrong and it can cause negative feelings among the locals. So don’t do it when having a conversation with locals or even with a tour guide (who is a Turk).
Besides that, try not to talk about Greece (Greeks and Turks have a long-standing tense relationship), express ill will towards Turkish sultans and any political figures, argue about Kurds and Turkish Cypriots, and never express any negative feelings about the Turkish flag or language.
Do Not Question Others How They Feel About Mustafa Ataturk
Most likely you won’t even know who this man is or how much he transformed Turkey as a country. But you will definitely see his photos around the city everywhere you go. A lot of people keep his picture on the wall in restaurants, cafes, barbershops, hospitals, schools, government institutions, and even guest houses. It can be a small picture or a big poster on the door, wall, or on the outer side of buildings.
Ataturk was the founder of the Turkish Republic and the first president of the country. He grew up in Ottoman Thessaloniki in present-day Greece and came to prominence for his role during World War I.
Because of him, Turkey became the secular, industrial nation that we know today. Yet, not everyone accepted all the changes he made and not everyone supports him today. Talking about Ataturk is a bit sensitive topic. People, no matter how they feel about this important man, get very passionate when discussing him.
Don’t get them started. If you are eager to learn about that time in history, better visit a fantastic Ataturk museum where you can find answers to a lot of questions.
Additionally, remember that criticizing, negatively speaking or making jokes about Ataturk’s monuments and images is considered an insult. And for that, even guests can go to jail. Also, besides the Ataturk topic, do not start conversations about the situation with refugees and religious issues.
Do Not Visit Only Galata Tower For the View
Galata Tower, an icon of the Beyoglu district and one of the main landmarks of Istanbul, is definitely beautiful. But if you are coming on a short visit and thinking to climb the Galata Tower for the panoramic opportunity, it can be a waste of time.
First of all, because this most touristy attraction takes some time to get in with tens of thousands of tourists who compete in speed and arrogance. In the summer, its tiny panoramic balcony gets packed with people who push and squeeze each other in annoyance, and in winter it gets just very cold there. Second, there are many more fascinating locations nearby that offer incredible views of Istanbul.
Visiting Galata Tower is a great activity if you have more time to spend in Istanbul and combine this visit with a trip to other panoramic locations that actually offer a view of Galata itself. Like one of many parks that have amazing views or panoramic restaurants and cafes. One of them just nearby is Balkon Restaurant & Bar or a bit farther a Kat Restaurant.
Do Not Travel to Istanbul For the Beach Vacation
A lot of people who plan a trip to Istanbul believe that in this one city they will be able to experience everything – from ancient sites and delicious food to hiking and beaches. While the first two are two, the last one will not live up to your expectations.
Yes, Istanbul has access to two seas. But beaches are not something that this city is famous for.
If you are interested in beach vacations, try to add a few days to your trip and venture to one of these best beach destinations from Istanbul. Some of them, you can reach in about an hour.
Those who have at least a week in Istanbul and still want to spend a day by the water should check the beach near the Florya Sahili Park, Caddebostan coast in Kadikoy neighborhood, beaches of Princes Islands, Marmara Island, Avsa island, Kumkoy on the Black sea, Sile and Agva towns.
Do Not Pick Up a Shoe Brush That Shoe Cleaner Dropped
I would like to conclude my Istanbul travel guide with one of the biggest scams that many tourists fall for until this day. My family became a victim of this scam too and lost a big sum of money. This scam comes from shoe cleaners and their “trick” of dropping a shoe brush.
Istanbul is famous for shoe cleaners who usually “hunt” near the main tourist routes. They “accidentally” drop a brush naturally in the sight of tourists expecting someone to pick it up. And, of course, there is always a tourist who falls for this trick trying to help by picking up the brush and giving it to a cleaner.
You don’t want to pick that brush! It is a trap! After you let the cleaners know he dropped a brush, he’ll do his best to impose an unnecessary shoe shine on you and then, in the end, ask for an incredibly high amount of money for it. In case you don’t pay or if you argue, he can attack and forcefully take your money.
Stay away from shoe cleaners and don’t do anything when seeing them drop a brush or any other item.
Alright, so this is my list of 45 ultra-practical travel tips for Istanbul. They are meant to answer a lot of questions and help make your Istanbul trip more enjoyable. Knowing them will help you master the art of Istanbul travel and plan an amazing vacation!
And then if you are looking for more Istanbul travel advice, I have a load of it here!