Nestled at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, Istanbul is a city that effortlessly straddles the divide between the ancient and the modern. With a history that spans over two millennia, this vibrant metropolis offers a captivating blend of cultures, traditions, and landscapes that beckon travelers from across the globe. From its iconic skyline adorned with minarets and domes to its bustling bazaars, Istanbul is a city that promises an unforgettable experience. Here are fourteen essential Istanbul travel tips to make the most of your time abroad.
Things To Know Before Visiting Istanbul
1. Uber Will Not Pick You Up From High Traffic Areas In Old Town
Let’s start our Istanbul essential travel tips by talking about rideshare availability in Turkey. We wasted so much time not understanding this. The traffic is horrible in Istanbul. Especially in the main tourist areas. Therefore, Uber drivers avoid these pickups. The problem is the drivers will accept your ride and then try to negotiate for a higher rate. Remember the Uber drivers in Istanbul are taxi drivers. And taxi drivers in Turkey do not have a great reputation.
It is possible to get a ride. You can walk to a less congested area and wait for a driver that doesn’t try to negotiate a higher fare. And by higher, I mean they are asking for 5-10 times the amount listed amount. You will end up canceling or getting canceled on multiple time before someone will take you for the listed price.
We gave up on Uber and started using public transportation The tram is easy to navigate and centrally located in OId Town. It does get crowded and hot. There is nothing you can do about that. But this ends up being cheaper and more pleasant than trying to use rideshare.
Many visitors will ask “Can you take an Uber from Istanbul Airport?”. Because this is a longer route and not within the city itself there are drivers available. Still, they will try to negotiate for a higher rate. You have to be patient if you decide to use Uber in Istanbul.
2. Bring Your ID to Palaces And Museums
We are careful on international trips. Especially after having a pick pocketer still a phone from us outside the Louvre in Paris. Therefore, we tend to leave our passport and IDs in hotel room safe. This is a good habit. But not if you want to get an audio guide at the museums in Istanbul. Trust me, you don’t want to make this mistake.
You have traveled all the way across the world to see the historic sites and relics. You want to be able to enjoy the world class museums and palaces at full capacity. I was so frustrated at Topkapi palace. We waited into line for about 45 minutes to get our tickets. Then another 30 minutes to get an audio guide. This is where I learned they would not let us get an audioguide without providing an ID as a deposit. I asked them to put a refundable charge on my credit card instead, but they refused.
I should have learned. But unfortunatley, I made the same mistake at Galata Tower. This time I just didn’t think about it. In the future, I am going by the rule of thumb that I need to bring my ID to any museum or historical site when travling in Europe.
3. Learn To Ride The Tram In Instanbul
Here is something you need to know before visiting Turkey. Riding the tram in Istanbul is a great way to explore this sprawling city. It may be hot, crowded, and sweaty. But it is convenient. The city’s well-developed tram network makes navigating Istanbul’s labyrinthine streets a breeze for both tourists and locals alike. One of the key reasons why riding the tram is so easy in Istanbul is the extensive coverage of the tram lines, connecting major tourist attractions, neighborhoods, and business districts.
The tram routes pass through some of Istanbul’s most iconic sights, offering passengers picturesque views of historic landmarks, the Bosphorus, and the city’s vibrant street life. Whether you’re heading to the historic Sultanahmet area, exploring the bustling Beyoglu district, or simply enjoying a scenic ride along the waterfront, the tram provides a front-row seat to the city’s captivating scenery. The tram system seamlessly integrates with other modes of public transportation, such as buses, ferries, and the metro, providing a comprehensive network that can take you virtually anywhere you want to go within the city. With the use of the Istanbulkart, a rechargeable contactless card, you can easily pay for your tram fare as well as other forms of public transport, eliminating the need for constantly buying tickets or searching for change.
4. Go To The Asian Side Of Istanbul For Better Food
While the European side of Istanbul certainly boasts its fair share of delectable dishes, it’s the Asian side that beckons the discerning food lover for a unique and unforgettable gastronomic journey. When you cross the Bosphorus to the Asian side, you step into a world where authenticity reigns supreme. The eateries here often cater to locals, ensuring that you’ll find traditional dishes prepared according to time-honored recipes. Unlike the bustling European side, the Asian side offers a more relaxed and authentic dining experience. You can savor your meal without the hustle and bustle, enjoying the charm of quiet streets and cozy family-run restaurants that often overlook the serene waters of the Bosphorus. Perhaps one of the most pleasant surprises is that dining on the Asian side tends to be more budget-friendly compared to some of the European side’s pricier establishments.
5. The Best View Of Istanbul Is From The Bosphorus
When it comes to capturing the heart and soul of Istanbul, there’s an undeniable truth that savvy travelers have long known: the best view of this enchanting city isn’t from a crowded tourist hotspot, but rather, from the tranquil embrace of the Bosphorus. This winding strait, connecting Europe and Asia, isn’t just a waterway; it’s a front-row seat to Istanbul’s most captivating vistas.
As your boat glides gently along the Bosphorus, the city unfolds before your eyes like a magical tapestry. On one side, the historic minarets and domes of Sultanahmet stand proud, while on the other, the modern skyline of the European and Asian shores glistens in the sunlight. This unique perspective offers a mesmerizing blend of old and new, where centuries of history coexist with the contemporary heartbeat of Istanbul.
We picked up a few Istanbul travel tips from one of our guides. Here is good one. The boat tours are overrated. Take the public ferry instead. Ferries are an integral part of daily life in Istanbul, used by thousands of commuters and locals daily. Ferries are an incredibly budget-friendly option, making them accessible to both locals and visitors. For the price of a boat tour, you can enjoy multiple ferry rides throughout the city and even venture across to the Princess Islands.
6. Cover Your Knees When Visiting Mosques
Istanbul’s mosques aren’t just architectural marvels; they’re vibrant hubs of spiritual activity and rich cultural heritage. When you enter these sacred spaces, you’re essentially stepping into the living history of the city. To show your appreciation and respect for this cultural tapestry, it’s vital to dress appropriately. In many Muslim cultures, modest attire is a sign of humility and respect towards a higher power, and in Istanbul, this tradition holds strong. Covering your knees is a small yet significant gesture that demonstrates your understanding of and respect for local customs.
This is important for men and women. It was a hot and I decided to wear those short European style men’s shorts the day we visited the Hagia Sophia. The issue was these shorts didn’t cover my knees. I had to sag my shorts to get them to an acceptable length. Don’t be this guy!
7. Every Istanbul Tourist Restaurant Serves The Same Turkish Dishes
Meze is the Turkish versions of tapas. A typical meze spread can include a wide array of dishes, both cold and hot. Cold mezes might consist of items like hummus (a creamy chickpea dip), cacik (yogurt with cucumbers and garlic), haydari (yogurt with herbs), and tabbouleh (a bulgur and herb salad). Hot mezes can include sigara borek (fried pastry rolls filled with cheese or minced meat), calamari, or grilled eggplant with tomatoes and garlic. You will brought basket after basket of bread to dip into these tasty dishes.
But get ready to eat these dishes a lot. And I mean a lot. Istanbul is one of these places were every tourist restaurants serves the same thing. It is not the type of place where you are going to grab Thai one night, Mexican for lunch the next day, and Indian for dinner. Get ready to eat these classic Turkish dishes!
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8. Galata Tower Offers The Best Aerial View
The Galata Tower isn’t just an architectural marvel; it’s a living testament to Istanbul’s rich and storied past. Originally built in the 14th century by the Genoese as a fortress, this tower has stood the test of time, serving as a watchtower, prison, and now, a breathtaking observation deck. As you ascend the tower, each step takes you deeper into the annals of history, and the panoramic views from the top will leave you spellbound. From the Galata Tower’s vantage point, you’ll witness the intricate tapestry of Istanbul’s past and present seamlessly woven into its stunning skyline.
To be clear, the purpose of visiting the Galata Tower is for the city view. The exhibit section is relatively limited. Istanbul is a massive, sprawling city and the best way to see it is from the water or from up above.
9. Stuff Is Cheap Due To Turkey’s Currency Devaluation
Here is an important Istanbul travel advice nugget for the budget traveler. Turkey has faced a series of financial challenges in recent years, including high inflation, a volatile currency, and significant external debt. Inflation hit a high point in 2022 up over 80%! Thanks to the recent fluctuations in the Turkish lira, the country has become an irresistible destination for those looking to stretch their travel dollars. This currency devaluation has led to a significant drop in prices, making everything from dining at exquisite restaurants to shopping for souvenirs an absolute steal. Turkey’s financial turbulence has transformed it into a budget-friendly wonderland, promising unforgettable experiences without breaking the bank.
10. A Hagia Sophia Tour Guide Is Not Necessary
This may be the hottest take on our essential Istanbul travel tips list. I like to think of myself as being good at planning trips. I know when to get a tour guide, when to budget more time, and what attractions to avoid. I have to say Istanbul is tricky. Maybe I wasn’t as meticulous with my research on this trip. But for whatever reason it wasn’t clear to me which attractions I would truly benefit from having a guide. We purchased a guide to take us to the main attractions. We went to Hagia Sophia, the Basilica Cistern, the Blue Mosque, and over to the Asian side for lunch. This was pleasant and made getting around a little easier. But it wasn’t necessary to enjoy these attractions.
11. The Grand Bazaar Is Overrated
I spent time in both the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Bazaar. The most impressive thing is the size of these markets. And the history. But to be honest, I got bored. There really isn’t a whole lot to do. Unless, you feel like shopping for a rug or spices to drag back home.
It’s not that the Grand Bazaar lacks charm or historical significance; but for those seeking an authentic and tranquil shopping experience, the Grand Bazaar’s bustling crowds, aggressive sales tactics, and inflated prices might feel more like a tourist trap than an enjoyable exploration of Turkish culture. While it’s certainly worth a visit for its historical significance, some may find that the more intimate and genuine interactions with locals and their crafts can be found in Istanbul’s lesser-known markets and neighborhoods, making the Grand Bazaar feel somewhat overhyped.
12. Istanbul Is Painfully Hot During The Summer Months
Visiting during the summer? Here is one of our Istanbul travel tips you shouldn’t miss! During July and August, Istanbul becomes a melting pot in more ways than one. The mercury regularly soars into the high 30s°C (90s°F), transforming the city’s charming streets into veritable saunas. The cobblestone alleys of the historic Sultanahmet district, normally a delight to wander, can feel like a journey through an oven, and the iconic landmarks, such as the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, become oases of shade for weary travelers. The Bosphorus, often a refreshing escape, can feel more like a steamy bath under the relentless sun.
But, if you’re willing to brave the heat, the warm evenings hold a certain magic, as the city’s historic structures are beautifully illuminated, and the Bosphorus breeze offers a welcome respite.
13. Alcohol Is Expensive In Istanbul
Are you a beer or wine drinker visiting Istanbul? Western visitors are use to alcohol being ubiquitous. I am use to grabbing a beer immediately upon visiting a new country. Things are little different in Turkey.
Finding alcohol in Istanbul can sometimes be a bit of a treasure hunt due to various factors deeply rooted in the city’s culture and regulations. Firstly, it’s essential to understand that Turkey has a predominantly Muslim population, and Islamic traditions and values influence the country’s approach to alcohol. As a result, there are stricter regulations in place compared to many Western countries.
One significant factor is the limited availability of alcohol in certain areas of Istanbul. While you can find alcohol in most restaurants, bars, and hotels in tourist-centric areas, it becomes less common as you venture into more conservative neighborhoods or residential areas. Some areas even have outright bans on alcohol sales, especially during religious holidays or near places of worship.
14. Turkish Coffee Is Strong
This is not just an espresso. To prepare Turkish coffee, finely ground coffee beans are simmered in water along with sugar and sometimes cardamom in a special pot called a “cezve.” The key to a perfect cup of Turkish coffee lies in the meticulous process of brewing. It’s brewed slowly, allowing the coffee grounds to settle at the bottom, creating a thick, sludgy residue that’s part of the experience. Served in small cups, Turkish coffee is known for its robust and intense flavor.