Traveling to Istanbul can be the experience of a lifetime. With one foot in Europe and the other in Asia, this is a city like no other. You could spend weeks exploring its mosques, bazaars, and palaces.
Istanbul is an enormous city, and it can be overwhelming for first-time visitors. Carpet scammers attempt to part you with your money. Lines for some of the top Istanbul attractions can be long. Crowds in the bazaars overwhelm even seasoned travelers. So to help you maintain your sanity when visiting this incredible city for the first time, I put together this list of Istanbul travel tips. In this post, I’ll cover the most important things to know when traveling to Istanbul.
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What to expect when traveling to Istanbul: Culture, dress, and more
Istanbul is such an incredible blend of cultures that most first-time visitors have no idea what to expect. Is it like the conservative states in the Middle East? Or more like a European capital city?
In reality, Istanbul is a little of everything — it’s an extremely diverse city. Stick to the touristy areas of Sultanahmet and Galata and you will feel like you’re in any European city. But venture out to the Wednesday Market in the Western Districts, and you’ll feel like you traveled 1,000 miles east.
A good rule of thumb when traveling to Istanbul — especially if you visit Istanbul as a solo woman — is to adapt to the moderately conservative cultural norms. Wear loose clothes that cover your knees and shoulders. (Jeans and t-shirts are fine; miniskirts and spaghetti straps will get stares.) Carry a scarf in your day pack to cover your hair when you enter mosques, but otherwise you don’t need to wear it. (Many younger Muslim women don’t wear headscarves.) Men and women alike will stick out like a sore thumb when wearing shorts.
In terms of cultural norms, Sultanahmet — the old city — often feels like the most cliche-Middle Eastern neighborhood in Istanbul. But it’s largely a show for tourists. Hawking and bargaining at the Grand Bazaar is far more aggressive than in local markets around the city. The seediest men hang out here thinking they can pick up a foreign woman. Dark sunglasses help a lot with avoiding unwanted attention.
Elsewhere, the main tip for solo female travel to Istanbul is to choose cafes and restaurants where other women are eating (don’t worry, you’ll have plenty of choice). It really is that simple.
Arriving in Istanbul
Istanbul is a major gateway to the region and the world. It has two international airports and a huge bus station. You may also arrive at a smaller bus station or the train station if coming from elsewhere in Turkey. In short, when traveling to Istanbul, make sure you know where you’re arriving in advance.
If you’re flying on Turkish Airlines or coming to or from most European and American destinations, you’ll probably arrive at Ataturk Airport. This enormous, modern terminal is not far from the city center.
The most direct route into the city is on the Havataş Airport Bus (12 lira). It’ll take you directly to Taksim Square, where you can pick up onward transport if staying elsewhere. Another simple option is to use the metro — you’ll have to change lines, depending on where you’re staying, but the total cost will be just 5 lira. This is faster than the bus during rush hour.
Sabiha Gokcen International Airport is much smaller than Ataturk, and much further from the city center. But if you’re traveling to Istanbul from Asian destinations, you’ll probably land here. A 15-lira Havataş Airport Bus will take you to Taksim Square or a bus terminal on the Asian side of the ferry dock across the Bosphorus. Allow two hours.
Additionally, Istanbul is set to open yet another airport at the end of 2018. Theoretically, all commercial flights will eventually move there, but it’s been far slower to get off the ground than originally planned.
Arriving at the Istanbul bus station
Istanbul’s main bus station is 15 km outside the city, and almost operates as a small city itself. It’s huge — arriving here feels like arriving at a major international airport.
The simplest way into the city is to hop on the metro and transfer to a tram line. This costs around 5 lira (depending on your final destination) and takes about an hour. Alternatively, some bus companies operate serviis (minibuses) that will give you a free ride to the city center. At rush hour, they’re significantly slower than the metro.
Smaller bus stations are in Alibeyköy and Ataşehir. You can pick up serviis into the city center from either, but you’re better off choosing a bus company that goes to the main bus station instead.
Arriving by train
Istanbul has both domestic and international trains, arriving at different stations. The Sofia train (with onward connections to Belgrade) arrives at Halkali station, from where you can get a free bus transfer to the city center. Domestic trains go to Pendik, in the exurbs on the Asian side. There isn’t really a good way to get into the city — you’re better off taking the bus when traveling to Istanbul.
The neighborhoods: A basic orientation for traveling to Istanbul
Istanbul is a sprawling city, and different neighborhoods can feel plucked out of entirely different countries. Parts of the European side feel like they belong in Paris, while others would be at home in the Middle East or Central Asia. The Asian side is equally diverse, if less flashy. Most travelers stick to a handful of popular neighborhoods when traveling to Istanbul — below is a basic outline.
Sultanahmet is the main sightseeing neighborhood, and where most visitors traveling to Istanbul concentrate their time. This is the part of the city that was once Constantinople — established during the Roman era, it evolved into the center of the Ottoman Empire.
Some of the main attractions in Sultanahmet include the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, Basilica Cistern, Grand Bazaar, and Topkapi Palace.
Sultanahmet is extremely touristy. It’s a great neighborhood to stay in for convenience, but eat and drink elsewhere.
Galata is European Istanbul at its best. Home to the city’s prime pedestrian shopping strip, best nightlife, great eateries, and popular hostels, it’s the perfect base when traveling to Istanbul.
The top Istanbul attractions in Galata are the Galata Tower, the various churches, Taksim Square, and Istiklal Street. While it’s less obviously touristic than Sultanahmet, Galata is also quite high-end. You’ll meet some locals in the bars and restaurants, but it’s not exactly authentic.
Located right along the waterfront, Karakoy is one of the most photographed neighborhoods in Istanbul. It’s where you can snap those epic shots of the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia at sunset from across the river. Or you can catch a glimpse of the fisherfolk dangling their lines off the bridge. The other highlight is Mixer Gallery. One of the most fascinating (and free!) modern art spaces in this part of Europe, it often features political exhibitions.
Not far from Karakoy, you’ll also find Dolmabahçe Palace. You can only visit on guided tours, and the lines to get in are massive — arrive first thing in the morning and be prepared to wait at least two hours.
On top of being incredibly scenic, Karakoy is one of the best eating and drinking spots in the city — and the restaurants here have more of a local flavor than in nearby Galata. Just avoid the seafood spots with river views; a couple blocks away from the water is where you’ll find the real gems. While Galata has the bars, hookah/shisha is a popular evening activity in Karakoy.
Far from the center of Istanbul, the Western Districts offer one of Istanbul’s best attractions and a glimpse into local life that you won’t find elsewhere on the European side.
The Chora Church (also called the Kariye Museum) is here. This colorful church contains hundreds of mosaics. It sees far fewer visitors than other top landmarks in the city, and it’s a must-do when traveling to Istanbul.
The other reason to come to the Western Districts is for the enormous Wednesday Market. Held (obviously) on Wednesdays, this is one of the biggest markets in Turkey, and it’s 100% local. Bargain (not too hard) for a new dress or locally made handicrafts. You’ll have better luck if you speak some Turkish — few tourists make it out this way and not all the salespeople speak English.
The Asian side
Travelers usually group the set of neighborhoods and suburbs east of the Bosphorus under the label “the Asian side.” With few major landmarks, the main appeal of visiting this part of the city is the novelty of crossing the continents by ferry and seeing how many locals in Istanbul live.
Kadikoy is the ideal Asian-side neighborhood to explore. It has an important market, several mosques, and great street art. You will run into other tourists here, but not nearly as many as in Sultanahmet or Galata. Üsküdar has more mosques and a great fish market, and is less touristic.
Getting around in Istanbul
Now that you have a sense of how many great neighborhoods you can visit when traveling to Istanbul, you may be wondering how to explore them all — especially if you don’t have much time. The good news is, Istanbul has a fantastic public transportation system — and it’s affordable, too! A good map is a lifesaver.
Metro, tram and funicular
Istanbul has four main metro lines that efficiently shuffle travelers around the city. By far the most useful is the M1A, which runs from the Old City to Ataturk Airport, stopping at the main bus station along the way. You may use the other lines if staying in neighborhoods such as Galata.
Tram is the main mode of transportation in the historic parts of Istanbul, including Sultanahment and Karakoy. There are two main lines and two smaller lines. Trams run frequently and stop at all major points of interest, but they can be extremely crowded at rush hour. Be especially careful if you’re traveling with luggage — pickpockets are common.
Funiculars and cable cars supplement the metro and tram lines in a couple places throughout the city — most notably to and from Taksim Square. The main reason you’d need to use them is when you have to change from the tram to the metro, but the distance between your tram stop and the nearest metro stop is too far to walk.
To use any of the above methods of transportation, purchase an Istanbulkart when you arrive. This public transport card will cut fares in half (to roughly 1 lira per journey) and allow you to avoid buying separate tickets for every journey. You must pay a 7 lira deposit for an Istanbulkart, but you can cash it in for your money back when leaving.
Bus, serviis and dolmus
In addition to the various train services, Istanbul also has a massive bus network, supplemented by serviis (minibuses) and dolmus (shared taxis). These options can get you to within about a block of wherever you’re trying to go when traveling to Istanbul.
The only problem? Istanbul has horrendous traffic. So it’s almost always faster to avoid road transportation and stick with the trains.
The one time you may need to use buses is if the train lines are shut down for the night (usually after 1 am). Some bus companies also use serviis to shuttle customers to and from the main bus station.
One of the great novelties of traveling to Istanbul is using ferries as a public transportation method to cross between two continents. Beyond giving you a great travel story, Istanbul’s ferries are also a convenient way to get around. You can even design your own Bosphorus cruise using the public-transport ferries and save yourself some money!
The busiest ferry terminal is in Karaköy. From here, you can catch a quick ferry to pretty much anywhere along the Golden Horn, or across the river to the Asian side. Other big docks are at Eminönü and Beşiktaş.
Depending on which company your ferry operates with, tickets can cost as little as 2 lira (and up to 5 lira). Hours are shorter in the winter.
Budget for traveling to Istanbul
Istanbul is not the cheapest city to visit, but it’s not the most expensive, either. You’ll need a budget roughly comparable to what you’d need in Spain or Italy.
The cheapest hostels in Istanbul start at around $7 for a dorm bed, but nicer ones run more like $10. A private room will cost you at least $25. So, still significantly cheaper than Western Europe, but not any cheaper than Central or Eastern Europe.
Food is reasonable in Istanbul. If you’re content to eat street food like simit (Turkish bagels) and kebabs, you could get by on 10 lira (about $5) a day. But restaurant meals — even informal ones — will double that. And food is one thing you should not skimp on, since Istanbul has one of the world’s best dining scenes.
The biggest budget-busters when traveling to Istanbul are the attractions. Admission tickets add up fast. Hagia Sophia costs a whopping 40 lira. The Topkapki Palace is even worse, with a 60 lira admission fee and an extra 35 lira supplement to visit the living quarters. The Chora Church costs 30 lira. Even the Basilica Cistern comes with a 20 lira admission ticket. Try to pack all these attractions into a couple of days, and you could easily blow $50 a day on admission fees alone. Try to work in some free attractions, like visiting mosques, bazaars and art galleries, to offset the expensive tickets.
Alcohol can also add a lot to the cost of traveling to Istanbul. Remember, Turkey is a Muslim country, and many locals don’t drink. Attitudes toward booze are liberal in Istanbul, but it’s still marked up quite a bit.
Is traveling to Istanbul safe?
Turkey has made headlines often in recent years for political violence. 2016 was a particularly bad year, with a terrorist attack at Ataturk Airport, followed by a failed coup attempt a couple months later. Many countries, including the United States, have travel advisories out for all of Turkey. International travel numbers have plummeted and many people are still nervous to travel to Turkey for safety reasons.
However, today, you are extremely unlikely to get caught up in political violence when visiting Turkey. The country has been mostly peaceful for over a year. Attacks do still occasionally happen, but tourists are rarely targeted. The biggest thing to watch out for is large demonstrations — steer clear.
Women traveling to Istanbul alone should be cautious about going out late at night alone in the bars and clubs around Galata. Travelers are occasionally targeted for sexual assault, and attackers have murdered their victims in the past. The alleyways around the bars get very dark and quiet after midnight.
Common scams in Istanbul
While violence is typically the top safety concern people have when traveling to Turkey, you should be more focused on reading up on the most common scams you’ll face in Istanbul. Like most big cities, plenty of people will be looking to part you with your money. Don’t fall for any of these clever cons:
Many people travel to Turkey because they want to buy a carpet. This has led to lots of unscrupulous carpet “dealers” who ply the streets of Sultanahmet, looking for tourists to rip off — or worse.
Carpet touts hang out all over Sultanahmet. Some even go inside the touristy mosques to accost you while you visit. Your only defense is to firmly tell them you have no interest in buying a carpet. You should never consider buying a carpet spontaneously — this is a purchase to research thoroughly in advance.
If anyone approaches you offering good deals on carpets, you should immediately be wary. Note that they may start the conversation about something else — one scammer asked which city in the U.S. I was from — before transitioning to talking about carpets.
If you follow one of these scammers, they’ll either try to sell you a low-quality carpet for an extremely high price — or they’ll take you somewhere with few other people around and rob you. If you want to buy a carpet, seek advice from local experts and never buy from someone who approaches you first.
The “let’s go for drinks/tea” scam
Solo travelers — and especially solo men — are vulnerable to this common scam. First, a beautiful Turkish person of the opposite sex approaches you and strikes up a conversation. They convince you to go with them to a bar/restaurant/cafe and have a drink with them. Perhaps they invite some other friends.
When you arrive in the bar/restaurant/cafe, you’ll order drinks and maybe some food. Perhaps some other beautiful people will join you at your table. But when you ask for the check, you’ll be presented with an enormous bill, including everything that everyone who joined you consumed — all at outrageously inflated prices.
Turkish people in general are very friendly and often invite travelers for tea, so it can be hard to pick out what’s a scam and what’s genuine. When in doubt, ask your local friend to hang out in a park or some other public place instead, or insist on going to a cafe of your own choosing (and pick somewhere you can pay up front!).
This is one of the most common scams you’ll find around the world, but it happens all the time in Istanbul. You see a shoe shiner walking down the street in front of you, and he drops one of his tools. You pick it up for him, and he offers you a free shoe shine in exchange. But once he finishes, he demands an extortionate amount of money.
Another variation on this trick is a shoe shiner will “accidentally” spill something on you, and his partner will nab your wallet or go through your purse while you try to clean it up.
The main takeaway here is steer clear of shoe shiners who seem overly friendly or helpful. If you want a shoe shine, approach someone yourself.
More resources for planning your Istanbul trip
That pretty much covers the most important things you need to know when traveling to Istanbul! But if you’re looking for even more information, I’ve got you covered.
Stay tuned for an itinerary to help you plan your time.
Interested in shopping in Istanbul’s bazaars? Check out this handy guide before you do.
Remember to download an offline version of google maps for Istanbul before you arrive — in a city this big, you’ll definitely want a good map to refer to.
Book your hostel in Istanbul on Hostelworld — the top place to find budget Istanbul hotels. If you want a private room, the Blue House Hotel is a lovely budget option.
I hope you have a great time when you visit Istanbul — come back and leave me a comment to let me know how your trip went!
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[…] friendly. You don’t need to keep your guard up for scams nearly as much as you do in, say, Istanbul. However, if a local invites you to tea or to visit their home, you should either bring a small […]