Modern day Istanbul is a thriving metropolis packed with history, food, and culture. Once home to Byzantine emperors, Ottoman sultans, and the Young Turks, it offers a wealth of palaces, museums, and mosques. People are walking, talking, eating, and throwing their hands around everywhere you look, so it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. Here are ten tips to help you dive in and make the most of your time in Istanbul.
1. About Atatürk Airport
When you walk out into Istanbul Atatürk Airport, the chaotic, charming, and welcoming people of the city come up to meet you. Although you can get to the city by Havataş shuttle, taxi, or metro, arrange for a pick up by your hotel to ensure the easiest introduction. You’ll find ATMs in the arrivals hall so you won’t have to worry about money, but it’s a good idea to travel with some Turkish lira, euros, pounds, or U.S. dollars. A few euro coins will come in handy for trolley rental
2. Technology needs
Turkey operates on 220 volts, 50 Hz, with round-prong European-style plugs that fit into recessed wall sockets. Make sure you pack an adapter so your phone, tablet, or laptop are always charged and ready. If you’re used to using the likes of Uber, one of the best apps to hit Istanbul is a similarly easy taxi call system called Bitaksi. It offers a fare calculator, payment by credit card, and much more. And for those wanting to check out Istanbul’s happening art scene, you’ll love the Istanbul Street Art app. Set a course before you arrive, or just follow your phone in search of the latest masterpiece.
3. Getting around Istanbul
Use an Istanbulkart to travel the city by public transport. The system is fast—at least by Istanbul standards—and it’s cheap, a form of sightseeing in itself. Tünel, the second oldest underground train in the world, will whisk you up from waterfront Karaköy to the Agatha Christie-infused neighbourhood of Pera, now called Galata. Hop on the Nostaljik, a beautifully restored 19th century tram, and enjoy a stately trundle along Istiklal Street, lined with 20th century apartment blocks, consulates, schools, and churches. Catch the funicular down to Kabataş at Taksim Squire and board an Istanbul ferry. Grab a seat outside, buy a simit—a circular, sourdough ring of bread—and a glass of tea. Put your feet up on the rails and watch the city’s minarets and the majestic Topkapı Palace sail past.
4. Istanbul weather and what to pack
Istanbul is a big city, so be prepared to experience different climates as you move from one part of the city to another.
The autumn months from September to November are the best times to visit with comfortable temperatures. The peak summer season, which is hotter — up to 30°C — is also much more crowded with tourists. The summer has high amounts of humidity, as well, making the actual temperatures feel much hotter! Between summer and autumn, there will be plenty of bright, sunny days that require the increasingly popular bold and trendy sunglasses.
As the city moves into spring between March and May, travelers should dress in layers and bring a jacket. The air will be colder but not as humid as the summer season. Amongst the layers travelers and locals alike wear, there is always bound to be a bright pop of colour somewhere in their outfit (perhaps an overcoat or even statement accessory) so don’t be afraid to experiment with your own rainbow of layers.
5. The spoken word
Turks love to talk, and chat, and shout. They might sound alarming, but they’re just excited, smiling and happy to help you, even if they have limited or no English. Having a small Turkish-English dictionary helps, or load IHG’s translator app, onto your phone. You might make some embarrassing mistakes, like trying to buy an ‘envelope’ (zarf) by asking to be ‘enveloped’, or ‘hugged’ (sarılmak), but you’ll make some friends in the process.
Turks love visitors, and they often have a very different sense of personal space. It’s not unusual for locals to get up close and ask probing questions about your job, salary, age, or marital status. You don’t have to answer if you don’t want to, but keeping a smile on your face and going with the flow will endear you. Be prepared to drink more tea than you could ever imagine, and to rethink your beliefs about alone time.
7. Mosque etiquette
The ezan, the call to prayer, will quickly replace your need to look at your watch. Heard five times a day, this is when the faithful go to pray, and tourists should wait outside. Most camii—mosques—have lovely, peaceful courtyards, and they’re great places to rest. Join old men flicking their tespih—worry beads—have a look at the Ottoman inscriptions on the türbe, the tombs, or just sit and daydream. When you do venture inside the mosque, make sure you remove your shoes before entering. Both men and women should be modestly dressed, which means no shorts, short skirts, or bare shoulders and arms. Carrying a scarf with you or incorporating it into your attire is a good idea, but most major mosques offer or rent cover-ups if you need them.
8. There’s more to Turkish food than kebab
Kekabs are great, but why limit yourself when Istanbul offers köfte (meatballs), güveç (stews), and pide (similar to pizza). Along with meat, there are salads galore, like şakşuka, a vegetarian ragout of eggplant and vegetables. Patlican (eggplant) is featured in a lot of Turkish dishes. Whether it’s fried in olive oil, smoked on the BBQ, or just grilled, it’s delicious. You wouldn’t be a real Istanbullu, a local, if you didn’t eat something sweet every day. Try lokum, real Turkish Delight, whenever you get the chance, and make room for a scoop of dondurma—stretchy ice cream made from goat’s milk. No visit is complete without some mastic (natural gum), and sahlep (orchid root), and try some tavuk göğsü—chicken breast pudding—if you’re game.
9. No time for euphemisms
Don’t be surprised if at some time during your visit you’re confronted by a traditional Turkish squat toilet. Although Western toilets are more common in Istanbul these days, they aren’t yet everywhere, and needs must be met. Carry tissues and hand sanitiser if you want to, but don’t worry—there’s always water on hand. All public toilets charge a small fee, and mosques are a good place to find one. Look for the tuvalet or WC signs, then it’s ‘Bey’ for men and ‘Bayan’ for women.
10. Carpet shopping as an art form
Bargaining is not a dirty word in Turkey. It’s an integral part of the carpet-shopping experience. You drink tea. The salesman names a price. You counter. He asks about your family. You answer. After a few more rounds, more tea, and possibly some lunch, you’ve talked about your trip so far, music, poetry, and the price of bread in both countries. Paying feels like a privilege when you finally agree on a price.
The city is yours to discover with these top tips. Istanbul will have a special place in your heart by the end of your stay, and you’ll already be planning a return visit when you board your plane to go home.