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21 Istanbul Travel Tips for First Timers

Istanbul Travel Tips

Istanbul, a dynamic city in the north-western Turkey, is a favorite destination to tourists. It is the home of many of the world’s grandest mosques and Ottoman Empire palaces that are now visited as museums. It is also known for its colorful textile and crafts, aromatic coffees, and tasty dishes and pastry.

The city is indeed beautiful on its own. The rich fusion of European and Asian culture in its architecture, food, clothing, beliefs, and lifestyle makes Istanbul even more appealing. That said, its people, the Turks, are also rich in almost every aspects. They are the greatest contribution in the colorful tapestry of cultural heritage Istanbul has become.

I was mesmerized in Istanbul and I seriously loved how vibrant, exciting and colorful the city is. Here are some tips I can share with you that can be useful when you are planning your travel to Istanbul.

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1.Two International Airports in Istanbul

Being part of both Asia and Europe continent, Istanbul fulfills most of people’s bucketlist to be in 2 continents at the same time. I mean seriously. it only takes 15 minutes or less to cross from Europe to Asia.

Istanbul has two international airports: the Istanbul New Airport (IST) on the European and the Sahiba Gokcen Airport (SAW) on the Asian. Both are about 50 kilometers away from the city center (Taksim and Sultanahmet).

Before, another airport was operating in the European side which is called as Istanbul Ataturk Airport. However, it permanently closed last April 2019. Meanwhile, the Istanbul New Airport was inaugurated last October 2018 and has been the main international airport in the European side since then.

2.How to Get from Airport to the City

Taksim is considered as the center of Istanbul. Since most of the passengers are attracted to go to the city, you can get there in many ways. I wouldn’t suggest to stay here though, I found a little too overwhelming,.

Meanwhile, a lot of tourists also prefers to stay in Sultanahmet to visit most of the must see attractions in Istanbul. This is just minutes away from Taksim.

Here are the possible options you may choose to get to Taksim and Sultanahmet from IST or SAW.

From Istanbul Airport to Taksim

A taxi ride to Taksim takes about one hour. Fare starts from 105 TL (18.18 USD), and may be higher if you happen to ride on taxis with opportunistic drivers. The best deal you can get is by riding from official taxi ranks near the airport terminal. Never ride the taxis waiting outside the airport because they charge you higher.

In my case, since I arrived at the wee hours of the night, I asked my hostel to schedule me a pick-up. It costs 40 USD ( Yes, quite pricey for one) but if you are a group, it was a big van and it felt very safe.

If you wanted a cheaper ride, take the Havaist airport shuttle. This will only cost you 18 TL, with your luggage included. It’s fully air-conditioned with TV and Wifi services, and a USB charging unit for your gadgets. To find the shuttle to Taksim, take line ISD 19: New Istanbul Airport – Besiktas – Taksim. The last stop will get you in front of Point Hotel, several steps near Taksim square.

From Istanbul Airport to Sultanahmet

Sultanahmet is farther than Taksim but you can also ride on a taxi or shuttle to get there. It will cost you around 135 TL (23.38 USD) for a taxi ride and 18 TL (3.12USD) if taking the Havaist airport shuttle. If you decide to ride a shuttle, find the bus line with route to Sultanahmet, Besiktas or Yenikapi as its final destination.

From Sahiba Gokcen Airport (SAW) to Taksim

From SAW, ride a Havabus airport shuttle service that is heading to Taksim. The ride has the Gezi Park as its drop-off point, which is just past the Taksim square. The shuttle is available between 4:00 am to 1:00 am and costs 18 TL (3.12 USD) per person. There are also other buses that operates near the airport. Prices of fare ranges from 18 TL to 30 TL (around 3 to 5 USD).

You can also take a taxi, but it is more expensive than riding a bus. It will cost you 150 TL (around 27 USD) or higher. Again, to get the most reasonable price, ride in the taxi ranks near the airport terminal, not at the taxis at the exit.

From Sahiba Gokcen Airport to Sultanahmet

You can get there at two different routes. First is when you have to ride a ferry after a bus or a taxi, and the second is when you have to go all the way to Taksim and from there, travel to Sultanahmet.

For the first option, you have to ride a Havabus shuttle to Kadikoy which is available from 4:00am to 1:00am. It is an hour ride and will cost you 14 TL (2.42 USD). From the drop-off point, walk towards the Sehir Hatlari dock and board a ferry to Eminonu. Ride costs 3 TL (0.52 USD) and takes about 15 minutes. Then, from Eminonu, ride a taxi or tram (T1 Kabatas/Eminonu-Bagcilar) for a 5-minute trip to reach the district of Sultanahmet.

The other way to reach Sultanahmet is to go to Taksim via a Havabus. It is an hour ride by land, where you will pass the Fatih Sultan Mehmet brigde. From the drop-off point, ride a taxi to Sultanahmet. This route is the best option if wishing for the fastest direction. However, most drivers take this opportunity to get more revenue since passing the bridge requires a fee. Therefore, they might ask for extra cash. The best way to deal with it is to negotiate before taking the taxi and always stick with a metered ride.

3. Taxis don’t take cards

Some taxis have credit card machines, but most of them do not accept cards. Because of this, it is wise to always bring Lira cash with you. As much as possible, have smaller denominations in your pocket such as 5, 10, or 20 Lira. Also, pay for the exact amount and be alert in giving your bills. That way, you won’t be ripped off by the taxi driver, such as through pretending they don’t have smaller bills to give your change. Though majority of the Turkish taxi drivers are honest, there still exist opportunist ones, and so better outsmart them.

4. Money exchange

Turkish Lira (TL) is the widely used currency in Istanbul. A lira is about 2 dimes worth (0.17 USD) and is available in 5, 10, 20, 50, 100 and 200 banknotes; and 1, 5, 10, 25, 50, 100 Kurus coins.

Of course, it is a necessity to have your money converted to Turkish Lira. The initial idea is to have it exchanged at the airport. However, rate is usually higher at money exchangers in the airport, so exchange only few amounts just to get you to the city center. If you do exchange in the airport, NEVER IN THE GLOBAL EXCHANGE. They change rate depending on the amount you exchange but their rates are really low. Look around, there are better money exchanges.

Once in the center, you can get the best rates such as around Taksim Square and in the Sultanahmet. Rates are also great at the Grand Bazaar and other touristy places such as in Istiklal Cadessi.

It is also recommended to withdraw TL from an ATM, which may be the quickest and most reliable option when it comes to rates and transactions. To get the most of ATM money exchange, make sure that your card is activated for overseas transactions. Otherwise, your card may not work at some ATMs. Also try different ATMS as some don’t charge for withdrawal while others have excessive ATM fees. 

5. Do I need a visa for Turkey?

To simply put, you need a visa to enter Turkey. The advantage now lies whether you are eligible for an e-visa application or have to go to a Turkish embassy or consulate. For Filipinos, they are qualified for an e-visa if they fit the following:

a) Will visit the country either for tourism or business purposes;

b) a holder of an ordinary passport (at least six months before expiration upon arrival);

c) have a round ticket and hotel reservation;

d) have enough expenses to spend during stay in Turkey (at least $50 per day); and

e) have a valid Schengen members or USA, UK, Ireland visa or residence permit (not in electronic form).

You have to apply for an e-visa before flying there.You can apply online through www.evisa.gov.tr. For a comprehensive step-by-step Turkish e-visa application, read the separate article we prepared for you.

6. Sim Card and Wifi

Turkey has Turkcell, Turk Telekom and Vodafone as its network operators as of 2019. Turkcell has the widest subscribers and 4G coverage, and is the cheapest among the three. However, if you’ll only be staying in Istanbul, Turk Telekom and Vodafone can also give you good network services. Here are the available tourist sim cards offered by the three network providers:

Turkcell

  • 150 TL (26 USD) – 20GB data, 1000 SMS, 200 minutes call

Top ups: 39 TL (7 USD) for 6GB internet, 49 TL (9 USD) for 10GB

Turk Telekom

  • 150 TL (26 USD) – 10GB data, 750 minutes call
  • 200 TL (35) 25GB data, 750 minutes call

Vodafone

  • 200 TL (35 USD) – 20GB data, 750 minutes call

You can also stay connected through wifi services. Public establishments such as the airport, your accommodation, or restaurants have free wifis. However, you might want a more stable and more exclusive connection for security. 

7.Best Time to Visit Istanbul

The best months to visit Istanbul is from March to May. The city experiences spring during those periods so the city is awash with different colors. In April, locals and tourists also anticipate to join the International Tulip Festival, where millions of tulips bloom in almost all colors possible. In addition, weather during spring is relatively mild and dry. Therefore, you can enjoy outdoor activities and get vivid selfies on the streets.

You can also visit Istanbul during autumn which takes place from September to November. Though there are more possibilities of rain compared to spring, weather is still near perfect and allows you to do several outdoor activities, too. In November, you can also have the chance to take part in two of their festivals, the Akbank Jazz Festival and the Istanbul Theater Festival.

Meanwhile, the rest of the months may either give you too much humidity or gloom. On the months of June to August, weather is hot (up to 28˚C) but is tolerable especially for those from tropical countries such as the Philippines. However, this is the busiest time of the year so you might find it a little annoying to have to wait in longer lines. Also, prices of goods and produce are at its peak in this times, so it is not the best time to hoard stuff for souvenirs or gifts.

December to February, on the other hand, is the coolest and wettest time of the year. Your usual thin jacket will not be able to fight the weather since temperature can drop up to 3˚C. If visiting during these months, be sure to bring thicker jackets and an umbrella.

8.How to Get Around

You can reach almost everything through public transport. Istanbul has buses, trams, ferries, shuttles/minibusses and taxis.  

Istanbul Kart

To make it easier for you to travel by bus, train or ferry, you can purchase a Tram Kart but it costs 10Lira per card. You can also use one card for several people so if there are 2 or more of you traveling together, you can just purchase one card and load it up. This makes it simpler than having to pay each time you ride. 

Also, it will be cheaper to purchase the istanbul kart if you will be in Istanbul for days.  Single journey costs 5 TL while with the card, it costs cheaper.  Aside from convenience, you get to save by purchasing this. 

Buses, Shuttles, and Trams

These public transportations are some of the cheap options to get to places in Istanbul. You will pay as low as 3 TL (0.52 USD) for short rides. The disadvantage is you may get stuck in traffic or may not be able to stop at the right place especially if not familiar with the surroundings (this is true when riding buses). Meanwhile, destinations of trams are limited since the vehicle is railed, and passes only to specific parts of the city. It can also a bit of a bother to tourists since some accept cards, and tokens. You have to have your money exchanged firsts at kiosks in terminals or stations. Despite that, it’s fun to experience riding them, specifically the tram. We highly recommend you try it, especially if hopping on tourist destinations in Sultanahmet.

Ferries

You may ride at a ferry if planning to go to the Europe or Asia side. There are ferry terminals at Eminonu or Karakoy which will take you to Kadikoy. Ticket price for that 25-minute ride starts at 3 TL (0.52 USD). It’s fun riding the ferry and is traffic-free, far from the congested city streets.

Taxis and Uber

This is one of the most common, yet controversial transport in Istanbul. Many have nightmare experiences of scam from drivers with modus. However, there are a larger portion of honest and reliable drivers in Istanbul. We recommend you look for a taxi via two options: First, look for the reputable taxi names, usually the yellow-colored cabs. Do not forget to look for the logo, and plate number, even picture it with a camera, just for what-knows. These taxis have better metering system and are more trustworthy. You can find them through taxi ranks or terminals, or may notify them via buttons available on the streets. Second, you may use Uber app to agree on the driver and car model you expect to ride on. It is preferred by some tourists since price is negotiable and information of driver is transparent to the client. Regular rates, day and night, is 24 to 30 TL (4.16 to 5.19 USD).

9.Tipping  in Istanbul

Our form of gratitude towards staff or service can come in different ways. One is tipping. Though it is common in Istanbul, there are unwritten rules and guidelines on when, where and how to tip.

If tipping, give cash instead of cards or goods. It would be the most convenient and practical for both you and the staff. The portion you give as a tip can be at least between 5 to 20 TL depending on the service and the place. You can definitely tip professional porters at the airport, hotel personnel such as whom responsible for housekeeping, staff in restaurants, cafes and bars, musicians, attendants in hamam, and tour guides. Since these people receive different values for their work, we recommend you give them 5 to 10% of the expenses for the services or goods you availed.

You can also give tips to taxi drivers, but only when they carry your luggage or things. Turks don’t usually tip them because their rate are already so much for the service. Meanwhile, you don’t have to give tips to minibusses. They don’t expect tips after all.

10.Credit Cards and Charges

Credit cards are widely accepted in Istanbul such as the Visa and Mastercard. However, if your card is an American Express card, chances are, some ATMs will not accept it. Therefore, we suggest you have a variety of travel options when you visit Istanbul, or Turkey in general.

MasterCard and Visa card do not incur charges to foreign currency conversion or overseas ATM withdrawal fee. However, some credit cards such as the Visa ING Orange One Platinum charges 2.5% of the transaction value of foreign currency conversion, and a fixed 2.50 USD for overseas ATM withdrawal. Credit cards are advantageous to use in Istanbul since it has a reward program system, promises contactless payments, interest-free period purchases, and has complimentary travel insurance. The only downside is it does not cover your cash advance fees and international ATM fees. 

To be honest though,  I mostly used cash around Turkey. Most of the establishments except for more expensive restaurants, prefer cash and sometimes they even give a discount for cash payments. It’s easier to have cash than move around with just credit card in Turkey. 

11.Internet censored

There are over 245,000 websites and domains blocked by Turkish government from 2014 to 2018 which may have include the sites you often visit. This site names include Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp,Wikipedia, Booking.com and more.  

12. Is tap water safe?

Locals in Istanbul drink tap water and it is totally fine for them. However, there are some major reasons why it is more advisable to stick with bottled water to sustain your hydration. First,  it is safe but it does not taste good. Istanbul’s water are from dam, which may be less clean than in other parts of Turkey where they primarily get their water beneath the ground. For this reason, the water you may get, may still be contaminated with harmful microorganisms even if purified. Second, most of the pipes used to take water to homes are made with metal. Therefore, particles from oxidation may be included in water you get in your faucet. Lastly, though most claim that they are fine drinking tap water, it is observable that in some parts of Istanbul, water has funky taste or smell. This is something we don’t want you to experience due to risks. So in general, stay cautious and drink only from the bottled water you purchase.

13.Smoking in Istanbul

Smoking is banned in public places in Turkey such as in bars, restaurants, workplaces, and in all forms of public transport including taxis and ferries. If you smoke, there is no better way to deal with this than to abide. However, the government understands that some people have personal needs as this is, so they provide smoking accommodations for the public, even tourists, to use. Therefore in booking for hotels, or going to places which may be far from your accommodation, politely ask whether they have smoking accommodations. Turkish staff and locals will gladly help. After all, the movement is not to deprive cigarette consumers, but to lessen health risks of majority of its citizens.

14. Buying medicines are cheap and pharmacies have doctors

Medication and prescription rules in Turkey is not as strict as in Europe. Because of this, a lot of medicines can be accessed over the counter, and for a cheaper price. On top of that, registered drug stores have pharmacists to which will assist your medical needs. The only problem you can encounter is that it would be hard to find the exact brand you are using. Even so, they can offer you the same medicine from their local brand name. We suggest you write down the chemical name of the med and give that to the pharmacists. That way, they can give the drug counterpart.

15.Turkish coffee and Turkish coffee reading

Coffee is one of the many things that made Turkey famous. Its coffee is richer, and uses a special brewing process to achieve its taste and texture. To compare, it has similar consistency with hot cocoa or choco, a thing most coffee lovers would prefer, especially during cold weather.

Here’s another unique thing. Turks uses coffee to foretell, which is an important ritual, too. They use the sediments of coffee powder left in the cup, which they believe creates patterns or symbols. This becomes a basis of a future event, or may indicate an important phenomenon in the client’s life. For instance, a whale in the cup means a long-lost friend is wanting to connect with you again; a horse means a big breakthrough; a mouse means you have to see the importance in small details of your life as well; and a mermaid, indicates you fear female dominance, or honest. Whether first time hearing about this or not, it is always fun to try this kind of activity in Istanbul.

16. Plugs

The standard electric voltage in plugs in Turkey is 220 volts, which is similar to the Philippines, but is 100 volts higher than in the United States. This means you may not need a voltage converter for your devices or appliances. However, sockets and plugs in Turkey are mostly type F, characterized by two round pins separated with 19 mm distance. This indicates that you need to bring with you an adapter to use the electricity in your accommodation. This is what we did when we went in Kenya, which generally has type G sockets and plugs.

17. Toilets

We need to attend to our necessities, like going to the bathroom when we have to. Luckily, there are public restrooms in touristy places such as in the Grand Bazaar, in the Hippodrome, or at ferry docks in Eminonu and Karakoy. These restrooms need maintenance, so you have to pay for a fee, usually 1 TL (0.17 USD). Most of the public toilet facilities are kept clean and has supplies such as soap and running water. So it’s not actually a bad thing to use them. However, for females, it might surprise you that most stalls still uses the squat toilets (bowls fixed near the floor, or slightly elevated floor).

18. Dress codes in mosques

Most of the tourist attractions in Istanbul are mosques. However, you have to follow dress codes to enter sacred places. It is a need to wear modestly, not just to abide to rules but more importantly to show respect.

For females, they have to wear long skirts or dresses and tops that don’t show too much of their body such as their back, chest, belly, or even their sleeves. Their hair should also be covered with a headscarf. Slacks are also okay to wear, even hoodies instead of the head-covering. If they are not confident with their outfit, you can seek help to personnel at the entrance of the mosque. They will provide you the things you need to comply with the dress rules. For males, they should wear long trousers instead of shorts, and tops with sleeves. Both need to take off their footwear before landing your steps in the mosque. Plastic will be provided where you will store your shoes or sandals. It might be a bit of a bother for some, but it is a way of respect to other Turks beliefs and cultures.

19. Mosques being restored for 2021

Restoration is not only a process to preserve beauty of the mosque, but also a way to make it last. With this aim, renovation in some major mosques in Istanbul is conducted. For instance in 2016, Blue Mosque in Sultanahmet started and is expected to end in 2020. Though they already opened it to public this year (2019), the “feels” of being there during renovation and before or after may be very different, especially to tourists. Other mosques under restoration also includes the Hagia Sophia, New Mosque, Beyazit Mosque, Suleymanuye Mosque, and more.

Though this might be a downturn to some visitors, we suggest that tourists still drop by the mosques, even just to see its majesty from the outside.

20.Europe side and Asia side

Istanbul is divided into two sides, the Europe side (Avrupa Yakasi) and Asia side (Anadolu Yakasi). The sides are separated by a narrow straight called Bosphorus. Therefore, minutes ride in a ferry or a short car ride to cross the third bridge can instantly get you to other continent. Among the two options, we recommend you try the ferry since it is more adventurous. In addition, views are spectacular especially during sunsets.

Both sides have both unique tastes of its own. The best tourist attractions are in the European side which includes the Hagia Sophia, Dolmabahce Palace, Blue Mosque, Grand Bazaar, and Basilica Cistern. On the other hand, the Asian side offers a glimpse of local residents’ lives. It is more peaceful in this side of the city, and offers must-visit places, too, such as the Kadikoy Market (Spice Market), Yeldegirmeni, and Beylerbeyi Palace.

21,Where to Eat in Istanbul

Traveling in Istanbul will never be complete without trying the food. You’ll get the most of Turkish flavors if you try the meals offered from the streets to fine dining restaurants. Some of the best places to go are in the following places:

Restaurant/Shop Location Specialty
Ciya Sofrasi Kadikoy Market Turkish regional dishes
Durumzade Beyoglu durum, a Turkish sandwich
Kizilkayalar Taksim Square “wet” burgers
Tarihi Sultanahmet Koftecisi Selim Usta Mecidiyekoy kofte, grilled meatballs
Walter’s Coffee Roastery Asian side coffee
Ismail Usta Kebap ve Pide Salonu Beyoglu lahmacun, pizza-looking snack eaten like a burrito

On the other hand, we suggest you try other Turkish food found in the streets and in most restaurants or shops such as the menemen, a Turksih omelet; meze, an appetizer; kuyu kebabi, a kebap made from male lamb meat; iskender kebap, made from doner meat; manti, a Turkish ravioli; kunefe, a cheese pastry; and baklava, a dessert made phyllo dough.

21.Get away from Sutlhanamet

While Sultahnamet has always been attractive to tourists, there are several reasons why you should go out the district. First, it is too congested because of people and vehicles. Second, the prices of goods and services are usually more expensive there. Third, it’s more polluted there, including noise pollution. This is not to degrade Sultahnamet, of course. But there’s just so many things to discover and experience in other parts of Istanbul such as in Besiktas, Kadikoy, and Benet and Fener. We even made a short list of the must-see places in Istanbul in a separate article. This includes the mentioned districts and more. It also tackles the activities you can do in the place, and the cafes, and tourist attractions you should not miss.

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