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The Complete Travel Guide To Visiting Istanbul, Turkey + 22 Helpful Tips To Know Before You Go

The sun starts to set as you hear the melodic call to prayer blast from the loudspeaker of every mosque which surrounds you. You step onto the street facing the Bosphorous river, ships blaring their horns, ferries criss-crossing the sea as if in an organized dance, as the aromas of grilled fish waft through the air. In the distance you see the famous Galata Tower on one side, and the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sofia, and Suleymaniye Mosque on the other, their architectural silhouettes tickling the pastel sky with their tall minarets proudly piercing upwards, like soldiers on guard.

Istanbul in a torrential squall (which lasted only for five minutes)

You continue walking past Turkish lamp shops, as you admire the plentiful street stalls: cooked oysters with rice and lemon, rotating kebap over hot coals, baklava, and pide, all whilst dodging scooters in the streets and stopping to pet every single adorable kitty looking up at you, yearning for a scratch behind the ears or the drop of a piece of meat.

This is İstanbul; a city split between two continents; Asia and Europe; a bustling, diverse culture of dichotomies. A city where multiple religions are practiced; where historic traditions are still apparent, but room is also made for modern culture to shine through.

Sasha and I spent three weeks in Istanbul in the hot summer month of August. We wanted to visit other parts of Turkey, but because this is our fifth country in 8 months on our digital nomad journey through Europe, we were growing a bit travel weary and wanted to stay put and live like a local for a bit. In this blog post I’ll cover the following topics:

  1. 22 helpful tips to know before you visit (including common street scams to watch out for, tipping culture, and how to dress)
  2. How to get around
  3. Where to stay (and the best neighborhoods to visit)
  4. Cost of visiting (prices in Istanbul)
  5. Top 12 things to do and see
  6. Must-try local Turkish foods
  7. Our favorite Istanbul restaurants

This is a behemoth of a post, but I promise you’ll be so much more knowledgeable about Istanbul when you’re done reading this!

22 HELPFUL TIPS TO KNOW BEFORE VISITING ISTANBUL

  1. The currency is TL, which stands for Turkish Lira. At the present time of writing this blog post, the conversion rate for the US dollar, is 8.35, so to compute what something costs in USD, simply divide by 8.
  2. Turkey requires a visa for some countries; check before you go. For U.S. citizens, a visa is required, which you can do either online prior to arrival, or upon arrival before you exit passport control. I opted to purchase on arrival because I don’t like to put my passport information online, and I got lucky because there was no queue whatsoever. I just walked up to the desk, paid the $30 USD, and was on my way. The visa is valid for 90 days in the country, and you can re-enter multiple times. Keep in mind that all the signs say that you can only pay for a visa using cash, but since we had just arrived, I didn’t have any TL with me, so the clerk said, “fine, card is okay”.

    TIP: If you are a Russian passport holder, you do not need to pay for a visa. Sasha is a dual Russian / American passport holder, so he got in for free when he showed his Russian passport!
  3. You must download your HES code upon arrival to Turkey (you can do it at the airport or after you arrive to your hotel), but this is like Turkey’s version of the green card, and many restaurants and establishments will not allow you to enter without showing your HES barcode. You can learn more about how to download your HES code on Turkey’s Entry Website.
  4. Most of the credit card machines in taxis, will not accept foreign credit cards, so I recommend taking out Turkish lira prior to exiting the airport so that you can pay your fare.
  5. TIPPING IN ISTANBUL – it is customary to tip, but it’s not a percentage of your bill. Similar to other European countries, an acceptable tip is anywhere from a few coins, to 5% of your bill. At nicer finer dining restaurants, they usually add a service fee of 10%.
  6. Uber is illegal in Istanbul. There is a taxi app, but we found it to be so unreliable, we never used it. Instead, we just hailed a cab on the street, the good-ole-fashioned New York way.
  7. Uber Eats also does not exist in Istanbul. If you’d like to order food in, you’ll need to use the local apps: Getir and Yemeksepeti. Getir does not accept foreign credit cards, nor the ability to pay when the food arrives, so we used the Yemeksepeti app, where everything is in Turkish (thank goodness for photos and Google Translation app!) and you can pay either via credit card or in cash when they drop off your groceries / food.

    TIP: The majority of folks reading this blog, are likely going to Istanbul for a holiday, but if there happen to be any digital nomads like us, or folks planning a longer-term stay in Istanbul, this will be especially applicable to you. If you’re ordering food or grocery delivery through this app, copy and paste this phrase into the checkout: “Yabanci kredi karti kullanilacaktir, uygun cihaz getiriseniz sevinirim”, which means “I am using a foreign credit card, please bring the appropriate machine.”
  8. English is not widely spoken at all. You’ll need to use your Google translate app frequently here, and learn the basics. (By the way, it took me all of five days to finally remember how to say thank you in Turkish!) The way to pronounce it is Teh-sheh-cue (like a queue) -lar.
  9. The most commonly heard language after Turkish, in the more touristic areas, is Russian. Turkey has long been a favorite destination for Russian tourists, so many shop keepers have learned a few phrases in Russian.
  10. Turkey is the #1 country who drinks the most tea out of any country in the world! Coffee culture is also huge here. You will see cafes literally on every street corner.
  11. The emergency phone number (equivalent of U.S. 911) is +90 (Turkey’s country code), followed by 112 – save this in the notes in your phone in case of an emergency.
  12. The call to prayer happens 5 times per day, and it differs depending on the time the sun rises and sets. Don’t book accommodation near a mosque (unless you’re a heavy sleeper and will have no problem sleeping through the daily 5AM call to prayer.)
  13. Avoid visiting mosques on Fridays between the hours of 12 noon – 2:30 PM, when the main prayer of the week occurs. Most Mosques are closed to tourists during these times.
  14. Turkey is one of the top places for medical tourism, so you will see many men with dots on their heads (hair transplant) and women with bandaged noses (nose job).
  15. Carry small bills because the public transport machines do not accept bills over 20 TL.
  16. We found Turkish people to be friendly and honest. We never felt cheated nor taken advantage of, and unlike places like Morocco or China where vendors are overwhelmingly aggressive, the “getters” (people who try to get you to come into their shop, restaurant, etc) in Istanbul are pretty mellow.
  17. The biggest scam to be aware of here, is the shoeshiner dropping his brush (this usually happens on and around the Galata Bridge): they carry all their supplies with them, and as he walks past you, he’ll drop his scrubber brush. Once you pick it up, he says, “oh, how nice of you, let me thank you by shining your shoes” (you especially know this is a scam when you’re wearing sandals!) – once they start shining your shoes, they’ll ask you for money.
  18. It is common to see children and women picking through trash bags on the street. It’s a horribly pitiful sight, and though these people are indeed hungry, they also do this for people to feel sorry for them and give them money (it sure worked on us!)
  19. Turkey is officially a secular country, though according to Turkish government consensus, around 98% of people say they are Muslim. However, this includes people who are not practicing Muslims or just say they are Muslims because of their parents. You will see all kinds of fashion here, from full covered women in burkas, to women and girls wearing short skirts and tank tops with nothing else covered. My recommendation is to dress more modestly than you would in another European country such as Italy, but especially during summer when it’s hot, it is completely acceptable to wear sleeveless tops and bottoms above the knee. The only exception is when you visit a mosque, you must cover your head, shoulders and knees.
  20. There is a great sense of community in Istanbul, despite it being a huge city. We witnessed several incidents (such as a man losing balance and falling off his scooter, and a refugee kid who looked to be only 10 years old, struggling with carrying a load of cardboard boxes for recycling, down a steep street), and people always stepped in to help.
  21. It is not advisable to drink the tap water in Istanbul. Brushing your teeth with tap water is completely fine, but I recommend ordering the large gallon jugs (which you can order and have delivered from the local delivery apps that I mentioned above.) Turkey has a huge single plastic waste issue, as you’ll see vendors selling small bottles of water on the street. Please keep environmental sustainability top of mind and bring your own reusable bottles to fill up from the larger jugs.
  22. Cats rule the city! It will take you all of two minutes upon arriving to Istanbul, to notice cats everywhere…hundreds of them. Thousands! There may be more cats than children in Istanbul! Kitties are revered in Istanbul, and very well taken care of. You’ll see that shop owners and restaurants will leave out bowls of cat food, water and even milk outside. There are also little cat houses for when winter comes and it’s too cold to be on the street. Many cats actually get fixed or vaccinated or both, and you will know this because there will be a little piece missing from one of their ears. Similarly, you will see several large dogs (all of them old and sad looking). They also live on the street, but just don’t get the attention that cats do. You’ll know that a dog has been fixed if they have a plastic pin attached to their ear.

HOW TO GET AROUND ISTANBUL

There are a plethora of ways to get around this enormous city straddled between two continents: ferry, taxi, walking, and metro. If you’ll be using public transportation frequently throughout your trip, it’s most convenient to purchase an Istanbulkart – the local transport card, which is refillable. However, the tricky thing is that you must add your HES code to the card, which we were unable to do because the website would not load in English. We tried about 10 times with continued non success, so we actually never used our Istanbulkart. Besides taxi, the only other public transportation we took, was a ferry to the Asia side, and for that, you can simply purchase a one-way or roundtrip ticket using cash, which is what we did. Just keep in mind that the machines will not accept bills over 20 TL, so carry small bills.

As we do in all cities we visit, our preferred method of transportation is our own two feet. Walking in Istanbul is very easy, especially once you get out into the main city center of the old town, because you’ve got landmarks to find your bearings everywhere you go (don’t worry, you’ll learn to discern the three main mosques in no time.) Just like Lisbon, Istanbul is quite hilly, so you’ll get in a good workout! One thing to be mindful of, is the uneven sidewalks, which can be extremely dangerous at night, so watch your feet, especially in the neighborhoods of Galata and Beyoğlu.

WHERE TO STAY IN ISTANBUL (and the best neighborhoods to visit)

After walking literally the entire city of Istanbul and visiting all the major neighborhoods, we can confidently say that we chose the best one.

Beyoğlu / Karaköy – This is where we based ourselves, and we were thrilled with the central location and quick walks to all our favorite places! It’s safe, quiet, peaceful, and has everything you need for a long or a short stay in Istanbul. I’ll list the walk times to major attractions below:

Galata Tower = 5 mins
Istiklal Street = 10 mins
Galata Bridge = 15 mins
Hagia Sofia = 30 mins
Countless bakeries, shops, cafes and eateries were all on our street = 2 mins

We loved our light-filled spacious, comfortable flat, but it was very pricey. We paid $175 USD per night (which is exorbitant for us; we usually stay under $100 USD per night, especially for longer-term stays), but we really did love the convenient location, comfort of the unit, high-end amenities and cooking gear, and our superhost was a phenomenal help. If you’re not on a budget and are okay splurging for a nice place, here is the link to the Airbnb and some photos below:

Kadıköy – Located on the Asia side just a 20-minute ferry from Karakoy (yes, I know, the two neighborhoods have nearly identical names), this is probably the most modern, hip and fabulous neighborhood in all of Istanbul. If you’re familiar with Seattle, this is like the Capitol Hill (the “gayborhood”) of Istanbul. Whereas in the old city center, around 90% of women are covered, in Kadikoy, about 1% of women are covered. This is where the young, hip, cool kids hang out, and it is a place where you can be openly and authentically whoever you are without being judged. There are also some provoking wall murals about women’s rights.

AVOID staying right off of Istiklal Street and Taksim Square because it’s noisy and filled with tourists, and whenever there are demonstrations, this is where they occur.

BEST NEIGHBORHOODS TO VISIT

Balat – On the other side of the Bospherous River opposite the Galata Tower, this up-and-coming neighborhood is small, but has caught on to the colorful artsy trends. You’ll see umbrella ceilings everywhere, rainbow steps, and brightly painted buildings and wall art murals. They know how to bring all the Instagrammers to the yard.

Cihangir – in between Taksim and Galata. Cute boutique shops, salons, cafes and antique thrift shopping along narrow cobblestone streets (of course, lined with cats of all colors, shapes and sizes.)

COST OF LIVING IN ISTANBUL – HOW EXPENSIVE IS TRAVELING IN ISTANBUL?

Keep in mind that everything is relative, but I was floored by how inexpensive Istanbul is! The cost of living here is actually cheaper than Mexico, and is definitely the cheapest European country we have visited in our world travels. To give you an idea of what to expect, here are some common expenditures in Istanbul (for easy understanding purposes, I have converted TL to USD):

  • Fish sandwich: $4
  • Dinner at a casual restaurant (including a main + a beverage + tip): $10 per person (our average dinner out as a couple, is $25 including everything)
  • Fresh squeezed juice: $1.50
  • Haircut: $12
  • Pedicure: $12
  • Full bikini waxing: $9
  • Tourist attractions such as the Topkapi Palace and Galata Tower, range between $5 – $18 per person
  • Taxi ride from the airport to Galata Tower area (one hour ride): $20

    On average, we typically spent $60 USD per day on food for the two of us, eating all three meals out.

Okay, now that you’re an expert on what to expect in Istanbul, let’s dive into the top things to see and do in the city!

TOP 12 THINGS TO SEE AND DO IN ISTANBUL

  1. Haggle At The Grand Bazaar
  2. Tickle Your Senses At The Spice Market
  3. Visit Topkapi Palace
  4. Visit Dolmabahce Palace
  5. Visit Hagia Sofia
  6. Visit Suleymaniye Mosque
  7. Take a Ferry To The Asia Side
  8. Walk Istiklal Street and Taksim Square
  9. Watch The Sunset From Galata Tower
  10. Take An Evening Stroll For Sunset
  11. Do a Free Walking Tour Or Book An Airbnb Experience
  12. Visit The Byzantium Basilica Cistern (one of James Bond’s movies was filmed here!)

HAGGLE AT THE GRAND BAZAAR

Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar is one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world. With 61 covered streets and over 4,000 vendors, this market spans 30,700 square meters and attracts up to 400,000 visitors daily. Here you can find anything from fine gold and silver, copper lamps that make you feel like Aladdin, Turkish rugs, scarves and all the evil eye paraphernalia you could wish for! Going through the narrow stalls often felt like I was in an Indiana Jones film, surrounded by treasure. Admission is free to enter. Pay attention to the gate numbers (listed at each entry point), otherwise you will most certainly get lost in this maze.

TICKLE YOUR SENSES AT THE SPICE MARKET

Even through a face mask, you’ll know when you’re approaching the spice market because you’ll be able to smell it!

VISIT TOPKAPI PALACE

This palace served as the main residence and administrative headquarters for the Ottoman Sultans in the 16th and 17th centuries. It has a beautiful view overlooking the Bosphorous.

VISIT DOLMABAHCE PALACE

Topkapi Palace was moved to this location in the 19th and 20th centuries because the Ottoman Sultans felt that Topkapi was too ancient. They wanted newer and more modern amenities. Dolmabahce Palace is more grandiose, with a location also on the sea.

VISIT HAGIA SOFIA

The Hagia Sofia is the most important site to visit in Istanbul and considered the 8th Wonder Of The World. Hagia Sofia was built in 537 (try wrapping your head around that!) as the Cathedral of the Imperial Capital of Constantinople. In 1453 after the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Empire, it was converted into a mosque. In 1935, the secular Turkish Republic turned it into a museum, and just recently in 2020, it was converted back into a mosque. Because of this, it is a strict requirement to cover your head, shoulders and knees before entering. Dress appropriately (long slacks or a long skirt or dress), and women, I recommend bringing a scarf to cover your head. It is customary to remove your shoes before entering the mosque, and the inside floor is covered with plush carpet, which feels nice on the feet and creates a hushed environment inside, unlike the high ceilings of a cathedral, which echo noise.

VISIT SULEYMANIYE MOSQUE

Suleymaniye Mosque is the most visible and imposing from the Bospherous and the Galata side. The views from the mosque are exquisite, looking out the opposite side of the river.

One thing to keep in mind when visiting any mosque, is that between the hours of 12 – 2:30 PM (especially on Fridays), is the most popular time and day of the week to come to the mosque for prayer, and most mosques will close to tourists during this time and only allow locals in for prayer. I happened to visit this mosque at 12:30 PM on a Friday, knowing that the inside would be closed, but I loved walking around the beautiful grounds and seeing the views of the Bospherous below. There was something so peaceful about laying out on the grass and watching men slowly file outside for prayer (because the inside of the mosque gets full). They look up at the sun to see where to position their individual prayer rug (which they carry underneath their arm), then they lay the rug down, remove their shoes, and begin to pray. It is customary to wash your feet and hands before and after prayer.

TAKE A FERRY TO THE ASIA SIDE

Taking a ferry on the Bospherous River is a must-experience in Istanbul. This is one of the busiest city ports I’ve ever seen in the world, and it always amazed me how the ferries didn’t collide. They just know exactly how to dance around each other without getting in the way. The ferry from Karakoy (Galata side) to Kadikoy (Asia side) is about 20 minutes and cost $1.75 for a round trip ticket.

WALK ISTIKLAL STREET TO TAKSIM SQUARE

Istiklal is the most touristic shopping street in Istanbul. Lined with corporate shops such as Zara and H&M and baklava stores, the characteristic trait of Istiklal is the vintage red trolley, which people go crazy over! After living in Portugal (the land of vintage trolleys!) for two months though, this wasn’t such a big deal for us.

WATCH THE SUNSET FROM GALATA TOWER

Albeit a bit pricey for entry, the views alone are worth the admission! My recommendation is to go a little before sunset so you can stake a spot at the top before it gets overly crowded. From this vantage point, you get a 360-degree view of the city and across over to the old town side.

TAKE AN EVENING STROLL FOR SUNSET

On a different night, I highly recommend setting out for an evening stroll with no set plan of where to go. The city at dusk has such a whimsical feeling, and especially during summer, it’s a nice reprieve to not be out when the strong sun is beating down your back. For some mysterious reason, Istanbul seems to have the most incredible moon rises; the moon is always giant here, and when it rises over the mosques, it makes for an incredibly picturesque scene.

DO A FREE WALKING TOUR OR BOOK AN AIRBNB EXPERIENCE

We love supporting Airbnb Experiences, because it’s almost always a local who is deeply passionate about sharing their city. We did a total of three Airbnb experiences here (one tour of Kadikoy on the Asia side, one tour of Karakoy in our neighborhood, and for my birthday, Sasha surprised me with a private photographer, who took us around to all the iconic locations and took professional photos!) I love how they came out, and we really enjoyed getting to know our local guide, a young man in his mid-twenties.

VISIT THE BYZANTIUM BASILICA CISTERN

Sadly, this is temporarily closed due to Covid – huge bummer! A cistern is basically a giant well where water used to be stored. This also happens to be one of the filming locations of one of James Bond’s movies, From Russia With Love.

WHERE TO EAT + 12 LOCAL MUST-TRY FOODS IN ISTANBUL

Istanbul has a rich cuisine with a diet high in meat, drawing Mediterranean influences married with Middle Eastern spices. Though absolutely delicious, I’ll be honest that after three weeks in Istanbul, I’m ready to have any cuisine other than Turkish food, and I’m ready to give meat a break for a good week! Here are 12 must-try Turkish foods, many of which can be found in street food stalls:

  • Manti – little mini dumplings in yogurt sauce with spices such as sumac (if you’re familiar with Russian pelmeni, it’s very similar, only instead of serving it with sour cream as Russians do, it’s served with yogurt)
  • Borek – flaky filo dough filled with ingredients such as cheese, minced meat, potatoes and cabbage, and served sliced and hot. This is similar to Russian piroshky
  • Dürüm – lavash wrap filled with kebab or fish and grilled vegetables
  • Mezze – appetizers (usually served cold) such as giant beans in olive oil, tabouleh salad, hummus, and aubergine (eggplant for my American readers)
  • Rakı – National drink of Turkey, most often mixed with cold water. Raki is twice distilled grapes and anise, giving it that wonderful black licorice flavor
  • Çiğ Köfte – a dish with a wave-like shape, consisting of minced meat, bulgur, onion, tomato paste, hot red pepper, salt, parsley, lemon and spices
  • Kebap – meat skewers cooked over hot coals
  • Baklava – a wonderful desert (also popular in Greece, where Sasha and I got married!) Filo dough with layers of honey and ingredients such as nuts or dried fruit (most commonly pistachio). If you have an allergy to nuts, stay far, far away
  • Pide – Savory flat bread with the edges of the crust rolled up, kind of like a long Turkish pizza. Toppings usually include cheese, tomatoes, peppers, mushrooms, spinach and minced meat. It is baked in a brick oven and sliced for serving
  • Turnip Juice – This is a highly acquired taste, but because Sasha is Russian and used to drinking and eating fermented foods, and I love kombucha and spicy drinks with cayenne in them, we loved this! It comes in a plastic bottle and the juice is bright maroonish-purple. It is typically served with fish wraps, and it’s excellent for your gut biome. Unfortunately I got a bad case of food poisoning in Istanbul, so once I felt better, I drank turnip juice to help restore my gut flora
  • Turkish Coffee & Çay (pronounced “chai”), meaning tea. Coffee culture is huge here, and tasting Turkish coffee (or what I call “mud”) is a must! It’s served in a small espresso cup and you’re meant to only drink the liquid layer. Once you get to the grounds (the “mud”), you leave it. Legend has it that your fortune can be told in the grounds of Turkish coffee
  • Döner – Meat cooked on a vertical rotating spit and shaved off. This influence was introduced to Mexico, as we saw it everywhere when we lived there this year.

OUR 16 FAVORITE RESTAURANTS, BAKERIES AND CAFES IN ISTANBUL

  1. Aheste – fine dining Turkish fusion with excellent cocktails located inside an old cistern. I highly recommend their tasting menu, which costs $40 USD per person (this is considered high-end fine dining prices in Istanbul, by the way)
  2. Dingonun Ahiri – serves balik durum (fish wrap) (located on the Galata side of the bridge right behind the docks)
  3. Asuman – chocolate shop selling hand-made chocolates and desserts (located in Kadikoy)
  4. KOALI Lounge & Dine – Indonesian fare (located in Beyoglu)
  5. 1924 – classic Russian Fare in an historic building from the 1920’s; very classy, delicious food, nice cocktails, good service, and lovely ambiance with Russian music playing (located off Istiklal Street)
  6. TomTom Kebap – best kebap in Istanbul, grilled over open coals (located in the TomTom neighborhood of Beyoglu)
  7. Osmanlizadeler – baklava (voted top 10 desserts in Istanbul on TripAdvisor) (located on the corner where the tram runs just outside of Topkapi Palace and Hagia Sofia)
  8. Smyrna Art Gallery Cafe – your traditional Turkish chill, laid-back vibes. This restaurant is also an antiques store with funky decoration and a house cat (and other neighborhood cats) who sit wherever they please (and sometimes on your lap!) The cleanliness of the place is questionable, but the food is delicious (located in Beyoglu)
  9. Galata Kitchen – a small eatery with cafeteria-like service where you select what you’d like to try out of their many daily cold mezzes (appetizers). You can order a bit of everything (located in Beyoglu)
  10. Urban Bread – bakery selling fresh baked bread, cold brew coffee, kombucha and fresh baked goods (located in Beyoglu)
  11. Cha’ya Galata (Bee Bubble) -bubble tea using real brewed tea, milk and brown sugar. Very natural (located in Beyoglu)
  12. Dukkan Galata – healthy food serving ginger shots, kombucha, breakfast and avocado toast with a limited menu (located in Beyoglu)
  13. Juicery – fresh squeezed juices and acai bowls (located in the Cihangir neighborhood of Beyoglu)
  14. Papadopulos – breakfast, panini & coffee; owned by a really sweet local couple (they make a great mocha!) (located in Beyoglu)
  15. Espresso Bar – specialty coffee (located in Moda, Kadikoy, Asia side)
  16. Old Java – specialty coffee (located in Karakoy)

CONCLUSION

Well Istanbul, that’s a wrap! A Turkey wrap! (sorry, I couldn’t resist.) Now you should be well equipped to enjoy a wonderful visit in Istanbul. Enjoy!

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