City Guide to Istanbul, Part 1: Things to Know Before You Visit
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This is part one of a multiple part series in our City Guide to Istanbul. Stay tuned for information on public transportation, our experience upon arriving, lodging, and finally, our sightseeing itinerary for experiencing the city.
Traveling continuously for months at a time can sometimes cause places and things to blur together. Turkey was a refreshing experience for our senses and Istanbul quickly set itself apart from other places we’ve visited. Every city and country has its own ‘flavor’, if you will. Each offering unique venues and experiences that are representative of the city or region. However, after two dozen Gothic and Romanesque churches, and a dozen museums spanning from the Egyptian era to the medieval era, the sights start to blend together. Of course, the key is to focus on the unique and/or famous features, like Big Ben and the view from St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, the cyclists and canals in Amsterdam, the contrast of Buda and Pest in Budapest, and the Berlin Wall and the Soviet War Memorial Treptow in Berlin. However, putting ourselves into the middle of Istanbul, a city where the language, the customs, the architecture, and the attire, are unique, relative to the places we’ve been so far, make the experience invigorating, challenging, and entirely new to us.
Why Go to Istanbul, Turkey?
If you’ve heard of Schengen, then you’ll understand why Turkey is an important destination for travelers to Europe. Schengen is comprised of 26 countries that, for traveling purposes, share the same visa policies. Citizens of these included 26 countries are able to travel freely between member countries, in theory, as if they were one country. For those who aren’t citizens of a Schengen country, and like us, are from the United States, it means visa free travel within all Schengen countries. Within a 180 day (six month) period, we can be in Schengen for a cumulative 90 days (three months). Now, please keep in mind two things. One, this is a simplified explanation of a more complex international policy. Two, with new US administrations and future political relationships, it’s possible that a country within Schengen may choose to require visas from United States citizens. And, if one country does, it’s likely that all will assume that policy. It would be wise to double check Schengen policies, as well as specific country policies, for travel and visas specific to your country of origin. For US citizens we recommend Travel.State.Gov.
Since Turkey isn’t a part of Schengen, it’s a popular destination for travelers to Europe who need to fill three of their six months outside of Schengen countries. For us, we spent most of those three months in the UK and Ireland, and only needed a couple of weeks somewhere else. We chose Turkey. Not only is it not a part of Schengen and would help us stay in line with visa and travel regulations, but it’s a place both of us aspired to visit.
Turkey is a place with great history. If you recall your history lessons in elementary and middle school, you may remember learning about Constantinople, the capital of the Ottoman Empire and the Eastern Roman Empire. Well, Istanbul is what used to be Constantinople. The greatness and history of this city, as a center of culture, trade and religion, makes this a destination worth putting on your must-see list. Add to that the contrast between the two sides of Istanbul, where the East meets the West, and you have a city that’s a melting pot with a blend of cultures to witness.
Is Istanbul Safe?
A wise traveler considers the safety of a place before visiting any city or region. We did a bit of research before finalizing our trip and buying our plane tickets. There’s certainly reason for concern, especially since, at the time of our travel, the U.S. Department of State had a travel warning for Turkey. We read the warning carefully and took into account that it specifically warned against southeast Turkey. Upon reading this, we were certainly weary of adding Turkey to our itinerary. However, more research needed to be done before we made our final decision. We spoke with others and read blogs and forums that discussed travel to Istanbul. The common theme was, that if you stayed away from the southeast region, visiting the country was relatively safe. The safety concern is for the areas near the Syrian border, due to the unrest and violence in Syria. We’re cautious wherever we go, as terrorist attacks can happen anywhere. They’ve happened in Istanbul, but they’ve also happened in London and New York, both cities we still visited, despite the prior terrorists attacks. So for us, after a fair amount of research, plenty of discussion between the two of us, and a bit of going back and forth, we decided that we'd add Istanbul to our travel plans. We'd be on 'high alert' and be extra aware of our surroundings. Ultimately, once our visit was all said and done, we felt Istanbul was quite safe. While there, we never felt unsafe. We walked the streets in the main tourist areas as well as off the beaten path, and while some neighborhoods caused us to quicken our pace and be alert, we never felt any more in danger there, as we have other places we’ve visited (including those in the United States).
Safety concerns in Istanbul are something that each individual needs to gauge for themselves, as everyone has a varying degree of comfort. It’s a good idea to combine the official travel warnings, the events in the news, and the personal experiences and recommendations of others, to decide if Istanbul is a place you’d consider safe enough to visit. No place will ever be 100% safe (contrary to what an organization or person may tell you), there’s always the risk of something happening. So, choosing to go somewhere, whether it be a city 10 miles from home or a city on the other side of the world, is a calculated risk.
Turkey is the first place on our travels that required a visa to enter. We checked the U.S. Passports and International Travel website for travel information specific to Turkey (if you’re not a US citizen, check your country's government website for information specific to your nationality). This is where we found passport and visa information, as well as travel warnings. We check this site for all countries we’re considering visiting. We also recommend visiting the Turkish government page for foreign travelers. This page has general information on visas, and if you scroll down the page, you can find a section on visa information specific to your home country.
Depending on what country you’re visiting, getting a visa can be an expensive, complicated, and arduous process. Or, it can be extremely simple, quick, and inexpensive. Luckily, getting our visas to Turkey wasn’t too difficult for us. Rather than finding the closest embassy, you can apply and pay for a visa online. If you forget, or would prefer, there’s the option of getting a visa upon arrival at Ataturk Airport. However, the cost is slightly more expensive ($30 US dollars) if you wait to do it at the airport. Plus, if you’re like us, it may be a little unnerving not to have a visa in advance, and the last thing you want to do after a long flight is figure out the visa situation (Shannon here! Stay tuned for our 'fun times' in obtaining an Egyptian visa at the Cairo International Airport) in addition to going through passport control and customs. In our opinion, it’s just easier to do it in advance and online.
For US citizens, the Turkish visa is a multiple entry visa and is valid for 180 days (6 months), although your stay cannot exceed 90 days (3 months). At the time we visited the fee was $20 US dollars per visa, if obtained online. Download a PDF fee schedule that lists prices for online visas and for visas obtained upon arrival. When we applied, the process took under 30 minutes for both of us. We were sure to double and triple check all of our information for accuracy. Since we knew we’d only be visiting for a short time and not using the full 180 day period available to us, we opted to start the validity of our visas a couple of days before arriving. Our thought was that this would give us a bit of a buffer, if for some unforeseen reason our travel plans changed and we arrived sooner than expected. Once we completed the application, we were able to pay online by credit card. It wasn’t but a few minutes after applying and paying for the visas that they were emailed to us. We printed them out and had them on our person for arrival in Istanbul, Turkey. However, in the end, the border agent who stamped our passports didn’t even ask if we had visas. Maybe, the information came up on their screen when they scanned our passports, and it would’ve been redundant to ask us directly? Who knows, but regardless of our experience, make sure, for piece of mind, and to save some money, you apply and obtain your Turkish visa before you make any plans pertaining to your Istanbul visit.
Is The Water Safe to Drink?
We didn’t ask ourselves this question until we’d been in Turkey a day and a half. Hopefully, you think of this a bit sooner than we did! Luckily, neither of us got sick! The question of water safety is a bit of a debate though. Some say that it’s plenty safe to drink the water and the only concern is the taste, while others say it’s smart to be cautious and stick to bottled water. Since common illnesses from contaminated water include 'traveler’s diarrhea', giardia, hepatitis A, typhoid and cholera, we decided that we’d rather stay on the safe side and avoid any chance of getting sick. Luckily, both of the hotels we stayed at offered free bottled water (because we’re part of their loyalty program), which we made sure to pour into our collapsible water bottles on the days we explored the city.
Alternatively, a great way to get clean water without spending money on bottled water (and reducing the use of bottles) is the SteriPEN. It uses ultraviolet light to sterilize the water, which ensures bacteria isn’t able to multiply, making tap water safe to drink. Here’s a great comparison chart that you can use to pick the best SteriPEN product for your needs. Alternatively, you can use a LifeStraw which also purifiers water. It’s great for hikers because it’s rugged, lightweight, and requires no electricity or batteries.
Here are a few world-wide tips to avoiding tummy aches and sickness from contaminated water consumption. Again, how closely you follow our tips (if at all) depends on your personal sense of adventure, where you’re traveling to, and the current water quality of the location your visiting (see below).
- Only drink bottled water.
- Make sure the bottle is sealed when you get it. It’s possible, that to save money, the bottle was refilled with tap water.
- Don’t eat fresh vegetables and fruits. They’ve probably been washed with tap water. It’s okay to eat cooked veggies, and fruit that you eat by peeling and discarding the skin.
- Keep your mouth closed when swimming in open bodies of water.
- Keep your mouth closed in the shower.
- Brush your teeth and take your medications with bottled water.
- Order your drinks without ice.
- It’s never a bad idea to drink your beverage straight from the bottle or can, to avoid the glass that was cleaned with tap water.
For a quick reference on where it’s safe to drink the water, check out mappingmegan.com. Take it a step further and find out if what you're eating is safe by downloading the CDC's 'Can I Eat This?' app for your mobile device. The CDC also has an app that, based on your specific destination, will give you a list of vaccination recommendations. It has calendar reminders for vaccine boosters shots, travel packing lists, and stores important medical and immunization records.
Tips on Visiting Istanbul
Before visiting a new location, we like to know a bit about the place. General information, about what it’s like, but also tips and things to be aware of. This helps make the time there pleasant and more enjoyable because there are less surprises and ‘punches to roll with’. The list below is based on our experiences, and things we found helpful. Let us know if you have any tips of your own.
General City Information
- If you want to be completely safe, you shouldn’t drink the tap water. However, keep in mind that water can be unsafe to drink anywhere, even in locations where you wouldn’t expect it.
- You need a visa to visit Turkey. Don’t worry though, you can get a visa online www.evisa.gov.tr, or in person after arriving.
- Istanbul may be safer to visit than you think.
- Istanbul is a city on two continents, straddling Europe and Asia, separated by the Bosphorus (one of three Turkish Straits).
- Tulips may be the symbol of Holland, however, it may surprise you to learn that tulips were originally sent from Istanbul to Holland. We saw tulips regularly as we explored Istanbul.
- While Istanbul isn't the capital of Turkey, it’s the country's most populous city with a population of over 14.5 million. The capital, Ankara, has just over 4.5 million people.
- Officially, 99% of Turkey’s population is Muslim (state.gov).
- You’ll see cats and dogs everywhere. We were surprised that most seemed well fed. This seems to be the case because, as we explored neighborhoods, we noticed that cat and dog food was placed in front of homes and businesses all over town. When you enter mosques and museums, don’t be shocked to see stray cats roaming around. It was a common sight to see dogs bathing in sun on the grass, with no mind to all of the people around them. While some of the stray dogs have been tagged, vaccinated, and spayed, others have not. So, be careful, you don’t want to be bit.
- Haggling (negotiating) prices is common in Turkey, especially in the bazaars and markets. When your negotiating, be sure that both you and the seller are negotiating in the same currency. The last thing you want is to be negotiating in Turkish Lira and have the seller claim he was negotiating in Euro after you’ve settled on a price.
- Local currency is the Turkish Lira (TL, ₺). During our visit the exchange rate was about ₺3.50 to $1 US dollar. It’s extremely helpful to have a currency conversion app on your phone. We recently switched to using XE Currency Pro, instead of the basic version.
- It's a good idea to carry some cash on you (in Turkish Lira). We encountered a few places that didn’t accept credit cards (public transportation, taxis, and a few tourist attractions). Having cash on hand saves the hassle of scrambling to find an ATM.
- There are over 3,000 mosques in Istanbul.
- Just about anywhere in Istanbul you’ll hear the call to prayer, known as Ezan, five times a day. From minarets of the mosques, you’ll hear the muezzin, or the man who leads the call to prayer. Every mosque has this call, so when echoed across the city, it’s an amazing experience to hear. The exact time of Ezan changes depending on the longitude and latitude, the sunrise and sunset, and the location relative to Mecca. If you’re interested, some mosques will post prayer times at their doors, or you can check them online.
- You’ll want to avoid visiting mosques during prayer time. Also, avoid visiting Friday in the late morning and early afternoon, since this is when group prayers and sermons take place.
- Many larger mosques have a separate entrance for visitors from those entering to pray.
- The Turkish word for mosque is Camii.
- For female travelers, when visiting a mosque you’ll need to wear a head scarf. If you don’t have your own, most larger mosques have them available free of charge for visitors. You’ll also need to wear a conservative top, pants, or a long skirt. Many mosques have skirts free of charge for you to wear if needed.
- All visitors to a mosque must remove their shoes before entering. Many mosques will provide a small, clear plastic bag to put them in. (Sergio here! It was fun trying to squeeze my size 15 shoes into the tiny plastic bags!) You have the option of carrying them with you, leaving them outside the door, or some mosques will have a shelf to put them on. We recommend carrying them with you. It might not be common, but the last thing you want is to be walking barefoot around Istanbul because your shoes were stolen.
If you find yourself in need of help, call the Istanbul Tourist Police Hotline, +90 212 527 45 03. Don't let these scams scare you. In general, people in Istanbul are extremely kind and helpful. It's just when when a city is so large, it's bound to have a few bad apples in the mix. These scams, and many more, can happen anywhere. The best thing you can do is be aware and informed.
- A common scam to avoid is the shoe shinning scam. A man or boy will walk near you with their shoe shinning supplies and ‘accidentally’ drop a brush or tool near you. When you kindly pick it up and return it to them, they’ll be extremely grateful for your saving their shoe shinning business and offer you a free shoe shine. However, nothing is free, not even lunches. After speaking with you and pulling at your heartstrings with a sad story of their current dire situation, they’ll request payment. The best way to avoid this scam, is to not pick up the item in the first place, just ignore it and keep walking.
- Be aware of people offering to show you around, or asking you to tea. They may legitimately be reaching out of the kindness of their heart to show you around, help you when you look lost, or want to sit down over tea and chat. However, it's possible that you're a target and they want to befriend you. They may introduce you to their family, invite you to tea, and/or tell you about sights in town. This gains your trust and brings down your walls. They then take you to their shop and get you to buy something that's overpriced, ask for help for their family, or leave you with a huge bill at a restaurant. Whatever they end up doing, they're goal is to get you to spend money with or for them.
- Restaurants may have a separate and more expensive menu for tourists. The only way to avoid this it to compare the English menu to the Turkish menu and see if the prices are the same. This can be a challenge if you don't know the language though, as things could be listed in a different order. The best thing you can do is to be aware of what a reasonable price is for what you're ordering.
- Restaurants may serve you food you didn't order and then charge you for it. This one is easy to avoid. Just be aware of what you ordered and what's placed on the table. If you didn't order it, let the server know.
- Always know what currency you're being quoted in. It's not hard to think that both you and the vendor are negotiating in Turkish Lira, and then when you agree to the deal, the vendor asks for Euros. There's a big difference, so just clarify the currency from the start.
- Public transportation in Istanbul is a very practical option for getting around. It’s inexpensive and has a comprehensive network of buses, trams, metros, ferries, etc. Read more on our Public Transportation section of the Istanbul City Guide.
- From what we read and what we experienced, there’s heavy traffic at most hours of the day on many of the main streets and highways. Our hotel over looked a highway well outside of city center and we observed traffic from early afternoon (2 or 3 pm) that lasted until 8 pm or later.
- Because of the traffic, sometimes taking the metro or a tram is a better option over buses, taxis and Ubers. The metro and trams generally don’t have to deal with vehicular traffic, therefore are much faster from point A to B.
- Taxis and Uber are reasonable ways to travel from one place to the next. Just as with any place you visit, be aware of scammers. Make sure the driver that arrives is the same one, with the same car, as is listed in Uber. There are dozens of scams a taxi can run, so be aware.
- Only get into marked taxis, they'll be yellow and have a sign on the roof that reads “Taksi”. When possible, have your hotel call the taxi for you.
- Make sure the meter is working and running.
- Use your phone to set your destination on a mapping app to make sure the driver isn’t taking you the 'scenic way' to make a few extra bucks. We had this happen to us a couple of times, even when using Uber.
- Have small bills on you, so you can pay exact fare.
- If you can’t pay exact fare, make sure you know what bills you’re giving the driver, as they may try to switch a large bill for a small one and demand more money.
- Getting to and from the airport takes time, so plan accordingly. The airport is about 11 miles from city center, which is typically thought of as the area around The Blue Mosque. Plus, there’s often heavy traffic.
- When you’re leaving Istanbul, keep in mind that just to get into the lobby of the airport, you’ll need to go through security. When you’re ready to go to your gate, you’ll go through passport control and another security checkpoint. There are two passport control stations you can go through, one on the left side of the airport and one on the right side.
Stay Tuned for More Sightseeing Adventures and Itineraries
This is only part one of our City Guide to Istanbul. Stay tuned for our next post where we’ll go over our experiences in Istanbul, including arrival and lodging. Soon to come will be information on public transportation, and finally, our sightseeing itinerary for exploring the city.