It’s that time of the year again, when all of us are looking into traveling to new or favorite destinations. There is one website which isn’t surpassed while planning a trip: Tripadvisor. So we’re assuming you know that İstanbul was picked the top destination of the year. And a few words can summarize why: history, culture, geography, entertainment, and food. We think the combination of the city being the heart of the Ottoman Empire era for hundreds of years, being the only city that is located in two different continents (Europe & Asia), having one of the most unique culture and traditions, having the most unique styles for entertainment/nightlife, -and to most of us which comes as a very important factor- one of the most vast and delicious cuisines, all make it enough of reasons to come to İstanbul.
We hope this basic guide will be helpful for putting together your trip to İstanbul. Don’t worry, we have more than a handful posts coming up soon to help guide you through the city.
Which airport should you use?
There are 2 international airports which you could use to arrive in İstanbul. The main one “Atatürk Airport” is located on the European side and is about 20 km from the Old Town”/Sultanahmet area which is considered as the city center, especially for tourists. The other main areas such as Taksim/Beyoğlu, Eminönü, Bosphorus side are also very close to the Old Town area so Atatürk Airport is the most convinient airport to use. The second airport, Sabiha Gökçen Airport is in the Asian side of the city and is almost 50 km away from the center. Let us warn you from the beginning, a 50 km trip in İstanbul could take you several hours. We’re not referring to a “Indian kind of traffic” but it could definetly become unbearable. Even though there are cheaper flight alternatives to Sabiha Gökçen, if you are travelling to İstanbul for pleasure you don’t want to start the first couple of hours of your trip sitting around in the car, especially after a long flight.
Transportation from the airports?
If we still haven’t been able to convince you not to use Sabiha Gökçen Airport, you will have a couple of options to get to the center:
*Havataş: There is an airport shuttle service called Havataş which could take you either to Kadıköy (Asian side) or Taksim (European side). This service is 8-13TL per person.
*By airport shuttle: You could also consider a private airport shuttle, which your hotel could be providing, or is given as an option in your travel package. We have no idea how you are planning your trip or where you are staying in İstanbul so we cannot compare this option’s cost with others.
*By Taxi: Finally, you will of course have the option to cab it to the city center which could range from 85-120TL depending on traffic.
*By taxi: there will be maybe hundreds of taxis welcoming you when you step outside of the airport. Of course taking a taxi is always the most practical option to get to your destination in an unfamiliar city. But at the same time it’s the most costly option, especially if the cab driver not only has a drivers license but also has a license to proffesionally trap tourists. But don’t panic, this is when we step into the situation and tell you the approximate costs. To Taksim Square is around 40 TL, to The old city/sultanahmet area is 40-50TL, depending on which point of the area you’re going to.
*By metro: If you take the metro from the airport, the furthest stop on this line is Aksaray which is a 10 minute ride away from the old city area. From this stop we suggest taking a taxi directly to your hotel to avoid any more hassle. If you’re staying in the Sultanahmet area and insist on using the public transportation, when you take the metro hop off on the Zeytinburnu station and hop on the tram which is connected inside the station. Then simply hop off at the Sultanahmet station. The Metro ticket one way is around 3TL. Look below for more detailed pricing options for public transportation.
*By Havataş airport shuttle: The same shuttle service that is in Sabiha Airport is also in the Atatürk airport. This shuttle can take you to Taksim, which also passes through Aksaray. It costs 10TL per person. Be sure to tell the driver where you would like to be dropped off.
What is the transportation system like?
There are several options for public transportation in İstanbul. To use the public transportation, you should buy an electronic pass called “İstanbul Card” which you load money onto and scan as you access the rides. This card is 6TL+amount you would like to deposit and is sold at ticket booths, newspaper stands, and self-service kiosks near most stations. If you don’t buy this card, you will have to buy a token or electronic card before each ride (costs 3TL per ride), which are also sold at these booths, stands and kiosks. There are a couple of options for the elctronic card if you decide not to purchase the İstanbul Card:
*1 time pass: 4TL
*2 time pass: 7TL
*3 time pass: 10TL
*5 time pass: 15TL
*10 time pass: 28TL
Keep in mind, you will get a %25 discount per ride if you use the İstanbul Card (which is 1.95TL per ride, and 1.25 for transfer rides after), .so using this card is strongly reccomended during your stay.
*Taxi: One of the most popular ways to get screwed over as a tourist anywhere in the world is taxi rides. The taxi fares in Turkey are calculated as the following: around 3 TL base fare+ around 1.85TL per km. These fares could vary depending on traffic. It is also important to note that there are several routes that could be taken to a certain destination in İstanbul and the taxi drivers love taking back roads and shortcuts that might come off sketchy so dont directly jump to the conclusion that you are being cheated or going to be robbed. There is a very useful phone app called “Bitaksi” which you could use to locate the nearest taxi, and calculate approximate fares.
*Underground Metro: Although we have a couple of metro lines, they’re not really connected to each other so you will find that the metro is not a very practical way to get around in İstanbul. The main stations that you might use are the Airport, Aksaray, Taksim, Osmanbey (closest station to Nişantaşı). Price: around 3 TL one way.
*Tram: This will be one of the most practical ways of transportation that you will use during your trip in İstanbul. There are stops that will directly take you to many touristic areas like Sultanahmet (Old Town), Beyazit (Grand Bazaar), Karaköy (İstanbul Modern Museum, several restaurants and cafes), Eminönü (Spice Bazaar, one of the main stations for ferry), Kabataş (Ferry stop, near the Dolmabahçe Palace, and is one of the main connections to Taksim) For more information on the route visit: http://www.istanbul-ulasim.com.tr/en
*Transportation by Water (SeaBus, Ferries, Water Taxi): There is İDO, which is a a fancy word for our sea bus. This is one of the fastest and easiest way for transportation between the European and the Asian side because it cuts through the Bosphorus. The stops in the European side are Bakırköy (near the airport area), Yenikapı which is about 3 km from the old town area. The stations in the Asian side are Kadıköy and Bostancı. For more information visit: http://www.ido.com.tr/en. You can also use ferries, which mainly operate through Beşiktaş-Kabataş-Karaköy-Eminönü on the European Side, and Üsküdar-Kadıköy-Bostancı on the Asian Side. For more information and timetables you can go on this website: http://sehirhatlari.com.tr/en/. Finally there is also an option to use watertaxi, which is a service that you can use 24/7 and picks you up/takes you anywhere along the bosphorus coast. It is quite expensive compared to other public transportations, but is more flexible. The phone number to call a sea taxi is +90 850 222 4498.
*Rent-a-Car: Driving in İstanbul, parking in İstanbul, anything that has to do with a car in İstanbul can turn into a nightmare. Basically, don’t rent a car in İstanbul.
Do we ride camels?
Yes, actually the ways of transportation we mentioned above are all lies and this is the main transportation we use in Turkey. Of course not. To tell the truth, you should read much more than this guide about Turkey if you are asking this question. (You could start with a basic history textbook). But because we all love to stereotype, we will mention a few things about İstanbul that might come as a shock to you.
*Women can drive, how well they drive is open to debate.
*Women don’t have to cover their heads with scarves. You will see that people do, but you will be able to see the majority of women look just like any women in Europe.
*You don’t have to dress conservative. We’re not suggesting wearing something that Miley Cyrus would wear (but then again you should never dress like her even in your own country) but feel free to wear those shorts and skirts, especially if you’re coming during the hot days.
*No, İstanbul is not the capital of Turkey, and no it is not still called Constantinople.
*Yes, everybody smokes in Turkey.
*We actually don’t eat much turkey in Turkey. So people will not understand your “gobble gobble” jokes.
Is it safe in İstanbul?
In general, İstanbul is as safe as any other Metropolitan city with almost 20 million population could get. If you don’t wander around in the more “ghetto” areas of the city in the middle of night, don’t get on the metro by yourself at odd hours, or leave your purse out in the open, you will be just fine.
Besides the general and obvious dangerous situations you might encounter in the city, nowadays you might also find yourself in the middle of water cannons and tear gas. If you find yourself in this situation, get as far away from the police as possible.
But make sure you don’t get stuck in the middle of this:
Joke aside, if you have read any news in the last year you probably heard that there are protests going on under the name of Occupy Gezi Park “revolution”. These are only going on in the very specific areas of İstanbul, and therefore unless you go on purpose, it will not come to you by surprise in random areas of the city. The main protests are happening in Taksim, and they usually go on at night, but you also never know. Overall, there are much fewer protests going on compared to when it first started in June 2013 but if you are going to be around Taksim, our best suggestion would be to check Twitter to see if there is anything going on. Finally, if you are going just for the hell out of it, because you are curious what tear gas is like, go prepared..It is no joke..
What are the average prices?
Overall, to set a budget for a trip to a city you could consider the basic necessities like accomadation, transportation, water, average meals, and of course beer/cocktails. Of course all of these things could vary depending on the level of luxury you want. Generally, eating out and drinking in İstanbul is not cheap. But considering you are here with a foreign currency, and that the Euro is almost 3TL, and the dollar is above 2TL, you might start feeling like Rihanna and start throwing your money around.
Lets go over some prices:
*Water: 0.50-1.50TL at supermarkets , 3TL-5TL at restaurants
*Beer: around 4TL at supermarkets, 8-15TL at restaurants
*Coffee: around 8TL at Starbucks, and most cafes and restaurants
*Average meal: Kebabs anywhere from 10TL to 30TL, a good steak (filet, rib eye etc) 40-60TL
*Wine: 20-30TL by glass, 100-3492384234TL by bottle
*Cigarettes: 6-10TL a pack
Is there a City Pass?
There is a Museum Pass, which will allow you free entrance to most historical sights at the Old Town area. There are 2 options for the museum pass:
*3 Day Pass- 85 TL
*5 Day Pass –115 TL. (This pass will give you free entrance to additional sights)
You can purchase this card online or at the following sale points: Hagia Sophia, İstanbul Mosaic Museum, Topkapı Palace Museum, İstanbul Arcehological Museum, Chora Museum, Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts. There are also other advantages and discounts the museum pass will give you. You can find more information about the pass on this website.
What are the best areas to stay?
Tourists mostly prefer to stay in the Old City area because most of the main historical sights are here. But we would personally suggest for you to stay in Taksim area. Now you might think “why would I go to where all the protest/action is happening?”. Because it is still the heart of the city, and the liveliest place in İstanbul. There are lots of restaurants, cafes, shopping, bars and clubs and therefore is one of the most fun areas to stay in İstanbul. There are several hotels/hostels in this area that are in different price ranges. Keep in mind, there are several hotels here where you could get a sea view, if that is one of your specifications.
If sea view is one of your major specifications, there are hotels where you could be right on the bosphorus. Hint hint: Çırağan Palace or Four Seasons. $$$$$
While looking up hotels, you might come across familiar names like the Sheraton which might deceive you because they could be outside of the city center area, and more of the finance/business areas. Make sure to pull up a map and figure out where you would like to be closest to.
www.timeoutistanbul.com (This website has a lot of information about pretty much everything in İstanbul)
www.tripadvisor.com (I don’t think I need to explain this one)
http://www.istanbul-ulasim.com.tr/en (For detailed information on the public transportation)
http://www.istanbulmodern.org/en (It is a contemporary art museum, you can check this website for current exhibitions. Hint hint: it also has a very nice cafe/restaurant with an amazing bosphorus view)
http://www.muzekart.com/en/museum-pass (for information on the museum pass)
http://www.biletix.com (Turkish version of ticket master, check for current events,concerts and festival before your arrival)
Best time to visit İstanbul?
One of the most important factors when planning a trip is of course the weather. İstanbul lives all four seasons. Even though we have had easy going winters in the previous years, (none of those extreme snow storms or -30 degrees), it is usually pretty cold in the winter, and hot in the summer. Especially in the recent years, we also haven’t had much precipitation in the winter or the summer which has caused a serious drought in the city. So unless you are very unlucky, you have a high chance of avoiding any wet weather. But in any case, the best time to visit İstanbul is Spring (End of April, May, early June) or Fall (September & October). During these times it is usually warm, sometimes hot during the day and a nice breeze at night. (best temperatures to explore the city). If you are looking to combine your trip to İstanbul with one of the beach destinations in the South, you might still want to consider coming to Turkey in the summer months.
As far as the crowd goes, obviously there are a lot more tourists in the summer time. With all the touristic attractions you will be doing in the city, you’re going to be in that crowd no matter what. But if you are one of those people who get claustrophobic around such tourist population, you might want to avoid coming in the summer.
The only other time you should try to avoid is “Ramadan” which is a month where Muslims fast for a whole month. (from around sunrise to sundown ) Overall, people in the general shouldn’t drink any alcohol during this period, some places even take alcohol off their menu, but you won’t see any difference at all in major bars/nightclubs. So try to avoid it if you can, but its not going to ruin your vacation.
What to wear in İstanbul?
Once again, it is a Muslim country, but there are absolutely no restrictions or regulations regarding what you should wear. The only time you do want to dress a little more conservative is when you will be going into the historical mosques in Sultanahmet. Wear whatever you feel most comfortable in, and be as picky as you can get when selecting shoes, you will be doing a lot of walking around exploring the city. We don’t recommend wearing heels unless you are going directly to your destination by car or taxi. Warning: İstanbul’s streets and sidewalks are very unpredictable and can get very tough to walk on.
Many people question whether İstanbul has a good nightlife since it is a Muslim country. İstanbul by far has the most active nightlife in Europe. You can find a restaurant, cafe, nightclub, bar, you name it, at any hour of the day and night. There are a couple of different ways to go when it comes to nightlife/entertainment in İstanbul;
*Posh nightclubs that are located along the bosphorus coast (Kuruçeşme,Ortaköy,Bebek) . They usually are very picky on who to let inside, unless you make a reservation for a table/stand where you pretty much promise to leave your wallet at the end of the night, or show up with Adriana Lima.
*More casual bars/nightclubs which are mostly located in Taksim/Asmalı Mescit. There are several bars in this area all with different styles of music, where people usually grab their drinks and hang out on the streets of İstiklal Avenue. (The main street in Taksim).
*Tavern like local restaurants, where you will see a lot of people drinking rakı (Turkey’s national alcoholic beverage), with delicious food like mezes (small plates) and local music. This is one of the most unique dining stlyes you will experience, where you will taste authentic food with a great atmosphere.
While we will go into much more detail on food and drinks in İstanbul (it is one of our favorite subjects to write about and one of our favorite activities), you might want to know the basics of our cuisine and what to expect. Lets just say, get excited, and expect to gain a few kg/pounds during your trip. People that are on diets or women who go through a dinner with “just a salad” are not welcome in Turkey.
*Food: There are some basic things that Turkish people just CANNOT give up; bread, rice, meat, fish, dairy products.. Many dishes and meals are based around these main ingredients. As you can guess, kebabs (meat dishes) are very symbolic in our cuisine. But there are so many other dishes that form our unique cuisine, and are worth tasting so don’t focus too much on kebabs. This subject deserves its on page, and we will go into much more detail about food in other posts, but expect to consume a lot of meat, pastries, fresh fish, spicy food, just expect to eat A LOT, and be open minded to trying different things.
*Dessert: Welcome to dessert heaven. Just to name a few desserts which you HAVE to taste before you leave; Baklava, Kadayıf, Sütlaç, Künefe, Revani, Katmer, Kazandibi, Kemalpaşa, İrmik Helvası, Şöbiyet and much more.. (so good, you should be legally required to taste them before you leave İstanbul)
*Drinks: As I mentioned, one of the most popular alcoholic beverages in Turkey is Rakı. For people who are familiar with Uzo, it is very similar. It is normally a clear drink, but it turns white when you add water and ice to it. Warning: pace yourself with this drink, it will hit you. Some local beers which we recommend tasting are Efes and Bomonti, which is our favorite nowadays. Besides these, you will find any alcohol/cocktails, import beer, wine that you like. FYI: The legal drinking age is 18, but in all of the years that I have lived in İstanbul I have only been carded maybe twice. I will squeeze in drugs here while we’re at it, they AREN’T legal.
Some popular and local non-alcoholic beverages include Ayran (yoghurt drink), Şalgam which is made of red carrots with aromatic turnip, Turkish Coffee, which comes in small cup that looks like an Espresso but should not be chugged and is quite strong, and most importantly çay (tea). On average a Turkish person consumes çay, I would say at least 3 times a day, definetly with breakfast and after or between meals throughout the day.
Again, Turkey’s religion is almost %99 Muslim. But many people don’t practice the Islamic religion, which by book, consists of 5 main acts; the ritual prayer 5 times a day after each ezan (a loud call made from the mosques all around the city), fast every Ramadan, zakat which is giving money to the poor, Hajj which is going to Mecca at leats once in a lifetime, and finally accepting that there is only “Allah”. On the streets the only way that will make you realize you are in a Muslim country is going to be the mosques and the loud ezans you will hear throughout the day/night. Other than that, you will feel no different than you do in many non-Muslim cities around the world.
*Foreign currency can be exchanged in foreign exchance offices, known as “döviz bürosu” and there are several of them throughout the city, especailly in the Old Town Area. You are better off exchanging your currency in non touristic areas as they can offer better rates. Definetly don’t exchance your money at the airport.
*Turkey requires a visa for many nationalities (even U.S.A, yes). You can either get an online visa prior to your arrival, or purchase it at the airport before customs. E-visa is strongly recommended to avoid a long line at the airport.
*Tipping at restaurants: %10
*If you want to mix with the locals and can’t come up with anything to conversate about, here is a tip: soccer. We definetly don’t recommend bringing up politics, especially nowadays.