İstanbul 101: What You Need To Know About The City
İstanbul has a fascinating history, a vast cuisine and delicious tastes, exciting nightlife, unique culture, great weather, astonishing views, while being one of the most populous cities and the only city in the world that sits on 2 continents; Europe and Asia. So it surely doesn’t come as a surprise that Tripadvisor picked İstanbul as the top destination of the year. For us personally, the food factor alone can be one of your top reasons to visit İstanbul, and if you are like us, who spends a lot of their time eating and trying new tastes in an unfamiliar country (it is ok if you don’t want to admit it), you are coming to the right place. Did we do a good job getting your attention, emphasizing on the food in the introduction?
I think the introduction also deserves a brief analysis of some of the current topics of Turkey which are most likely popping up on your local news or social media. (Don’t worry I’m not going to turn this into a political discussion). I just think it is in place to remind you that the media channels have their ways to give you wrong impressions of a certain place or certain things, for the good of themselves, or their governments.
Travel alerts to Turkey that are the result of the tension on the Turkish borders of Syria and Iraq, do not affect İstanbul or most of the cities in Turkey. Of course I don’t want to underestimate the seriousness of the situation Syria and neighbor countries are going through (I foresee some snappy comments regarding this topic, so I just want to be clear) but if saying “İstanbul is a dangerous city to be in right now” is necessary, then we surely should not be going to New York either.
Before you are reading my words as blah blah blah, let me stop here. In summary, -and excuse my language- shit can happen anywhere at anytime, and we shouldn’t let the news manipulate us and keep us from taking the best Instagram pictures ever.
The world is our oister! (ok, maybe a little cheesy)
Which airport should you use?
*I can see your IP numbers and how long you are spending on this post, so keep reading. (Big brother is watching you)
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, as most of the tourits attractions are concentrated in this area. Some of the other main areas of İstanbul such as Taksim/Beyoğlu, Eminönü, Bosphorus coast line are also in close proximity to the Old Town, so if you are going to focus on these areas during your trip, Atatürk Airport will be much more convinient 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 an “Indian kind of traffic” (no racism implied) 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 off your trip sitting around in the car for hours, especially after a long flight.
Ways of 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 can’t 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. To Taksim Square, it should cost around 40 TL, to The old city/sultanahmet area around 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 station, which is a 10 minute taxi ride away from the old city area. From this stop we suggest taking a taxi directly to your hotel to avoid any more hassle (especially if you are dragging a suitcase). If you’re staying in the Sultanahmet area and insist on using the public transportation, you have to transfer from the metro to the tram line at the Zeytinburnu station.Then 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 get on. 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) 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 it makes sense to use this card during your stay.
*Taxi: One of the most popular ways to get screwed over as a tourist anywhere in the world is taking the taxi. The taxi fares in Turkey are calculated as the following: around 3 TL base fare+ around 1.85TL per km. (there may be a price increase by the time you are reading this post). 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 is one of the most practical ways of transportation to be used 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 tram route visit: http://www.istanbul-ulasim.com.tr/en
*Transportation by Water (SeaBus, Ferries, Water Taxi): There is a ferry line called 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 (about 10 minutes with a taxi from the airport) and Yenikapı which is about 3 km from the old town area (some seabus might skip the yenikapı station so make sure to check which one you are getting on). The stations in the Asian side are Kadıköy and Bostancı (which are near Bağdat Caddesi which is a popular street known for shopping). For more information visit: http://www.ido.com.tr/en.
You can also use the 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.
Finally there is also an option to use a 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. But if you are are the stubborn type, or the type that does everything opossite to what has been told, then you can rent a car from international car rental companies such as Avis, Thrifty, Hertz at the airports or at their branches throughout the city.
Note: Most rental cars in Turkey have manual transmission and it could be difficult to find a car which has automatic transmission. Make sure you call ahead and make a reservation.
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 suddenly find yourself in the middle of water cannons and tear gas. Is your reaction here “what the hell are you talking about?”. If you haven’t been following the news in Turkey or heard about any of the clashes between the police and protestors opposing to the Turkish government, then this subject might be a little confusing to you. The series of protests and clashes started in May 2013, as the Occupy Gezi Park “Revolution” in Taksim, and although they have calmed down, the tension between the people and the government is still ongoing which have led to other series of clashes. (especially since the tension in our borders). Most of these clashes currently are happening outside of İstanbul however Taksim has become a popular place for such gatherings, so its best to keep an eye out while you are in this area. Or else you might have to get a taste of tear gas which -as a person who has been in the middle of it- isn’t the nicest thing. 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:
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 -THE MUST- 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 the cheapest. 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 throwing your money around like Rihanna.
Lets go over some prices to give you a general idea:
*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 because most of the main historical sights are within this area. But we would personally suggest for you to stay in Taksim area. Now you might think “why would I stay in the middle of where the clashes and 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, thus 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, if a nice sea view is one of your specifications while finding accomodation, there are hotels here which have sea view.
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 in the finance/business areas (Such as Levent and Maslak) . Make sure to look at a map and figure out which location you would like to be closest to.
What are some useful websites to look at before coming to Istanbul?
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)
http://www.istanbulclues.com/ (This is the web site of a professional tour guide, Serhat Engul. He is one of the best tour guides in the city, you should definitely get in touch with him if you want to learn more about the history and culture)
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, (no extreme snow storms or -30 degrees), it is usually 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 nice and breezy 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 of Turkey, then you might want to consider coming to Turkey in the summer months.
As far as the crowd goes, obviously there are a lot more tourists in İstanbul in the summer time. With all the touristic attractions you’ll 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 should generally not drink any alcohol during this period, you may even see some local/traditional spots taking off alcohol off their menu for the period. But for most places this is not going to be the case, and you won’t feel any different than you would otherwise. The Old City / Sultanahmet area also gets overcrowded during the nights of Ramadan, as it is a popular area to go to after Iftar (the time of sundown which is when you can eat and come back to life again). This might come off as either interesting or too crowded, it is your choice to avoid the Ramadan period or not but you shouldn’t try too hard as it is 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’ll be going into the mosques in Sultanahmet. Wear whatever you feel most comfortable in, and be as picky as you can get when selecting shoes as you will be doing a lot of walking around while exploring the city. We don’t recommend wearing heels unless you really have to (not that I can think of any reason why you would absolutely HAVE to wear heels) or 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 (in the Kuruçeşme,Ortaköy,Bebek areas). They’re usually very picky of who to let into the clubs, unless you make a reservation for a table/ stand where you pretty much promise to leave your wallet at the of the night.
*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.
*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 styles 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 in between meals throughout the day.
Again, Turkey’s religion is almost %99 Muslim. But many people don’t practice the Islamic religion by the book, which states there are 5 main acts of practicing Islam; 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 you’ll realize you’re in a Muslim country is when you hear the loud ezans from the mosques instead of the loud bells from churches.
*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.