Istanbul – What Do You Need to Know Before Visiting?


Istanbul or Constantinople, an ever-glowing city, was the capital of the most advanced Empire of its time – The Roman empire. Then it was the capital city of the Byzantine Empire, the Latin empire.

Shortly after, the empire was overthrown by the largest empire in the history of the world – the Ottoman Empire.

Many emperors roamed the streets of this city, many thrones were thrown away, But the city never lost its charm. Once Constantinople, now Istanbul has an ever-lasting glamor.

At present, it is a megacity in Turkey, a financial hub, and a major tourist attraction of the world. 

It’s normal to have some questions before coming to this unique city. 

I have lived in this city for more than 10 years. I spent all my university and the beginning of my professional lawyer career in Istanbul. I still travel to Istanbul regularly for business. In this article, I will answer all your questions and provide you with travel hacks and tips that only locals would know.

Where is Istanbul?

Istanbul is a city that is located in the northwest of Turkey. 

Istanbul is located in both Europe and Asia which makes the city unique. Istanbul and Asia and Europe continents are separated by the Bosphorus strait. Istanbul is bordered by the Black Sea in the north and the Sea of Marmara in the south.

Istanbul is the biggest city in Turkey. Istanbul has the Black Sea in the north and the Marmara Sea in the south.  The Bosphorus channel passes from the middle of the city connecting the Black Sea and the Marmara Sea. 

Istanbul’s location on the map and Asian and European continent border.

Istanbul has two main parts of Asia and Europe because it is located on both of these continents. The Bosphorus channel divides Istanbul as well as Asia and European continents.

In Istanbul, there are three bridges and an underground tunnel connecting the Asian side to the European side. Also, countless city passenger ships are transporting passengers through continents until dawn to midnight.

Check out my post: Is Istanbul Middle East? to learn the differences between Istanbul and the rest of the Middle East.

A cat in Hagia Sophia. Cats roam freely in Istanbul. Probably Istanbul has the highest number of free cats in the world.

Is Istanbul Worth Visiting?

Who would miss the chance to visit Istanbul? – a city connecting Asia and Europe. Turkey’s cosmopolitan city has always been an attraction that everyone would wish to experience. Istanbul remains one of the highest-ranked tourist destinations for visitors.

Istanbul is definitely worth visiting, other than its location and its unique culture, Istanbul has many historical sites to offer as being the capital of the East Roman Empire and Ottoman Empire. Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, and Galata Tower are just a few of the landmarks of Istanbul.

Istanbul has a very rich culture and offers everything for everyone in the world. Whether historical palaces or modern high-rise buildings, old-style bazaars, or the world’s largest malls, Istanbul has everything to offer.

These contrasts give you a chance to experience modernity with traditionality. It’s like a dessert with the perfect combination of sweet and salty.

You will be amazed by the richness of the artifacts that are inherited from the Ottoman Empires’ vaults. I remember how I was shocked to see the Staff of Moses in Topkapi Palace Museum.

I’ve always thought of Istanbul as a person. A person who is energetic, real, and makes you feel all the emotions at once. In this city, you don’t have to do anything to have a good time. It naturally happens. It’s one of the most poetic cities I’ve ever seen.

While walking down a random street, you can see men fishing on one side. When you turn your head, you can come across a simit (Turkish bagel) seller sipping his tea. Then suddenly, you can see people coming out of the ferry. They’re all in a rush to do something. At that moment, you feel that you’re in Istanbul.

Istanbul Eminonu is the oldest district that is filled with buildings from ancient ages to the modern era.

In Istanbul, every single day can be a new beginning. Each day you can discover different places, and Istanbul never ceases to amaze you.

Especially sipping tea while viewing the Bosphorus makes you feel lucky that you’re in this city. It’s one of the most romantic activities you can do on your own. Long story short, I guarantee you that this city is nothing like you’ve seen before.

Winter can be really cold in Istanbul.

What is the Best Time to Visit Istanbul?

The best times to visit Istanbul are usually during March, April, May, September, and November. You can attend fun events or visit cultural places. These are the best times to be walking through the streets of this city. Yet, Istanbul is one of those cities where you can enjoy every month of the year.

If you visit Istanbul during the summer, the costs may be higher than usual because it is the high season. That’s why it might be better to consider other possibilities.

Most of the concerts and events usually happen during the summer or spring. However, if the weather is extremely hot, it might affect your trip negatively.

During summer months, the weather is usually perfect. Almost everyone is outside and having fun. You can easily see people on the Moda beach with their portable chairs and homemade food even at night time.

If you’re into gloomy weather, you should also consider visiting Istanbul during the fall or winter. The costs are much more affordable during these times of the year. On the negative hand, in the winter it might be challenging to walk around the city in snowy weather.

However, I believe visiting during the fall season can be an amazing experience as well. At that time of year, Istanbul gives you a melancholic and bittersweet feeling. 

Aerial view of Istanbul at Night

The Nearest Airport to Istanbul and How to Get to Istanbul

The nearest airports to Istanbul are Istanbul and Sabiha Gokcen Airport. I would choose Sabiha Gokcen to arrive in Istanbul because it has subway access.

Sabiha Gokcen (Airport Code: SAW) is located on the Asian side of Istanbul, yet because it is connected with the Istanbul metro, it is easy to access European districts. The downside is Sabiha Gokcen has fewer flights.

Istanbul Airport (Airport Code: IST) is the major airport in Istanbul and is located in the north of the European side of Istanbul. It is farther away from the central districts of Istanbul. You can use private or shared shuttle services to get to the center of Istanbul.

In both airports, you may also choose to use a taxi or a public bus. However, using shuttle services is the most popular option of all.

Eminonu is the district where Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace, Grand Bazaar, Blue Mosque, and many other historical monuments are located. For this reason, it is the top choice for tourists.

Where to Stay in Istanbul and Accommodation Fees

Fortunately, there are many accommodation options in Istanbul. Therefore, you can easily find a place to stay that is suited to your budget. As imagined, the budget differs according to the time you visit Istanbul.

Early December is considered the most affordable time to book accommodations in Istanbul. However, you can easily find fair-priced places to stay at any time of the year.

There are endless options for accommodation. You can stay in a hotel, a hostel, or prefer to rent a room.

Cicek Pasajı is the place where I take my international friends to experience Turkish raki and Turkish tapas.

Is Istanbul safe?

Istanbul is a safe city. In 2020, the U.S. Department of State assessed Istanbul as a LOW-threat location for crime directed at or affecting official U.S. government interests. As per the same report Istanbul’s crime rates, as they relate to foreigners, are very low. Source

However, just like in every other city, not every part of Istanbul is equally safe. Some parts of Istanbul are more dangerous than other parts.

In crowded places such as Taksim, Grand Bazaar, you should be aware of pickpockets. It might be better to take precautions.

Long story short, Istanbul is as safe as any other city. Being careful can lower the possible risks for you. Unfortunately, every big city has its own risks. That’s why it’s better to be aware of the possibilities and avoid them as much as possible.

Istanbul is safe, don’t let guides rule your trip, wander on your own.

You can read more by reading my article: Is Istanbul Safe? Answered By a Local

What is Istanbul Famous For?

As mentioned before, Istanbul is one of the most popular cities in the world. This beautiful city of contrasts owes its popularity to many things. These can be listed as above:

History

Istanbul has a very rich history and is known for its historical and cultural background. This city was the capital of the Byzantine Empire and then of the Ottoman Empire. Today, you can still feel the history while walking around the city.

Location

As mentioned before, Istanbul’s location is very significant and unique. It’s one of the main reasons for its popularity. This city offers you a beautiful merge of the two continents. Additionally, the pleasant sight of the Bosphorus makes this city a spectacular place.

Galata Tower is more than 700 years old. Its surrounding area is an excellent place for a night out.

Attractions in Istanbul

This historically rich city has many beautiful places to visit.

Galata Tower is a very iconic structure in Istanbul. It was originally built as a watchtower. Now, both locals and tourists visit this tower to see the beautiful view of Istanbul. It’s located in Beyoglu and is one of the most popular structures in Istanbul.

Sultanahmet Square is a very popular spot in Istanbul as well. Also, the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia are near this place.

Additionally, there are many other attractions in Istanbul like Topkapi Palace, Grand Bazaar, Basilica Cistern, Dolmabahçe Palace, Istanbul Archaeology Museum, Spice Bazaar, Pera Museum. Not only tourists but also locals visit these places every once in a while.

SUGGESTED READING: Why and When Istanbul became Constantinople? A Local Answers

●  Cuisine

Turkish cuisine is very rich. There are many delicious foods that you should try in Istanbul. Other than some kebabs, you will be surprised to see that not much spice is used in Turkish food.

Turkish recipes rely on the diversity of vegetables and meat types. Typical Turkish food is soup, vegetables or meat tapas, stew or vegan-stews. Additionally, Turkey has its own fast-food types like mantı, kebap, baklava, and much more.

Aside from that, Turkish breakfast is very popular as well.

Turkish delight is one of the most popular desserts in Istanbul. Turkish people usually buy a box of Turkish delight before visiting someone. It’s a kind of traditional gesture.

So, we can say that it’s better to stop worrying about your weight when you visit Istanbul. Be prepared to try some extremely delicious dishes.

After the exam season in my university years, I used to take ferries to Princes’ Islands. The ferry ride, nature of the islands and the sea provided me refreshment and it was the cheapest way to enjoy a day in Istanbul.

●  The Princes’ Islands

It would be a shame to visit Istanbul without visiting at least one of these islands. The Princes’ Islands contain nine islands that are in the sea of Marmara. Four of these islands are open to visitors. These are: Buyukada, Burgazada, Kinaliada, and Heybeliada.

Buyukada is the most popular one amongst the others. Tourists and locals usually prefer to visit this island. However, I really love the other ones as well, especially Heybeliada.

Since horse carriages are banned, there are different options like electric cars and electric buses. If you know how to ride a bike, it’s always an option to rent one as well. 

I’ve always loved to walk around rather than use transportation. I think walking around is always a better option to see all the details and enjoy the visit. However, you may have a long way to go. Then considering transportation means might be wise.

The beautiful streets of these islands are very popular. You can buy a cone of ice cream and enjoy the architecture around you.

Transportation in Istanbul

Many locals in Istanbul use public transportation. Istanbul is a crowded city, and that leads to car traffic. Congestion also results in being late to where you’re supposed to be. That’s why most people prefer to use the subway to get to work or school.

If you want to use public transportation, you need an Istanbul card. After getting one, you can easily use all public transportation.

The subway, the tramway, the metrobus, the funicular, the dolmus, and the public ferry are the main means of public transportation in Istanbul.

Istanbul Rail, Metro, and Tram Map (click on the map to enlarge) or click to check the latest map on the official website.

Also, you can take a taxi or use minibusses. Due to the population of the city, it may be hard to find an available taxi. Still, some prefer to find it along their way, and some visit a taxi stop near them.

Lately, almost everyone has started using MARTI. It’s a smart electric scooter that has become quite popular amongst almost everyone. The Turkish meaning of this smart scooter is “seagull.”

The scooter is quite popular in coastal zones like the Moda neighborhood. However, you can see people using this almost everywhere in the city.

To use it, you need to have an app on your phone. You enter your bank card information and ID number. Then, after scanning the QR code, you can begin to use it. After you reach the destination, you park it and lock it. 

Do You Need a Rental Car in Istanbul?

Renting a car in Istanbul might not be the best idea to travel around the city. Normally, renting a car is supposed to make things easier for you. However, I don’t think Istanbul is one of those cities.

For starters, as mentioned, it’s a very crowded city, and that leads to car traffic. This problem makes it difficult to reach the destination. Even locals in Istanbul prefer to avoid driving a car.

The other problem is finding a parking spot. Especially during weekends, it’s a literal nightmare to find a parking spot. That’s why renting a car will most probably be a burden to you.

What Are the Dos and Don’ts in Istanbul?

Visiting a city is a thrilling experience. Would you like to start one step ahead in this journey? As a local in Istanbul, I’d like to point out what to do and what not to do when you visit this cosmopolitan city.

DOs and Things Not Miss

  • Visit as many stores as you like before shopping, there will be another dream souvenir in each shop. Do not spend all your money in the first shop that you visit. Remember tourist guides earn commissions from shops that they take you to.
  • Learn about Turkish Modern Fashion Brands, you will be surprised by the quality.
  • Do visit the Princes’ Islands.
  • Arrange a romantic dinner in Maiden Tower Island. Maiden Tower is not just a landmark but also a restaurant. Location-wise, it is the most romantic place in Istanbul.
  • Do try local food in various places, such as kumpir, mantı, menemen, Turkish coffee. Sahlep is an excellent drink in winter.
  • Do buy a simit while you’re on a ferry and feed the seagulls.
  • Do visit a seafood restaurant. Eat fish and drink raki while enjoying the sight of the Bosphorus. Another excellent venue is Cicek Pasaji or Navizade streets in Taksim.
  • Do prefer public transport since it’s an affordable option.
  • Do visit a historical Turkish bath. There are many historical baths in Eminonu district.
  • Do learn basic words like “Merhaba” (“Hello”) or “Günaydın.” (“Good Morning”) It can be a great gesture.
The evil eye is one of the symbols of Turkey, and it is a protection and good luck charm.

DON’T and Things to Avoid

  • Don’t try to haggle in modern shopping malls or modern shops.
  • Don’t feel obliged to buy something because you drink tea that the shop owner offered.
  • Don’t forget to take your shoes off before entering a house.
  • Don’t forget to buy souvenirs (evil eye, turkish delight, turkish towels are excellent.) to remember the amazing trip.
  • Don’t let small things ruin your trip.

Do They Speak English in Istanbul?

It might surprise you, but English is a very commonly spoken language in Istanbul. You can easily communicate with most people.

Even if you need to talk to someone who doesn’t speak English, you don’t have to worry. People in Istanbul are usually quite friendly and helpful.

If someone who speaks English sees this struggle, that person can help you. This situation happens quite commonly. That’s why there is nothing to worry about. You can easily have conversations with people without any problems.

You can read my article “What Languages are Spoken in Istanbul?” to learn more.

a street in Grand Bazaar in Istanbul.

Is Istanbul Poor?

Istanbul has been one of the major trade hubs in the world for more than 3.000 years. Istanbul has its bad and good years, but Istanbul has always been a culturally and historically rich place.

Between 2000-2010 Turkish economy was booming. It was the years that the EU had its own crises. Greek vacation was cheap, and when watching television shows, I could dream of buying a rustic Alaskan House.

See the growth of GDP per capita after 2000.

Yet, those days are gone now. In the recent decade, pandemic and economic crises have hit Istanbul hard. Poverty and high prices have been an issue in Turkey, especially during the last couple of years.

In its current state, Istanbul may sometimes seem poor when compared to European capitals. For foreign nationals, due to Turkish Liras’ lower value, Istanbul may feel cheap. Enjoy the discount in Istanbul, because it will not last forever.

During these crises, the income gap is increasing each day. Most people have difficulties making a living for their families. Whereas some people in Istanbul are extremely rich and live their lives in luxury. 

Nowadays employment is also high. Generally speaking, many new graduates struggle to find a job. Unfortunately, you can come across a taxi driver who graduated from a good university.

In some ways, Istanbul is the city of contrasts, even in the sense of wealth. As with seeing a modern skyscraper near a slum, the rich and the poor are intertwined as well.

For more, read my article “Is Istanbul Rich or Poor? A Local Answers with Statistics”

Efe Genit

I am a father, a passionate traveler, and a Turkish lawyer. You can enjoy my guides and tips about Turkey that only Turkish locals would know.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Recent Posts