Istanbul – What Do You Need to Know Before Visiting?

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Istanbul, or Constantinople, an ever-glowing city, was the capital of many empires, including the Byzantine Empire, the Latin empire, and the Ottoman Empire.

Many emperors roamed the streets of this city, and all their legacy and power were lost in time, but the city of Istanbul never lost its charm.

At present, Istanbul is not the capital city in the traditional sense, but commercially and culturally, it is the heart of Turkey.

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 and to attend cultural events.

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 northwest Turkey. 

Istanbul is located in Europe and Asia, making the city unique. The Bosphorus channel passes from the middle of the city connecting the Black Sea and the Marmara Sea. 

It is believed that the borderline between Asia and Europe is the Bosphorus Strait located in Istanbul.

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

For this reason, locals call the East side of Istanbul as Asian side and the west as the European side. ,

In Istanbul, there are three bridges and an underground tunnel connecting the Asian and European sides. Countless city passenger ships transport passengers through continents from 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?

Istanbul is definitely worth visiting. 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.

You will be amazed by the richness of the artifacts that are inherited from the Ottoman Empires’ vaults. Istanbul also carries riches from its Imperial history.

From Egyptian Obelisks in Sultanahmet, Staff of Moses in Topkapi Palace Museum to the World’s second oldest subway system, Istanbul is full of diverse artifacts and stories.

Besides its landmarks, Istanbul also has a rich culture and offers a diverse selection of events and entertainment.

Whether historical palaces, museums, old-style bazaars, world-class malls, or a simple ferry ride on the Bosphorous channel, Istanbul has many things to offer for everyone.

Istanbul contrasts give you a chance to experience modernity with traditionalism at the same time.

Preparing your bucket list for Istanbul, please click to read 21 Fun and Unique Things To Do in Istanbul (A Local’s Guide)

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

In Istanbul, you can discover different places every day, and Istanbul never ceases to amaze you.

One day, you just spend sipping tea and eating your simit (Turkish bagel) while viewing the Bosphorus as millions of people pass by you.

Some people are rushing somewhere, others calmy fishing, ferries coming and going by.

Yet, on the other day, you can walk alone in the Belgrade forest with only bird noises or better skiing in Uludag or windsurfing.

Istanbul has many contrasts, and I guarantee you that Istanbul is nothing like you’ve seen before.

Another thing to know is that Istanbul has many places to visit very close that may amaze you, learn more by reading my guide Unique Day Trip Ideas from Istanbul.

Winter can be really cold in Istanbul.

What is the Best Time to Visit Istanbul?

Most people visit Istanbul in the summer. Yet, I believe the best times to visit Istanbul are usually during March, April, May, September, and November.

Summer may be hot for you and might affect your trip negatively.

Additionally, the costs may be higher than usual if you visit Istanbul during the summer because it is the high season.

Yet the still evening time is perfect in summer. 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.

Most of the concerts and events usually happen during the summer or spring.

Like me, if you can take a bit of rain and bad weather, you can consider visiting Istanbul during the fall or spring. The accommodation costs are lower during the fall and spring months of the year.

Autumn in Istanbul gives you a melancholic and bittersweet feeling. 

The winter months are the worst months for visiting Istanbul, it can be really cold. Also, if it snows in Istanbul, it really snows.

For Fashion Shopping read these guides on Fashion in Istanbul – Places to Shop, Brands, Designers, and more

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?

Istanbul offers many accommodation options for every budget. You can stay from Ottoman Palaces to uniquely designed hostels.

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.

I outlined my top choices in my guide on hotels and the best neighborhoods to stay in Istanbul.

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

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, and Grand Bazaar, you should be aware of pickpockets, but other than small theft risks or taxi scams, you are totally safe in Istanbul.

Unfortunately, every big city has its own risks. Being careful can lower the possible risks for you. You can read more safety tips by reading my article: Is Istanbul Safe? Answered By a Local

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

Transportation in Istanbul

Istanbul is a crowded city, and that leads to car traffic. For this reason, most locals in Istanbul use 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.

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

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 public buses or vans. Yet, Taxis in Istanbul can be problematic for even locals. Read my guide about Taxis in Turkey to know more.

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 MARTI is “seagull.”

The scooter is used more frequently in flat coastal zones like the Moda neighborhood. However, nowadays, people use this almost everywhere in the city.

To use MARTI, 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 the electric scooter and leave it anywhere.

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 mostly choose Sabiha Gokcen because it is closer to the subway.

Yet, this year both airports have direct subway access, so they can connect with Istanbul without getting into congested traffic.

Sabiha Gokcen (Airport Code: SAW) is located on the Asian side of Istanbul.

Istanbul Airport (Airport Code: IST) is the major airport in Istanbul and is located in the north of the European side of Istanbul.

Using HAVAIST shuttle services is the most popular option to travel between Istanbul city and airports. You may also choose to use a taxi or a public bus at both airports.

Suggested Reading: A Local’s Guide to Airports of Istanbul

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 with congested traffic. 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.

After the exam season in my university years, as a broke university student, I used to take ferries to Princes’ Islands. Traveling by ferry and walking around these islands is the cheapest way to enjoy a day in Istanbul.

What Are the Dos and Don’ts in Istanbul?

As a local in Istanbul, I’d like to point out some cool tips for what to do and what not to do in Istanbul.

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 on the first shop that you visit. Remember, tourist guides earn commissions from the 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 on 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 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.
  • Enjoy the local taverns in Cicek Pasaji or Navizadeh streets in Taksim.
  • Do prefer public transport. Yet avoid busy hours in the early morning and late evening.
  • Do visit a historical Turkish bath. There are many historical baths in the 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 the 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 choices.) 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. YEnglish is the second lingua franca after Turkish, in this cosmopolitan city of Istanbul.

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.

Most of the shop owners also have basic English knowledge, and you can easily have conversations.

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

Food in Istanbul

Turkish cuisine is very rich. 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.

Turkish recipes rely on the diversity and freshness of vegetables and meat types. Other than some kebabs, you will be surprised to see that not much spice is used in Turkish food.

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.

Click here to read: Turkish Food and Turkish Cuisine – 23 Things to Know and How to Order Food Online in Istanbul? A Local Answers

A street in Grand Bazaar in Istanbul. Grand Bazaar has more than 4000 shops.

Is Istanbul Poor?

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

Yet, economically, Istanbul has its bad and good years.

Between 2000-2010 Turkish economy was booming. It was the years that the EU had its own crises. Europe was cheap for Turkish people.

In those years, when watching television shows, I could dream of buying a rustic Alaskan House for the same price I would buy a simple apartment in rural Turkey.

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.

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.

For foreign nationals, due to the Turkish Liras’ lower value, Istanbul may feel cheap. For this reason, Istanbul may sometimes seem poor compared to European capitals in its current state.

Enjoy the discount in Istanbul because it will not last forever.

During these crises, the income gap increases, and most people have difficulties making a living for their families. Yet, some people in Istanbul continue to be rich and live their lives in luxury. 

In some ways, Istanbul is a city of contrasts, even in the sense of wealth.

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

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