I have visited Istanbul more than 5 times and it still is my favorite city 🙂 And I would gladly go there once again 🙂 Of course, during all my visits I learned much about it, adding new things to my list of useful tips. So, before you go to the airport make sure to read my travel tips for Istanbul.
Without further ado, let’s start with one of the most important aspects: local transport.
Travel tips for Istanbul: local transport
Buying Istanbulkart was our best investment in Istanbul! It is similar to Oyster card in London: you get a card, top it up and use it every time you get in a bus, tram, subway, etc. What are the advantages of Istanbulkart?
– A token for public transport costs 5 liras. If you use Istanbulkart, it will be less than 3 liras. We noticed that the more we used the card, the cheaper we paid. I think on our last day in Istanbul we paid around 1 lira.
– One Istanbulkart can be used even by 5 people, so if you are travelling in a group, there is no need to buy cards for everyone. Just buy one and hand it over to the next person.
– You will always have a means to pay for the transport, no need to search for terminals to buy a token.
– You can pay with Istanbulkart in buses, trams, subway, some ferries, funiculars, including the one going up to Pierre Loti.
– It is easy to use: just hold it close to the readers where you get in and that’s it!
– You need the so-called anonymous Istanbulkart, you can see how it looks in the picture below.
You can buy it at ticket terminals that are at almost every tram and subway station and at both airports. It costs 10 liras, 6 of which is the cost of the card and 4 liras go to the balance.
2. Local transport system
Local transport system is well developed: there are buses, trams, ferries, subway and funiculars, and minibuses or dolmus as they are called in Turkish. There is no need to take taxi from the airport to get to the city center: I explain here how to get to Sultanahmet from Ataturk Airport. Actually, using local transport may even be quicker than by taxi.
When I am at a loss and do not know how to get a place, I use Google Maps to find my way. Usually, it is right 🙂 But there is another place to get information on public transport routes.
3. Local ferry companies
You will definitely use local ferry companies if you want to get to the Asian part of Istanbul, but they are good not for this only. For example, you can get a tour of Golden Horn for 2,60 liras by taking the route by Halic Hatti company. You can take it from Karakoy at Galata Bridge and go up to Eyüp: the map is here. Yes, it’s not a hop on-hop off, meaning you will have to pay again if you get off and then want to get on again, but if you are short of money, this is an option.
Usually I try not to use taxis but I understand that in some cases it is the only option. I have ambiguous feelings about taxis in Istanbul. As the city is huge, drivers do not know all the places, especially some smaller streets and just drive around hoping to stumble upon the needed place. It happened to me a couple of times.
I don’t think all cars have taximeters, so agree on the price before you get in and make sure that driver knows the address and will not let you out in the middle of the road. It happened to me once when the driver did not want to wait in the traffic jam and told me to get out as ‘we are very close, you can get there on foot’.
When it comes to Uber, I know that there were some problems with the service and I am not sure whether it still is active in Istanbul.
5. Ferries to the Prince Islands
Ferries to the Prince Islands depart from Eminonu and Kabatas piers in the European part of Istanbul. There are timetables available on the websites of the ferry companies: Dentur Avrasya from Kabatas and Şehir Hatları from Eminonu. We travelled from Kabatas and bought tickets on site right at the pier for the next ferry, there is no need to book them in advance or go to a travel agency for that. What you need to know is that it is much better to get a seat at the boards, so get to the ferry as fast as possible as it fills up very quickly. More on our trip to the Prince Islands is here.
6. Use hop on-hop off Bosphorus tour
Many tourists usually explore only Sultanahmet and Taksim areas of Istanbul. This is quite understandable: they are the most well-known ones, they are close to each other and are packed with tourist sights. But there are other interesting places that are far from Sultanahmet and Taksim and are not that easily accessible, especially considering that visitors do not know the local transport network. Getting a hop on-hop off Bosphorus tour allows not only to see the city from the water – which is spectacular, by the way – but visit Rumeli Hisari, Anadolu Hisari, Beylerbeyi Palace and the areas surrounding them, where there are not many tourists. Just keep your ticket on you, you will need to show it when you get on a ferry.
Travel tips for Istanbul: food
7. Street food and national cuisine are yummy!
Please, don’t go to McDonald’s or KFC when you are in Istanbul! The Turkish cuisine is very delicious, and you will be missing local flavours. When it comes to street food, you just must try simit, balik ekmek and kokorec. Simit is my personal favorite 🙂 When you go to a local restaurant, definitely order kebabs, fish or seafood. For desert get yourself a portion of baklava or kunefe: trust me, you won’t regret it 🙂 And for breakfast order hot menemen, scrambled eggs with chili pepper.
8. Food is spicy
I noticed that Turks eat hot spicy food. For example, I ordered menemen for breakfast: it was really delicious, I did not even expect that eggs can taste that good, but it was hot as the main ingredient is chili pepper. When next time I ordered it with usual bell pepper, it was just plain scrambled eggs. Shrimps that we ordered in a restaurant were spicy as well, so make sure to ask if you don’t like hot food.
Travel tips for Istanbul: clothing
9. How to dress for visiting the mosques
Let’s continue with clothes. There are specific rules when it comes to mosques, and they are pretty much the same as for Orthodox churches. Shoulders and legs should be covered as well as the head for women. Women may be asked to wear long skirts even if they have pants on. If you do not have appropriate garment, you can borrow it at the mosque. And visitors have to take their shoes off.
10. Carry a pair of socks
As visitors must take their shoes off when entering mosques, you better have a pair of socks with you. This is especially true if you travel to Istanbul when the temperatures are high and people put shoes on bare feet. Trust me, you don’t want to walk barefoot on carpets inside mosques 🙂 I think at the Blue Mosque they have shoe covers you can take, but in other mosques and tombs you have to deal with it yourself.
11. Take warm clothes
Even if you go to Istanbul when it is hot there, it will not be a mistake to take a wide scarf or a mantle if you walk close to the water or take one of those Bosphorus or Golden Horn tours. Trust me, it can get really chilly and windy. If the temperature is about 20-25 degrees, make sure you have warmer than a scarf clothes with you. You will thank me later 🙂
Travel tips for Istanbul: money
12. Exchanging money
Exchanging euros and dollars is easy. There are many exchange bureaus at Divan Yolu Caddesi (the street meters away from the Blue Mosque). I exchange money there, and have never had any problems. Well, almost never.
I exchanged some euros, but the amount I received was too low. I couldn’t understand at first what was wrong: the exchange rate on the bill and the total were mathematically correct. It took me some time to realize that it was the rate for dollar not euro. The guy at the desk saw me pondering over the money and asked what was wrong. When I explained it, he gave me the right amount. It looked like it was a mistake because of his inattentiveness, but I am not sure. Nevertheless, this was the only occasion when I had issues with exchanging money in Istanbul. Just be careful and know how much money you have to get.
13. American Express cards
Be careful if you have an American Express card with you, as they are not accepted in many places. At least this is what our host who owns a restaurant and a small hotel told us. The reason is simple: the card fees are very high, so it is more beneficial for business owners to accept payment by Visa cards.
14. Museum pass
If you want to save some money, then consider buying Istanbul museum pass. The price changes every year, according to the official website the 5-day pass costs 185 liras. It grants free and no-queue entrance to Topkapi, Hagia Sophia, Chora and Archaeological Museums, etc. But before you buy it make some calculations: do you want to visit all those places that are included to the pass? And consider that Dolmabahce Palace, Yerebatan Cistern and Galata Tower are not included.
Travel tips for Istanbul: general tips
15. Long lines
Oh, those magical queues everywhere, especially in high season. Endless queues for the Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sophia, Dolmabahce Palace and especially Topkapi Palace. Why especially? Because after you get inside the palace complex, there are a couple of queues inside as for the Treasury and right after the Treasury for the viewpoint. Waiting time in lines can be very long like 1 hour or more, so come as early as possible.
16. Avoid visiting sights during holidays or weekends
This tip is very much related to the one above. You can’t even imagine how many tourists come to Istanbul and how crowded every place gets especially in high season. And then think of holidays and weekends when locals go out as well. If you can do it, better plan your visit to Istanbul during the weekdays. My friend and I made this mistake when we went to the Prince Islands: we went there on a weekend and the ferry and island itself were full of people.
17. Limited number of visitors
The number of visitors to Dolmabahce is limited, and usually it is crowded, so better come here in the morning to be among the first. Keep in mind, that the palace is open till 4-4:30 PM, but in high season it is useless in many cases to come to Dolmabahce after 3 PM as there are no tickets left. And something else: visitors are not allowed to walk around the palace individually but in groups only, so people would usually gather at the entrance of the palace waiting for the tour to start.
18. Tourist information point in Sultanahmet
Don’t miss the tourist information in Sultanahmet, especially if it is your first time in Istanbul. The point is at Divan Yolu Street not far from the Firuz Aga Mosque and Sultanahmet tram station. Here you can get the maps of Istanbul, receive information on opening times and entrance fees, and, more importantly, there is info on the buses/trams that go to the main sights. Generally, I would advise to start exploring the city from here.
19. Tulip Festival
Probably, this tip is obvious and might not seem important, but I have to include it here as it is here that we made a mistake. We really wanted to see tulips, it is a big deal in Istanbul, but we came when it was late. The festival usually lasts the whole month in April, and we went in Istanbul right at the end of the month. All we got to see was faded tulips. So, don’t wait till the last days like we did, just come earlier.
20. Public toilets
Luckily, there are many public toilets in Istanbul. I haven’t seen so many toilets anywhere 🙂 There are toilets at almost every mosque, and at bigger ones they are usually free. In Gulhane Park the cost is 1 lira, and Istanbulkart is accepted. I saw toilets just in streets as well, usually they cost 1-2 liras. In the Asian part some of the public toilets are free, even if they are just in streets.
But then again, there are things you shouldn’t be doing in Istanbul, and it is nice to know them as well 🙂