Planning to travel to Istanbul for the first time? Here are the best Istanbul travel tips you need to know to enjoy this incredible Turkish city.
Traveling to Istanbul for the first time? It is exciting to be going to this incredible city that is full of wonders and partially a Unesco World Heritage site.
Having been to Istanbul for the first time myself and making a number of mistakes, I have enough knowledge to write a detailed guide of all the Istanbul travel tips using my personal and general experiences so that you are not as green as I was when you reach this Turkish megapolis city.
Istanbul is a big and fascinating city and a dream destination for many travelers. With so much history and modern sides to it, it is the only city in the world that lies on 2 continents – Asia and Europe.
Istanbul is one of the major touristic cities in the world receiving over 39 million tourists every year (as of 2018 figures). With all those tourists on the go, it might be overwhelming for first-time visitors to figure out how best they can enjoy the city.
If your trip to Istanbul is also the first time you’re taking a flight, read this post to get all the must-know tips for first-time flyers.
Before You Go, Here Are Some Quick Practical Tips for Planning Your Trip to Istanbul
– Book your accommodation in advance. For the best stay, I suggest staying at Royal Suites Sultanahmet (9.0/10) if you’re on a budget, Meroddi Galata Mansion (8.7/10) if you’re on a mid-range budget, or the Galataport Hotel (8.6/10) for a luxurious stay. If you’d rather book an apartment, this is the apartment rental I recommend.
– Don’t miss out on popular tours and activities in Istanbul. Some of my favorites are; the Whirling Dervishes Show, this 3-hour Bosphorus cruise dinner, this Hagia Sophia guided tour, and this Topkapi palace guided tour.
– Don’t forget to take Travel Insurance. Request a free quote from my favorite insurance, World Nomads.
– To get the most out of your visit, I recommend buying this Istanbul pass. It will give you free access to popular attractions in the city, free public transportation, and a cruise on the Bosphorus.
– Plan your trip to Istanbul extensively with this Lonely Planet Istanbul guidebook.
General Istanbul travel tips
Arriving in Istanbul
There are so many options for arriving in Istanbul. You can opt for a train, bus, flight or even a ship but of course, that will depend on where you’re coming from!
Just like traveling to any other place, you’ll need to obtain a visa if you’re coming from another country (though some nationalities don’t require one).
If you’re required to get a visa to enter Turkey, you can apply for an e-visa from the Turkish visa information website.
Related post: The ultimate guide to visiting Turkey
Experiences not to miss in Istanbul
While visiting Istanbul, there are some experiences you should not miss out on, whether you’re visiting for a week, a few days, or even a month.
Below are some that will make your Istanbul trip memorable.
Cruising the Bosphorus
There is no trip to Istanbul that is complete without cruising the Bosphorus strait to explore both the European and Asian sides of this country.
Whether you book this afternoon Bosphorus cruise to be able to see how the sun shines on some of the popular attractions, this sunset cruise to see how the sun dips behind the same, or this dinner Bosphorus cruise with entertainment to watch the shimmering lights from those major landmarks of Istanbul, you’re bound to be treated to an amazing experience.
Watching the Whirling Dervishes Show
Spend some time being blown away by the whirling Dervish show as you watch this traditional dance that has been a part of Turkey’s culture and one of the most important heritage from the Islamic culture inspired by Mevlana Celaleddin-i Rumi (1207-1273).
There are a number of places where you can watch the Whirling Dervish Show in Istanbul but the one I highly recommend is at the HodjaPasha Culture Center.
You can always book your ticket on-site but to make sure you skip the long lines and have a guaranteed spot, you can book an onlıne ticket from here.
Travel tips for Istanbul for first-time visitors
1. Don’t try to see everything in Istanbul
As I said earlier, Istanbul is massively huge and the idea that you’ll be able to see everything seems far-fetched.
Instead of running around the city from one place to another in a rush and eventually get overwhelmed, why not prioritize the places to visit by creating a proper Istanbul itinerary.
Istanbul offers a mix of history, culture, and modern, so decide which section you fancy the most or try to even mix it a little bit by visiting half of the historical part and the modern part. With that, you’ll be able to see a great deal of Istanbul.
You can also read my previous post that showcases some of the best things to do in Istanbul for an amazing time in the city.
2. Get yourself an Istanbul kart (Istanbul card).
Like many major cities in the world, Istanbul revolutionized its public transportation by introducing an Istanbul Kart in 2009 also known as the Istanbul Card.
Public transportation in Istanbul is as good or nearly as good as private transportation – so you shouldn’t be afraid to use it.
The Istanbul card is used to pay for all public transportation around Istanbul whether buses, metros, or ship.
It costs a one-time fee of 10TL(Turkish Liras) and comes preloaded with 4TL. After that, you keep loading credit on it to be able to use public transportation.
Most of the stations have a point where you can purchase or recharge your Istanbul card from.
And the advantage of using an Istanbul card is that you always get a discount on transportation and can be used by up to 5 people.
For example, if you use a bus in the morning (or any time) and a few hours later, you use it for the ship, the ship price will be discounted.
Unfortunately, if you don’t purchase an Istanbul card, it will be sometimes hard to use public buses, metro, or a ship.
However, you can still use the yellow taxis but I found the experience of using an Istanbul card very interesting and convenient.
Related post: Things to do in Istanbul at night
3. Get the museum pass
If you’re planning to visit different museums and archaeological sites, a museum pass will be very useful.
The museum pass can be obtained from any historical site that accepts them or even online.
It can also be used in selected museums and archeological sites around the country. If you only plan to visit one city in Turkey, you can opt for a regional museum pass instead of the nationwide one.
The advantage of getting the museum pass is that you save more money on entry fees and time as you don’t waste time in queues.
All you have to do is to swipe the pass in the machine, once accepted, you enter immediately without spending time lining up.
The museum pass costs 210TL, saving you some money for your next adventure making it one of the best ways to enjoy Istanbul on a budget.
If you’re planning to travel to Istanbul only, get yourself this Istanbul museum pass that costs 125TL and gives you one-time access to most museums and archaeological sites for 120 hours after the initial usage of the pass.
On top of the Museum pass, I’d recommend you to buy this Istanbul tourist pass. It also has the same advantages as the Museum pass but it can also be used in other major tourist sites, not just museums.
The Tourist pass can be easily bought online from here.
4. Download travel apps for visiting Istanbul
These apps are not only for people visiting Istanbul for the first time but even Istanbul frequent travelers that want to make their trip easier.
So before you go, download these apps to make traveling around Istanbul easier.
The grand bazaar app
With over 4,000 shops and a total number of daily visitors between 250,000 to 400,000 people, the grand bazaar is one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world.
With all that, it might be a bit difficult to navigate easily within the grand bazaar especially for first-time visitors.
But with the grand bazaar app, you’ll be able to navigate easily and fast. You can use the app to locate everything you need from an ATM, restaurants, restrooms to specific shops.
The advantage of this app is that it not only shows you the location of the place but also how to get there from your current location.
Even though yellow taxis are widely spread in Istanbul, sometimes it might be a little hard to get one when you urgently need it.
BiTaksi is a great app to order for a private taxi and it will be available in just a few minutes.
The best part is that with this app you’re able to see all the details of the driver from the license number, name to phone number and on top of that, you’ll be able to see how much the journey costs from the fare calculator that is incorporated within the app. “Think of BiTaksi as the uber version in Istanbul.”
This is another useful app that every first-time traveler to Istanbul should download.
Istanbul being a big city curated with traffic, it might be hard for a first-time traveler to get around easily using public transportation.
This is where the Trafi app comes in to show you all the available means of public transportation near your current location.
The app shows you all the schedules of public transit, how long the journey will take, and also the real-time traffic in that area for each particular mode of transport.
With these apps downloaded on your phone, you’re bound to have a fabulous stay in Istanbul.
Other great apps to download while visiting Istanbul include; Sesli Sozluk to easily translate words and sentences from/to English and Turkish, Yandex.maps for easy navigation around Istanbul, and Yemeksepeti for food delivery.
Related: Check out these free travel apps that might also be useful while traveling in Istanbul.
5. Get a prepaid Turkish sim card
When you visit Istanbul for the first time, it will be much easier to buy a prepaid sim card that is if your phone is unlocked.
The most common service providers are Turkcell and Vodaphone. All these have a tourist sim card that comes loaded with the internet, calling minutes, and text messages.
The amount of GBs, minutes, and texts depending on the package you choose.
The best sim card will depend on personal requirements, so I advise you to walk up to both shops, compare the packages and prices and choose the one that suits your needs.
Nevertheless, most people recommend using Turkcell as it seems to have the best packages and most 4G network coverage but Vodaphone is just right behind it.
6. Be aware of Istanbul’s traffic
Traffic in Istanbul is chaotic and can be worse during peak hours that’s why it’s not surprising that it was named one of the worst cities in terms of traffic and congestion in Europe.
So, for short distances where you can walk, do so, instead of spending unnecessary time in traffic. Just make sure you know where you’re headed by using some of the apps that I suggested above.
Furthermore, Turkey uses the right-hand traffic flow system, so be cautious if you come from a country that uses the left-hand traffic flow.
Since I come from Uganda which uses a left-hand traffic system, it took me time to get used to their system, and a few times I ended up looking in the wrong direction before crossing the roads.
7. Learn a few Turkish words before you go
Turkish people are friendly and welcoming and speaking a few of their words or even making an effort to construct a sentence in Turkish will bring you closer to their hearts.
During the time I visited Turkey, I knew a few words in Turkish, and every time I used them or tried to make a sentence, I’d see the Turks’ eyes light up more.
This shows them that you’re not just visiting the tourist sites but actually care about the people and their language.
Here are a few words and phrases you should learn before you go.
- Hello: Merhabā (mehr-hah-bah)
- Good Morning: Günaydın (gew-nahy-duhn)
- Good evening: iyi akşamlar
- Please: Lütfen (lewt-fehn)
- Thank you: Teşekkürler (te-shek-kewr-lehr)
- Yes: Evet (eh-vet)No: Hayir (hah-yuhr)
- How are you? Nasılsınız? ( NAHS-suhl-suh-nuhz)
- I’m fine, thank you. İyiyim, teşekkür ederim. (ee-YEE-yihm, tesh-ek-KEWR eh-dehr-eem)
- Good night İyi geceler (EE geh-jeh-LEHR)
- I don’t understand: Anlamadım (an-la-ma-duhm)
- Where is: Nerede (neh-reh-deh)What’s your name: Adınız ne (ah-duh-nuhz neh)
You can learn more Turkish words and phrases from here.
Related post: Fun facts about Turkey that you should know
8. Do not rent a car in Istanbul
As you might have read earlier, Istanbul’s traffic is crazy to the point of being named one of the most trafficked cities in Europe and in the world.
As a first-time traveler, you don’t want to waste your precious time in traffic or trying to learn how to navigate the city, so it’s important not to rent a car while in Istanbul.
In the same regard, Istanbul’s public transportation is quite comfortable. Whether it is taking a train, Tram, a ship, or a yellow taxi, you’ll feel comfortable while transiting through Istanbul as the locals do.
Related: While traveling in Istanbul, make sure that you avoid making these Istanbul travel mistakes.
9. Book your accommodation on time
Since Istanbul is a touristy place with millions of visitors, it is better to book your hotel in advance.
Here you’ll get the most value for your money and find a good place in the center of Istanbul.
Ready to book your accommodation in Istanbul? Book it from here with booking.com and choose the best hotel to suit your needs.
Note: Booking.com doesn’t work while in Turkey. So if you need to book accommodation with them, you should do it before entering the country.
Some of the hotels I recommend staying at in Istanbul include; Basileus Hotel Istanbul which is located in the heart of the Sultanahmet district, Cheers Hostel if you’re traveling on a budget, and Novotel Istanbul Bosphorus Hotel if you want to stay in the best location.
If you don’t see anything you like in the ones I’ve recommended, then you can check out more places to stay in Istanbul here.
10. Carry comfortable shoes you can easily walk with
Istanbul is very big – I can’t emphasize that enough! And to be able to see most of the things, you’ll need to walk or even take a train.
So taking comfortable shoes to walk around the city is a perfect idea. Actually, if you try to look at the locals in Istanbul, it is soo hard to even find a single person wearing high heels.
Most of them do wear sneakers or sports shoes as they are easy and comfortable to walk with.
Don’t have good walking shoes? Why not check on Amazon for the best walking shoes that are highly rated by previous buyers.
11. Is Istanbul tourist-friendly?
Istanbul is one of the major tourist places in Europe receiving travelers from all over the world.
With major touristic sites like Hagia Sophia, the blue mosque, and the grand bazaar, Istanbul should be on everyone’s bucket list.
Even with so many things to do in Istanbul, first-time travelers still wonder whether Istanbul is tourist-friendly. The simple answer is yes!
Turkish people are always friendly and sometimes willing to go out of their way to offer help.
But even though it is tourist-friendly, there are a few people that target tourists to scam them. Read this post to find out all the Istanbul scams and how to avoid them.
12. How safe is Istanbul for tourists?
Istanbul is generally safe for tourists even solo travelers. But like any other place, you just need to take care of yourself and your items.
Security is paramount whether you’re visiting Istanbul for the first time or a frequent traveler, so you just need to be aware of your surroundings and Istanbul will be very safe for you.
You can my previous post to get all the general tips on how to stay safe while traveling.
Related post: Is it safe to travel to Turkey now?
13. How many days are enough for Istanbul?
There is no specific rule on how many days you should spend in Istanbul. Actually, this should be decided by you depending on the time you have, your budget, and what you want to see in Istanbul.
But personally, I’d suggest spending at least 5 days in Istanbul to be able to experience the city a little more.
But if you have more time and money, why not go as far as a month because there is so much to see and experience that even after a month, you’ll still want more of this amazing city.
14. What is the best time to visit Istanbul?
But as a first-time traveler to Istanbul, it is better to travel during either summer or, early fall or spring months to be able to enjoy Istanbul without worrying about wearing several coats and jackets to warm up.
However, since in most cases, the question of the best time to visit a certain place is based on weather, in summary, the best time to visit Istanbul would be in the spring and autumn months when the weather is ideal and the city is not crowded by the swarm of tourists like in summer.
To make it easier for you to decide on when to visit, here is an overview of Istanbul weather.
|Season||Months||Average temperatures (lows and highs)|
|Winter||Mid- December – Mid March||8 C (48 F) – 12 C (54 F).|
|Spring||Mid-March – Mid June||18 C (65 F) – 27 C (81 F)|
|Summer||mid-June to mid-September||28 C (80 F) – 30 C (82 F).|
|Autumn||Mid-September- mid-December||15 C ( 60 F) – 23 C (70 F)|
15. Places to visit in Istanbul
Istanbul is endowed with a number of incredible places to visit from the oldest church to the heart-throbbing museums that receive thousands of visitors on a daily basis.
And as a first-time traveler, here are some of the places not to miss in Istanbul include;
- The Blue Mosque
- Hagia Sophia
- Topkapi Palace
- Suleymaniye Mosque
- The Grand Bazaar
- Galata Tower
- Cruise the Bosphorous to see both the European and Asian side of Istanbul
- Taksim and so many others.
- You can also check out my complete list of the best things to do in Istanbul.
16. What to wear in Istanbul
You’ve probably heard that you need to fully cover up (especially women) while traveling in Istanbul.
But I’d like to set the record straight that this is not ALL true. Yes, almost 95 percent of Turks are Moslems but they’re not very conservative.
This means that they do not mind so much about what you wear especially in big cities as long as you’re modest enough.
However, when visiting places of worship, you’ll need to cover your shoulders and legs! And no, you do not need to cover your head with a scarf.
So in summary, you can literally wear anything in Istanbul as long as your dress appropriately while visiting mosques. Clothes like summer dresses, tank tops, jeans, skirts, or shorts are totally wearable in Istanbul.
17. What to pack for Istanbul
To enjoy Istanbul to the maximum, you need to have all the travel essentials. So here are some of the travel essentials not to leave behind when traveling to Istanbul.
- A Travel scarf: This scarf is soft on the skin but also big enough to act as a blanket or a cover when you find yourself in places where you need to cover your hair. But if you need an anti-theft scarf, this one is a great choice and can keep a number of items with the phone inclusive.
- A collapsible water bottle: As a traveler, you shouldn’t leave a bottle behind when going to Istanbul. So pack this collapsible water bottle so that you can refill it every time it runs dry.
- A money belt or Travel pouch: Since there is a lot of street theft in Istanbul, especially in crowded places like the Grand Bazaar, I’d advise you to either carry this money belt or this travel pouch to be able to keep your money safe.
- A universal travel adapter: Since Istanbul might have different sockets compared to other countries, I’d advise you to buy a universal travel adapter so that you don’t keep changing for every country you go to. You can buy one from here if you don’t have it yet.
- A power Bank: One of the things you should never leave behind while traveling to Istanbul is the Powerbank! Phones have now become a great deal of our lives that we need to use them for so many important things. So take a power bank with you so that you don’t run out of battery. This power bank is small, light, and has the capability to charge your phone and other devices multiple times.
- Microfibre travel towel – I always opt for this microfibre travel towel because it is super lightweight, easy to wash, and dries easily.
- First Aid kit: Regardless of where you’re traveling to, you’ll need to pack a First Aid kit for emergencies that might arise. Remember it’s always better to be safe than sorry. Just make sure that the one you pack has all the essentials and that it is small and light enough to fit in any kind of suitcase/ backpack. This first aid kit actually fits all the qualities mentioned above plus it is really cheap for what it offers.
18. Be aware of Istanbul travel scams
Like all major cities, Istanbul has its own share of scams targeting majorly tourists.
So as a first-time traveler to Instanbul, the best thing you can do to not get scammed is by researching the most common scams in Istanbul.
Some of the commons scams you should look out for include;
- Being invited for a drink at a bar by a super friendly local that knows a nice place that has the best beers/whiskeys in town.
- Someone offering you help at the Grand Bazaar.
- Street robbery/ Pickpockets
Final Thoughts on the Best Istanbul Travel Tips
Now that you know everything you should know as a first-time traveler to Istanbul, it’s time to pack your bags and get ready to experience a trip of a lifetime.
Have you been to Istanbul yet? Do you have other travel tips for Istanbul that worked for you? Share with us by leaving them in the comment section.
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No worries if you’re not yet ready to book your trip, you can request a free quote from World Nomads here and see if it suits your personal needs!
More posts to help you plan your trip to Turkey:
- Best places to visit in Turkey.
- Things to do in Istanbul at night
- How to enjoy Istanbul on a budget
- Free things to do in Istanbul
- Things to know before traveling to Turkey
- Things to do in Marmaris, Turkey
- Cool facts about Turkey
- Is it safe to travel to Turkey?
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