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. After traveling to Istanbul in June 2018 for the first time, I have enough knowledge to write a travel guide to Istanbul for first time visitors using my personal and general experiences.
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- Aia and Europe.
Istanbul is one of the major touristic cities in the world receiving over 39 million number of tourist 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.
This post is not about the things to do or places to see in Istanbul or even places to stay but rather tips for first-time visitors in Istanbul.
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.
Travel advice to Istanbul for first time visitors
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! If you choose to travel to Istanbul by plane, you can check out the flight weekly deals with Skyscanner and book your flight with Expedia, the number one website with great flight deals.
Just like traveling to any other place, you’ll need to obtain a visa if you’re coming from another country. You can apply for an e-visa from the Turkish visa information website.
Related post: The ultimate guide to visiting Turkey
Istanbul Travel tips for first time visitors
1. Don’t try to see everything in Istanbul
As I said earlier on, 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. 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.
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.
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. 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. You can still use the yellow taxis but I found the experience of using an Istanbul card very interesting and convenient.
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. It can 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.
If you’re planning to travel to Istanbul only, get yourself an Istanbul museum pass that costs 125TL and gives you a one time access to most museums and archaeological sites for 120 hours after the initial usage of the pass.
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 for visiting Istanbul.
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 cost with 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.
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 depend 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 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 to, 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 phrase a sentence, I’d see the Turks eyes lighten up more. This shows them that you’re not just visiting the touristic 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. Carry a map.
Since these days paper maps are being thrown out slowly by slowly, you can use apps. You can use the good old google maps or Yandex.maps for navigation within Istanbul.
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 bookings.com and choose the best hotel to suit your needs.
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 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.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) by First-time visitors in Istanbul
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 Sophia Hagia, the blue mosque and the grand bazaar, Istanbul should be on everyone’s bucket list. Even with so many things to do 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 ways 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.
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.
Related post: Is it safe to travel to Turkey now?
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 more than 5 days in Istanbul to be able to experience Istanbul 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.
What is the best time to visit Istanbul?
The best time to visit Istanbul still depends on you individually, whether you want to do summer activities or winter activities. But as a first-time traveler to Istanbul, it is better to travel during the months of May, June and all other summer times to be able to enjoy Istanbul without worrying about wearing several coats and jackets to warm up.
Now that you know everything you should know as a first time traveler to Istanbul, its time to pack your bags and get ready to experience a trip of a lifetime.
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