Dolmabahce Palace in Istanbul

Tips For Visiting Istanbul: The Ultimate Guide For First-timers

If you are traveling to Istanbul for the first time, you will probably find the city chaotic, noisy, and overcrowded. Read this guide full of useful tips for visiting Istanbul and arrive prepared to appreciate its overwhelming beauty and the friendliness and hospitality of the Turkish people. A photographer’s dream, Istanbul is diverse, colorful, and scenic.

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Turkey Visa Requirements

Do you need a visa for Turkey? Turkey visa requirements depend on the nationality of the traveler.

As a rule of thumb, most European and South American citizens don’t need a visa to enter the country as tourists. Some of them can even enter with a national ID, instead of with a passport. Many Asian passport holders don’t need a visa either.

Turkish Visa On Arrival

Citizens of the USA, Canada, Mexico, and Australia, among others, can apply for an e-visa or receive a Turkish visa on arrival. Applying for an e-visa will save you time and money, as the visa-on-arrival fees are higher.

Do you need a visa for Turkey? Check Turkey’s visa policy here.

Best Time To Go To Istanbul

People enjoying the snow-fall around the historical tram at Istiklal street in Istanbul

Istanbul is a year-round destination. The best time to visit Istanbul is spring and fall. The weather is pleasant for walking. And be prepared to walk a lot while exploring Istanbul, regardless of the season.

Summer might not be the best time to travel to Istanbul. It rarely gets extremely hot, but since it is the high season, you will find more crowds and prepare to wait at long lines to visit the attractions.

Winter is also a good time to go to Istanbul. The city almost never experiences freezing temperatures, although it can be windy. It rarely snows in Istanbul, but if you are lucky enough to witness a snowfall, as I was during one of my visits a few years ago, it will be a memorable experience, as you can see in the picture above.

How Many Days To Spend In Istanbul

Wondering how many days to spend in Istanbul? The short answer is as many as possible. Istanbul is a huge city and has enough attractions to last a lifetime. I can’t count how many times I’ve been to Istanbul and every time I go I find something new to do and explore.

Istanbul Aiport To The City

Istanbul has two international airports for passenger flights.

Istanbul’s main international airport is Istanbul (İstanbul Havalimanı) with the airport code IST. It is located on the European side, about 60 km from the city center. You will most likely land at Istanbul Airport

Sabiha Gokcen Airport (airport code SAW) is located on the Asian side. It mainly serves domestic and low-cost flights.

The former international airport, Atatürk Airport, doesn’t serve commercial passenger flights anymore.

Street food stall near Galata Bridge in Istanbul

You can travel from Istanbul Airport to the city by metro, shuttle bus, taxi, or private transfer. Read my complete guide on how to get from both Istanbul airports to Istanbul city center.

Getting Around In Istanbul

One of the best tips for visiting Istanbul you can get is to use its public transportation. Istanbul has a fabulous public transportation system. It is cheap, reliable, and easy to navigate. Buy your Istanbul Kart first, as it is the only way to pay for using a tram, funicular, metro, bus, or ferry in Istanbul.

Istanbul Card is called Istanbul Kart in Turkish

Read also: How To Get Around Istanbul By Public Transportation

Taxis In Istanbul

Taxis in Istanbul are metered, so you can expect the fares to be fair. However, Istanbul is a busy city, and Istanbul taxi prices can vary greatly from one trip to the next, depending on the time of day and traffic. Sometimes taxi drivers in Istanbul make the trip unnecessarily long and thus the taxi prices are higher.

Istanbul Uber

In the rare cases when I couldn’t get to my destination by public transportation, I preferred Uber. Yes, there is an Uber in Istanbul. In Istanbul, Uber is safe, reliable, and affordable. I’ve never waited more than a few minutes for a car to arrive.

Tipping In Istanbul

In Istanbul, it is customary to tip 10-15% in restaurants, bars, etc. if you are satisfied with the service. In taxis, round up the bill.

In services such as hammams (Turkish baths), hairdressers, and manicurists, a slightly higher tip is expected, ranging from 15% to 20%.

Settling The Bill In Istanbul

You will often find local restaurants where you are not expected to ask for a check to pay your bill. You have to go to the cash register and pay the bill there. How they know which table you came from is a mystery to me. There is a tip box at the counter. Put the tip in it.

Basilica Cistern in Istanbul

What is Meze

If it’s your first visit to Istanbul, you may be surprised to find that when you sit down in a restaurant, small plates are immediately brought to your table. They usually contain tomatoes, onions, peppers, and some chili sauce.

They may seem free, but they will be included in your bill, so you have the right to refuse them. However, I would advise you against doing it. They are not expensive at all and always come in handy while waiting for the food to be prepared. This may not be your case, but I am always starving after hours of walking and sightseeing.

Drinking Tap Water In Istanbul

Avoid drinking tap water. Buy bottled water instead.

Public Restrooms In Istanbul

There are many public toilets in Istanbul. Men’s rooms are marked with “bay” and women’s rooms with “bayan”. There is usually a small fee to enter. If you don’t have any coins, you can use your Istanbulkart to pay. If you don’t see a public restroom around you, ask a nearby restaurant to use theirs or look for a mosque. They always have toilets. The restrooms in the shopping malls are free.

Etiquette For Visiting A Mosque

Visiting times: Avoid visiting mosques during prayer times. Some of them may not allow visitors even half an hour before prayer time.
Shoes: All visitors must remove their shoes before entering a mosque. You may leave your shoes outside the mosque or carry them with you but they should be placed in a plastic bag. Consider bringing socks with you if you don’t feel comfortable walking barefoot, especially in the summer.
Photos: Taking photos is generally allowed, though make sure not to take pictures of people praying.
General: Avoid making noise, be respectful, and remember that mosques are not just tourist attractions, they are places of worship.

The Blue Mosque in Istanbul

What To Wear To A Mosque

Visiting a mosque dress code: Knees, shoulders, and upper arms must be covered. Women must cover their hair. Although you can borrow a cover at the entrance of most mosques, it is not a bad idea to bring your own scarf to cover yourself.

How To Dress In Istanbul As A Woman

If this is your first time in Istanbul, you’re probably wondering what to pack. Istanbul is a cosmopolitan city, and you’ll find women dressed in many different ways. From the strictly conservative to the edgier.

Dress in Istanbul as you would feel comfortable. But don’t forget, Turkey is a Muslim country. If possible, women should avoid dressing provocatively in Istanbul to avoid attracting unwanted attention.

Forget the high heels. There is a lot of walking in Istanbul.

Is Istanbul Safe

Istanbul is a safe city. As a tourist, you will hardly have any safety concerns. Just behave as you would in any big city. Beware of pickpockets, although I never saw or heard of any.

Early morning in Istanbul

Alcohol In Istanbul

Not all restaurants in Istanbul serve alcohol, although there are some places where you can drink alcohol in Istanbul.

The most popular alcoholic drink is raki. It is very similar to the Greek ouzo. If you are more of a wine drinker, Turkey has excellent wines from the Anatolian region. If you find wines from Midyat or Mardin in Istanbul, don’t doubt them. If you prefer to drink beer, then go for Efes.

Alcohol prices in Istanbul are high compared to food prices.

Do They Speak English In Istanbul

You will not find many English speakers in Istanbul, although there are many more than in other parts of Turkey. As a rule of thumb, those who work in tourism-related businesses have some knowledge of English. Young people are more likely to speak English than older people.

That said, Turkish people are very friendly and helpful. They will go out of their way to help you, even if they don’t understand a word you’re saying. Google Translate often comes in handy (one of the reasons to consider buying a local SIM) and a few words in Turkish can make a huge difference.

Tips For Shopping In Istanbul

The Spice bazaar in Istanbul

It’s up to you whether you want to shop in Istanbul Grand Bazaar or not, but bargaining in the bazaars is mandatory. If you don’t see a price tag, take it as an invitation to haggle. I feel very uncomfortable bargaining, that’s why I avoid bazaars, the only exception being the Spice Bazaar.

My favorite district for shopping in Istanbul is Beyoğlu. The side streets around Galata Tower and up to Taxim Square are full of small shops selling everything from unique shoes to musical instruments.

How To Avoid Crowds In Istanbul

Over a million tourists visit Istanbul each month. And most of them will want to visit the major attractions. Don’t be discouraged by long lines. In most cases, they will move quickly.

However, many of the tourists in Istanbul are Turkish people visiting the city for the weekend. So if you are flexible with your travel time, avoid the weekends.

Summer is the peak season. Many foreign tourists stop in Istanbul on their way to Cappadocia, Antalya, and other seaside resorts, so avoid it if you want to visit the tourist attractions of Istanbul with fewer crowds.

To visit mosques, avoid Fridays. Many of them do not open to tourists until the afternoon. Some do not allow tourists at all.

Plan Your Activities In Advance

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To wrap it up: Planning your first trip to Istanbul can be overwhelming, but after reading the above tips for visiting Istanbul, you will arrive prepared to enjoy your stay to the fullest. And keep them for future reference, as most of them apply to all of Turkey.

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