Istanbul Travel Tips
The second I landed in Istanbul, I knew that I had arrived somewhere truly special. From the port, you could see the famed Blue Mosque adorn the skyline, along with the beautiful Hagia Sophia and a handful more of the almost 3000 active mosques in Turkey’s cultural capital city, and the only city in the world to straddle two continents.
Whether you’ve already made travel plans for Istanbul or are just thinking about visiting, read on for Istanbul travel tips as well as the essential Must See attractions and Must Eat delicacies for the intrepid traveler.
1. Istanbul Is Hilly But Walkable
While not entirely flat, most of the famous sites and attractions can be found in the Sultanahmet-Old City area. Once in the area, it’s easy to walk around although some of the hills can be challenging if you’re elderly or injured. I walked around all day with my 78 year old father and while he survived, he definitely was straining towards the end of the day.
2. Istanbul Metro & Tram Is Fast And Cheap
For 4 Turkish Lira, you take the tram to get around the various neighbourhoods of Istanbul. There are machines at the tram stops where you can buy the transit tokens and then pass through the turnstiles. The trains are fairly fast and frequent but are also quite busy. The main line, T1, stops near the Blue Mosque at Sultanahmet stop. You can get off and start your exploration of Istanbul there. Or you can…
3. Stay In Sultanahmet-Old City
This is the heart of Istanbul and is central to all the major attractions. You’ll have easy access to the T1 Tram line, tons of restaurants, and pretty much everything you need.
4. Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, and The Grand Bazaar In One Day
It might sound a bit ambitious and you’ll be walking a lot but you can squeeze all of these amazing sights in a single day. Start early and get off the Tram T1 line at Sultanahmet and walk to the Blue Mosque. On the way, you should pass the German Fountain and the ancient Egyptian Obelisk, both are worth seeing. After the Blue Mosque, you can easily walk to the stunning Sophia Hagia. Afterwards, you can walk back to the main street where the T1 line runs, and walk to the Grand Bazaar. Then, if you’re still feeling peppy, you can walk north towards the Egyptian Spice Market for some Turkish Delight and then over to Galata Bridge where you can enjoy the view and have a delicious fish sandwich, Belik Ekmek, a local specialty.
5. Enjoy a Cup of Tea While Shopping
Whether you’re in the Grand Bazaar or another shop elsewhere, don’t be alarmed or suspicious if you’re offered a cup of tea while browsing. Don’t worry, it’s customary, safe, and quite often delicious! And while you might feel more obligated to purchase something (that’s kind of the point), it’s not rude to just thank them for the tea and move on if you don’t see anything you like. Try the Apple Tea, you won’t regret it.
6. Bargain, bargain, bargain!
Like most Asian markets, it is very common and often expected to haggle in the Grand Bazaar. A good price to go for would be around 40-50% of the original asking price. And if they aren’t going for it, then simply start walking away (that’s the best bargaining tactic). You can always come back later or you can probably find it somewhere else.
Istanbul Travel Tips : Must See
1. Sultan Ahmed Mosque (The Blue Mosque)
Popularly named the Blue Mosque after the tiles adorning the walls of the interior, it is the only mosque in Istanbul with six minarets. It truly is a breathtaking sight and an absolute must see. Entry is free but women must cover up (you can borrow a scarf for free) and everyone has to take off their shoes. Tourists get a separate entrance and visiting area and are not allowed in the prayer area, but photography is allowed.
2. Hagia Sophia
The beautiful Hagia Sophia, once a church, then a mosque, and now a museum, is another top attraction in Istanbul and well worth seeing. There is often a fairly long lineup to enter so I would recommend getting there early or buying tickets online. If you plan on visiting a few other museums in Istanbul, then it might be worthwhile to buy the Istanbul Museum Pass.
3. The Grand Bazaar
If you love shopping, then you will love this massive covered market. It’s one of the world’s largest and oldest markets with over 3000 shops across 61 streets. Keep in mind though, it’s a major tourist attraction and, as is the case with anything touristy, prices are hiked up for the unsuspecting buyer. If you’re good at haggling, then shop away. Otherwise, you might want to compare prices with shops that are just outside the Grand Bazaar before you agree to buy something.
4. Taksim Square
Considered the heart of modern Istanbul, this vibrant area is filled with shopping streets, restaurants, bars, and a fresh seafood market. It’s definitely worth checking out and spending an afternoon sightseeing. You can take the T1 Tram line from Old City to Kabatas and then either walk up to Taksim Square (be warned, it’s a steep uphill climb) or take the Funicular up to the top.
Istanbul Travel Tips: Must Eat
1. Döner kebab
The quintessential Turkish sandwich of mixed meat (usually lamb, sometimes a mix of beef, veal, or chicken as well) is always delicious and cheap. You cannot leave Istanbul without trying a döner from any of the countless local street restaurants. They will range in quality and price though so just look for the busiest ones with the most locals eating and you should be fine.
2. Lokum – Turkish Delight
Do NOT buy the 1€ or 10TL Turkish Delight packaged boxes! I made that mistake and found out that they are dry, stale, and taste like shit. Go only for the fresh ones that you can sample on the spot. Best place I found was in the Egyptian Spice Bazaar (Mısır Çarşısı) north of the Grand Bazaar. You can ask to taste a few samples and then select a variety of them. Price is based on weight and they can usually vacuum seal the bag for longevity.
3. Balik Ekmek – Fish Sandwich
I cannot tell you how sad I am to have only found out about this AFTER I had left Istanbul. But these delicious and cheap fish sandwiches can be found on the fish boats beside the Galata Bridge. They are a local specialty and I think I’m going to have to fly back to Istanbul just to eat it. Fine by me! 🙂
A kind of Turkish pizza, these thin crust flatbreads usually have some minced meat, vegetables, and spices sprinkled on top and then baked like a pizza. Delicious and cheap.
Istanbul Travel Tips: Scams
1. The Shoe brush Drop
This was the only scam that I encountered but damn, did I see it happen often. Basically, the shoe shiner will get up a few paces in front of you, “accidentally” drop his brush, and continue walking away, “unaware” that he has lost his brush. You, being the polite Westerner that you are, pick it up and flag him down to give it back. He extends gratitude to you and offers a free shoe shine, which in the end, after some sad stories about his starving family and children, will not be free after all. Good thing I was wearing my hiking shoes! Anyway, if you want a shoe shine, as with any service in any country, agree to a price up front to avoid any sort of dispute.
Istanbul is a massive city and there’s no way I could possibly cover everything in one article. I hope these Istanbul travel tips are helpful though and get you to worry less and enjoy more of this amazing place.
What are the top Istanbul travel tips that you think are important? Must see, must do, must eats? Do you have any other questions about Istanbul? Ask below and I will do my best to answer!