I spent nine weeks in Istanbul and took notes every time something about life in the city surprised me. Now, I’m sharing them with you so you can come a bit more prepared for your stay in the city!
My top 14 Istanbul travel tips cover money, transport, scams and so much more – check them out below!
1. The water isn’t safe to drink.
The water in Istanbul isn’t safe to drink so you’ll have to buy bottled water instead. If you don’t want to lug it to your apartment, you can also get it delivered with the Yemeksepeti delivery app.
2. Tipping isn’t necessary.
But if the service is good you can leave a few lira or round up the bill. You can only tip in cash, though – if you pay with a card, there’s no line on the receipt to add a tip as well.
3. Alcohol is expensive!
Alcohol is taxed pretty heavily in Turkey, which means those higher prices are passed on to us consumers. Basic beers like Tuborg or Carlsberg cost 10 lira / 2 usd to buy in a shop or 20 lira / 4 usd in a bar. Cocktails are usually around 7 usd and bottles of wine (in a shop) start around 6 usd. Liquor is the most expensive type of alcohol in Turkey and where you’ll probably see the most discrepancy in prices vs. what you’re used to paying at home.
BeerHall in Istanbul’s Besiktas neighborhood
4. Cafe culture dominates the city.
Because Istanbul has a large Muslim population, and because of the rising prices of alcohol, many people in the city drink coffee all night instead. Cafes are open until two/three/four in the morning where you’ll see (the apparently caffeine-immune) students sipping full-strength coffee all night long.
5. Yabangee is a great resource for expats.
Yabangee is an expat “club” with a website and regular meetups. I went to their monthly trivia night but they also have a monthly ‘Expat Spotlight’ event and throw parties almost every weekend as well. Follow them on Instagram for regular updates on what’s coming up next.
6. Card readers are pretty finicky.
It’s a good idea to always have at least a little bit of cash on you when you visit Istanbul. Most places take cards, but I found our cards were randomly declined from time to time for no noticeable reason. However, if you don’t have cash on you at the moment there’s usually an ATM nearby and it won’t be a big deal.
7. Keep an eye out for hair transplants.
I didn’t know before I arrived that Istanbul exports hair transplants like crazy. Tourists come from the Gulf and Europe to get theirs done here, so expect to see men walking around with bandaged up heads – they’re everywhere. Nose jobs are pretty common as well.
8. There are more than 3000 mosques in the city.
I guess this is more of a travel fact than an Istanbul travel tip but I learned it on the free walking tour and thought it was pretty interesting.
Suleymaniye Mosque is just one of many you need to add to your Istanbul itinerary
9. The currency has fluctuated a lot in recent years.
This is definitely one of those Istanbul travel tips I wish I knew before I arrived. The value of the lira has dropped significantly in the past few years, so reading old forums, threads, and blog posts that include prices in lira are no longer accurate – keep that in mind when planning your trip or you might be in for an unpleasant financial surprise!
10. Ubers are crazy nice.
Every Uber in Istanbul is a gigantic Mercedes sprinter van with leather bench seats facing each other like a limo. They’re pretty fun to ride, but the metro is so far-reaching and easy to use that you probably won’t find yourself in an Uber too often during your stay.
11. The internet is regulated.
A lot of websites are inaccessible in Turkey, like PayPal, Wikipedia, and Booking.com just to name a few. Most major VPNs are blocked as well so don’t expect to be able to use one during your stay.
12. The Metro has a ferry line
To use the metro you need to buy an IstanbulKart at the automated kiosks at the metro stations. It costs 6 lira / 1 usd, and then you can reload it throughout your stay. It’s pretty cool because it gets you on the subway, the buses, and even the ferry line which will take you to Kadikoy on the Asian side of the city or even all the way out to the Prince Islands.
Take the ferry to Kadikoy at sunset for the best views of the city
12. The Havabus makes getting to the airports easy.
The Havabus is especially useful in traveling to the Sabiha Gokcen Airport (SAW) because it’s so far from the city center that an Uber would be a fortune. It’s convenient for travel to the Ataturk Airport (IST) as well. It leaves from Taksim every 30 minutes (check out the schedule here) and costs 18 lira / 3 usd per person.
14. Beware the shoe shine scam.
Ok, this ‘scam’ is so dumb and not really malicious but I still think it belongs on the list of Istanbul travel tips. Basically, a shoeshine man will walk past you and pretend to drop his brush. When you stop him to give it back, he’ll pressure you to get your shoe shined. It happened to us twice, so just ignore it and keep walking if they drop their brush when you pass by.
Ready to plan the rest of your trip? Check out the Turkey Series for more tips like the 8 best cheap restaurants in Istanbul, the top 27 Instagram spots in the city, 13 things to do at night in Istanbul and so much more!