Tips for Travellers
Tips for Backpackers
Backpacking is a wonderful way to experience a place, and most budget travellers find Istanbul an inexpensive, safe and fun travel option. English is widely spoken, services are plentiful and there are a seemingly never ending supply of hostels aimed at the budget traveller, all of which compete fiercely over which can be the most fun, friendly and best value.
While Sultanahmet undoubtedly boasts some of the most visited sites of Istanbul, some backpackers complain about the high concentration of tourists and relatively high prices of basic goods and eateries. Despite this, Sultanahmet is the most backpacker friendly area in Istanbul. There are a plethora of hostels and guesthouses, most of which offer free Turkish breakfast, wireless internet, bar/cafe/restaurant and travel booking facilities and roof terraces with views to die for. All are within walking distance to the main sites of Sultanahmet, and for an average of €10 - €15 per night it’s hard to go wrong.
Beyoglu/Taksim, on the other hand, is mostly frequented by young Turks out to shop, eat and party. Prices here are usually reasonable and tourists are noticeably thinner on the ground. Most hostels are concentrated in and around Istiklal Street, within minutes walk to the thousands of shops, cafes, bars and restaurants of the city. Accommodation tends to cater to a more alternative crowd, and many of the areas hostels are decidedly bohemian in decor, style and atmosphere. Don’t come to Beyoglu expecting an early night’s sleep.
Regardless of where you choose to stay, we have prepared a list of tips we think will help to make your backpacking experience in Istanbul even better:
- Walk it. Istanbul is a wonderfully easy city to travel on by foot, and there’s no more picturesque way to take in the sites. The main attractions of the city are relatively compact and the Eminonu area (including Sultanahmet) is small. The promenade which runs along Kennedy Caddesi to the Galata Bridge is especially popular with joggers and walkers. Beware, however, of the city’s uneven pavements and manic drivers. Cars are king in Istanbul; don’t expect them to stop for pedestrians.
- Get an Akbil. These electronic keys make using public transport in Istanbul easier and cheaper. For a small returnable deposit, the Akbil allows you to prepay for the use of buses, ferries, funicular, trams, metro and metrobus and can be used for multiple passengers. This eliminates the need to constantly purchase tickets, which can be time consuming and confusing for travellers. Akbils can be bought from specially marked kiosks near metro stations and topped up at electronic machines or manned booths.
- Dine Cheaply. There are many dining options for budget travellers in Istanbul; you just need to know where to look. If the delicious street food doesn’t tempt you, head to a tea garden or ‘büfe’, where a wide range of snacks such as toasted sandwiches, hot dogs, döner kebab, baked potatoes and soft drinks can be bought very cheaply. In Sultanahmet most of these are concentrated around the tram stop and further away near Grand Bazaar and Spice Bazaar, while in Taksim they’re practically on every corner.
- Get it for Free. In amongst the pricey shows and hefty museum entrances, there are many things to do Istanbul which don’t cost a dime. In Sultanahmet especially there are a number of tea gardens which offer nightly free whirling Dervish performances, while many hostel bars host regular belly dancing shows. As for sightseeing, keep in mind that all mosques and bazaars are free to enter. Check out our list of free attractions in Istanbul.
- Avoid ‘help’ with bookings. Many hotels and hostels can arrange bookings for you, whether it be for restaurants, airport shuttles, hamams or travel. Although these services are usually reliable and reduce some hassle, booking directly is usually substantially cheaper. Keep in mind that your ‘helpers’ usually pocket a (sometimes hefty) commission in the process.
- Ask first. Many travellers complain about being ‘overcharged’ for things, from services to taxis to food, drinks or merchandise. Make sure to establish the price before ordering to avoid potential misunderstandings.
- Learn some Turkish. A few simple words will go a long way in improving your Istanbul experience. Although English is widely spoken, basic greetings and phrases will be appreciated and will make people think twice about charging you the ‘tourist rate.’ See our section on Turkish Language Basics.
Above all, enjoy your time in Istanbul!
Tips for Disabled Travellers
Disabled travellers will have a difficult time in Istanbul. Although the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism has launched an initiative aimed at improving facilities for disabled visitors in Istanbul, the uneven sidewalks, steep, cobbled streets and lack of ramps mean that navigating the streets in a wheelchair is near impossible. Few of the major mosques or palaces have wheelchair access and public transport is equally problematic.Sites with the best facilities for the disabled include the Pera, Istanbul Modern and Rahmi M. Koc museums. Major hotels will usually have facilities for the disabled such as specially fitted bathrooms and elevators.
Tips for Women Travellers
Women travellers often find that they attract more attention that they are used to in Istanbul. However, this rarely goes beyond staring or bad pick up lines.Turkish men are generally extremely polite and courteous, and will usually go out of their way to help visitors- male or female - and you will often find that a local will come to your aid if you are looking lost or confused. Lone female travellers shouldn’t find that they have any significant problems, however, as in any Western country, women should avoid walking alone at night or in undesirable areas.The wearing of low cut or strappy tops or very short skirts is also not recommended and is not common amongst Turkish women. Violent crime such as rape is less common in Turkey than in many other countries, however, it does occur, so abide by usual precautions. Turkish women generally dress more conservatively than in Western Europe and around 30% of Muslim women in Turkey wear a headscarf and overcoat.
Tips for Parents
Those travelling with children in Istanbul often remark on how easy, safe and enjoyable it is. Children are treasured in Turkish culture and Turkish people often display deep affection for young ones and foreign kids in particular will find themselves at the centre of attention. The city itself provides a constant source of entertainment- from its colourful streets and inhabitants to its many resident animals such as cats, birds and even dolphins. There are a variety of sites geared towards children like Miniaturk, the Rahmi M. Koc Transport Museum, Istanbul Dolphinarium, Turkuazoo Aquarium and Istanbul Modern. Istanbul’s many parks are also a great place for children to let off some steam. Turkish food is rarely spicy, of a high standard of hygiene and offers many tasty options for young visitors. Western dishes such as hamburgers and French fries usually feature on menus as an alternative to Turkish options. Don’t miss a stop by one of the famous ice-cream sellers for an amusing performance and great tasting treat. Many sites, especially museums, offer discounts for children and students and some have discounts for families.
Tips for Gay Travellers
Homosexual relations have been legal in Turkey since 1858 and it remains one of only a handful of countries in the Middle East which allows consensual gay relations. Despite this, social and religious norms mean that significant homophobia exists, especially in smaller towns and rural areas. Istanbul is one of the more gay-friendly areas in Turkey and while the city’s gay scene is small compared to many other European cities, it remains lively, with several cafes, bars and nightclubs catering to gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people. Most of these bars are concentrated around the Beyoglu-Taksim area, which is one of the most liberal parts of the city. Some of these venues can be seedy and gay travellers should exercise some caution. Public displays of affection among same sex couples is not common in Turkey and is generally frowned upon. See http://turkeygayguide.tripod.com/istanbul.html for more tips and information about popular gay hangouts in Istanbul.
Mosques in Istanbul, especially in the tourist-heavy areas, are generally very welcoming to non-Muslims. However, visitors are asked to follow a few basic etiquette rules on entry.
Muslims pray 5 times daily, and it is best to avoid entering a mosque at prayer time, especially on Fridays which is the most holy day and mosques are at their busiest. Shoes must be removed prior to entry to a mosque, and plastic bags are almost always on hand to carry them with you.
What to wear in Mosques
Both women and men should avoid showing their knees and shoulders - i.e. no short skirts or shorts. Women are asked to cover their head; it’s wise to carry a scarf in your bag, otherwise most mosques have a few on hand for this purpose.
It is customary to tip about 10% at restaurants in Turkey. If the bill reads ‘servis dahil’, then the service charge has already been tacked on.
Hamam (Turkish bath) attendants will generally expect up to 25%.
It’s not usual to tip taxi drivers or barmen in Turkey.
Harem - Topkapi Palace
Hagia Sophia ©Helen Simpson
Istanbul at night by Mista Rig...
Bosphorus Cruise by Mista Rigg...
Galata Bridge © Yildirim Incea...
"The air was soft, the stars so fine, the promise of every cobbled alley so great, that I thought I was in a dream" - Jack Kerouac