10 Things to Know Before You Visit Istanbul: Helpful Istanbul Travel Tips
Istanbul is a magnificent beast.
Thirty-nine districts, 15 million people, and 1700-plus years of history – it’s still difficult for me to wrap my head around a city of this scale.
I never know where to begin with Istanbul. And yet every time I arrive, I somehow feel instantly at ease. Turkey’s biggest metropolis has a way of encircling you, sweeping you up and taking you along for the ride. For me, it’s one of those places where it’s best to relinquish expectations and anxieties and just go with the flow.
That’s easier said than done, and there are countless tidbits I wish I had known before I visited Istanbul for the first time back in 2019. On my recent re-visit, there were many more things I noticed for the first time.
I struggled to whittle this list down to a digestible size – not because travelling in Istanbul is particularly complicated or difficult, but because when you’re dealing with a city of such incredible breadth and depth, there’s just so much to talk about.
Here are 10 Istanbul tips that I think every traveller will benefit from
1. AVOID VISITING IN SUMMER
Never underestimate Istanbul’s magnetism. The city pulled in more than 14 million tourists in 2019 (including me), and on my most recent trip in 2022, it felt just as crowded as it had been three years earlier.
I’m willing to bet that most people visit Istanbul during the summer months – June, July and August. This feels a bit hypocritical because I myself have visited Istanbul twice during summer – but because I did, I know what peak season is like.
Istanbul’s climate is quite mild relative to other cities in the region. Temperatures might not go too far beyond 30 degrees Celsius in the shade, but the sun is scorching hot, and it’s very dry.
Aside from the oppressive heat, there are the summer swarms to contend with. (You haven’t really experienced a queue until you’ve stood in line for the Hagia Sophia on an August afternoon.) There are crushing crowds at every landmark during summer, and that gets old pretty quickly. On top of that, accommodation prices are noticeably higher and it can be challenging to get a reservation.
The best time to visit Istanbul is during shoulder season, spring (April to early June) or autumn (mid-September to the start of November). For something different, consider visiting Turkey in winter, when snow covers Istanbul and the city’s charm-o-metre is off the charts.
Take note of the dates for the Holy Month of Ramadan (usually around March-April-May, but it changes every year), which influences the way the city operates.
2. YOU NEED AT LEAST THREE DAYS TO DO ISTANBUL JUSTICE
However many days you give yourself in Istanbul, it will never be enough. You will always feel like you short-changed yourself – there’s always one more neighbourhood to explore, one more ferry trip to take, one more museum to visit, one more restaurant to try…
Three days is the bare minimum for a first-time visitor, but you could easily stay for a week or more.
I recently spent 10 days in Istanbul and found it was a good amount of time to see the city at a relaxed pace. I stayed in the centre for that entire time, though I did have a few ‘down’ days to work. There are dozens of day trip opportunities to break things up if the city gets to be too much.
One of the highlights of Istanbul is the food, so you’d do well to measure the duration of your stay in meals eaten rather than nights slept! Six square meals (and a couple of ‘spread breakfasts’) is ideal for indulging in the best of Istanbul’s food scene.
3. SAVE TIME (AND MAYBE MONEY) BY APPLYING FOR AN E-VISA
Most nationalities require a tourist visa to enter Türkiye. The country’s e-visa scheme, which launched in 2013, is available to citizens of 40+ countries, including the States, Australia and Canada. (EU citizens do not need a visa.) A standard multiple-entry visa is valid for a stay of up to 90 days with 180 days validity from the date of issue.
Visa on arrival (VOA) is also available, but if you’re flying in, it requires queueing at the airport – and because of the high volume of flights arriving at IST particularly, it can be a long wait. For some nationalities, it’s also more expensive – 10 USD dearer on average compared to the e-visa according to the official fees (though for US passport holders, VOA is cheaper).
Applying for a Turkish e-visa requires completing a simple online form. The website has English-language support and international card payment, but be warned that sometimes it’s a bit glitchy. Both times I’ve applied, my visa has landed in my inbox almost instantly (within the hour). Be sure to print off the A4 piece of paper to show at immigration.
4. TRAVEL INSURANCE IS A MUST
Travel insurance is mandatory for all foreign visitors to Turkey. Again, you might not be asked to show proof of insurance if you’re travelling on an e-visa (I haven’t), but rules are rules nonetheless.
Istanbul is generally regarded as a safe city, but pickpocketing and crime do occur. More importantly, local health care can be expensive, so it pays to be covered in case of accident or unexpected illness.
5. USE THE HAVABUS (HAVAIST) SHUTTLE TO TRAVEL TO/FROM THE AIRPORT
Havabus is a terrific service for travelling between Istanbul’s airports (yes, there is more than one – see the next point) and the downtown area. Shuttles operate 24/7, with departures in both directions every 30-60 minutes.
Tip: At Sabiha Gokcen airport, the shuttle is called Havabus and at Istanbul Airport, it’s called Havaist. I have used both – they operate in much the same way, but they have separate websites for checking the schedule.
When you land in Istanbul, look for the airport bus signage. At Sabiha Gokcen, the bus stand is located on the other side of the car park directly in front of the arrivals terminal. Tickets are purchased using cash on the bus and cost 37.50 TRY (around 2 USD) per person to go to Taksim.
6. THERE ARE MULTIPLE AIRPORTS IN ISTANBUL – DON’T FRONT UP AT THE WRONG ONE!
Istanbul Airport (IST) is the city’s largest and busiest international airport. Located on the European side in Arnavutkoy, 40km / 45 minutes’ drive from Taksim Square, it is sometimes referred to as ‘Istanbul Grand Airport’ or IGA. If you’re flying with Turkish Airlines or from Europe, there’s a high chance you will be landing at IST.
A second airport, Sabiha Gokcen International Airport (SAW), receives flights from the Middle East (Emirates, Qatar) as well as Turkey’s own Pegasus Airlines. It is located on the Asian side, 40km / 60 minutes’ drive from Taksim Square.
A third airport, Ataturk Airport, closed in 2019.
The two airports are 80km apart and it takes at least 75-90 minutes to travel between them. There are shuttle buses, but if you show up at the wrong one for your flight, there’s a good chance you’ll be left high and dry. Triple-check your reservation and make sure you show up at the correct airport.
We got caught out with this on our first trip and rolled up at the wrong airport for our flight back to Australia. Luckily we had come a day early with the intention of staying the night at the airport hotel, so we still made our flight.
You can use Havabus/Havaist to get back to the airport from the city, too. Buses depart from Taksim Square. Take the metro to Taksim and follow the exit towards Taksim Gezi Park. From there, the station is a short walk (you will see the coaches waiting and two ticket booths on the footpath).
Buses to both airports depart from the same area, so again, triple-check you’re hopping on the right one!
7. PRE-BOOK YOUR ACCOMMODATION
Hotel platform Booking.com doesn’t work in Turkey, so if this is your preferred way to find accommodation, you’ll need to do your browsing and booking before you arrive. (This can be overcome by using a VPN of course.)
Pre-booking is essential for peak-period travel as properties do fill up and prices can skyrocket for last-minute reservations.
I normally use Airbnb in Istanbul for the simple reason that I prefer to stay in local neighbourhoods. Sisli is my district of choice: It has great access to public transport, fantastic local restaurants, and a more relaxed vibe.
8. CARD IS WIDELY ACCEPTED, BUT IT HELPS TO CARRY CASH
Ninety-nine percent of venues and shops in Istanbul accept credit/debit cards, including Visa and Mastercard, as well as contactless pay. For small markets and convenience stores, local restaurants, bars and taxis – and when dipping into the wonderful world of Istanbul street food – you’ll need cash.
Many smaller shops in Turkey have a primary limit set on card purchases, meaning you need to meet a certain threshold if you want to pay with a card. In these instances, cash is necessary. Small bills also come in handy for tipping (more on that later).
9. MOST ATMS IN TURKEY CHARGE A FEE
ATMs are ubiquitous in Istanbul and most of the time, you’ll see half a dozen different cash machines clustered together. Majority charge a withdrawal fee – up to 5% for some banks – and have a transaction limit of between 3000-5000 TRY.
The only no-fee ATM we could find was Ziraat Bank. It’s red with a distinctive wheatear logo. We also used HalkBank, which did not charge us a withdrawal fee, but did hit us with a 13 TRY fee on Wise.
Banks change their fee structure regularly, so you might need to experiment with a few different machines. If the bank does charge a fee – either a flat fee or a percentage – this should always be displayed on the screen before you finalise the transaction.
On our first trip to Turkey, we had issues with our Australian bank cards not being accepted. This time around, I used my Wise card without any issues. I found the best method for withdrawing cash was to exchange stored currency to Turkish lira within the Wise app, then withdraw lira from the ATM.
Wise is great for international travel and offers very competitive exchange rates – if you don’t yet have an account, you can sign up here.
10. BUYING A SIM CARD IN ISTANBUL IS EASY, BUT YOUR OPTIONS ARE LIMITED
Open WIFI is not readily accessible in Istanbul, which makes buying a local SIM card more or less a necessity.
If you’re not a Turkish citizen and you don’t hold a residency permit, you’ll find you have limited options when it comes to buying a SIM. Low-cost packages are not available to foreigners and most telcos only offer one standard tourist package.
After doing a bit of research, we settled on a Vodafone SIM. Vodafone only has one option for tourists, which includes 20GB of data, calls and texts, and unlimited access to Whatsapp. We paid 350 TRY (around 19 USD).
The process of buying a SIM is very straightforward and only took us about 15 minutes. You need a hard copy of your passport for registration, so make sure you’re carrying it with you. The tourist SIM automatically expires after 60 days.