Istanbul Tips, part I: Planning a visit to Istanbul

This is the first in a five part series of ‘Istanbul Tips’: Planning a visit, Orienting yourself on arrivalRestaurant & Entertainment Highlights, Settling in for the longer term, and Getting a residence permit

I could write a book on why you should come and see Istanbul, but enough people already have. If you already know you’d like to visit, this should answer some questions you may have and provide some guidance on how to get here. If you decide to come, you can find the link to an even more detailed document at the end of this one. Topics covered:
Costs

Where to Stay
Language
Dress
Getting Around
Getting Here
Domestic Travel in Turkey

Costs

  • Istanbul is not as cheap as many people anticipate, but it’s still a degree of magnitude less expensive than most of Europe – with the unfortunate exception of alcohol prices, which are on par with London/New York/Paris. Ho[s]tels at all price ranges ($15 and up) can be found through all the regular channels, and there’s a rich selection of places on AirBnb. The main attractions can cost up to 10€ each, though considering their historical significance this hardly seems unreasonable.Public transport, Turkish food, scarves and ceramics are very very cheap. A cheap meal will set you back 3-5€; there are lots of pleasant restaurants where lunch/dinner will cost 15-20€, and the high-end stuff will cost 50-100€ per person.
  • Roughly, $1 = 1.7 TL and 1€ = 2.5 TL and £1 = 2.8 TL
  • There are ATMs and money-exchange places all over the place, including the arrivals hall of the airport, so no need to exchange money in advance.
  • Domestic flights within Turkey are very reasonable, usually under $100 each way and often much less. The bus network is also very comprehensive and cheap. In my opinion, you can comfortably cover Istanbul’s top sights in four days, so if you’re planning to be here a week or more, I’d definitely recommend getting outside of Istanbul. There are plenty of great trips that can even be done within a day, if you get the flight timing right, or more pleasantly over two.

Where to Stay

  • I used to live in Cihangir, near Taksim Square, in what is one of the best locations for both visiting and living in Istanbul.

  • If you’re in town for a very short time, you might want to stay in Sultanahmet, where the bulk of the blockbuster tourist sights (Aya Sofya, Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, etc) are located. Everything from hostels to boutiques to five stars is an option.

  • However Sultanahmet gets old quickly and I’d recommend staying anywhere in Beyoglu, which is modern Istanbul’s historic downtown area. Taksim, Galata, Cihangir, Pera, and Cukurcuma are all good areas within Beyoglu, and again there are ho[s]tels in most all comfort and price ranges.

  • If you’re looking for luxury Ciragan Palace (Kempinski) and the Four Seasons on the Bosphorus just north of Beyoglu are the places to be. However, beware that the traffic between your hotel and almost all the sights will be pretty terrible, especially in the summer.

Language

  • The amount of English spoken corresponds with how many foreigners tend to be in the area. In the tourist centers, you’ll be fine with zero Turkish. In Beyoglu, most people speak at least a bit of English. However, in most of Istanbul – and in Turkey as a whole – English is not widely understood. With about 5 minutes of effort, you can learn a few key phrases that will make navigation easy (all included in the document linked at the bottom of this one).

Dress:

  • You shouldn’t have to change the way you dress. Shorts/short skirts will not be frowned upon except in the most conservative of areas (ones you probably won’t be going to anyway) and when visiting mosques.

  • To go into mosques, you must take off your shoes. Women need to cover their head, shoulders, and legs (leggings and skirts below the knee are usually ok). Men are expected to wear trousers, not shorts, though it’s not quite as strictly enforced. Most mosques provide scarfs and attractive floor-length lab coats in case you come unprepared.

  • Istanbul is not an overly dressy place and there are very, very few places that will turn you away based on what you’re wearing.

  • Istanbul makes San Francisco look like the Bolivian Salt flats. The hills are killer and there are lots of cobblestone streets. Comfortable shoes are a must.

Getting around

  • Public transport: Istanbul’s network of metro, tram, bus, minibus, shared taxi, and funiküler can seem confusing, but it is pretty comprehensive and very cheap.

  • Taxis are cheap IF you get an honest cabbie. Unfortunately, they are the exception rather than the rule. This is another incentive to stay in Beyoglu or Sultanahmet, where almost all of the sites will be within walking distance or easy public transport.

Getting here:
Flights

  • Kayak.com is reliable, but skyscanner.com tends to have more options and allows you to search on flexible dates. It’s worth checking both.
  • Istanbul has two airports,
  • Atatürk and Sabiha Gökçen. Almost all discount flights go to/from Sabiha. No US carriers fly to Sabiha, but you could go there if you connect through Europe. Both have advantages and disadvantages:

    • Why Ataturk is better: closer to the city center (~40 minutes to Taksim vs 60-80 or more from Sabiha Gokcen)
    • Why Sabiha Gokcen is better: lines at passport control are usually shorter, airport as a whole is easier and quicker to navigate

  • From the US
  • Delta, United, and Turkish Airlines fly direct to Atatürk from
    New York, Chicago, DC, and SF, and dozens of airlines will give you connecting flights through Europe.
  • It may be much cheaper to buy a round trip to somewhere in Europe and then fly discount from there (see below).

  • From Europe:
  • England: Easyjet flies from Luton/Gatwick and is generally the cheapest. Turkish Airlines also sometimes has absurdly cheap fares, especially for students, and you get miles, aren’t charged for your baggage, and almost always arrive at Atatürk. British Air is the only other conventional airline to fly directly to Istanbul from London. Pegasus has a good Gatwick-Sabiha Gokcen line with competitive but not rock-bottom prices. Excellent Turkish carrier Atlasjet started a London Stansted-Istanbul Ataturk line in April 2012.
  • Sun Express is a reliable carrier from Germania (Germany, Austria, Switzerland). Condor flies from Germania, Sweden, London, and Barcelona. Pegasus is expanding quickly and has a great network of flights from Europe and also onwards to the middle east (Tel Aviv, Beirut).

  • Elsewhere:
  • Istanbul is a great hub for flights to/from the
    Middle East, Central, South and East Asia, and Africa. I hear the flights to/from India in particular are very very cheap.

Other Transport options

  • Seat61 is the best source of information on train journeys. I’ve taken the Bucharest-Istanbul and Sofia-Istanbul train with no hitches. Unfortunately the Thessaloniki-Istanbul line seems to be suspended until the Greek government has money again.
  • There are regular ferries from many places in Greece to the Turkish coast (Izmir, Canakkale) during the summer.
  • Dozens of overnight buses run from Sofia and they are generally quicker than the train.

Domestic Travel:

    There are many fabulous places to visit in Turkey, so if you’re coming all the way to Istanbul you might want to do some extra exploring.
  • Transport
  • Buses are cheap, comfortable, and comprehensive. They are usually the quickest ground transport between cities – you can get anywhere in Turkey in about 24 hours.
  • Trains are very slow (except the Istanbul-Ankara line) but can be scenic.
  • Domestic flights are absurdly cheap. Atlas Jet, Anadolu Jet, Onur Air, Turkish, Pegasus, and Sun Express will take you all over Turkey for $15-60 each way if booked in advance.
  • Where to go: oh, so many wonderful places to see. Check out Lonely Planet and see what appeals. The crowd-pleasers are generally Capadoccia and Ephesus, both of which I heartily recommend – though try to pick a season when Ephesus won’t be overrun with crowds. ** There are more elaborate descriptions in the document linked below, but a quick overview:** I’ve really enjoyed visiting the Mediterranean and Aegean coast (Olympos, Bergama, Afrodisias, and Pamukkale were highlights; Antalya was great out of season). Safranbolu, Amasra and Edirne were nice enough, but definitely second/third tier sights. The Syriac cities in the southeast (Mardin, Gazantiep, and Sanliurfa) sound fascinating. Ani on the Armenian border was my favorite site by far but there’s not much tourist infrastructure yet, so make sure you know at least some Turkish/have a phrasebook before you attempt this. 


  • Once you’ve decided you’re going to come for sure, you can find a lot more tips


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