These days the non-negotiable price tag reigns supreme in most of the city’s retail outlets and bargaining is becoming a dying art. Most exceptions to this rule can be found in the Grand Bazaar, especially in its carpet shops, where shopkeepers continue to take pride in practising the ancient art of bargaining.
Dangers & Annoyances
- Recently, political tensions within the country and the region have led to a violent, ultimately unsuccessful military coup d'état. There have also been terrorist incidents including bomb attacks in areas and facilities frequented by tourists. Visitors should monitor their country's travel advisories and stay alert at all times.
- Always employ common sense when exploring city neighbourhoods. Be particularly careful near the historic city walls, as these harbour vagrants and people with substance-abuse problems – don't walk here alone or after dark.
As a pedestrian, always give way to vehicles; the sovereignty of the pedestrian is recognised in law but not out on the street. Footpaths (sidewalks) and road surfaces are often in a poorly maintained state and some shops have basements that are accessed from the footpath via steep steps without barriers – watch where you are walking!
Theft & Robbery
Theft is not generally a big problem and robbery (mugging) is comparatively rare, but don't let İstanbul's relative safety lull you. Take normal precautions. Areas in which to be particularly careful include Aksaray/Laleli (the city's red-light district), the Grand Bazaar (pickpocket central) and the streets off İstiklal Caddesi in Beyoğlu.
In 2013 an American woman was murdered while exploring one of the areas around the historic city walls. Though an isolated incident, it was a reminder that not all parts of the city are safe – travellers (especially those who are solo) should be careful when exploring derelict buildings/areas and when walking around the city at night.
Most visitors spend at least three days in İstanbul and cram as many museum visits as possible into their stay, so purchasing a Museum Pass İstanbul (http://www.muze.gov.tr/en/museum-card) is worth considering. Valid for 120 hours (five days) from the first museum you visit, it costs ₺85 and allows one entrance to each of Topkapı Palace and Harem, Aya Sofya, Aya İrini, the İstanbul Archaeology Museums, the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts, the Great Palace Mosaics Museum, the Kariye Museum (Chora Church), Galata Mevlevi Museum, Fethiye Museum, Rumeli Hisarı and the İstanbul Museum of the History of Science & Technology in Islam. Purchased individually, admission fees to these sights will cost ₺250, so the pass represents a possible saving of ₺165. It sometimes allows you to bypass ticket queues too.
As well as giving entry to these government-operated museums, the pass also provides discounts on entry to privately run museums such as the Museum of Innocence, the Pera Museum and the Rahmi M Koç Museum.
The pass can be purchased through some hotels and from the ticket offices of all of the museums it covers.
Emergency & Important Numbers
Entry & Exit Formalities
İstanbul's Atatürk International Airport uses the red and green channel system, randomly spot-checking passengers' luggage. You're allowed to import the following without paying duty:
Alcohol 1L of alcohol exceeding 22% volume, 2L of alcoholic beverages max 22% volume
Tobacco 600 cigarettes
Food 1kg each of chocolate, candy, coffee and tea
Currency No limit
Perfume & Cosmetics 5 bottles max 120mL
Note that it's illegal to take antiquities out of the country. Check http://english.gtb.gov.tr/ for more information.
Not required for some (predominantly European) nationalities; most other nationalities can obtain a 90-day visa electronically at www.evisa.gov.tr.
At the time of research, nationals of the following countries (among others) could enter Turkey for up to three months with only a valid passport (no visa required): Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Israel, Italy, Japan, New Zealand, Sweden and Switzerland. Russians could enter for up to 60 days.
Nationals of the following countries (among others) needed to obtain an electronic visa (www.evisa.gov.tr) before their visit: Australia, Canada, China, India, Ireland, Mexico, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Taiwan, UK and USA. These visas were valid for between 30 and 90 days and for either a single entry or multiple entry, depending on the nationality. Visa fees cost US$15 to US$80, depending on nationality.
Your passport must have at least six months' validity remaining, or you may not be admitted into Turkey. See the website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (www.mfa.gov.tr) for the latest information.
- Appointments Be punctual for all appointments.
- Invitations If you invite someone to dine, it is assumed that you will pay the bill.
- Ramazan Avoid eating and drinking on the street during daylight hours in Ramazan (Ramadan).
- Body language Never point the soles of your feet towards a person and don't blow your nose in public.
- Sign language Don't use the OK sign as here it is sign language for calling someone homosexual.
Gay & Lesbian Travellers
Homosexuality isn't illegal in Turkey, but neither is it officially legal. There's a generally ambivalent attitude towards it among the general population, although there are sporadic reports of violence towards gay people, and conservative İstanbullus frown upon open displays of affection between persons of the same sex.
Useful websites include the following:
IstanbulGay.com Handy guide to the gay, lesbian and transgender scenes in the city. It includes plenty of information about gay-friendly clubs, bars and hotels.
Lambda Turkish branch of the international Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Liberation Group.
Trans X Turkey (www.transxturkey.com/en) Advocacy group for Turkey's transgender community.
It's sensible to organise travel insurance, including health cover, before arriving. Worldwide travel insurance is available at www.lonelyplanet.com/travel-insurance. You can buy, extend and claim online anytime – even if you’re already on the road.
Checking insurance quotes…
As is the case elsewhere in Europe, the proliferation of personal communications devices has led to internet cafes becoming a dying breed. Wi-fi connections are ubiquitous in hotels and hostels, and common in cafes, bars and restaurants.
The Turkish government has a well-documented track record in blocking access to social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook during and immediately after security situations such as terrorist attacks. Many locals get around this by using VPNs.
If using a local computer, you may have to use a Turkish keyboard. When doing so, be aware that Turkish has two 'i's: the familiar dotted 'i' and the less familiar dotless 'ı'. Unfortunately the one in the usual place is the dotless 'ı' on a Turkish keyboard; you will need to make sure you use the correct dotted 'i' when typing in a web or email address. To create the @ symbol, hold down the 'q' and the right-hand ALT keys at the same time.
- The age of consent in Turkey is 18, as is the legal age for voting, driving and drinking.
- Technically, you should carry your passport at all times. Many travellers choose to carry a photocopy and leave the actual document in their hotel safe.
- It is illegal to take antiquities out of the country.
- In recent years, local politics has become increasingly socially conservative. This has manifested itself in a number of ways, including police crackdowns on gay venues across the city, especially gay hamams and spas, which are regularly accused of breaching public-decency laws. If you visit one of these hamams, there is a chance that you could be caught up in a police raid.
Antiquities & the Law
When shopping for antiques, it's important to remember that antiquities – objects from Turkey's Hittite, Greco-Roman, Byzantine and early Ottoman past – may not be sold, bought, or taken out of the country under penalty of law. A century-old painting, bowl or carpet usually poses no problems, but a Roman statuette, Byzantine icon or 17th-century İznik tile means trouble and quite possibly time in jail.
The free media in Turkey has been undergoing something of a trial by ordeal over recent years, and the situation seems to be getting worse rather than better. This government interference has made sourcing impartial news a real challenge. There are now only two mainstream English-language newspapers: the Hürriyet Daily News (www.hurriyetdailynews.com) and Daily Sabah (www.dailysabah.com). The Hürriyet Daily News is secularist and the Daily Sabah is unashamedly – many would say scandalously – pro-AKP.
The Guide İstanbul (www.theguideistanbul.com) is a listings-heavy bimonthly guide to the city that is available both online and in magazine format. Many of the city's hotels offer copies of it in guest rooms.
ATMs are widespread. Credit cards accepted at most shops, hotels and upmarket restaurants.
ATMs are everywhere in İstanbul. Virtually all of them offer instructions in English, French and German and will pay out Turkish liras when you insert your bank debit (cash) card. They will also pay cash advances on Visa and MasterCard. The limit on cash withdrawals is generally ₺600 to ₺800 per day, though this varies from bank to bank.
- The 24-hour döviz bürosus (exchange bureaux) in the arrivals halls of the international airports usually offer competitive rates.
- US dollars and euros are easily changed at exchange bureaux. They are sometimes accepted in carpet shops and hotels.
- Turkish liras are fully convertible, so there is no black market.
Most hotels, car-rental agencies, shops, pharmacies, entertainment venues and restaurants will accept Visa and MasterCard; Amex isn't as widely accepted and Diner's is often not accepted. Inexpensive eateries usually accept cash only.
Türk Lirası (Turkish lira; ₺). Coins come in amounts of one, five, 10, 25 and 50 kuruş and one lira; notes come in five, 10, 20, 50, 100 and 200 lira.
Prices on the ground for hotels and organised tours are often cited in euros. Other costs are usually in Turkish liras (₺).
- Restaurants & Bars Usually 10% in restaurants, meyhanes (taverns) and upmarket bars; not usually necessary in lokantas (eateries serving ready-made food) or fast-food joints.
- Taxis Round taxi fares up to the nearest lira.
- Hamams Around 10% for the masseuse/masseur in a hamam, but only if you are happy with their service.
- Meyhanes At least ₺10 per person for musicians in meyhanes.
Opening hours vary wildly across businesses and services in İstanbul. The following is a very general guide.
Bars Afternoon to early morning
Nightclubs 11pm till late
Post Offices & Banks 8.30am to 5pm Monday to Friday
Restaurants & Cafes Breakfast 7.30am to 10.30am, lunch noon to 2.30pm, dinner 6.30pm to 10pm
Shops 10am to 7pm Monday to Saturday
- Post offices are known as PTTs (peh-teh-teh; Posta, Telefon, Teleğraf) and have black-and-yellow signs.
- İstanbul's Central Post Office is several blocks southwest of Sirkeci train station.
- The yurtdışı slot is for mail to foreign countries, yurtiçi is for mail to other Turkish cities, and şehiriçi is for mail within İstanbul.
- Mail delivery is fairly reliable. For more information on PTT services, go to www.ptt.gov.tr.
Banks, offices and government services close for the day on the following secular public holidays.
New Year's Day 1 January
National Sovereignty & Children's Day 23 April
Labor & Solidarity Day 1 May
Commemoration of Atatürk, Youth & Sports Day 19 May
Democracy and National Solidarity Day 15 July
Victory Day 30 August
Republic Day 29 October
Religious festivals are celebrated according to the Muslim lunar Hejira calendar. Two of these festivals (Şeker Bayramı and Kurban Bayramı) are also public holidays. Şeker Bayramı is a three-day festival at the end of Ramazan, and Kurban Bayramı, the most important religious holiday of the year, is a four-day festival whose date changes each year. During these festivals, banks and offices are closed and hotels, buses, trains and planes are heavily booked.
Though most restaurants and cafes open to serve non-Muslims during the holy month of Ramazan (called Ramadan in other countries), it's polite to avoid smoking, eating and drinking in the street during this period.
Officially forbidden in all hotels and enclosed restaurant and bar spaces.
Taxes & Refunds
A katma değer vergisi (KDV; value-added tax) of between 1% and 18% is included in the price of most goods and services. If you buy an item costing more than ₺100 + KDV from a shop participating in the national 'Global Refund: Tax Free Shopping' scheme, you are entitled to a KDV refund at your point of departure.
If you are in European İstanbul and wish to call a number in Asian İstanbul, you must dial 0216 before the number. If you are in Asian İstanbul and wish to call a number in European İstanbul, use 0212. Do not use a prefix (that is, don't use the 0212/6) if you are calling a number on the same shore.
|Code to make an intercity call||0 + local code|
|International access code||00|
Most European and Australasian phones work here; some North American phones don't. Check with your provider. Prepaid SIM cards must be registered when purchased.
- Mobile phone reception is excellent in İstanbul.
- All mobile phone numbers start with a four-figure code beginning with 05.
- There are three major networks: Turkcell (www.turkcell.com.tr), Vodafone (www.vodafone.com.tr) and Türk Telecom (www.turktelekom.com.tr). Each has shops throughout the city selling prepaid SIM cards (kontürlü SIM karts) that can be used in foreign phones. The cards cost around ₺85 (including ₺30 in local call credit). An internet data pack with the SIM will cost around ₺25/30/40/60 for 1/2/4/8GB and a pack for international calls will cost an extra ₺30/60 or so for one/two hours credit. Ask the staff in the shop to suggest the most cost-effective solution for your needs. Once you have the SIM, it can be recharged with kontürs in amounts of ₺20 upwards.
- When you purchase the SIM, ask the staff to organise the activation for you (you'll need to show your passport). The account should activate almost immediately.
- Note that Turkey uses the standard GSM network operating on 900MHz or 1800MHz, so not all US and Canadian phones work here.
İstanbul time is Eastern European Time (EET), three hours ahead of Coordinated Universal Time (UTC, alias GMT). The Turkish government decided in September 2016 to retain daylight-saving (summer) time year-round.
Turks use the 24-hour clock.
- Most public toilets are of the Western sit-down variety; those in mosques are exceptions and are mainly squat style.
- Toilets near transport hubs and stations and in and around major sights usually charge a fee of ₺1.
- There are handy public toilets in the Grand Bazaar, on the Hippodrome in Sultanahmet, and in the underpasses next to the ferry docks at Eminönü and Karaköy.
The Ministry of Culture & Tourism (www.turizm.gov.tr) currently operates three tourist information offices or booths in the city and has booths at both international airports.
Travel With Children
İstanbul is a great destination for a family-friendly break. Children might whinge about the number of mosques and museums on the itinerary, but they'll be appeased by the fantastic baklava, lokum (Turkish Delight) and dondurma (ice cream) on offer, as well as the castles, underground cisterns and parks waiting to be explored.
For Bigger Kids
- Rahmi M Koç Museum
Junior members of the family will go crazy (in a good way) when they encounter all of the trains, planes, boats and automobiles on exhibit at this museum in Hasköy.
- Grand Bazaar Scavenger Hunt
Forget shopping – exploring the Grand Bazaar on a scavenger hunt offered by Alternative City Tours is much more fun.
- Rumeli Hisarı
This huge castle on the Bosphorus is a hit with most children. Just be sure that your junior knights and princesses are careful when they clamber up the battlements.
- Princes' Islands
Your kids will love taking fayton (horse-drawn carriage) rides around the islands, or hiring bicycles to get around under their own steam.
- Basilica Cistern
It's creepy, and children can explore the walkways suspended over the water. Way cool.
- Cooking Courses
Some teenagers see the kitchen as offering more than a refrigerator just waiting to be raided. Book yourself and your aspiring chef into a cooking class such as the one offered by Cooking Alaturka in Sultanahmet.
- Ice Cream
They may try their hardest to appear sophisticated, but teenagers almost inevitably lose their attitude and get excited when they sample the dondurma sold at the many Mado ice cream shops found throughout the city. There's a strategically located branch next to the Sultanahmet tram stop, and another on İstiklal Caddesi in Beyoğlu.
Need to Know
Museums Children under 12 receive free or discounted entry to most museums.
Transport Children under seven travel free on public transport.
Strollers Most footpaths are cobbled or uneven, so strollers aren't very useful.
Nappies Disposable nappies (diapers) and formula are easy to purchase.
Restaurants Children are almost inevitably made welcome in restaurants, although high chairs and kids' menus are not common.
Travellers with Disabilities
İstanbul can be challenging for mobility-impaired travellers. Roads are potholed and footpaths are often crooked and cracked. Fortunately the city is attempting to rectify this.
Government-run museums are free of charge for visitors with a disability. Public and private museums and sights that have wheelchair access and accessible toilets include Topkapı Palace, the İstanbul Archaeology Museums, İstanbul Modern, the Pera Museum and the Rahmi M Koç Museum. The last three of these also have limited facilities to assist accessibility for vision-impaired visitors.
Airlines and most four- and five-star hotels have wheelchair access and at least one room set up for guests with a disability. All public transport is free for, and the metro and trams can be accessed by, people in wheelchairs.
FHS Tourism and Event (www.accessibleturkey.org) is an İstanbul-based travel agency that has a dedicated department organising accessible travel packages and tours.
Accessible Travel Online Resources
Download Lonely Planet's free Accessible Travel guides from http://lptravel.to/AccessibleTravel.
There are few if any opportunities for volunteering in İstanbul.
Travelling in İstanbul as a female can be easy and enjoyable, provided you follow some simple guidelines. Tailor your behaviour and your clothing to your surrounds – outfits that are appropriate for neighbourhoods such as Beyoğlu and along the Bosphorus (skimpy tops, tight jeans etc) are not appropriate in conservative suburbs such as Üsküdar, for instance.
It's a good idea to sit in the back seat of a taxi rather than next to the driver. If approached by a Turkish man in circumstances that upset you, try saying Ayıp! (ah-yuhp), which means 'Shame on you!'
You'll have no trouble finding sanitary napkins and condoms in pharmacies and supermarkets in İstanbul; tampons can be a bit difficult to access. Bring a shawl to cover your head when visiting mosques.