We’ve given you an overview of those aspects of Turkish culture which may take a bit of getting used to, especially if you’re visiting Turkey for the first time. For someone like you, socio-cultural differences are not barriers – they make exciting learning opportunities. Navigating the Turkish cultural landscape with these fascinating cultural peculiarities have spurred you on and you can’t wait for the day of your flight. We know the feeling.
In the meantime, we thought we’ll help you to ready yourself for your first encounter with Istanbul (because no trip to Turkey is complete without visiting The City, especially if it’s your first time visiting). This city, steeped in culture, history, and overall magic drawn from its millennia of existence has always been a hub of sights, sounds, tastes, and experiences. It’s a living, pulsing city and for some, it can be overwhelming at first.
We don’t want you to miss out, so we’ve decided to provide you with a few things to look out for in Istanbul, so that you can take the frustration out of your adventures and make the most of the city when you don’t want to miss a thing.
We’ve covered transportation in Istanbul, and all the options it offers, in detail here but we thought we’d remind you of a few things in general.
First, it’s a city of about 15 million residents. That says a lot in terms of traffic already, so prepare yourself for hustle with a healthy side serving of bustle. The city does become considerably quitter late at night into the early hours of the morning, but don’t underestimate the time that it might take for you to get to places during the rest of the day.
Beware of traffic and rush hours. Yandex is useful as it provides traffic maps, best routes and alternative routes to your destination. On the other hand, the official app of the Istanbul Municipality, İBB CepTrafik, also helps to stay ahead of the game.
Don’t be scared of using taxis, but beware of jumping into an unregistered taxi. We don’t want you to get taken for a ride (not in that way, anyway). If you plan to get a sim card and mobile data, download BiTaksi to call a taxi, instead. You’ve got the option to pay by credit card, and you cannot be charged extra since everything’s tracked through the app.
Wherever you are in the world, you’ve got to look out for religious and public holidays which could influence your travel. Turkey is no exception – for example, road trips can be a bad idea during religious Bayram holidays, since people travel all over the country to visit their relatives.
We cannot stress this enough. Street food is an integral part of the soul of Turkish cities. From the renowned döner kebab to the simit carts peppered around the city, selling their wholesome, pretzel/bagel-like rings of doughy goodness, to the little stands where kestane (chestnuts) is being roasted during the colder months of the year, Turkish street food is an ever-satisfying taste of the real, local Turkey. These treats are perfect for a snack as you reflect upon the day’s encounters, and simit with çay even makes a quick breakfast when you’re on-the-go and in a bit of a hurry (or late) in the mornings.
While strolling through the streets, you’ll be sure to find carts offering mısır (corn) – they’re grilled or boiled, and many carts will offer you the choice.
If you’re a feeling for a little more than a small snack and need some fuel to keep you going while you’re on the go, more filling street food options are available all over the place.
Balık ekmek (literally “fish bread”) is a filling fish sandwich which can be found along the Bosporus when you’re in Istanbul. If you’re thinking of making a trip across from the European side of the city to the Asian, or vice versa, by ferry, balık ekmek is the perfect accompaniment to the sea air, city views, and maritime horns.
Tavuk pilav (chicken and rice) is a popular street food dish of choice in the streets of Istanbul, too. It’s authentic and delicious, as well as nutritious and affordable. A winning combination. If you’re familiar with Eastern languages and cultures, you’ll notice that “pilav” sounds very similar to pilaf or pilao/pulao and that’s because all those words find their root in Persian and basically mean “rice dish” of some sort. It speaks to the transnational, shared heritage of cultures, and Istanbul is smack in the middle of it all.
When on the ferry across the Bosporus Strait, perched between two continents in Istanbul, you’re bound to see a flock of seagulls that match the ferry’s speed and swoop back and forth towards the boat. It’s strangely spectacular, and even more so if you throw them a piece of bread from your balık ekmek or simit that you brought along for the 15-20 minute trip. No one seems to mind, and the seagulls are definitely appreciative.
There are times, if you’re sitting on the outside of the ferry, that your bread may even be stolen from you by a seagull. It’s not all that rare, so we thought you should be aware.
The mosques all over the country are stunning, and that Ottoman architecture brings grandeur and intricacy together. As much as they are works of art, they’re places of worship, first and foremost, which means that you’ve got to be aware of some etiquette before you enter them.
Remove your shoes before entering. There are pigeonholes that you can keep leave your shoes in at the door before you enter, while some of the bigger mosques which draw more tourists may offer a packet to place your shoes into and take them inside with you.
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🎉🎉 Artık 250 bin kişiyiz 🎉🎉 Nihayet İstanbul’u seven 250 bin kişiyi tek bir hesapta buluşturmayı başardık. ☺️ Bu hedefi gerçekleştirmemizi sağlayan siz değerli takipçilerimize çok teşekkür ederiz, iyi ki varsınız. 👏🏻 Sıradaki hedefimiz 1 milyon İstanbulsever’e ulaşmak. 🚀 Bizimle misiniz? — 🎉🎉We are now 250 thousand people 🎉🎉 Finally, we succeeded to bring together 250 thousand people who love Istanbul. ☺️ We would like to thank you all for making this dream real. 👏🏻 Our next goal is to reach 1 million Istanbul lovers. 🚀 Are you with us? photo by @apinphoto
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Wear modest clothing. This goes for both males and females. This means no shorts, and no strappy tops for women. Women can also bring a scarf along with them, as it’s more preferable for a woman to cover her hair when entering a mosque. Headscarves are sometimes provided at mosques, too.
At bigger mosques, like the Blue Mosque, a scarf and long skirt (sometimes even long-sleeved shirts) are provided at the entrance.
It’s important to note that you should try not to visit on Fridays during the Juma prayer as this is when mosques will be filled to capacity and tourists may have some issues entering. We advise to refrain from visiting from approximately 11:00 A.M. to 2:00 P.M. on Fridays. Also, be aware of the ezan (call to prayer) especially when you’re near a mosque, as this is considered sacred and should be respected. It’s best to conduct yourself a bit more quietly in a mosque’s vicinity for the duration of the ezan. The call to prayer means the congregants will arrive (or have already arrived) and the prayer will begin immediately or in the following few minutes. For prayers other than the Juma (Cuma in Turkish, pronounced the same), you may find that the mosque will be fairly empty, and it would be okay to sit inside and out of the way if you’d like to watch a prayer.
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When in Istanbul, keep the Istanbul Kart/Istanbul Card with you as this is your convenient pass to most forms of public transport, from public busses and ferries to trams and ferries. Preload the card with credit at a loading station and you’re good to go. The added perk is that by using the Istanbul Card, you save on transport costs. Using each form of transport is more expensive if you’re paying ad hoc for tokens, instead of using Istanbul Card.
You’re able to purchase this card from magazine and confectionary kiosks (“büfe”) near tram stations, ferry stations, Metro station entrances, etc. Look out for the words “Istanbulkart” or “Akbil Dolum Noktası” (Refill Point). You can load or refill/recharge your card at these kiosks, but keep in mind that at these loading stations only accept cash.
Istanbul is an old city and is a civilisational artefact in its own right, and with that comes history in spades. That much of history means that museums are all over the place and showcase archaeological pieces, art, etc. from various periods in history. Entry fees for museums can add up throughout your holiday, so if you’re one that can’t pass up a museum, the Istanbul Museum Pass is your saviour. It gives you discounted access to historical museums, as well as cultural points of interest in Istanbul and has a limited validity time which affects the price of the card. You can purchase them at mobile sale units, as well as at some of the biggest museums in the city. The best part? You get to skip the ticket lines and entry queues!
You’re in Istanbul, a city of magnificence. The grand Hagia Sophia (first a church, then a mosque, now a museum) sits proudly across the Blue Mosque with its washed tones. Of course you’re going to visit the Hagia Sophia – it’s on top of your list and is emblematic of the city (and the country). However, if you’re impatient in any way, don’t try to visit during peak hours, especially during the summer. The queues can wind around its walls and you could waste a good few hours standing in the sweltering heat. Time it well – we suggest you visit at 9:00 A.M. before the cruise ship crowds come in, or around 3:00 – 4:00 P.M., about an hour and half before closing time.
When every holiday is meant to a characteristic, personalised experience, no one wants to get caught up in the frustration of logistics, queues, and a plethora of options and no way to make sense of them.
Istanbul’s got your name on it, reach out to us here and we’ll make your visit a bespoke one.
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