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Istanbul Guide: Things to Know Before You Go

Istanbul Travel Packing Guide

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Istanbul, formerly known as Constantinople, has long attracted visitors for its old world mystique. Skyscrapers are replaced with the minarets of mosques dating back to the earliest days of the Ottoman Empire.

Bazaars around town sell everything from antique tea sets to Korans to souvenirs. You can also see where the young Turks live and play in Beyoglu, strolling down Istiklal Caddesi at all hours of the night. Take advantage of the many museums devoted to the city’s history. And, of course, check out the unique street food on every corner which is both delicious and cheap.

The city is also a great jumping off point for adventures to the Mediterranean coast, ruins, and the fairy chimneys of Cappadocia.

If we’ve left anything out or you’d like to add to the conversation, please leave comments below!

Istanbul Travel Expenses Tips

Istanbul is one of the cheaper cities to visit in Europe but the more expensive in Turkey. If you’re traveling elsewhere in Turkey, you might want to save your souvenir shopping for other places, but otherwise you’ll likely find the Turkish lira to offer a positive exchange rate for your home currency.

Eat the street food.
In some parts of the world, street food is something that can intimidate travelers. But street food in Turkey is similar to what you’ve seen elsewhere in the world. Simit resemble bagels while durum are a wrap filled with protein and veggies. As with many other destinations, you’ll pay much more for table service at restaurants, especially if you’re in a tourist area with English language menus.

Visit during off peak times.
Istanbul isn’t as affected by the seasonal travel schedules of places like Western Europe, which are inundated with tourists in the summer. But with that said, you’ll get the best deals in fall, spring, and winter. Also avoid the tourist areas like Sultanahmet while cruise ships are docked, which will bring in large crowds on excursions in matching stickers following a guide. Instead, visit these places late in the afternoon once they’ve left the port.

Do your shopping outside of the Grand Bazaar.
Not only is this bazaar a great place to get pickpocketed, the Grand Bazaar is known as the place for tourists to shop. You’ll haggle at prices, but still not get the local price. Purchase souvenirs, like jewelry, Turkish coffee pots, and decorative items, beyond the walls of this bazaar, where you’re likely to get better deals.

Istanbul travel and packing guide
Turkish lamps being sold in the Grand Bazaar

Travel like the locals do.
Shared buses, called dolmus, are the preferred method of transportation for locals. Simply get on, tell them where you’re going and pay when you get off. There are also streetcar lines around town to help you get around in addition to underground trains. Taxis can be expensive, so I took a shared bus from the airport for very cheap.

Stay outside of Sultanahmet
Expect to pay higher prices for hotels within walking distance of the Blue Mosque and other attractions. Instead, look for locally owned hotels on the Asian side of town or in Beyoglu, another suburb across the bay. Apartment rentals are another great option for a more local experience that will let you stay in neighborhoods you might not have otherwise experienced.

Essential Gear for Istanbul

While Turkey is a conservative country, there is a separation of religion and state. In cosmopolitan Istanbul, the only time you should really worry about covering completely up is when you’re entering mosques. While the Hagia Sophia is no longer a house of worship, the Blue Mosque is an active mosque and respect should be given.

Sarong– Whether it’s a sarong or scarf, throw something in your day bag to put over your head when you go to a mosque. Make sure it’s big enough to cover you enough to prevent you from having to borrow the ones they loan out.

Theft proof purse– Crowded bazaars and other places can be an ideal environment for pickpockets. Bring a bag with clasps on the zippers to prevent crimes of opportunity.

Comfortable shoes– You’ll likely be seeing most of the city by foot, so pack some shoes that are comfortable for many hours. My Birkenstock Madrid slides would have been ideal for combining style and comfort.

Earplugs– If you’re not used to hearing the call to prayer, which is played over loudspeakers around town six times per day, it can be a bit surprising. Pack earplugs for the especially early calls.

Conservative clothing– Only necessary for visiting mosques, bring a long dress or skirt or pair of pants. Most require you to cover your head, shoulders and legs. It can also be good to have layers in case there is a surprise change in weather.

Istanbul travel and packing guide
Caroline with her head covered while visiting a mosque in Istanbul.

Books to Read Before Visiting Istanbul

Books set in Istanbul tell of both the history of the city and also more modern interpretations. Both native Turks and foreign writers have found inspiration in the city.

Last Train to Istanbul by Ayse Kulin– Translated into English from Turkish, this novel shares the story of a family dealing with the outbreak of World War II. The daughter of one of Turkey’s last pashas falls in love with a Jewish man. When they get caught in Paris, they must find a way to get back home. Grab a copy on Amazon.

The Birds Have Also Gone by Yashar Kemal– The story tells of a Turkish tradition about setting birds free. It also centers around a group of boys who set up a business of capturing and freeing birds and what happens to them. Grab a copy on Amazon.

Istanbul: Memories and the City by Orhan Pamuk– Perhaps Turkey’s most well-known writer, Orhan Pamuk shares an intimate portrait of the city where he lived most of his life. The story transcends people and neighborhoods. Grab a copy on Amazon.

The Bastard of Istanbul by Elif Shafak– Written in English, this book is about Turkey’s violent past and a woman, born out of wedlock, who loves Johnny Cash. The story of the many characters are interwoven between Turkey, the United States, and Armenia in the time of genocide. Grab a copy on Amazon.

Birds Without Wings by Louis de Bernieres– Written by the same author as Corelli’s Mandolin, this story tells of a village at the end of the Ottoman Empire. It’s where the Turkish language meets the Greek letters, where Christians and Muslims meet. Grab a copy on Amazon.

Istanbul travel and packing guide
View of Istanbul

Movies to Watch Before Visiting Istanbul

Countless films have been set or filmed in Istanbul, including a handful of James Bond movies. Others take inspiration from the history of World War I and beyond. There are many to watch before you go, but here is a start.

From Russia With Love– In one of the Sean Connery versions, James Bond is set to Turkey to help with the defection of a Soviet consulate employee. SPECTRE seeks revenge against Bond for killing Dr. No. Grab a copy on Amazon.

Midnight Express– While not a positive film about Turkey, this Oliver Stone film was based on a book by the same name about an American college student who is caught trying to smuggle drugs out of the country. He is then imprisoned. Grab a copy on Amazon.

Istanbul– Errol Flynn stars in this movie about a jewel thief who returns to Istanbul five years after being kicked out of the country. He reconnects with a woman he met then, but under suspicious circumstances. Grab a copy on Amazon.

Tokapi– In another heist film, a woman sees an exhibit of replicas from the Tokapi, which inspires her to steal the real versions. She recruits a team of experts including an acrobat and her ex-lover, a Swiss master criminal. Grab a copy on Amazon.

The Water Diviner– Russell Crowe stars and directs this movie about a man who goes to Istanbul in search of information on his missing sons following the Battle of Gallipoli. He meets a hotel manager there who helps him along the way. Grab a copy on Amazon.

Istanbul travel and packing guide
Galata Bridge is a great place to watch Turkish men fishing.

Top Things to Do in Istanbul

There’s no shortage of things to do in Istanbul which teach you more about the culture and history of the city that straddles two continents. Find out the best times to visit each and how much it costs before you go.

Blue Mosque– Known also as Sultan Alhmed Mosque, this is one of the most iconic landmarks in the city. Named for the blue tones to the tiles inside, it’s a working mosque where both local worshipers and visitors go. It was built in the 1600s and is open to visitors daily.

Istanbul travel and packing guide
The interior of the Blue Mosque is breathtaking.

Hagia Sophia– This former Greek Orthodox church and Muslim mosque is now a museum, first constructed in 537. Here you can admire the vaulted ceilings and the ancient mosaics that decorate the walls.

Istanbul travel and packing guide
Hagia Sophia, the church turned mosque turned museum, is one of the biggest attractions in Istanbul.

Galata Tower– Built in the Karakoy neighborhood in the 1300s, this tower allows you to see 360 degree views of Istanbul. The 66 meter tall tower has a restaurant and observation deck at the top.

Tokapi Palace– Home to the former Ottoman sultans, this museum features artifacts from the time period as well as holy Muslim relics. The sprawling complex includes mosques, courtyards and the harem.

Istanbul Modern Art Museum– The city has a unique modern art scene and hosts the Biennial every two years nearby. It features works from world renowned artists and holds regular events.

Turkish bath– This unique experience is a must-do for visitors to Istanbul. Get outside of the tourist area for best prices. Be prepared to strip down and be scrubbed down to your deepest layer of skin.

Food and Drink in Istanbul

The food and drink of Istanbul is delicious and cheap. Much of it can be meat-heavy, but everything is fresh. There’s a reason you find kebabs in just about every country!

Dürüm– This wrap is like a flatter pita and filled with chicken or lamb, topped with lettuce and tomato. It’s the perfect lunch for on the go. It’s similar to the kebab.

Fish sandwich (Balik Ekmek)– The name means fish in bread, which you’ll find at the boat restaurants bobbing on the Bosphorus at the Golden Horn. They’re topped with onions and crusty bread.

Istanbul travel and packing guide
A tasty fish sandwich in Istanbul

Pide– This dish resembles a pizza but is flatbread topped with cheese and other toppings.

Manti– Similar to ravioli, these meat-filled dumplings are topped in a yogurt sauce.

Kofte– Some of the sides and toppings are similar to the kebab, but there isn’t a wrap. It’s more of a plate with a patty of lamb, beef or chicken.

Gözleme– Reminiscent of a quesadilla, the two pieces of wrap are filled with melted cheese and other ingredients.

Simit– The circular bread may look like a bagel, but it’s covered in seeds and crusty on the outside. You’ll find them at stalls around the city.

Ayran– This cold yogurt drink may seem odd to outsiders, but locals love it. You’ll see machines around town pumping the liquid out.

Turkish coffee– Like Turkish tea, both are strong and dark. It’s usually made with the grounds at the bottom.

Istanbul travel and packing guide
Turkish tea is an extremely popular drink in Istanbul and all of Turkey.

Turkish Delight– This gel and sugar treat is addictive and can be filled with dried fruit and nuts.

Baklava– Like the Greek version, these layers of dough with honey and pistachio can be super sweet, but a decadent dessert.

Istanbul Guide: Things to Know Before You Go

Written by Caroline

Caroline Eubanks is a native of Atlanta, Georgia, but has also called Charleston, South Carolina and Sydney, Australia home. After college graduation and a series of useless part-time jobs, she went to Australia for a working holiday. In that time, she worked as a bartender, bungee jumped, scuba dived, pet kangaroos, held koalas and drank hundreds of cups of tea. You can find Caroline at Caroline in the City.

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