A Beginners’ Guide to Exploring Istanbul – Don’t Miss These Travel Tips!

Travel Tips and Food Guide for Istanbul

Istanbul is huge. It is not a city you can hop over from in two days. Every neighbourhood has its own distinct vibe (and there are several), almost making it seem like its a different city within one. And then, there are the islands. And the sea. 

It’s easy to get lost or overwhelmed if you don’t have a plan in mind to explore. Here are some travel tips for Istanbul that helped us! Food recommendations – coming shortly.

10 Travel Tips for First Time Travellers in Istanbul

1. Plan for at least 5-6 days for exploring Istanbul

We personally planned a trip for eight days just for Istanbul and in our minds, there is still something more we could have done – explored a few more restaurants, or ventured out to lesser-known neighbourhoods or just sat longer at book cafes. Anyone who tells you three-four days are enough are just accounting for the tourist-heavy attractions that are on everyone’s list. However, hopping from one crowded place to another is hardly fun and it doesn’t let you sit with the vibe of the place, explore hidden gems, find good bargains or even see what’s interesting in the city.

2. Don't keep your itinerary rigid

It can be tempting to plan an hour-by-hour itinerary that is filled with attractions that everyone has recommended but just having come back from Istanbul, we recommend you don’t that. Keep one day for each neighbourhood – Taksim Square, Karakoy, Kadikoy, Nisantasi, Galata Port, Balat, Buyukada and so on and keep an approximate list of restaurants, activities and attractions you want to check out in each of the neighbourhoods but also give yourself permission and time to wander.

Also as anyone would tell you, especially if you are walking, the path from one place to another in the same neighbourhood can be hilly – which adds to the time it takes for you to get to the next spot. So don’t overload your planned itinerary.

Dolmabace Palace - Travel Tips for Istanbul

3. Get an E-Sim For Hassle-Free Connectivity

When entering a new city, it can be daunting to figure out commute, hotel check-in, maps, internet connectivity and foreign currency exchange all at once. Getting an E-sim ahead lets you figure connectivity out from your home country so by the time the plane lands your phone already has internet, and then using the maps to commute is a breeze. 

Please note, that you can’t make calls via E-sim unless you are calling on WhatsApp. The e-sim that really worked for us was Airalo.

It cost us 8 dollars for 3GB worth of internet that easily lasted six days.

Oh and also check if your phone is e-sim compatible.

4. Don't get money exchanged from the airport - get to the city first.

Everything is expensive at the Istanbul Airport as anyone would tell you – and not in the “oh it’s just a few dollars more” way. The prices are substantially different from that of the city. Getting a sim, foreign currency and even booking a taxi from the airport would cost you a lot more money than when you are going with a plan.

Here is what you can do – Get 2000 liras from your home country to do the initial transactions while you check-in to your accommodation. Once you have settled in your accommodation and dumped your bags (that feeling!), venture out to find the nearest currency exchange outlet. You won’t have to go far, especially if you are staying near the busy areas like Taksim Square.

Exchange in batches of 200 dollars (and not all the currency at once). The rates keep fluctuating and we got more liras for the same dollars after a few days because the lira worsened.

5. Skip the Bosphorous Tour - instead do this.

Bosphorous Cruise for Istanbul Travel

The minute you add istanbul to your list of travel destinations, the Bosphorous Cruise pops up as the biggest activity one should be doing. You can also be tempted to book for the cruise online which can cost you an upwards of 40 euros per person. 

However, here is what you can do instead. Get your IstanbulKart card (the transportation pass that works for all public transport) from a metro station near your hotel and use it for a ferry to the asian side (from the kabatas station to the kadikoy pier). The views are almost identical , it costs you substantially less (approx. 30 liras as opposed to 1400 or above) and the experience is just as fun. You can also opt to sit in different parts of the ferry which gives you access to different views of the sea.

What you won’t get if you skip the bosphorous tour: a guide talking about historical places along the way, (but if it’s your first time at the ferry you would just want to look at the sea and not check-in to what the guide is saying anyway), snacks/food (the snacks are just chips and fruits, for those who have selected a dinner cruise also say the food is basic) and a dance show.(apparently very OTT and cheesy).

Also chances are if you are exploring different neighbourhoods of Istanbul – for example, venturing out to Buyukada (Princess Islands) you will get to experience the sea on ferry commute quite a bit. We travelled via the ferry to different places almost everyday and if we had to do Istanbul again, we would prefer skipping the bosphorous tour and just opting for ferry transportation to different areas.

6. Expect a Lot of Walking

This is kind of a given but especially if you are using public transport (and you must – it’s so fun and clean), you can easily clock in somewhere between 14,000 to 20,000 steps per day. Wear comfortable shoes/sneakers at all times – even if you are travelling by car, some of the touristy places would require brisk walking in order for you to keep up with the crowds. Also, keep a water bottle and a totebag on you that you can use to stuff things in if required – leftovers, souvenir shopping etc.

Always wear s sunscreen.

7. Avoid eateries that are on the busy commercial streets unless it's a recommendation

In our experience, the eateries that were on main commercial streets or where the staff seemed to be calling you to try their food had the most basic food geared towards tourists overall. Definitely plan out which eateries you want to explore beforehand based on recommendations. We will be doing a list soon, so check back here!

Also be wary of restaurants and cafes adding food and drinks to your table that you did not order. You will eventually have to pay for it. 

Another thing to look out for is service charges that some restaurants seem to manually make up on the spot and are not on a printed receipt and can be as much as 300 to 400 lira.

Sticking to the list of recommended restaurants will help you avoid the above.

8. Wear a cross-body bag that you can keep in front to keep an eye on it at all times

We were warned of this but especially in busy areas, there can be pickpockets or bag snatchers. One of our friends had some of her money stolen when she went to a mosque to pray because she had kept the bag on the side. 

Always wear a cross-body bag that is securely closed and keep it in the front of you so it’s in your vision at all times.

9. Familiarise yourself with different neighbourhoods of Istanbul

Roco Hotel in Beyoglu, Istanbul Travel Tips

This will also help you use their metro. Some neighbourhoods that we kept in mind were:

Beyoglu (the area where we stayed in, Taksim Square and Istiklal Street). The metro station close to it is called the Kabatas station.

Kadikoy (the asian side of istanbul – not to be missed – it’s a full day thing and you would get to explore food and shopping in a very fun way)

Karakoy (on the european side of istanbul) has contemporary cafes, food and shopping spots

Uskudar (the neighbourhood where you can watch the sunset from at the seafront and there are very nice book cafes there)

Nisantasi (the more high-end neighbourhood with one of our favourite breakfast places – it also has a mall)

Ortakoy (the area where you can try kumpir)

Fatih (where you will find the Haghia Sophia mosque, Blue Mosque, Grand Bazaar and the Spice Bazaar)

Buyukada (it’s not a neighbourhood but a 2-hour ferry ride away from istanbul – it is the largest of the Princes’ Islands in the Sea of Marmara. You can cycle around in the island, go for a swim or visit their monuments).

10. If you plan to travel just in cabs or taxis, you will miss out on half the fun

The public transportation at Istanbul is so clean and functional that honestly using it itself is a source of joy and adventure. Once you get your IstanbulKart made and top it up, you can use it for trains, trams, buses and ferries. It will also save you quite a bit of money because taxis tend to overcharge. Not only that, if you sign up for private tours for either Bosphorous or Princess Island you will also end up overpaying by hundreds of liras – this is something you can easily avoid by travelling using the IstanbulKart (the transportation pass).

The post-landing checklist for Istanbul

– See if your e-sim is working for internet connectivity and keep the location of your hotel open in Google Maps.

– Use the Havaist terminal (inside the airport) to get to your accommodation area. Havist is their bus service and a new one comes very frequently. It works smoothly and you won’t have to book a taxi separately. 

– Walk to your hotel using Google Maps.

Check-in at the hotel and venture out to get foreign currency exchanged for lira. Get 200 dollars exchanged initially and repeat after it finishes.

– Then get yourselves an IstanbulKart (the transportation pass) from the nearest metro station.

– Get something to eat nearby and you are all set to explore the city!

Here are some travel tips that helped us in our first visit to Istanbul. Do you have any more tips to add for our readers? Let us know in the comments below!



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