What to Know Before Traveling to Istanbul
Since every visitor to this great metropolis starts with their first visit, this guide to planning a trip to Istanbul helps as a thought starter for those planning a trip. As you plan your trip, make sure to:
- Get some cash on arrival for tipping.
- Learn how to say “hello,” “goodbye,” and “thankyou” in Turkish.
- Note that yes, it is a safe place for LGBTQ+ travelers and women traveling alone…with some nuance and caveats.
- Remember IST Airport has a dedicated smartphone app for information and Wi-Fi.
- Plan your arrival and departure carefully, as the new airport IST is much further from town than the old Ataturk airport.
- Write your destination on a note for taxi drivers.
- Get an IstanbulKart for public transportation.
- Respect Turkish culture and history.
Istanbul has been the center of the world for two millennia, and remains a world class city of commerce, architecture, arts, culture, and sport to this day. Istanbul travelers reap greater rewards than going to New York, London, Paris, or Beijing because it is still slightly under the radar for American travelers. The largest city in Europe, Istanbul is home to more than 15 million people. More than 3000 years of history spills into the architecture, cuisine, culture, and arts, so visitors have their hands full trying to get a handle on it. One visit can never do this city justice.
Currency in Istanbul
Turkey uses the Turkish Lira, a stable European currency, with favorable exchange rates. ATMs are plentiful and nearly all connect to American, European, and World banks if you need cash. Most restaurants, taxis, museums, and hotels take credit cards, so carrying cash is strictly for tipping, which is, however, not at all required or expected, but certainly appreciated. Plan to withdraw some cash your first day.
In Istanbul city center, especially near the tourist sites, most businesses employ English speaking people. However, it is polite to at least attempt some basics, and the locals find it charming. Here are some useful phrases:
- “Hello” – Merhaba. “MEH-heh-buh – the “r” in the word is pronounced like a British English “r”
- “Goodbye” – Güle güle roughly equal to “bye-bye” – pronounced “GUH-leh guh-leh”
- “Thank you” – Teşekkürler. “te-SHIK-you-lr”
The Turkish language may seem unfamiliar at first, compared to Germanic and Latin languages. Ataturk, the father of the modern nation of Turkey, invented a new orthography based on the Latin alphabet. His linguistic action brought the Turkish people closer to Europe culturally. His hope, and mine for you, is that his innovation helps Americans and Europeans come to a deeper understanding of his people.
Istanbul is probably the most liberal city for gay people to visit in the Middle East besides Tel Aviv. A great resource for LGBTQ+ travelers is Queer in the World.
Women in groups or traveling alone will be perfectly welcome in Istanbul. No matter the destination, the consistent advice for women traveling alone, seems to be, “be cautious and savvy.” Bring your street smarts and review this helpful guide for globe traveling women.
Aging travelers and those with mobility challenges will have to plan explicitly around mobility obstacles. Istanbul can be accessible for everyone with a little planning and perhaps some extra help. Taxi and bus drivers are extremely helpful, and even passersby will contribute effort to those they see struggling. The modern parts of the city very accessible. This guide has information about specific sites’ accessible locations.
Getting to Istanbul by Air
Turkish Airlines goes above and beyond the typical standards of international travel. Modern airline equipment and professional staff provide expert hospitality which includes slippers, and an eye mask, yours to keep. Direct flights from the United States originate in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, and San Francisco. Plenty of airlines can get you to Turkey. Shop for your best deal. Turkish Anatolia has much to offer and domestic airlines like Pegasus are affordable and easy to use. Istanbul is a great start to a trip to the Turquoise coast or Cappadocia.
Opened in 2019, Istanbul Airport located north of the city has replaced the smaller Ataturk Airport closer to the city. There is a plan for a metro line, but as of October 2022, it is not ready yet. Plan carefully for ground transportation; Buses take passengers to the city center and neighborhoods.
Take advantage of the IST mobile app for:
- Free Wi-Fi at IST
- Flight tracking
- Discovering events happening in the near future
Travelers can take a train from Western Europe, but, wow, are you in for an adventure! If you originate in Paris, it is a 5- train, two-day ordeal. This train ride is “Orient” but not “Express.”
Getting from the IST Airport to the City
Construction on the M11 Metro line from the new IST airport to the Levent business district is expected to complete by the end of 2023. When complete, travelers may have to change to the M2 to get to the tourist old town.
Rideshare is widely used. Uber pick up locations are conveniently located just outside the terminals. However, the new airport is way far outside the central part of the city where most visitors stay. Plan carefully.
Your taxi driver probably does not speak English. Have your hotel address or other destination written down and hand it to your driver as a note. Translation apps come in handy here as well as other travel apps like WhatsApp.
A visitor might choose to ride the municipal bus line, İETT, to the nearby Metro station to transfer to a train to the city. The H2 line from the airport will take you to the Istanbul Metro M3 line in only a few minutes for about a dollar at current exchange rates. This two-step commute will take about 90 minutes. There are private bus lines that take you directly from the airport to the city center. Research this option.
Getting Around Istanbul: Walking, Metro and Ferries
The old town, Sultan Ahmet, and Galata districts are completely walkable, so if you are staying in those areas, or planning day trips, walking is the best way to see the old town and local character. Google maps navigation eases the discovery of efficient and safe walking routes. Just pay attention to street names because non-Turkish native Google has difficulty pronouncing locations.
Metro and Tram lines are a convenient way to move around the city. Before you get to town, you should download the Istanbulkart and add some currency. I can tell you from experience, you do not want to be wandering around the airport looking for the Metro kiosk. The app works on the trams, the metro, and the funicular.
But! Do plan to get out of the central city. The Asian side of town is underappreciated and has its own flavors well worth sampling. The ferry runs at all times.
Ferries can take you to islands, up the Bosporus, and across to the Asian side. There are several ferry operators, so be sure to check ahead of time which one will take you. The Bosporus tour is a must see. The main commuter and tourist ferry operator has its own Google and Apple app for tickets and schedules.
Some travelers may want to rent a car to get out of the city for day trips. Make sure to reserve the car in your budget in advance (for the same reason you want to reserve your airport parking space and your hotel room) since they are sometimes hard to book at the last minute. Many global car hire companies serve tourists in Istanbul.
Add Istanbul to your travel bucket list
Istanbul and Turkey have a rich story reaching back as far as history goes - and even further - located at the literal center of the world. Consider visiting one day!