Istanbul is the city where Europe meets Asia through the narrow Bosphorus strait. Millions of people call this megalopolis home, but also millions of visitors make their way to see the wonderful sights and architecture that Turkey’s largest city has to offer. From the historical Sultanahmet District to the majestic Hagia Sofia mosque, there’s no shortage of attractions in these parts. But not all trips end hassle-free…
While most visitors don’t encounter any problems during their visit, there are things to avoid in Istanbul to keep it that way. From common tourist scams that you may see in most major cities to things you simply shouldn’t do, there’s a whole bunch of things you should steer clear of while exploring this Turkish town.
This guide on things to avoid in Istanbul outlines 11 things you should keep away from. It’s made up of the most common mistakes that travelers make that could turn a Turkish city break holiday into a nightmare.
Riding a taxi without a meter
One of the top things to avoid in Istanbul is riding unmetered and unlicensed taxis. Although getting a cab is a cheap and easy way to get around the city, it might be costly if you choose your ride unwisely.
It’s not uncommon to come across illegal taxis in Istanbul, and most of them will cost you more than the official ones. The driver might also insist on agreeing to the price beforehand in the hope that you don’t know the going rates, only to offer a much more expensive service than the meter would actually show.
So, if you don’t want to be paying over the odds, never follow anyone that promises to take you to cheap taxis and always insist on having the meter working. Also, make sure to only use the yellow cabs with a visible sign on the roof. Luckily, most taxi rides will go without a hitch, so they are still a viable mode of transport.
Staying on the Asian side of the city
Although it doesn’t have to be a red line, one of the things to avoid in Istanbul is staying over on the Asian side of the city. The majority of the sights in this Turkish megalopolis, including the iconic Hagia Sofia, the Blue Mosque, and the Grand Bazaar are all located over the European side.
That means that if you chose to stay across Bosphorus (the narrow strait that separates the continents), you will have to travel lengthy distances to explore the mainstay landmarks. There are also way more hotels on offer on the Old Continent’s side, and you will position yourself closer to the airport to boot.
That’s not to say that it’s not worth going to the Asian side at all. If it’s not your first visit, or if you’re planning a longer stay, you could make your way across to the Anatolian quarters to explore less crowded areas and more niche neighborhoods. But don’t expect it to be as spectacular as the European side of the city. That’s all.
Eating around the sights
Restaurants around Sultanahmet district, the historical heart of Istanbul, are mainly aimed at tourists. That reflects in the higher prices. What’s more, the food available in many restaurants in close vicinity to the most popular sights is not only more expensive but also often lacks authenticity.
Don’t be too worried about going to eateries further afield; the ones that are bustling with locals or the ramshackle roadside street-food stalls. These are often the spots with the freshest and least pricy food.
Those restaurants that you’ll get invited to by “friendly” men right by Hagia Sofia will often cost double or triple what you’d pay elsewhere. Always check the prices prior to making an order and try to do your research with a quick Google search beforehand – food poisoning can also be an issue for diners in Istanbul but hygiene is a big thing in reviews.
Making fun of national symbols
Turkish people are known for their hospitality and friendly nature. You even might get invitations from people you just met to a family dinner or lunch. There are, however, some boundaries you shouldn’t cross whilst interacting with the folks of Istanbul…
One is unquestionably making fun of Turkish national symbols. The flag is a very important object for people here. Any sort of jokes or inappropriate behavior that involves it could seriously upset someone.
Also, talking about local politicians, religious views, and other national symbols could potentially offend, so it’s just better to avoid such subjects altogether.
One of the things to avoid in Istanbul if you don’t want to end up in serious trouble is the use of any sort of illegal drugs. This might come as a surprise to some, but it includes marijuana, so even if smoking a joint is legal in your home country, it’s strictly forbidden in Turkey.
Possession or use of these substances might not only turn your dream holiday into a nightmare but could also land you in prison. That, of course, doesn’t only apply to Istanbul but the whole country, so dodge the narcotics no matter where you are visiting in this sunny land.
Drinking alcohol, on the other hand, is perfectly fine in Istanbul. That said, you should bear in mind that if you happen to visit during the month of Ramadan, the cultural etiquette is not to drink in public.
Drinking the tap water
Although there is no official advice against drinking tap water in Istanbul, we don’t recommend doing so. Most locals stick to bottled or filtered water, which is usually enough to indicate that you should follow suit.
It’s not like water in places like India or Cambodia, though. The risk here isn’t really of serious illnesses. It’s all mainly down to taste. Istanbul’s aqua isn’t palatable because of the chemicals used to treat it. You don’t need to worry about using it to brush your teeth or cooking – the water is said to be okay for small tasks like that.
Traveling during peak hours
Istanbul is the largest city in Turkey but also one of the most congested cities in the world. That means that getting around during rush hours can be difficult and time consuming. The peak times for traffic are the same as in most places in the world, with both morning and afternoon road congestion being the worst.
Choosing alternative modes of transport, such as the metro or tram, will save you a lot of time, but those will also be much busier at peak times. Generally, it’s best to avoid traveling in Istanbul between 7 am and 10 am and then again between 4 pm and 9 pm. The good news? You can spend those busy times walking around the charming Sultanahmet District or tucking into a mezze meal.
Buying at bazaars without haggling
As soon as you enter the majestic, over 500-year-old Grand Bazaar, you’ll instantly be hit by a range of colors, scents, crafts, and arts. It’s one of the oldest and largest covered markets in the world, and a place where you can buy all sorts of souvenirs and objects that you may not be able to find elsewhere.
But, whether it’s a colorful cashmere scarf, an oriental lampshade, or a Turkish carpet that’s caught your eye, you should know that virtually everything within is overpriced. The cost is never set in stone, though, and you could potentially purchase the items you want at half the rate that you initially hear.
So, all you need are strong negotiating skills. Don’t be afraid of walking away if the price isn’t right. Stick firm and strong to your suggestions. And, most of all, enjoy it – haggling isn’t only a good way of saving a few bucks but also a good old Turkish tradition.
Visiting Tarlabaşı neighborhood
Although Istanbul is generally safe for tourists, certain areas in the city are best avoided. While many of the more dangerous parts are located far from the tourist hotspots, the Tarlabaşı district is only a few blocks away from the popular Taksim Square and Istiklal Street.
Although the district has a reputation of being one of the most dangerous areas in the city, Tarlabaşı has been changing in recent years and isn’t as unsafe as it once was. That said, it’s still not uncommon to come across drug dealers while wandering the streets of this infamous area, so if you happen to visit there, we recommend sticking to daytime and being very cautious.
Showing off valuables
Pickpocketing and other forms of theft are a perennial problem in cities all across the world, from Barcelona to Singapore. Istanbul is no different, so one of the things to avoid is showing off your valuable belongings.
You could easily become a target of scammers and pickpockets if you do flash the bling. This is especially important advice when moving through highly crowded areas such as Taksim Square, Istiklal Street, and the historical district of Sultanahmet. We wouldn’t recommend carrying large amounts of cash on you either.
Wearing too-revealing clothes
Although Istanbul is a very popular destination for visitors from all over the world and it’s generally accepted for foreigners to wear whatever they like, you may want to steer clear of wearing too-revealing clothes.
The majority of people living in the city are Muslim, with traditional views on what to wear. You won’t see many locals donning skimpy skirts or shorts, so if you want to avoid standing out from the crowd, make sure to have more modest attire at hand.
It’s not only polite to respect the local tradition but you also won’t be allowed into sacred places such as mosques and synagogues without covering your knees, shoulders, and even often your head (especially if you’re a woman). For that reason, a scarf is something everyone should have in their bag!
Things to Avoid in Istanbul – the conclusion
There is no reason that your trip to the city that connects Europe and Asia shouldn’t be worry free. There are just a few things to avoid in Istanbul if you want to make sure that your visit ends without any trouble. From being alert when getting a taxi to executing your bargaining skills rather than falling victim to inflated rates, you should be able to dodge common scams. Also, don’t be tempted to make fun of national or religious objects, and always consider the proper clothing.