8 Things I Wish I Knew Before Visiting Istanbul

8 Things I Wish I Knew Before Visiting Istanbul

In June 2023 I visited Istanbul. Below are the 8 things I wish I knew before going.

1) Consider visiting from Monday to Friday

Istanbul is known for being a bustling city, full of congestion, traffic jams, erratic drivers, and blaring horns. The infrastructure hasn’t been modernized to cope with the influx of people, including those arriving from the surrounding villages and Syria. During the weekend, this exponential population growth, combined with other tourists and locals off work, made getting around the city difficult and draining.

However, come Monday, it felt like the number of people on the streets had halved. It was possible to walk along the pavement without being knocked into oncoming traffic. The long lines for museums had also disappeared, and the overall feeling of the city was more relaxed. If I were to go again, I’d avoid Istanbul on a weekend.

Saturday afternoon. Left (Eminönü) Right (Karaköy)
Saturday afternoon. Left (Eminönü) Right (Karaköy)

2) The Blue Mosque closes for prayer

Sultan Ahmed Mosque, commonly known as the Blue Mosque due to its interior blue tiles, is a top attraction in Istanbul. However, it’s also an active place of worship, and as such, non-Muslims can’t enter 45 minutes before the call to prayer and 15 minutes afterward. This means you have to time your visit in order to avoid clashing with prayer times. You can check them here.

You can check them here.

Blue Mosque
Blue Mosque
Inside the Blue Mosque and Prayer times
Inside the Blue Mosque and Prayer times

3) Explore Hagia Sophia after dark

Hagia Sophia is a former Christian church converted into a mosque. Built almost 1,500 years ago, it remains a beautiful example of Byzantine architecture.

My first attempt to enter was at 1 pm on a Saturday. After standing in the enormous queue for 20 minutes with little movement, I gave up. Upon returning on Sunday night at 9 pm, there was no queue, and I walked right in. Inside, the entire mosque is lit up, so it makes little difference going in the dark. Hagia Sophia is open every day until 10 pm, and as with the Blue Mosque, it’s best to avoid prayer times.

Inside Hagia Sophia
Inside Hagia Sophia

4) Obtaining the Istanbul public transport card can be challenging

Istanbul isn’t very walkable, but fortunately, it has an excellent public transport system. The easiest and most economical way to travel around Istanbul is by using the Istanbulkart. It’s a plastic card you can purchase for 80 lira (£2.70) and then top up to pay for buses, metro, trams, and boats. While you have to pay for the card initially, the discounts you receive on trips will more than make up for it if you use it several times. Additionally, one Istanbulkart can be used to buy tickets for multiple passengers, so if traveling with others, you can all use the same card.

However, buying this card in the centre of Istanbul (Eminönü, Karaköy, Sultanahmet) can be near impossible. Although they should be available from vending machines at tram/metro/boat stations and some kiosks, due to the city being packed with tourists (especially on weekends), these machines often run out of cards and aren’t restocked regularly. After hours of walking around and trying over 10 machines and two kiosks, I eventually found one being restocked at Sultanahmet, where a queue of tourists was waiting after experiencing the same problem I had.

It’s best to buy an Istanbulkart at the airport (if possible) or as soon as you find a working machine, instead of waiting until you want to use public transport. I also read some reviews on TripAdvisor about the Istanbulkart machines not working at IST airport and bus companies, including Havaist, upselling the card to tourists for €25, so watch out.

With the Istanbulkart you can take the Tünel a historic funicular F2 from Karaköy-Beyoğlu.
With the Istanbulkart you can take the Tünel a historic funicular F2 from Karaköy-Beyoğlu.

5) Istanbul is served by two airports, both located more than an hour away from the city centre

The more common and larger airport is Istanbul Airport (IST) on the European side. The smaller one is Sabiha Gokcen Airport (SAW) on the Asian side. If you’re flying with Pegasus, like I did, you’ll most likely arrive at Sabiha SAW, while Turkish Airlines uses Istanbul IST.

The cheapest way to get from Sabiha SAW to central Istanbul is by using Havabus, which runs to Taksim every 30 minutes. It costs 67.50 lira (about £2.50). You’ll need cash to pay, and the timetable is available here.

While it should take 1.5 hours, this depends on the traffic and if you’re traveling during rush hour. I also read reports that from Taksim to Sabiha SAW, the bus can fill up before everyone in the queue gets on, so you might have to wait for the next one.

Alternatively, the M4 Metro Line runs between Kadıköy and Sabiha SAW and takes about 50 minutes. Kadıköy is a popular area on the Asian side with bars and shops. To reach the tourist destinations on the European side, you can get off one stop before (Ayrilik Cesmesi station) and change there to the train (Marmaray), which will take you to Sirkeci Station on the European side after 2 stops. 

If you’re staying in the historic centre of Istanbul (Sultanahmet), as I did, both of these options will require you to take a further tram/bus or taxi. For this reason, I opted to take a taxi the whole way to Sabiha SAW, which from Sultanahmet cost £24. 

From IST, the cheapest way is to take the Havaist buses, which depart from the transportation floor (floor minus 2). Bus number HVIST-12 goes to Beyazit Square. From Beyazit, Sultanahmet is a 1.5km walk or two stops on the tram, while Karaköy is 6 stops.

Basilica Cistern
Basilica Cistern

6) Avoid purchasing a SIM card at the airport

I often buy local SIM cards when I arrive at the airport. This usually works out cheaper than paying for data roaming on my UK SIM.

However, upon arrival at Sabiha SAW airport, the cheapest SIM card offered by both Vodafone and Turkcell was €45 for 20GB. This is the most expensive SIM I’ve ever encountered abroad. SIM cards are slightly cheaper in the city, but it gets confusing as Turkish mobile outlets decide their prices, not the company. This means you might end up haggling over a SIM card in a Vodafone store. Most websites now advise tourists with newer phones to buy eSIMs instead.

Note: Wifi was available at every restaurant and bar I visited. Even when I didn’t ask, the waiter would insist on giving me the password for free.

Cat for attention
Cat for attention

7) Uber operates differently here compared to the UK or US

I was concerned about the possibility of taxis trying to overcharge me in Istanbul, so when I discovered that Uber was available, I thought it would be a convenient and hassle-free way to get around. However, it wasn’t quite as straightforward.

In the UK, you request a ride, receive an exact price, the Uber driver accepts that price, and you proceed with the ride. Yet, in many countries (including Japan and Turkey), the drivers fulfilling the ride requests are regular metered yellow or black cabs. Uber provides a price range instead of an exact fare. In Japan, this price range often aligned well with the metered fare, and we typically ended up paying the metered price through the app. However, Istanbul is different.

As soon as you match with a yellow taxi driver, you’ll receive a message about traffic, accidents, closed bridges, etc., and they claim they cannot accept the Uber prices. Instead, they attempt to negotiate a higher fare, sometimes double the original estimate. In the end, I arranged a taxi to the airport through my hotel, and it cost less than what the yellow taxis on Uber were demanding.

Egyptian Spice Bazaar
Egyptian Spice Bazaar

8) Prices are on the higher side, especially for alcoholic beverages

The biggest shock for me was how expensive Istanbul turned out to be. I found the prices of food and drinks, especially alcohol, comparable to London prices. Surprisingly, the only inexpensive aspect was public transport. Turkey was experiencing an economic crisis during my visit in June 2023, coupled with high inflation. With the Turkish Lira depreciating, I had assumed it would be cheaper for me to spend British pounds, but unfortunately, that wasn’t the case.

While I anticipated high prices in tourist areas like Sultanahmet, I was surprised to find similarly high prices on the Asian side, such as in Kadıköy. Turkey imposes a special consumption tax (SCT) on alcohol, reportedly in addition to VAT and tariffs, which contributes to approximately 65% of the price of beer and distilled spirits in Turkey. When you’re paying over £5 for a pint of local Efes beer in a standard bar or £23 for a bottle of house wine in an average restaurant, every expense starts to add up.

Istanbul is an expensive city
Istanbul is an expensive city

Overall

I hope these 8 points help you plan your trip to Istanbul! If you have any questions, feel free to comment below or DM me on Instagram. I’d be happy to help!

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