This time last month, I packed my bags and set off to Istanbul for a mini break – and had an absolutely wonderful time. And although this was my first time visiting the country, I’m sure it won’t be the last one.
If you’re planning your first trip to Istanbul and not sure where to begin or what you need to know before you leave, I’ve got you covered. In today’s post, I collected 9 of the most important things you need to know before travelling to Turkey in order to help you get the most out of your trip.
1) Passports and Visa
Before you start planning your trip or work out your itinerary, make sure to double-check your passport’s validity. In order to enter Turkey, your passport will need to be valid for at least 6 months after the date of your arrival, and at least 3 months after the date you leave the country. It also needs to be valid for 60 days after the expiry date of your Turkish visa.
Speaking of which, although some visitors can enter Turkey without a visa, most nationalities (including those with British passports) do need one. The good news is that it’s a relatively easy process and there’s no need to go to an embassy to get it – you can apply, pay for, and get your visa online in a couple of minutes.
To find out whether you need a visa, go to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs website and find your passport’s issuing country on the list. If you see the sentence “ordinary and official passport holders are exempted from visa for their travels up to 90 days” or something similar, you’re lucky – you don’t need one. As long as you have your passport and it’s valid for at least 6 months after the date of your arrival, you’re good to go.
But if you see “ordinary, service and special passport holders are required to have visa”, you do need one. In this case, go to the Electronic Visa Application website and start your application. Visa costs vary depending on where you’re from, but for UK and US citizens, it costs $20. If, for whatever reason, you forgot to apply for an e-visa before your trip, you can still get one at the airport once you’re in Turkey – but it’s more expensive.
2) Airports and Arrival
Another thing to consider before planning your trip is how you’re going to get there. Istanbul has two international airports: Atatürk International Airport, and Sabiha Gökçen Airport. Atatürk Airport is on the European side of the city, about 14 miles west of the centre, while Sabiha Gökçen is on the Asian side, roughly 25 miles away.
The most important thing to remember is that although flights to Sabiha Gökçen may be considerably cheaper than ones to Atatürk (as most budget airlines, including Pegasus, Jet Air, and Germanwings land on the Asian side), your overall transportation costs are likely to be the same.
Not only is Sabiha Gökçen further away from the city centre and most touristy areas, it’s also more difficult to reach. Atatürk Airport is very well connected, and you can easily take the metro and / or trams to your final destination – if you land on the Asian side, however, your only option is to take the bus – or fork out some cash for a taxi or airport shuttle.
3) Getting around
Istanbul has a great public transport system, so getting around is fairly easy. The good things is that no matter what form of public transport you use – bus, metro, tram, funicular, cable car, ferry, you name it – you can pay for and use almost all of them using a pre-paid plastic card called Istanbulkart.
If you’ve ever been to London, you’re probably familiar with Oyster cards. Istanbulkart is basically their Turkish equivalent – it’s a contactless electronic card that you can top up and use to pay for your tube, bus, or tram journeys. This is by far the cheapest and most convenient way of travelling on Istanbul’s public transport network, so I’d definitely recommend getting one before you leave the airport.
Istanbulkarts are sold by Istanbulkart vending machines near the metro stations’ entrance, as well as newspaper kiosks in some more touristy areas. An Istanbulkart costs 10 Turkish Liras (about £2.50), and has TL4 in fare credit on it. But, just like with London’s Oyster cards, you can also top it up with more credit if you want to.
Of course, you can also buy single-fare tickets (jetons) if you’re only staying for a day or two, or are less likely to use public transport during your stay, but these are almost twice as expensive as the Istanbulkart fares.
Turkey’s currency is the Turkish Lira, and one Lira equals about £0.25 – but, oddly enough, hotels and certain other places (like airport shops) charge in Euros.
Although most places accept credit and debit card payments, always have some cash on you, just in case. Smaller shops or vendors, especially in the Grand Bazaar / Spice Bazaar areas, may not have these facilities.
5) Loose change
Speaking of which, always have some loose change because you never know when you will need it. Just like in any other European country, public toilets are often paid – especially in the more touristy areas. All the ones I came across cost 1 Lira, and accepted coins only – so if you’re out exploring the city, this is definitely something to keep in mind.
6) Dress code
Understandably, one of the most often discussed topics in connection with Istanbul is how to dress.
Although it’s not necessary to cover up when you’re out and about, mosques and other religious sites have a very strict dress code. When visiting these places, always wear long skirts or trousers, and remember to cover your shoulders and chest. Also make sure to wear socks, as you’ll have to remove your shoes before entering a mosque.
It’s also a good idea to take a scarf with you, as most mosques require that you cover your head – and not all places provide them at the entrance. Luckily, popular places like the Süleymaniye Mosque or the Blue Mosque have both scarves and skirts you can borrow, but smaller ones don’t.
Undoubtedly, people in Istanbul are very warm, welcoming, and friendly – but can be a bit too “friendly” sometimes, especially if you happen to be a (solo) female traveller. I lost count of how many times I was approached by, honked or stared at, or followed by random guys during my 3-day trip. Luckily, most of the time these things are harmless, but can get really annoying after a while. The best way to handle any unwanted attention is to remain indifferent and make it clear that you’re not interested.
Atatürk Airport is insanely busy and, for obvious reasons, security is super tight. You’ll have to go through a security check right after you enter the departure terminal, another one before passport control, and a third one at the boarding gate. It’s insane – but who can blame them?
When it comes to travelling to Turkey, getting out of the country is usually more difficult than getting in, so always keep this in mind before you make your way to the airport. Make sure to leave enough time for getting there, navigating your way through security, and dropping your bags off.
9) Airport costs
Although Istanbul itself is quite cheap (maybe except for the more touristy areas), Atatürk Airport is freaking expensive. I’m not a big fan of duty free shops and last-minute gift shopping anyway, but I’d definitely recommend avoiding Atatürk’s stores altogether.
Another thing – something I didn’t even notice until I was about to pay – is that the prices at duty-free are in Euros, not Turkish Lira. I mean… why?! Obviously, I didn’t have any Euros on me, so I asked the cashier if I could pay in Lira instead. They said yes, and converted the price from Euros to Lira, using the current exchange rates. Weird!
Have you ever been to Istanbul? If so, what else would you add to the list? 🙂