Turkey is as intriguing as anywhere you can visit, and of course Istanbul is one of the world’s great cities. Over the last week, I’ve been exploring this ancient and vibrant part of the world, and have picked up a handful of tips and tricks along the way. Below are a few basics designed to help smooth your entry into Turkey:
1. You need a visa, but it’s easy and cheap to get online.
Travelers from both U.S., U.K., and many other countries need visas to enter Turkey. Luckily, however, they are available online here. You simply fill out a form and end up with a PDF of your visa. Then entire process takes a few minutes.
For U.S. citizens, a visa costs $20 and you can pay via credit card online.
2. There is a grocery store at the airport.
If you need a snack or a drink after your long flight to Turkey, follow signs for the metro. When you enter the long concourse between the international terminal and the metro entrance, look to the left and you’ll see a sign for a discount market.
I didn’t run across many stores in the city that were significantly larger or cheaper, so the one at the airport seemed like as good a place as any to pick up basics like bottled water.
4. Some travelers avoid the tap water.
Speaking of water, there are differing opinions about drinking the tap water in Turkey. One of my hotels, for example, had a sign advising against drinking it, and our guide book said some westerners get a case of “Istanbul intestines.” On the other hand, I talked to travelers who drank the tap water and did not have any problems.
I get an upset stomach pretty easily so I decided to just play it safe and only drink bottled water. In general I dislike being overly cautious, but bottled water is cheap and I’ve been sick enough times while traveling to know that it’s not fun at all.
4. Public transit is the cheapest — and arguably best — way to get into the city.
Istanbul’s airport has a metro stop a short walk from the international terminal (look down, the signs pointing the way are on ground).
From the airport, I rode several stops then made an easy transfer to light rail, which took me right to the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia. The trip takes about an hour and costs 8 Turkish lira (a little less than $3).
An Uber ride back to the airport would cost 100 TL (about $33), and a taxi would be more still. And according to multiple hoteliers I spoke with, riding in car takes about the same amount of time as public transit thanks to traffic.
5. Visiting in the winter means vastly cheaper prices and smaller crowds — but beware the cold.
I have not visited Turkey in the summer, but according to everyone I talked to (travelers, people in hospitality, etc.) the crowds are vastly bigger. It seems that like other European cities — Paris, Rome, etc. — Istanbul gets loads of tourists in the warmer months. In the winter, however, tourism in Istanbul drops off dramatically. The area where I stayed, near the Blue Mosque, felt at times like a ghost town and the plazas generally only had a smattering of people braving the cold.
And it was very cold; highs for much of my trip were in the mid 30s, with bitter cold breezes and frequent snow storms. That level of cold was one of the most surprising things for me in Istanbul, so if you visit in the winter make sure to check the forecast and dress warmly.
The upside of smaller crowds and colder temperatures is lower prices. My first hotel, a small family run place in the heart of the city, was $35 a night.
I later moved to a more business-y hotel for better internet and paid 45 euros a night for a huge room with ocean views and a giant, jetted bathtub. During the busy season, the room costs 370 euros per night.
Both hotels included breakfast.
During the summer, these hotels’ rates increase by three or four times, which seems fairly typical from my research. There are certainly still deals to be had in Istanbul in the summer, but by all accounts they’re less significant and harder to find.
— Jim Dalrymple II