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Travel Guide To Istanbul, Turkey

Hello Hello! As many of you know, we just got back from our trip to Turkey. We’ve both always dreamed of visiting Turkey so when we finally booked our flights we sort of went so crazy that we didn’t fully plan our trip through. But, that mistake of ours gave us a lot of useful insight for all of you! All-in-all our trip to Turkey was absolutely amazing. The food, the culture, the history. Everything was without parallel, but we figured it might be useful for us to put together a few pointers that might make your trip a little more seamless.

PRE-PLANNING FOR YOUR TRIP

Start with figuring out how many days you are planning on going to Turkey and things you’d like to do while you’re there (so the tourist spots you want to hit, food you’d like to eat or try, just make your rough to-do list). We’d recommend at least 4-5 days, anything less and you’re better of taking a local trip. Create a Pinterest board. I know this sounds weird but, we found a lot of photography inspirations, hole in the wall restaurants, hidden gems and some helpful tips for the trip on there. It also helps create a mood board for you in terms of what the trip may look like. 

We ended up getting our Global Entry stuff done in the States a few months in advance before leaving for Turkey. This helps at the customs on your way back. You still go through customs but it speeds up the process and you don’t have to wait in lines for long. Highly recommend that for those living in the states. Not sure about other countries, but if you know the process – let us know! I’ll update this post with the information we receive from you guys.

BOOKING A FLIGHT

Try to do a direct flight if you’re traveling from the U.S. We found an affordable flight for the 2 of us through Ukraine International Airline, but our experience with the airline was not the best. Our flight was jam packed, it was extremely hot (no air conditioning, and the overhead vents didn’t work), the staff barely spoke english, oh and they charge you for everything basically (like soda and basic snacks). Also, if you don’t check in prior to getting to the airport – they make you pay $13+ per person for boarding pass. This wasn’t an issue for us in the U.S. but definitely an issue when we were trying to get back from Istanbul. The airline has so many things they need to straighten out in terms of how they operate, and if you’re flying late at night or early morning – this is something you don’t want to deal with. I promise.

Also, there are two airports in Istanbul, Gokcen and Ataturk. Ataturk is the newer of the two and is a little bit closer to Sultanahmet (old city where Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia are). Gokcen is also doable, we weren’t able to find direct flights to there, it seems to be mostly for local flights. Plus, when we took a local flight in Turkey, we noticed that most of the staff at that airport only speaks Turkish, so the language barrier became instantly more noticeable. Either way, both airports work fine if you’re flying in, but Ataturk is probably a better bet.

PACKING

This is a tough one, because nobody wants to admit how much they plan on bringing back from Istanbul. But make sure you leave extra room, because you’re going to shop in Turkey. A lot of food/gifts you might purchase can be really space consuming. So make sure to leave a decent amount of room. At the same time, don’t skimp on packing layers because the temperature does drop at night since Istanbul is right on the water. Take advantage of the checked bag policy for your international airline and take 1/3 empty bags. You’ll thank us later.

CURRENCY: EURO or LIRAS

Most places will take Euros or Liras and also many accept Visa (pretty much nobody accepts American Express), but our experience getting the best prices was with Liras. Near the Grand Bazaar there are a lot of places that do currency exchange for no commission. So, you’ll be able to get best rate for your dollar there. There are also ATMs pretty much located throughout Istanbul that you can use to get cash in multiple currencies. Some don’t charge a fee for using a different bank card either. 

TO AND FROM AIRPORT TRANSPORTATION OPTIONS

They have Uber! You can also use the public transportation, and if you’re staying at a hotel or an Airbnb, a lot of these places offer shuttles to and from the airport. However, you need to plan that ahead of time. Usually when you book your accommodation. Public transportation is definitely the cheapest option, and its pretty easy to use, but also takes the longest. Do not get a car though. Driving in Istanbul is a nightmare and it takes a special kind of person to be able to do it. The streets are narrow, signs are in Turkish, and drivers are aggressive.

PLACES + AREAS TO STAY

There are plenty of hotels in Sultanahmet and Taksim Square, but we ended up booking an apartment through Airbnb. It costed us about the same if we were to stay at a hotel but we just preferred having a homey feeling. The apartment was fully furnished and had stunning views, so we’d highly recommend looking into that. We’d also recommend staying closer to Sultanahmet over Taksim Square because that’s where the majority of “tourist” stuff is, including the Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, and Grand Bazaar. Taksim Square has some great food and nightlife though, so that’s also something to consider.

FOOD + SHEESHA

This is absolutely a tough one! There are SO many places to eat, but majority of them are catering to tourists so the quality isn’t that great. We ended up going to some of the recommendations we received through our Instagram viewers and friends/family who’ve been, but were largely disappointed. The best restaurants were in hidden alleys that locals go to! They truly gave us the overall Turkish experience, so definitely don’t hesitate in exploring those alleys and finding hidden gems. Our litmus test was to take a peak inside and see if there were any locals eating in there. If it’s good enough for the Turkish people, it’s good enough for us.

TOURISTY THINGS TO DO

You can book tours for pretty much everything! We ended up booking a private half-day tour our first day there to kind of get an idea of where everything was and details of everything in Turkey from a local’s perspective. It really helped us figure our way around Istanbul and truly enjoy every piece of it. Just looking at the “touristy” places, there are so many things to do: Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, Grand Bazaar, tours on the Bosphorous then some of the lesser known things like Topkapi Palace, Sulimanye Mosque, historical underground cisterns, and Egyptian Bazaar; there is seriously so many other things to see and do. Again, best way to see things and get the full on local experience, you really just need to explore. You’ll stumble upon so many different places to experience! Oh also, don’t forget to book yourself a massage at a Hamam (Turkish Bath). However, walk in and pay for it while you’re there instead of booking it online. It’s super expensive online when you book through websites. When you go anywhere with Liras, you get to negotiate and pay a better price for everything.

SHOPPING IN TURKEY

This was absolutely my favorite part. We shopped so much it was ridiculous! Definitely leave some space in your bags for things to take back. Here are a few tips you need to know when you’re out and about trying to shop either in the Grand Bazar or anywhere else near it. NEGOTIATE. You can negotiate the rates down to at least 25%-50% (75% if you’re really good). The best way to do this is by letting the owner know you’ll buy more (if you’re actually planning on buying more than one item) and asking them to give you a decent rate. Once thats done, pick your items and negotiate the final total of all products down to your desired rate. Sometimes you’ll essentially have to walk away because they won’t budge, and quite frankly you’ll end up finding the same thing somewhere else for probably a better price.

Second, if asked, DON”T tell them about your profession. Our tour guide ended up asking us what we did, and we told her that one of was an engineer and the other is a marketing consultant. Based on that information, she showed us only the expensive parts of the bazaar. So when we tried negotiating, the rates were already too high and in U.S dollars.

We shopped for things that are typically much more expensive in the states (shawls, decor, jewelry), and compared prices before going in. Also, if you speak a second language other than english, use that while deciding on things and shopping. When you go in speaking english they already know you’re from the west and will assume you’ve got more money so they’ll give you rates in either Euros or Dollars (when that happens, its definitely hard to negotiate). Lastly, PAY IN CASH (Liras). This helped us a lot when we wanted to purchase things in bulk. I’d essentially say that I’ve only got a certain amount of Liras and I can only pay about a certain amount. Plus, you won’t get charged a fee on your Visa or Master Card when you use it over there.

GIFTS FOR FAMILY

The most common gifts coming from Istanbul are Baklava and Turkish Delights, but realize that they can get pretty heavy, so definitely account for the weight per bag when you purchase. Our airline allowed 23kg and we were at 33kg with just our gifts, but thats also because we only bought one bag and one carry-on. You’re allowed two bags per person plus a purse/backpack with most airlines. We’d say check before leaving for Turkey.

As far as gifts go, we ended up shopping for traditional items to give our friends. Like the evil eye jewelry, shawls, antique items and decor items for our parents’ homes. There are a lot of places that will even customize items for you, like do calligraphy on plates/cups. Those are definitely the best things to gift if you’re stuck in terms of figuring out what to get someone.

In conclusion, Istanbul is a stunning city with so much to offer. The people are so kind, the food is great, and the atmosphere in the country feels inviting and friendly. You could go there with no plan and probably still have the most memorable trip of your life, so don’t overexert yourself with trying to plan the perfect trip. Just hit the basics for what you want to accomplish and then let the rest come with time.

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I’m Maryam, your new guide. Welcome to my Blog!

Maryam Ishtiaq is a content creator and social media strategist who currently resides in Dallas, Texas.

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