The legendary meeting place of East and West, with its spellbinding attractions and impressive history is the hottest place in the world to visit right now. Here's what you need to know before you go...
1) Getting around
Istanbul is a huge sprawl of a city, and its geography can be confusing. The Bosphorus is the main artery of Istanbul and divides the city into two sections: the European side and the Asian side, giving Istanbul the distinction of being the only city in the world to straddle two continents. The European side contains most of the historical gems that make up the core of tourism: the Hagia Sofia, Blue Mosque, and Basilica Cisterns, just to name a few.
As such, visitors with only a few days to spare often skip the Asian side. If you’re staying longer, however, it’s worth a ferry ride over. Kadıköy is a vibrant neighbourhood with a rowdy fish market, the quaint town of Kuzguncuk boasts traditional Ottoman architecture, and you can stroll down the impressive shopping boulevard of Bağdat Caddesi.
Grand Bazaar, source. Flickr/LASZLO ILYES
2) What to wear
For women, there’s no need to start cramming long skirts into suitcases. Just pack appropriately for the weather which is cool and pleasant in the spring and autumn, but boiling hot in summer and often rainy and cold in winter.
Women’s dress in Istanbul varies widely: you’ll see niqabs, headscarves with jeans, and miniskirts with high heels. As long as you use your judgment and dress more modestly when visiting a mosque, you won’t run foul of any cultural norms in this fashion-obsessed city.
3) Turkish coffee
Turkey might be famous for its coffee, but the ubiquitous beverage here is a brew of strong black tea, served steaming hot in tulip shaped glasses. Throughout the day, you’ll see vendors pushing carts of tea along the streets, shouting the ubiquitous call of “Çay!” to passers-by.
Although the Turkish word for tea is pronounced “chai,” don’t confuse it with the spicy and creamy brew you might be familiar with: unlike masala chai, the Turkish variety is drunk without milk, though often sweetened with a few cubes of sugar. If offered tea, always accept a glass: it’s an important social custom, whether you’re chatting with an old friend or being treated to a glass by a salesperson.
Turkish coffee, source: Flickr/Quinn Dombrowski
4) Mustafa Kemal Atatürk
If you’ve been in Istanbul for more than three minutes, you’ll have noticed portraits of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk everywhere: on car bumpers, in private homes, in small stores, and—on holidays, at least—stretching down entire sides of the city’s skyscrapers. As the founder and former president of modern Turkey, Atatürk is highly revered and celebrated. His cult of personality remains strong—it’s actually a crime to insult his memory!
5) Mosque etiquette
When visiting a mosque, make sure you’ve got a pair of socks and, for women, a scarf. Women are sometimes requested to cover their shoulders and hair, though not always, and all people must take off their shoes in order to enter. Once inside, be mindful of the separate men’s and women’s sections. Feel free to take photos of the interior, but avoid pointing your camera at people in prayer.
Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, source: Flickr/David Spender
6) Want to be anywhere on time? Leave early
Traffic is notorious for good reason. With 14 million people and counting, Istanbul is one of the most densely populated cities in the world—and, given its millennia-spanning history, it’s also one of the most confusing to navigate. Many taxi drivers in the city are not originally from Istanbul; if you’re heading to a little-known destination or have only a street number and name, make sure you have a map and a nearby landmark handy. And an extra hour also wouldn’t hurt!
Raki, a liquorice-flavored drink made out of grapes and aniseed, is Turkey’s alcoholic beverage of choice. And it’s a serious business. At 45% alcohol, it’s meant to be drunk with friends as an accompaniment to a spread of small dishes, or meze. Raki is served in a slim cylindrical glass, always with cold water and occasionally a few ice cubes, although some raki purists will say that ice cubes diminish the flavour. If offered a glass at a meal, try to accept! It’s an acquired taste, but is meant to be sipped slowly with your food. Sharing a bottle of raki is a quintessential Turkish experience: when cheering, don’t forget to clink the bottoms of the glasses together, not the top!
8) Call to prayer
You’ll notice the call to prayer ring out at a few points throughout the day. If you’re new to the city and unused to the sound, it’s impossible to miss. In a city with 3,000 mosques, you’ll be able to hear the muezzin’s call no matter where you are. Because the timing is based on a complicated calculation of latitudes and longitudes, as well as the sun’s position in the sky, there will be slight variations in the times from mosque to mosque.
Source: Flickr/LASZLO ILYES
9) Bring comfortable shoes
Like Rome, Istanbul was built on seven hills, but it feels more like a thousand. Given the snail’s pace of the traffic, the charming side roads lined with cafes and shops, and the strictly pedestrian areas scattered across the city, you might be logging some serious time on foot. And for those not intimidated by the city’s steep hills, here’s another consideration: the cobblestones and uneven sidewalks might cause some damage to your shoes, in addition to your knees.
Bring cash for tipping, even if you intend on using a credit card in restaurants and cafes. It’s not yet possible in Istanbul to manually add your gratuity to the bill after your card has been processed. While dining, a 10% tip is generally expected; for hotel attendants and hairdressers, a few lira is customary. It’s not necessary to tip taxi drivers unless the driver helped load your luggage. In fact, the taxi drivers will often round down the bill themselves to give you whole notes rather than a handful of coins when giving change.