Istanbul: Making the most of your visit

turkey3Istanbul’s one of the most visited cities in the world: in the summer months tourists swell to well over 2 million – wait for it – each day! It’s frequently voted among the most popular destination on websites like TripAdvisor, ranked #1 last year. Recently it was #3 among Canadian Facebook fans, leading to amazing seat sales.

Which leads to one of the most frequently asked questions among travelers – how safe is it? Compared to other big cities, it’s surprisingly safe. The rate of pick pocketing and robbery compared to Rome and Barcelona, for example, is quite small. And compared to other major touristic cities in the Middle East, the shoppers are quite mellow in that they won’t try to sell you everything at every corner. I remember leaving Morocco holding on to 3 carpets and thinking to myself, how did I end up with three? On the other hand, I never felt pressured to buy something on the streets of Islanbul.

That being said, there are a few things to watch out for. For solo/single women travelers there are issues of catcalling. Most are harmless – albeit annoying – public displays that really don’t put the women in any physical harm. I’ve spoken to American and Canadian women expats living in Istanbul for a few years who claim they’ve felt safer here than in some North American cities.

Whereas no one’s going to rip the handbag off your shoulder, there are people who’ll try to rip you off, in terms of scams. The biggest one is taxis: they can charge you up to quadruple the amount if you’re a new tourist and don’t know how to haggle. They have meters which is a safe bet but they will spike the meter reading by driving around aimlessly, claiming they don’t know the area you’re driving to. If you have a smartphone with data and google map the directions and show it to the driver, that solves that. Otherwise, if you find out the fare beforehand (from your hotel/airport concierge), agree to an amount before you get in the taxi.

Another issue, especially with solo male travelers, is the scam of strangers who appear very friendly and will chat up a storm, ultimately asking if you want to share drinks with them. Once they take you to their ‘favourite’ club or bar, they’ll claim the drinks are on them and order some of the most expensive ones. When it comes to paying, the bill’s usually exaggerated (to the amount of the hundreds of Euros!) and your friend claims he didn’t expect such a high amount and that he can’t cover it. Then you’ll have no choice but to cough off some dough, usually by being taken to an ATM and sometimes accompanied by other ‘friends’. Even worse, they may just grab all your belongings and leave. Personally I never fell in this trap (I would kindly decline if asked out) but met some gullible guys who did.

One crucial issue is beggars who approach you, especially the children. I’ve written separately on this.

dsc_0139-1Other than these outright scams, a tourist can do well to research tourist traps priced astronomically higher than what a local would pay. For example, the popular Bosphorus Cruises which charge you upward of 15 Euros are a mighty bust. Rather, take a local ferry for a few cents which allows you unlimited travel for more than a few hours and allows you to get off on land and stroll around rather than being stuck on a boat for only two hours.

Shopping areas can be a tourist trap where you pay considerably higher in one area compared to a fraction just around the corner. Obviously well known areas such as the Grand Bazaar will be more expensive but it’s also convenient if you’re just browsing. What I did was window shop at the Grand Bazaar and then find out other areas where I can get a specific item much cheaper. But if time and convenience is of essence, stick to the famous markets. And like I mentioned, the fact that the shoppers are so laid back actually makes it worthwhile to visit and even support them.

Finally – and this is my most important advise to any traveler – take the time to learn a few basic local words and phrases. It goes a long way to make friendly connections and appear less ‘touristy’. Check out these lessons.

Have fun when visiting Istanbul and if you have time to go off the beaten path and explore, check out one of our phototours.

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