Things to know before you visit Istanbul

things to know before visiting istanbul

Istanbul was like nothing we have ever experienced before – a place where Europe and Asia collide (both culturally and geographically). Once the capital of the Roman empire (previously known as Constantinople) Istanbul has a tumultuous history with Roman, Byzantine, Greek and Ottoman empires leaving their mark on the city as it stands today. When you first arrive the metropolis of Istanbul can be overwhelming, sprawling for over 1500 square kilometres. As such it can be difficult to know exactly where to stay and what to expect while you’re there. Here are a few things that we think are important to know when planning your first visit to Istanbul!

Things to know before you visit Istanbul:

It’s hot during the summer months

Thankfully this is something we had already researched before booking flights which allowed us to visit in early September. We experienced average daily temperatures of around 30 degrees Celsius and lows overnight of around 20 degrees Celsius. While still warm this was much more bearable than tops of 40+ that we read about in the peak of summer. We would therefore definitely recommend visiting in shoulder season if possible.

It’s busy & chaotic

Again, this is something we expected before arriving, however no matter how prepared you are for the chaos it can still catch you off guard (especially if you’ve arrived from a more laid back holiday destination like we had). People will try to sell you things on the street (especially in touristy areas like Sultanahmet) and the traffic can be a nightmare (allow at least an hour to get to and from the airport by taxi/private transfer). You can also wave goodbye to your old friend personal space, which brings us to our next point…

Safety in istanbul

We’ve said this before, but we’ll say it again. Keep a close eye on your personal belongings, only take out with you the things you will actually need (ie. small amounts of cash and a phone – leave your cards, passports and any other valuables you may have back at your accommodation) and if possible lock up your backpack/handbag as pickpockets are common. We heard reports from other travellers about bag snatching so keep this in mind and keep an eye on your stuff!

Be aware of dress requirements and when you are allowed to visit the mosques

The Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia are some of the most impressive buildings in Istanbul and definitely warrant a visit! However, there are strict dress requirements that both males and females need to adhere to.

For both men and women this means shoulders and legs covered (pants for men and either pants or skirts for women). Women are also expected to wear a head covering when entering a place of worship. You can either use your own, or if you don’t have anything appropriate you can purchase/borrow one. Disposable head coverings are available to buy for 10 Turkish Lira outside the entrance to Hagia Sophia and reusable head coverings were available at the Blue Mosque (we ended up purchasing a disposable one for 10 Turkish Lira and as such don’t know exactly how much the re-usable head coverings cost, they are likely free at the Blue Mosque). It’s also important to be aware that non-Muslim visitors are not permitted to enter certain parts of the mosques during prayer time. Prayer times occur 5 times per day and vary according to the location of the sun. They loosely take place at dawn, midday, mid afternoon, sunset and nightfall.

*Sadly during our visit the Blue Mosque was under renovation. However, it was still impressive to see, and the Hagia Sophia was particularly impressive inside.

It’s budget friendly

A massive pro of visiting Istanbul (aside from being exposed to the city’s melting pot of culture) is its budget friendly nature. An omelette each morning for breakfast from a local eatery would cost us somewhere between $1-$2 AUD. If you happen to venture across the Bosphorus river to the Asian side prices are a little higher, although still well below what we have paid in other major European cities. Many of the city’s tourist attractions on the European side (The Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia and the Grand Bazar) are also free to enter.

Visa Requirements

Visa requirements for Turkey vary depending on the passport that your hold. For Australian citizens like us with ordinary Australian passports we needed to apply for an electronic visa online PRIOR to our arrival in Turkey. This was a relatively straightforward process and cost approximately $90 AUD each. At the time of writing similar requirements are in place for travellers from North America, while EU citizens can enter Turkey visa free for a period of 30-90 days (depending on the country). We would definitely recommend checking the exact visa requirements that pertain to you before travelling to Turkey as they may be subject to change. This can be checked through the official website here

It’s enormous

So we’ve already touched on this, but we really didn’t realise quite how big Istanbul is until we got there. When visualising a map it looked like popping across the river from the European side to the Asian side would be a simple expedition, however when you add in the crowds and summer heat it can turn into a bigger deal than originally thought. It took us just under an hour to walk from the centre of Sultanahmet on the European side (where we stayed) to the neighbourhoods of Galata and Karakoy on the Asian side. This is no big deal if you have all day to explore like we did, however we would definitely recommend doing some research into what you want to get out of your trip before you go, because once you’re settled on one side of the Bosphorus is can become an all day event just to get to the other side. This also brings us to our next point…

Visit, or better yet, stay in the Asian Side

Sadly this was something we wish we’d looked into more before booking our accomodation. We chose to stay in the heart of Sultanahmet on the European side, and while in theory this is right next to some of Istanbul’s most famous sites (Hagia Sofia, The Blue Mosque, The Grand Bazaar), we found there were was little to explore outside of these tourist attractions. The Asian side (including the areas of Galata and Karakoy) were bustling with chic cafes and clothing boutiques, third wave coffee shops and cobblestoned streets lined by cute colourful houses. If we had our time again we would definitely have stayed here. Having said that, it really comes down to personal preference.

Turkish Food

Overall the food in Istanbul was cheap and tasty. As with all major cities there are the standard ‘tourist traps’ in the centre of town, but if you do your research you’ll find some excellent, more local alternatives. Our favourite cafes and restaurants were definitely in the Galata and Karakoy areas of the Asian side so be sure to check these neighbourhoods out! While we normally love to share our favourite meals we’re reluctant to this time as sadly somewhere during our stay we seemed to pick up a nasty bout of food poisoning. Don’t let that put you off though, many of the places we ate at appeared from the outset to be clean and delivered great meals at affordable prices.

Turkish Sweets

One can’t visit Turkey without ogling the endless array of Turkish sweets on display. While we sampled a few during our stay our favourite place was Karakoy Gulluoglu serving up traditional baklava (walnut or pistachio flavours) and more savoury dishes as well. Be warned though, these sweet treats are doused in A LOT of sugary syrup making more than 1 or 2 sickly for even the sweetest of sweet-tooths. Best to share if you want to try a few and wash it down with a glass of Turkish tea.

Those that like a laugh (and ice cream) should check out the famous ice cream stalls in Istanbul. These vendors put on a show as they make your ice cream. Be prepared to feel like a fool, but it’s all in good fun!

Don’t drink the water

The jury is out as to whether the water in Istanbul is actually safe to drink. Supposedly it is ok for drinking (according a quick google search) however many of the locals themselves choose not to drink it and we too decided to err on the side of caution.


Stepping into the Grand Bazaar is like being transported to another place. The sights, smells, sounds and chaos all mix into one. You have multiple parts, including the old market building housing the more modern goods (e.g. jewellery, sweets, tea houses, turkish rugs and more), an area with antiques, a whole block of ‘fake brand’ goods, and the spice market. Be prepared for crowds and traders hassling you for a deal.

Where to stay in Istanbul:

As mentioned above, we would recommend staying on the Asian side near the Galata or Karakoy areas. This puts you in the heart of the ‘trendiest’ areas with good cafes, restaurants and bars. However, it does put you further away from the ‘tourist attractions’ like the Mosques and Grand Bazaar. It’ll take you around 20-30minutes to walk to the Grand Bazaar from the Asian side, and a little further for the Mosques. Weigh up your priorities when looking to stay. If you want to be in the heart of the action, Sultanahmet may be an option. We stayed here, however found it busy, chaotic, and quite touristic.

If you are looking for accommodation in Istanbul, take a look here or check out the map below:

Best coffee (and tea) in Istanbul:

Karabatak Karakoy: We would have to say this was our TOP PICK when it comes to cool coffee shops on the Asian side of the city. There’s an outdoor area sheltered by vines out the front where you can people watch, or if you need to escape the elements the vibe inside is equally stylish. The coffee was top notch along with a healthy bowl of yoghurt and homemade granola. It also seems like the kind of place that would be perfect a drink later in the day if you happen to be staying in the area.

Brew Coffee Works: With limited high quality coffee options on the European side of the city we were pleasantly surprised when we stopped in at Brew Coffee Works for our morning coffee. We ordered the Cortado which was the closest thing we could get to a ‘latte’ back home. The flavours were good and the setting was a nice escape from the hustle and bustle outside.

Bary Brew: 3km west of Istanbul’s European side we found ourselves craving a coffee and unsure where to go. Thankfully Bary Brew had our backs. While we wouldn’t necessarily recommend venturing all the way out there for no reason, if you happen to find yourself in the area and in need of a quick pick me up this place will do the trick.

Old Java Coffee Roasters Galata: We visited old Java on a recommendation from friends who had visited Istanbul earlier in the year and it lived up to its expectations. The coffee was excellent and they have ‘Melbourne-esque’ brunch options to if you’re after a feed. In fact the whole street along here is really cool with brunch spots and boutique stores, you could spend a whole morning just exploring the area.

Try some Turkish Tea in the Grand Bazaar: A trip to Istanbul wouldn’t be complete without tasting the local tea. While you can order a glass pretty much anywhere, we particularly enjoyed sipping tea in the heart of the old town’s Grand Bazaar.

Proje Cafe – This small cafรฉ serves up third-wave coffee and is also a co-working space (cafe at the front, co-working space at the back). FYI – there’s no wifi available for cafรฉ customers which is a shame, but the coffee itself was excellent.

Frankestayn Kitabevi – We didn’t actually stop to try a coffee here but we did spend some time wandering around the adjoining book store. While most books of the books were in Turkish there was a small selection written in English and a cute little nook to stop and read a few pages if you’re looking to expand your mind.

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