Istanbul Tips and What to Expect for Your First Visit

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How to Visit Istanbul

This Easter, Mike and I decided to spend the holiday visiting Istanbul, Turkey. We didn’t know precisely what to expect in Istanbul. Still, the adventure was one of the most memorable trips we’ve ever had together. Istanbul packs a lot, which makes sense because it’s the economic, cultural and historical center of Turkey. The city also connects Europe to Asia both physically and culturally. We experienced it all, from dazzling sights and delicious tastes to a stunningly unique culture. Visiting Istanbul is tremendous! Read our Istanbul tips and learn about the surprises we encountered along the way. Here is a breakdown of our must-see Istanbul attractions and an idea of what to expect along the way.

|Read more about why we do a trip every Easter: Expat Advice: Avoid the Travel Trap

What to Expect in Istanbul

We prepped for this trip our normal way, with travel books and blog surfing, and here is a list of takeaways that we found most important and some that were most surprising.

|For a great guide on Istanbul, also look to The Adventurous Feet: Guide to Istanbul for First Time Visitors

Istanbul’s BIG

Istanbul is huge and dense – I wasn’t 100% prepared for this. It’s the 4th largest city in the world with almost 15 million residents packed in a dense, sprawling and modern city. Istanbul has roughly as many people as New York City, LA and Chicago combined, and almost twice as many inhabitants as London. Plus it’s growing, there is construction everywhere and a significant amount of foreign investment.

Getting Around Istanbul

The public transit system is equal to that of any European city (therefore superior to all American cities). It’s easy to get around in clean, efficient and on-time public transit from buses and ferries to trams and funiculars.

TIP: purchase an Istanbullkart (similar to a MetroCard in NYC or an Oyster card in London). This rechargeable card will make your trips up to 50% cheaper and can be shared between multiple people. If purchased at a transit stop, it will come with ride credit.

Riding or walking around the city, you will see large crowds. Even the pedestrian streets overflowed with people most hours of the day.


We found the transportation to be top-notch, but the neighborhoods were peppered with abandoned houses. Because of this, the streets were teeming with stray cats. Many of them were squatting in these shuttered homes because the smell of cat urine was pungent and unavoidable.

Where we stayed in Istanbul

Bustling Istiklal Caddesi in Taksim District Istanbul what to expect
Bustling Istiklal Caddesi in Taksim District

When we picked an area to stay, we wanted to be close to transportation, dining, and nightlife. We also wanted easy access to the sights of Istanbul. We selected the Taksim Square area in the “new city,” considered the heart of modern Istanbul.

Taksim features rooftops bars and fine dining options with gorgeous views of the Bosphorus as well as local flavors and fantastic shopping along Istiklal Caddesi, the pedestrian street at the center of action in Taksim. Because there was always something to do nearby, we were very happy with the area. The attractions we visited each day could be reached easily by public transit in about 20 minutes. During our preparation, we learned that the Asian side of the city offered little for tourists. While in Istanbul, we discovered the Old City is beautiful, but most of the dining and nightlife closes early.

Yes, it’s in a Muslim Nation

While secular, Turkey is a Muslim-majority nation. Naturally, the culture reflects this. Be prepared for beautiful mosques and the influences of Islam all over. While in Istanbul, you will hear the Muslim call to prayer 5 times throughout the day. Each will echo around the city from mosque to mosque.

At mosques, you will see ablution, the ritual cleansing of certain body parts before prayer. There are fountains and water taps outside of these holy buildings for washing of hands, arms, feet, lower legs, etc. When you visit a mosque, you don’t have to participate in ablution. Still, you will have to obey the dress protocol. This is the same protocol as you complete when visiting a Christian Church or other house of worship. For men and women, this means covering knees and shoulders and removing shoes. Women also cover their hair out of respect, and clothes are provided for anyone who needs to borrow them.

Otherwise, Islam advises modesty for both men and women. In Istanbul, you will see both men and women dressed in coverings that reflect their interpretation of modesty. Headscarves and head-to-toe coverings may be seen, but in Turkey, most men and women take a more liberal interpretation. There, modesty is an individuals’ choice.

Istanbul what to expect Blue Mosque
The gorgeous Blue Mosque

Istanbul what to expect: Lots of Waterfront

Part of Istanbul’s beauty is the gorgeous waterfront views in many parts of the city. We took in these picturesque scenes wherever and whenever we could. This included a Bosporus cruise, eating dinner on a rooftop with balcony and walking the Galata Bridge. Galata is only one of many iconic bridges in the city. Even attractions like Topkapi Palace and Süleymaniye Mosque were built to provide breathtaking views of the water.

Left to Right: Me, Europe, Asia — from Topkapi Palace

Not all the water is wonderful in Istanbul

Is the tap water safe to drink in Istanbul? Short answer is no. I was particularly surprised to learn that public water is not potable. I thought that only happened in Michigan, but the public water is not safe to drink.

Unlike some countries we have been to, the water is still safe for brushing your teeth. Showering in the water also poses no problem and the water is safe to cook with. The ice cubes in Istanbul will be made with mineral water, and are therefore safe. You don not have to worry about ice cubes in Istanbul, just avoid drinking tap water. During our stay, we purchased large bottles of water to keep in our hotel for drinking. These large bottles were sold on every street corner in the center of Istanbul.

Aggressive Selling in Istanbul

We’ve visited places with aggressive selling culture in the past (at least to Americans). Istanbul is definitely one of those places, but if you know this in advance you can be prepared. In Istanbul, the selling culture is pervasive. This is pretty cool in the right instance, like visiting the Grand Bazaar. Other times, we just wanted to wander the streets and find an after-dinner drink but were solicited to enter every restaurant we passed.

Occasionally it bordered on uncomfortable because the people “selling” us were over-persistent, ignored our refusals or followed us. While much of this is cultural, and we were respectful, we sometimes felt on edge and wondered if we were sought out for being American. We never felt unsafe, just slightly on edge.

Media in Istanbul, what to expect

We were a little worried about the changes we may see since government reforms have impacted Turkey. Political unrest, a coup attempt and a subsequent power grab by President Erdogan have resulted in restricted freedoms.

We have no comparison, but friends who have visited before mentioned differences they have noticed as they have made more recent trips. One thing we noticed is we couldn’t access Wikipedia. The government has a problem with open-sourced information and some apps were repressed. For irony’s sake, here is Erogan’s Wikipedia page where you can read more.

What to do in Istanbul

We took our four full days and laid out an agenda which took us to the main sites. Our itinerary also provided leisure time for exploring our own adventure and we even had some relaxation.  Here is how we split our time, further detail coming soon.

  1.  Topkapi Palace & Harem and Hippodrome
  2. Grand Bazaar, Süleymaniye Mosque, Galata Bridge
  3. Bosphorus Tour and Yoros Castle
  4. Aya Sofya, Blue Mosque, Basilica Cistern and Hamam

What’s Next in Turkey?

We had a brilliant time soaking in the amazing city of Istanbul. We already want to visit more of Turkey including the Turkish Riviera. Also known as the Turquoise Coast, this beautiful area of southwest Turkey is a well-known destination for gorgeous beaches and all-inclusive resorts.

Here is a fantastic guide to the Turkish Riviera from Curiously Erin.