Are you visiting Turkey soon? I am glad! This is a country that has a lot to offer. It’s easy to see why it’s a travelers’ favorite.
My sister and I have recently visited Turkey. We loved it – there are many incredible places to visit, mysterious landscapes and unique experienced to be had.
However, to be honest we were often taken aback by some of the things we experienced and wished we had gone in better prepared. In some cases, we were positively surprised. In other instances, we simply had to quickly learn how to deal with the situation.
Learning from my experience, I thought I’d share with you some essential things you need to know before visiting Turkey, as well as some useful Turkey travel tips that will help you make the most of your time in the country and have a smooth trip.
If you are looking for inspirations on places to visit and things to do in the country, read my post The Best Places To Visit In Turkey.
What You Must Know Before Visiting Turkey
Is Turkey safe?
The first thing you are likely going to wonder before visiting Turkey is “Is Turkey safe?”
Good news! Turkey is a safe destination to travel to. Every year thousands upon thousands of foreign travelers visit Turkey and have a completely trouble-free time.
However, just like with any big tourist destinations, there are some things to look out for. Petty crime can happen so it’s always a good idea to keep your belongings close to you and keep vigilant in busy places such as in the street, in markets and on public transport.
Try to blend in as much as possible. That means not wearing expensive jewelry or strolling around with expensive handbags and electronics. Make sure your accommodation is well-reviewed and that the location is in a safe area of a town or city.
Scams in Turkey definitely occur and they are something to look out for, especially in a big city like Istanbul. Normal grifts to look out for include taxi drivers hiking up the price of a trip, and being overcharged in bars and restaurants.
The advice is to ignore overly-friendly strangers who want to invite you into their shop for a cup of tea. And if a deal seems too good to be true then the chances are that it probably is.
Turkey and neighboring Syria sadly made it into the global headlines recently with the devastating earthquake that took place in the southeast of Turkey on 6 February 2023. While uncommon, earthquakes do happen in Turkey and it’s a good idea to get to grips with any local safety procedures that need to be followed in the event of an earthquake.
English is not widely spoken
Although Turkey bridges Asia and Europe, don’t arrive expecting English to be widely spoken. In fact, the proficiency of English across the country is relatively low with only around 15 to 20 percent of the country having just a basic level of English.
In Istanbul and in big tourist destinations many people will have some level of English and it’s common for the younger generation to have an understanding of English.
What’s however surprising is that in many hotels and restaurants staff either speak no English, or have very basic English.
We actually truly struggled because of this, and I won’t deny that out trip was affected by it. We can literally count the number of people we were able to have a conversation with on one hand; and we found that often even those that spoke some English have such a strong accent that it is hard to understand.
Usually, if you do need some help and the person you’re asking doesn’t speak English, chances are they will either take out their phone and use google translate, or find someone who can or help you out.
However, don’t be surprised if someone walks away or dismisses you when you ask a question in English. It happened to us quite a few times and well – it was not nice.
Currency in Turkey
The currency in Turkey is the Turkish lira. One lira is made up of 100 kuruş coins.
First introduced during the rule of the Ottoman Empire in 1844, it was originally called the Ottoman lira. The Ottoman lira was then replaced at the start of the twentieth century by the Turkish lira after the Turkish War of Independence.
2005 brought the revaluation of the nation’s money which was intended to make its large notes more simple for users to manage. Then a few years later in 2009, a new series of banknotes were introduced which are the lira that are in use today.
It’s more expensive than you’d imagine
Those visiting Turkey for a trip on a shoestring budget might want to think again. While Turkey isn’t the most expensive destination in the world, the prices of things such as activities and group tours can add up to more than you originally planned.
If you want to take part in activities such as hot air balloon rides and spa trips — as well as visiting lots of historic sites — then you will want to save up some extra cash.
Having said that, there is a good range of budget and mid-range hotels and a lot of low-cost local street food to enjoy. However, if you are looking at slightly higher range hotels or restaurants, expect prices to be in line with those of other European capitals.
The inflation rate is crazy
The inflation rate in Turkey is something that causes a lot of issues. The prices for things such as meals, hotels, and groceries are regularly increasing all of the time. Even tickets to tourist attraction get more expensive by the day, and you will often notice they have a sticker with the price tag over what would be their old price.
April 2023 saw a year-over-year inflation rate of almost 44%. Energy increased by 12.9% and food was a huge 53.9%.
While this does not really affect tourists visiting Turkey for a few weeks as much as it does the local Turkish population it is worth noting.
During your trip there you may find that prices are shown in Euros for some tourist-orientated shops, and there are reports of travelers being occasionally asked to change British pound coins or Euro coins to larger notes as the value of the lira is so low.
Hagia Sophia is no longer a museum
Hagia Sophia is the beautiful architectural wonder of Istanbul. Combining a variety of architectural styles from Byzantine to Ottoman, it was first commissioned by the Roman Emperor Justinian in 537.
A thousand years later in 1453, the Christian church was converted into an Islamic mosque by Sultan Mehmet II (also known as Mehmet the Conqueror).
The 1930s saw the building become deconsecrated and turned into a museum for tourists to visit. The first and second time I went to Istanbul getting inside was fairly easy and visiting was a really pleasant experience.
However, in 2020, Hagia Sophia became a mosque once more. This has quite a few consequences for travelers in Istanbul.
First of all, it means you really can’t visit during prayer time. In turn, this causes really long lines to get in, as visitors wait for prayer’s time to be over.
With this in mind, the best time to visit Hagia Sophia is either 10:00 am, which is just about when the morning prayer finishes, or 2:00 pm, once the afternoon prayer is over.
So here’s one of my essential Turkey travel tips for you: head to Hagia Sophia no later than 9:30 am and start waiting in line to get in once the prayer is over.
I also recommend joining a guided tour such as this one which also goes to the Blue Mosque. It’s the one my sister and I took and we found the guide masterfully dodge the crowds.
For guidance on visiting Istanbul, you should read my post The Best 4 Days Istanbul Itinerary.
You will hear the call to prayer in most places
One of the best parts of traveling is experiencing different cultures. As many people in Turkey are Muslim you can expect to hear the call to prayer echoing out across different areas of the country.
The time of Ezan or Call to Prayer will change depending on where you are in the country and the time of year you will be visiting Turkey, as it depends on the geographical distance from Mecca as well as the time of sunrise and sunset.
The first call to prayer is early in the day and calls out to followers to get out of bed and pray. It’s quite a wonderful sound to hear the caller’s chant reverberating off of the buildings, but if you are a light sleeper and notice you are staying near a mosque, you may want to bring a pair of earplugs!
There are lots of cats
Cats are pretty much everywhere in Turkey. They’re in shops, schools, churches, museums, hotels and they definitely hang out around restaurants. The estimated number of stray cats in Istanbul is thought to be between 125,0000 and one million! That’s without taking people’s pet cats into consideration.
A Turkish sokak kedisi or “street cat” is simply part of the everyday life of the country and it has been for centuries. Nobody really knows about the origins of Turkey’s love of cats but some say it comes from the time of Ottoman rule.
Locals like to look out for the street cats by putting out bowls of food and water. Some people make shelters for them to keep warm in the winter. When visiting Turkey don’t be surprised to see cats all over the place — we spotted on even inside the Hagia Sophia!
You should also read my post Why Are There So Many Cats In Turkey?
Dogs are also a mainstay of a Turkish town or city. Canines may not be quite as prevalent as cats, but you will still see dogs hanging out at ancient city ruins (we spotted a few friendly and very relaxed ones in Ephesus) or sleeping on the side of the streets.
There are lots of people who also look out for the welfare of these stray dogs, with a variety of different charities that make it their task to feed the animals and ensure they have proper veterinary treatment.
Dietary restrictions can be an issue
Turkey has some truly delicious cuisine. The various breads, meats, and cheese that make up Turkish meals are so tasty that Turkish restaurants can be found in cities around the world.
The only downside of diving into Turkey’s mouth-watering food scene is that it can be something of a challenge for those with dietary requirements. It certainly was for me and it was a real struggle to explain that there are a number to ingredients that are a no-no in my case.
If you are visiting Turkey with lactose intolerance, or an allergy to peppers (I am lactose intolerant and severely allergic to peppers), then you may find it hard to fully enjoy the food.
Peppers are a key ingredient in Turkish food and seem to make their way into every dish. The same also goes for vegans (or people who are lactose intolerant) as the non-meat alternatives are usually cheese which is also very limiting.
The issue is that most restaurants normally prepare the bases for most of their dishes in advance, so when you try to order, there is no way they can make a dish without a specific ingredient that is already there.
Personally, I only really enjoyed food when it was specifically prepared for me without the ingredients I can’t have – our guide would call whenever we had a home cooked meal and in those cases the food was delicious!
Another issue you may encounter is the actual lack of understanding – of English, which means it’s difficult to convey your requests, and of dietary requirements in general. Let me elaborate further, though.
Oftentimes, waiters don’t really speak English, which means you have to make a massive effort to explain that you can’t have a specific ingredient. But even when you think that you have fully explained yourself, they will come with a dish that surely has the ingredients you asked not to include.
I also found that there is a lack of appreciation for allergies and intolerances. It’s like you are being picky rather than simply allergic.
Another thing I should point out is that dairy free options at breakfast are hardly available even in the best hotels. I was only able to get soya milk in Istanbul. On other occasions, I simply went to the local store and got it myself and once we called the hotel prior to our arrival so that they could arrange some lactose free milk for me.
Turkish breakfast is a thing
Foodie travelers rejoice. Turkish breakfast is a thing and it’s delicious. Sometimes the hardest thing when you’re on a trip is working out where to get breakfast from. But in Turkey, you’ll be spoilt for choice because there’re so many amazing places to grab a Turkish breakfast.
Turks tuck into kahvalti (breakfast) every day of the week and it’s the perfect thing to get your set for a busy day of sightseeing.
Turkish kahvalti is a hearty spread of a variety of local foodstuffs that is a must-try if you’re in Istanbul (or elsewhere in the country) – or at least it is for people who don’t have food allergies or intolerances.
Indeed, Turkish breakfast isn’t the best thing to eat for vegans or if you’re lactose intolerant as it contains various kinds of cheese and meets.
So, what’s in it? Expect your Turkish breakfast tray to contain at least two or three cheeses. There’s often kasseri, which is a hard cheese made from unpasteurized sheep’s milk; feta cheese (beyaz peynir), a staple; and also lor, which is similar to cottage cheese, but made from uncured goats-milk.
Bread makes up a main part of breakfast and is the perfect vessel for the selection of cheeses and sweet spreads on the platter. Simit is the standard bread used. The bagel-like doughy creation is topped with sesame seeds and sold all over Turkey.
Spreads and jams come in a choice of flavors. Fruity jam varieties run from apricot and fig to cherry. There’s also olive spread, tahini, and moreish hazelnut spreads.
Eggs and meat also make an appearance. Menemen is scrambled eggs cooked with peppers, tomatoes, and onions and topped with oregano; sucuk is a spiced beef sausage that is fried to make it the ideal accompaniment.
Coffee is amazing
Coffee lovers visiting Turkey are in for a treat: this is the land of coffee and it is strong.
Cups of coffee can be picked up in coffee shops all over the country. Believed to be introduced by merchants traveling to the Ottoman Empire in the 15th century, Suleiman the Magnificent popularized drinking coffee.
Strong coffee was thought of as a drug by strict interpretations of the Quran and it was banned by Sultan Murad IV. But coffee had already made its mark on society and the ban was lifted because it was just so popular among the population.
Turkish coffee was so influential that by the mid-17th century, it had made its way over to France and Britain, and a Turkish man opened up the first coffeehouse in Britain during the same period.
Drinking coffee in modern-day Turkey remains a popular pastime and part of everyday life. Made using a long-handled metal pot called a cezve, the coffee is finely ground to a powder using a traditional brass grinder.
Turkish coffee is usually drunk from a small cup, but make sure all of the powdered coffee has sunk to the bottom first.
There’s also “Ottoman coffee” which is slightly different and uses a variety of spices and flavorings including cardamom, carob, and chocolate.
Unfortunately, at hotels coffee can be horrible (instant coffee-like), so stick to the cafes outside your accommodation for a good cup.
Locals drink tea all the time
Coffee is not the only beverage that is popular in Turkey. Tea is really popular in Turkey. In fact, Turkey has the highest tea consumption in the world per capita with a total annual consumption of over 3 kilograms of tea per person.
Made using two çaydanlık teapots stacked on top of each other, tea is drunk from small glass cups called ince belli (which literally translates to “slim-waisted”) and traditionally served without milk but with sugar cubes of beet sugar.
Tea is a big part of life in Turkey and is drunk at social gatherings, tea shops, at home, and in tea gardens. In fact, tea is usually the drink of choice after a meal!
Traffic in Istanbul is insane
Istanbul is a wondrous city, but one thing you should know is that the traffic is hectic. Getting from one place to the next can take a really long time if you choose to travel by car, Uber, or even by bus.
To give you an idea, on our way back from Cappadocia we landed in Sabiha Gökçen International Airport, which is on the Asian side of Istanbul. The airport is just 26 km (16.1 miles) from Sultanahmet, where we were staying, and we took a transfer.
In most places in the world, you can cover that distance in no more than 30 minutes – perhaps 40, if there is traffic. Well, It took us 3 hours (yes, three hours) to make it to our hotel. That’s how bad traffic in the city can be.
Turkey is a popular medical tourism destination
In recent years the medical tourism industry in Turkey has boomed. Travelers from across Europe and the rest of the world book special trips to clinics and private hospitals in order to access lower-cost medical care.
Most of the time, the medical procedures that are undertaken are related to cosmetic surgery with people opting for dental implants, hair implants, and weight loss surgery in Turkey as the cost is a snip of the price of places such as the UK.
Don’t be surprised if you see people recovering in your hotel with bandages or even on your flight home.
If you are thinking of visiting Turkey to undergo some kind of treatment during your trip, the advice is not to make any rushed decisions. Researching the hospital or clinic thoroughly before you hand over any cash is really important.
Best Turkey Travel Tips
Best time to visit Turkey
Turkey has a Mediterranean climate with summers that are warm and dry and winters that are relatively mild. The best time to visit Turkey really does depend on your travel itinerary. For example, if you want to include a trip to Cappadocia during your trip then it’s best to avoid visiting in April when the region receives a lot of rainfall.
The summer months run between June through to September and are a good time of year to visit if all you want to do is relax on the beach or by a pool.
Temperatures in the summer peak in July with an average daily high of 35°C. Visiting historic sites may be uncomfortable during the summer heat and it can also be crowded with many local tourists on their summer break too.
The shoulder seasons fall in April, May, September, and October. This is a good time to visit Turkey because temperatures are pleasant this time of year, ranging between a more comfortable 20°C to 30°C (though remember what I have said about rain and Cappadocia).
Temperatures in the winter months vary. November through to March sees lower temperatures and some hotels closing for the season in coastal resorts. January is the coldest month of the year when the country sees average daily highs of 14°C and lows around 5°C.
But the winter months can be a good time of year to visit Turkey as there are fewer crowds and temperatures are much more comfortable when compared to the summer months.
Use Uber rather than hailing a taxi
Taxis in Istanbul don’t have the best reputation. In fact, they are notorious for ripping off customers with scam pricing. To avoid any nasty taxi upsets, you can use Uber in Istanbul.
The only thing is that it is a little different when compared to Uber in other destinations, as it can only be used to hail official taxis. The options are yellow taxis or (the more expensive) blue taxis.
In fact, it’s better to walk or use the metro in Istanbul
My sister and I only used Uber once during our time in Istanbul. We walked everywhere and used the excellent city’s metro system or the light rail to cover longer distances, as at least they don’t have to battle the terrible traffic.
The metro covers 128 kilometers (80 miles), with line M2 passing through a selection of shopping districts and stops near to Taksim Square and other famous sights.
There’s also the tram, which boasts four modern tramlines and two vintage routes that connect the historical districts.
Ferries are also a fun way to get around Istanbul. This affordable public transport option also doubles up as a sightseeing activity as routers cross the Bosphorus from both the European and Asian sides.
Finally, Istanbul also features two funicular lines plus a cable car to the famous viewpoint at Pierre Loti Cafe.
Getting an Istanbulkart is a good idea if you’re staying in the city for a few days. The transport card gives you 30% off public transport fares.
Learn a few words of Turkish
As I have said before, English isn’t really spoken in Turkey. So, one of my Turkey travel tips for you is to learn some basic Turkish.
It’s always a good idea to get at least a few local phrases under your belt when you’re heading to a new destination. Before you take your trip to Turkey take the time to learn just a few local phases that will not only help you if you get stuck but also bring you closer to local communities during your travels.
Some helpful phrases to know are:
Hello – Merhaba (Mehr-hah-bah)
Yes – Evet (Eh-veht)
No – Hayır eh (Hahyuhr)
Thanks – Teşekkürler (teh-sheh-kewr-lehr)
Thanks – Sağol (Sowl)
You’re welcome – Bir şey değil (beer shehy deh-yeel)
Please – Lütfen (Lewt-fehn)
What’s this? – Bu ne? (Boo neh)
How much? – Kaç tane? (Kahch tah-neh)
It’s best to dress modestly
Even though Turkey is a secular country without one State religion, Islam is the dominant religion. Because of this, one of my Turkey travel tips is to dress in modest clothing during your trip.
This is particularly a good idea if you’re going to be visiting any religious building as you will need to cover up your arms, shoulders and head before entering. Always carry a light scarf or shawl with you that you can use to cover your head any time you visit a mosque.
Istanbul is a modern and forward-thinking city so you can get away with wearing outfits that are a little more revealing; this is also the case for big resort areas around the nation’s coastline.
When traveling on public transport or exploring more remote areas, covering up is often the best idea. Then, there’s Konya which is the most conservative city in Turkey: you really have to dress modestly there.
Try to pay everything by card
Cards are accepted everywhere in Turkey. You can use your bank card or credit card to pay just about anything – hotels, cafes, attraction tickets and more.
This means that you don’t need to wander around with wads of local cash in your pocket and it’s especially convenient if your bank has good foreign currency fees.
Nevertheless having a small bit of local cash in your wallet is always a good idea — just in case you want to leave a tip or pay for a small souvenir somewhere like a market.
Haggling in the markets in Turkey is just part of the culture and is a must if you don’t want to be ripped off. If you want to buy a specific item all you have to do is ask the seller how much it is.
Have a number in your head that you would pay for the item and then offer the seller a much lower price. The seller will come in higher than you and you offer another lower price, slightly more than you said before.
Hopefully after some back and forth with the seller, you will arrive at a number that you’re happy to pay.
Haggling can be fun and a good way to have a laugh with locals, but if you feel uncomfortable or pushed into buying something all you have to do is simply walk away and remove yourself from the situation.
Buy made-in-Turkey souvenirs
If you’re in the market for some genuine handmade crafts then Turkey is a fantastic place to buy them. There’s a long list of famous products that are made in Turkey, from Turkish delight and handmade rugs to ceramics and Turkish spices.
The only thing to look out for, however, is counterfeit designer goods. These kinds of souvenirs might seem alluring but you run the risk of getting in trouble with customs on returning to your home country.
Get a local SIM card
Getting yourself a local SIM card is really helpful for your trip and this is one of my Turkey travel tips for you.
It’s something I actually didn’t have when I traveled to Turkey and I really wish I had one so I could use Google Maps and translate.
For example, Istanbul is a really big city, and having access to online maps makes getting around so much easier. You will be able to navigate around the city, find places to eat and the opening times of tourist sites.
A local SIM card will also come in useful for using apps such as Uber to travel around the city with ease.
Local SIM cards are actually easy to come by in Turkey. You will find that even hotels in Istanbul sell them, as well as shops and kiosks at the airport when you land. They are not the cheapest, but honestly they make your life so much easier.
Get travel insurance
Whatever destination you travel to, getting travel insurance before you go is a good idea.
You should definitely get a good travel insurance before visiting Turkey. It may not be the most exciting part of planning your trip, but securing your insurance could really help you out if anything happens to you and you need medical treatment or your flight is canceled.
It doesn’t even take that long to get covered and you can complete the application online in less than 10 minutes.
Just make sure your insurance covers you for the experiences you are planning to do during your adventures. For example, if you want to take a hot air balloon ride or try out some water sports you should check in the small print that you are covered for all eventualities.
I recommend Heymondo as one of the best travel insurance companies available. You can check their insurance offerings here.
Be wary about tap water
The question of water safety in Turkey is one that seems to cause some confusion. Some travel guides say you can drink tap water, others suggest you are better off avoiding it.
The actual answer is that it depends. Not even the locals are clear on the safety of tap water, with many choosing to drink bottled water.
What is clear is that tap water is very chlorinated and is considered drinkable in most cases.
Even so, I think it is best to drink bottled water just to be safe, particularly when you’re in Istanbul.
When in more rural areas, springs will be labeled to show if the water is drinkable or not. Signs that say “içilir, içilbelir” or “içme suyu” all mean that it is drinking water; “içilmez” means that it is not drinkable.
For more guidance planning your trip to Turkey, make sure to read these other posts:
- A Guide To Visiting Ephesus
- The Best Things To Do In Cappadocia
- The Best Things To Do In Pamukkale
- Where To Stay In Istanbul