This is off the normal topic of writing for expats in Istanbul, but I’ve been dishing out a few tips to Australians and New Zealanders coming to Istanbul for the ANZAC centenary. I thought I would write a blog article summarising the questions and answers given to date.
Firstly, to those venturing to Turkish shores for the first time, know that Turkey is a modern first-world country full of modern-day conveniences to serve its population of over 70 million. Istanbul alone has over 14 million nestled in its boundaries, so, expect convenient public transport; shops open all day, every day ’til late; an abundance of ATMs; and basically a lot of conveniences that you will wish Australia and New Zealand had themselves.
On the flipside, Istanbul can be like your uber cool, chaotic and often unpredictable friend. They’re not always organised but they’re charming and fun to be around. In other words, don’t expect things to always go to plan. What you might be told, might be different to what you get….and most of the time that’s ok because sometimes plans change for good reasons. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, and ask again to validate your understanding.
If you are coming to Istanbul for ANZAC Day (or any other time) then firstly:
Hoşgeldiniz! (Welcome) You’re about to holiday in one of the most hospitable countries in the world!
Here are a few tips that might help you have a great time.
1. Do I take Euro, American dollars or Lira?
There is no need for Euros and American dollars if you don’t want to exchange your Australian and New Zealand dollars. Turkish Lira (TL) is the local currency and is used in Turkey to pay for everything.
In Turkey’s tourism sector, however, “money is money” and most hotels, tour operators, hamams (Turkish baths) and shops will promote prices in Euro or (less often) US dollars. They do this partly believing it’s convenient for the majority of travellers to Istanbul. It’s not for Aussies and Kiwis who don’t use these currencies. Check with your vendor with what they prefer you to pay them in, but know you should be able to pay them in Turkish Lira too. Make sure you’re not losing out on the exchange rate first.
Other than paying for these tourism services, do shop, barter, eat, and pay for transportation in Turkish Lira. Do as the locals do.
2. Shall I take Turkish Lira with me?
Apparently there’s a shortage of Turkish Lira in exchange bureaus of Australia. Don’t panic. Turkish Lira can be obtained from ATMs throughout Istanbul (and the country) using your VISA card. ATMs are everywhere and have English instructions available to make it easy to complete your transaction just as you would at home.
You can exchange your country’s currency into Turkish Lira at exchange bureaus (called, döviz) around the country too.
VISA, Mastercard and often American Express are accepted at most shops, restaurants, bars and hotels so you can earn those reward points whilst buying for goods and services in Turkey.
Avoid using traveler’s cheques if you can. They’re time consuming to exchange in Turkey and should only be used in an absolute emergency. Western Union have branches here for emergencies too.
Image: Turkish coins and notes
3. Where are the best money exchange bureaus?
Locals will tell you the best exchange rates are in the Grand Bazaar. But like all money exchange dealings do shop around for the best deal – and look for ones without commission.
4. Is it safe in Istanbul?
Is it safe in your own hometown? It’s a difficult question to answer. Istanbul is a big city and not immune to crime. But one thing that is different is its huge population. There is always a high degree of natural surveillance around you – many eyes on the street.
As a woman, I can usually take public transport at night by myself – which I do not feel safe doing in Australia. Of course I assess the risks and make a judgement call, but being a Muslim country, there is far less people afflicted by alcohol and drugs than Australia and New Zealand which generally makes me feel safer.
Crowded areas can sometimes be problematic, such as peak hour on public transport and in the bazaar areas. Crowds make for easy prey for pick pocketers – as they do in other big cities.
There is a heightened threat of terrorism as the Australian and New Zealand governments have warned. However, as the events in Sydney and Paris recently showed us, sadly terrorism can occur anywhere around the world. The best thing to do, is follow the information from your country’s traveller advice website. Stay vigilant, avoid high-risk areas and ultimately trust your instincts.
Do know that Istiklal Street/Taksim Square are the venues for protests almost on a daily basis. These are usually peaceful demonstrations about a broad range of topics from animal welfare to legal injustices. Armed police complete with sizable guns are normally on stand-by which can be daunting to most, but it’s just precautionary. If you feel unsafe at any time retreat and get a taxi to your hotel or another safe destination.
5. What’s the weather like in April?
Being in the northern hemisphere, Turkey is coming out of a cold winter so expect the evenings to be chilly and the days, inshallah (god willing), to be sunny. It’s possible to get sunburnt on a cloudless day so remember to slip, slop, slap and throw on a hat!
Pharmacies are called Eczane (signposted with a large “E” in lights) . You can pick up sunscreen there. Pharmacies are again located on many streets in the city.
No need to pack bulky umbrellas too. If it rains people will come out on the street to sell them for 5-10TL ($AUD5)! They won’t last a lifetime but they’ll do the trick for a few days…or less.
…and don’t forget to celebrate our springtime and check out the tulips! Gulhane Park is likely to be your closest location.
Photo: The tulip is celebrated in its country of origin at the International Istanbul Tulip Festival every April.
6. What should I wear?
It’s not quite weather for wearing shorts every day in April so pack jeans, a few long sleeved shirts and a winter jacket or two. Scarfs / pashminas are more common than apple tea so make the most of the “2 for 1” deals (I mean the $AUD1:2.02TL exchange rate) and buy up if you get cold. Thermals may be useful on the night of April 24 at Gallipoli – but unlikely to be needed in Istanbul at this time of year.
7. Do I need to cover when entering mosques?
Yes. When visiting mosques, make sure your shoulders and legs are covered and ladies do cover your head with a scarf. It’s respectful to do so. Some of the bigger mosques will have scarfs for you but best to use your own.
Take your shoes off before entering any mosque and take them with you using the plastic bags provided.
Also avoid walking in front of people praying, and know mosques will close for 30 minutes after the call to prayer five times a day for local worshippers. Expect major delays to get inside mosques around lunchtimes when Friday prayers take place.
8. What’s the shopping like?
You’ve come to the right place. Turkey is one of the biggest producers and exporters of textiles so shopping for clothes is great. Sultanahment and the bazaar district in the old city is the place for genuine fakes but the range of shops for modern fashions, especially for women, is light-on.
Head to Istiklal Avenue in Taksim for international retailers like H&M, Mango, Zara, Topshop and enjoy other great retailers like Mavi, ADL, OXXO, Koton and Collezione. Istiklal, a street they say millions walk down every day, is two kilometres of shopping and cafes…and a good excuse to venture out of the old city to see another face of the Istanbul.
If you’re in the market for jeans, then I swear you won’t find a better pair than buying them in Turkey. Even designer brands source their denim from here.
Photo: Istiklal Avenue, a two-kilometre pedestrian street, runs from Taksim Square to Galata.
9. Do I need a VPN?
People living in Turkey are becoming increasing users of VPNs (Virtual Private Networks). VPNs allow us to tap into servers in other countries to access sites that may be blocked in Turkey. We use them to run our businesses and communications with the outside world if the government blocks Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other social media sites (which they did in early April). At the moment, these sites are available to access so it is unlikely you need a VPN on your stay here.
Cartoon: Turkish humour reacts to Twitter being blocked…
10. What about Turkish SIM cards – should I get one?
You can buy Turkish SIM cards with varying packages (from 29TL) from Turkish phone dealers: Avea, Vodafone or Turkcell. They have dealers in the arrivals halls of the airports. Do be aware, however, that putting a Turkish SIM in a foreign phone can eventually lead to Turkish authorities blocking your phone – unless you register your handset.
At the moment, there is a guide that you can use a Turkish SIM in a foreign phone for up to two months before it becomes blocked. But sometimes in Turkey, what is communicated and what actually happens are two different things. And do you really want to risk having an issue with your phone when there’s so much to see and do in the country?
Speak to the phone dealers in the airport to get their advice. But do know that WIFI is free in MANY places. Cafes, hotels, roadhouses – most places you visit will have reliable and free WIFI available (or somewhere nearby will). Just ask for a password to connect and communicate through apps like FaceTime, Voxer, WhatsApp, Facebook, Viber, Skype – all for free – without the threat of your phone being blocked. Yes, even Whatsapp and Facebook Messenger will now allow you to call your friends for free if they use the app too! Just look for the icon of a telephone handset on the messaging screen.
If you own a business and/or need phone coverage whilst at Gallipoli then also check what your options are for international services from dealers in Australia and New Zealand.
11. What if a stranger approaches me on the street?
In the tourist areas such as Sultanahmet, Gulhane Park, the Blue Mosque etc, would-be-entrepreneurs are on the ready to trip you into unwanted ventures like carpet shopping. If a man randomly approaches you on a street and offers to take you for drink or take you to a carpet shop, decline the offer, unless you wish to buy.
At no time should you hand over money to enter the Blue Mosque. It is free to enter. Donations on exit are appreciated and should be placed in the box marked as such.
Photos: Excuse me, would you like to buy a carpet?
12. I heard men can annoy you on the streets? Is it true?
Again in the tourism precincts, expect most restaurant waiters to approach you to dine at their premise. Politely decline unless you wish to eat there. They’re used to rejection and are unlikely to follow you beyond the boundaries of their restaurant.
Ladies, also expect vendors in Sultanahmet and surrounds to try to get your attention by questioning you with, “Excuse me did you drop something…my heart?” and, “Can I ask you something?” or, “Where are you from?” Ignoring them and walking on is acceptable and will save you time and their heartache.
On a side note, do go to Taksim, Galata, the Asian side and other city locations to see the different faces of the city. The old city (Sultanahmet and surrounds) is very much a tourism precinct where many local men work. You may ask, “Where are all the local women!?” They are in Istanbul – you just need venture out of the old city to find them.
13. How do I avoid being ripped off by a taxi driver?
Difficult question to answer but there are a few tips I can offer:
- When you get into a taxi the flag fall on the taximeter should be 3.20TL – day or night. If it is not just say “problem meter” and if he doesn’t fix it then get out and get another taxi.
- There is a reliable app for locals called BiTaksi. You can use it to call for taxis using a GPS system, but I’ve used it with limited success in Sultanahmet and Taxim due to the enormity of one-way roads.
- Avoid taking taxis off the street – unless you want a tour of the city to get to your destination. Instead, ask your hotel or restaurant to order you a taxi from a reputable taxi stand.
- Avoid using 50TL notes in paying your fare as they look like 5TL notes. A quick switch by the cab driver and your handing over more money than you need. Have 10TL and 20TL notes to avoid this confusion. The government have started issuing purple 5TL to stop this swindle.
- A taxi to “Topkapi” can lead you to the suburb of that name – not the palace – with the latter costing significantly more. Ask for Topkapi Palace or take the T1 Tram to Gulhane or Sultanamet stops and walk to the palace within five minutes.
- Use Turkish Lira to pay the price on the taximeter at the end of your trip. Never bargain up front – you’re just asking for trouble if you do!
14. Can I expect discounts?
Yes, it’s possible to obtain discounts on your travels here.
- If you plan to use public transport than do get an IstanbulKart. Click here for more information.
- The Museum Pass (MuzeKart) does offer great discounts but make sure you’ll get your money’s worth before purchasing.
- Turkish hospitality is the best and chances are you’ll enjoy the rewards of being a wonderful guest with complimentary teas and the like. Yes there are dodgy people on the streets, but there are far more considerate local people that are willing to offer you tea and a great conversation.
15. I have food allergies – what can I do?
The Turkish diet is one made from fresh produce, cooked-fresh and rarely uses processed products. Interestingly, in my observations it would seem food allergies are much rarer here. This means most menus won’t be marked with gluten-free or lactose-free meals. When you order your meal always let your host know your allergies and see what they recommend. Also ask your concierge or a Turkish speaker to write a note for you in Turkish to explain your allergies. You can simply hand that over when making your order. Things can get lost in translation otherwise!
And finally my favourite question to answer was…
16. How many Tim Tams do you want me to bring to thank you for your advice?
How many can you fit in your bag? Is there room for champagne too 🙂
(Just joking! On a serious note. Say thank you by donating to the ANZAC Appeal online or in Istanbul at Fuego Cafe & Restaurant. Fuego has 2,000 RSL red remembrance poppies too. When you make your donation take one with you to Gallipoli to place on the names of the fallen).
Iyi yolculuklar (Have a good journey!)
Tomorrow’s post: Honouring our ANZACs in Istanbul – What’s on in Istanbul for the ANZAC centenary.