Seven Things Not To Do In Istanbul
photo by esclamazione

City of Constantine, the Sublime Porte, Gate of Felicity, City of Emperors… These are only a few of the many names and sobriquets of Istanbul, a splendid city with fascinating and unique features. The reputation Istanbul has acquired for centuries is now also acknowledged by the European Commission, which designated the city as the European Capital of Culture for the year 2010. The city is given a chance to showcase its cultural heritage. Its new status has definitely added to Istanbul’s glory and grandeur and made it one of the most popular destinations in international travel. Both mainstream travel and tourism magazines have published articles, promoting travel to Turkey.

Indeed, Istanbul is a bewitching city, a must-see on the list of every traveler. Nevertheless, similar to any other metropolis, there is a dilemma. Although it does not pose serious problems regarding safety and it is not more dangerous than any other European or American city, it has its own inconveniences and nuisances that can easily turn a pleasant vacation into a hassle.

There are several things that one should keep in mind before setting off to Istanbul. Below, I have listed 7 tips to help you avoid dangers and unexpected mishaps in Istanbul:

1. Do Not Expect the Drivers to Stop:

In Istanbul things work differently. Turkish drivers do not stop for pedestrians even if they should. They think that vehicles have a right of way at all times. To them, pedestrian crossings usually do not mean more than diagonal stripes or chevrons painted on the road. So, as a pedestrian you have to give way to cars, trucks, and motorcycles. Have eye contact with the driver and make sure that he is going to yield the way. Be careful at all times and do not expect the drivers stop, even if the little green man tells you to cross the road.

2. Do Not Try to Understand ‘Dolmuş’ Drivers

A dolmuş is a privately operated car or smaller bus. Locals frequently use it to get around. There is a placard in the window showing its destination, and depending on its capacity, it holds up to 15-20 people. But the “capacity” is always open to question and known by no one but the driver.

The adventure starts once it takes off after every seat is taken. As it lumbers down the road, the dolmuş driver honks to see if people along the way want a ride and also to alert other drivers and let them know that he is coming. The driver speeds up when the vehicle is filled up, or better to say that passengers are packed in like sardines in a can. Soon you realize that the driver is determined to set not only the Guinness records for number of passengers per ride, but also getting from point A to B in shortest amount of time.

All dolmus drivers are similar. They are reckless, unruly, and ignorant. They use their brakes only for picking up or dropping off new passengers. They careen dangerously around corners, change lanes while counting out change, and maneuver in different ways you would not even attempt in a video game.

A trip by a dolmuş in Istanbul is like a high-speed ride in a stolen car. Don’t try to understand the dolmuş drivers in Istanbul. Just join the locals and enjoy this adventurous ride from the outskirts of the city to downtown at the price of a dollar or two.

3. Do Not Show Your Wealth

Like so many other big cities, there is a risk of falling victim to theft and crime in Istanbul. Although the installment of CCTV cameras has dramatically reduced the incidences of pick pocketing, mugging, and bag-snatching, undesirable encounters still occur in Istanbul. Like real coyotes, the coyotes of Istanbul hunt both day and night and run swiftly. They mark people who stand out as easy prey and victimize them. Do not let them ruin your holiday. Just be watchful in and around tourist areas, including Sultanahmet, the Istiklal Street, and the Taksim Square, and don’t show off your wealth.

4. Do Not Pick Restaurants That Do Not Provide Menus

A dinner in a restaurant which does not look fancy can turn out to be awfully pricey. There are rip-off restaurants that care to make money, not satisfy customers. Those restaurants usually do not provide menus to customers; instead a waiter comes and ‘recommends’ certain foods that you should try. Stay away from such restaurants and don’t waste your hard earned money on restaurants that are only concerned with their profit margins.

5. Do Not Look Like an American Tourist

You should avoid looking like an American tourist. Not because the Turks do not like the Americans. It is exactly the opposite. Turks do love the Americans, especially American tourists who stand out like sore thumbs. Americans are at the top of the list of spendthrifts among all nationalities. Therefore, if you shine like a “rich American” in the crowd you may likely be sucked into tourist traps, targeted by carpet dealers in the Grand Bazaar, and pay through the nose. Innocent questions like “where are you from?,” “where are you staying?,” or “where do you work in America?,” in fact, are all ingeniously asked by a carpet dealer to understand your origin, economic status, and personality. Get ready to fudge direct questions about your life, and try to deconstruct the image of stereotypical American wearing a baseball cap, athletic shoes, and brand name t-shirts with easily readable names like Nike, Gap, Abercrombie, etc.

6. Do not argue that baklava is Greek

Well, not only baklava… Many other types of mouth-watering food are disputed between the Greeks and Turks. There are many legends and rumors claiming the originality of baklava, doner, dolmades, kofte, kokorec, tzatziki, etc. It is silly to try to find out “who invented first?” Baklava is an old dessert originating in the 8th century B.C. Turks and Greeks (and even Arabs) claim it but we will never know. Food transcends political and cultural borders. Baklava, like other contested food, is eaten by everybody from the Balkans to the Arab lands. To be on the safe side, do not argue that baklava is Greek. Leave the politics out of kitchen and allow Turkish chefs to mesmerize your taste buds.

7. Do not wear a flimsy sundress to the Blue Mosque

Turkey is a secular country with a predominantly Muslim population. While you will encounter women covered head to toe just about everywhere in Istanbul, you will also see women with much less clothing than in America walking down the same street. Dress casually in Istanbul, but please remember to dress properly when you visit religious places, such as the Blue Mosque. Do not forget to bring along a layer of “modest dress” to cover your legs, shoulders, and chest. For example, don a t-shirt instead of a sleeveless top. For your legs, pants, a long skirt, or shorts that end at your knees would be appropriate. Just try not to wear mini-skirts or tight Kylie Minogue shorts. It is also advisable to cover your hair with a scarf although non-Muslim women are mostly tolerated if they do not wrap their heads tightly. In short, no dress codes, no worries! Just a little respect in the house of God…

Meet the author


Onur Inal was born in Izmir, Turkey in 1979. He studied Political Science and International Relations at Yeditepe University. Onur has an M.A from Koç University's Anatolian Civilizations and Cultural Heritage Management program. He is currently a Ph.D. student in the History Department of the University of Arizona.

Onur is one of the founders of Sırtçantalılar, a group of budget travelers in Turkey. In addition to his cultural history book about the Beyoğlu district of Istanbul, Pera'dan Beyoğlu'na, he has written articles about travel, history, and culinary culture for various newspapers and magazines in Turkey.