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Top 10 Things You Should Know Before Visiting Turkey

Updated: May 19, 2023

Are you traveling to Turkey for the first time? There are many unique cultural, economic and practical things to know before visiting Turkey. As you plan your trip, I’m sure Istanbul is a stop in your Turkey itinerary. The 20 million strong Islamic city is full of exciting sights, foods and activities. But make sure you arrive prepared. Here are 10 tips you should know about Turkish culture before visiting Istanbul.

1. Hyperinflation is real

We visited in May 2023, literally days before the Presidential election and were astonished to see the prices of things double in a matter of weeks. Inflation hit a high of 80% last fall and is currently ~40% in Turkey. While in Cappadocia, we visited the Open Air Museum in Goreme. Travel bloggers having been there in early April quoted pricing at 150 TL, however, ticket prices are now 300 TL – 100% increase in 3 weeks. Airport buses in Istanbul were quoted at 67 TL and when we arrived the next day pricing was 87 TL. Many restaurants will add a “credit card fee” if you don’t have cash and the currency exchange rates are ridiculous. While tourists can already be taken advantage of, be prepared for almost daily pricing changes, even at fixed price attractions.

2. ATM Fees

Istanbul particularly offers kiosks of ATMs with 3-4 banks in one strip, especially in Old Town near Sultanahmet area. HSBC, HalkBank, Fibabanka, ING and Sekerbank currently don’t charge a fee. The other ATMs will generally charge a 7-10% commission fee based on withdrawal amount. As always, DECLINE the conversion rate. It is never favorable. If you haven’t already, set up a Schwab checking account. They reimburse all foreign transaction fees at any ATMs around the world. Read this post to learn more about international travel.

Cash is king, especially at the bazaars or small restaurants, so make sure you take out some Turkish Lira to make your purchases easier. Double check a restaurant will take credit cards. We ended a meal one night and were told “only cash.” I had to truck down to the nearest ATM to withdraw enough to cover our meal. Not fun and my tea got cold! ☹

3. Cats are Way of Life

There are local cats, and often dogs, roaming the streets. They are generally looked after by the local shop keepers and neighbors. Don’t be alarmed if you see them roaming around a shop or in a restaurant. However, they are not usually up to date on any shots or vaccines, so it’s encouraged not to play with them or entice interactions. Just enjoy the view and snap a cute photo!

4. Islamic Culture

The country claims >90% of the population is Muslim. However, during our time in Turkey we saw many women without hijab, wearing more “secular” clothing. Regardless, if you choose to wear crop top or shorts, you WILL BE NOTICED. It doesn’t matter what time of year, it’s best to dress modestly throughout Turkey. Make sure you bring a scarf in order to cover your head should you wish to visit mosques or holy places. Check out this post about what to wear while traveling in a Muslim country. Also, shorts and shoes are not allowed in a mosque, so if you are wearing sandals, I’d suggest bringing a pair of socks for the visit.

5. Eat Sweets

Turkish culture has a saying “eat sweet, converse sweet.” This is why when you go into a Turkish home, you are first offered sweets. They believe if you eat something sweet, then the conversation will stay sweet aka no disruption or bad blood. Everyone will get along if the gathering starts with something sweet. As such, there are sweet shops everywhere selling Turkish delight, baklava, milky desserts, candies, puddings and the traditional cheese dessert - kunefe. Indulge your sweet tooth and try a new dessert, including the Chicken Breast Pudding.

6. The Evil Eye

Throughout the Mediterranean you will spot the Evil Eye. In Greek culture, it is meant to ward off evil spirits and has taken a tourist’s slant with t-shirts, bracelets and purses for sale to “protect the owner.” In Muslim countries, such as Turkey, the Evil Eye is a unique symbol of the pagan rituals imprinted on the Islamic religion. The Evil Eye stems from Medusa, who had hair of snakes and eyes that could turn you to dust. In Islam, the religion focuses on no faces, so they have adopted just the eye. Medusa became the face of evil itself and the eye used to ward off bad omens. It is said if you don’t have an Evil Eye hanging in your new car in Istanbul, it doesn’t matter if you have car insurance; you will have a wreck within the week. Shop owners display the Evil Eye above the entry door and hotels have them around the lobby. It’s an interesting ritual in a country largely dictated by the Quran and not ancient Greek customs.

7. Tea vs. Coffee Culture

I’m sure you’ve heard of Turkish coffee. You should definitely have a cup (early in the AM because it is STRONG). However, the country has largely become tea drinkers. When Turkey lost what is now present-day Yemen at the end of the Ottoman Empire, they also lost the coffee bean production. Turkey had to start importing the beans, making it more expensive to indulge in their caffeine fix. As such, they culture shifted to tea. Today, you see people at street cafes drinking Turkish tea, strong black tea with one sugar cube, in a cylinder glass. The country is now a tea country, so come ready to change your caffeine intake.

8. Population Size

Turkey is almost 84 million people. It is said that 15-20 million live in Istanbul. With such a large concentration of the population in one city, it can be quite overwhelming. On top of that, the tourism seems to be booming and Istanbul is CROWDED. Be prepared as you move through tourist attractions. Pay attention to your bag and personal items. While generally a safe city, Istanbul's sheer size makes pickpocketing an issue.

9. Mosque Minarets

There are more than 3100 mosques in Istanbul, so minarets fill the skyline. If you find a mosque with only one minaret, it was built by local citizens and their donations. If there are two minarets on the mosque, then you can know it was built by royalty or a government family. Mosques with four minarets were built by a sultan. When Sultanahmet (Blue Mosque) was built, legend has it that Sultan Ahmed I asked his architect for altn minare (minarets in gold) and the architect understood alt minare (which means six minarets). In order not to be outdone, Islamic Mecca (in Saudi Arabia) has added a 7th minaret to be the dominate mosque and most holy center for Islam.

10. Taxi Warning

Turkish taxis can give you a run for your money. It’s not that all drivers are crooked, but many of them simply don’t know the roads very well, and don’t speak English. So they will often take you a roundabout way to find your destination. If you must take a taxi, have your hotel call a reputable company or download the BiTaksi app to book a reliable ride from anywhere. Public transportation is everywhere, especially in Istanbul, so I recommend avoid taxis all together. In my 2-week stay, I didn’t use a cab once. You can purchase an IstanbulCard at the metro stations and load credit on it for each use. Currently metros, trams and buses are 10 TL, and ferries are 12 TL per ride (as of April 2023).

Hopefully these tips will make it easier to travel throughout Turkey. For first-time visitors, being aware of the tea culture or the taxi drivers will hopefully make your trip even better. Remember to dress conservatively while in this Islamic country and be respectful of the cultural differences. Have a great time in Turkey!

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