I went on a free-and-east trip to Istanbul with my family last month and planned everything on my own, from flight to accommodation to activities! I needed a lengthy break in March because I was so overworked from school. By the lengthy break, I meant at least a week. If you want a glimpse of how my trip went, here’s a video!
I know most travellers prefer to travel to Turkey by tour but my dad and my brother agreed to join me on my trip on only one condition. I had to plan a DIY trip. So here I am, one month later, sharing the tips I’ve learnt and had to learn along the way, which I hope you will be able to take note of if you, too, are planning a DIY trip to Istanbul!
My family and I at the top of the Galata Tower!
1) Get an airport shuttle
This is so important. After a long flight, all you would like to do is to sleep it off. We got a car to take us to the hotel so we didn't need to be stressed. However, we spent an hour around the airport because we couldn't locate the driver, which brings you to my next point.
It was 12 midnight and everyone was exhausted.
2) Get a sim card
Other than for communications, having data is strongly recommended. While it does not come at the cheapest cost, it is non-negotiable, and I suggest you get your sim card from the airport so that any communication from there would be easier.
3) Public transport is the best way to get around (Don’t get scammed like us!)
Although it should go without saying, research is crucial. Everything from commonplace practices to how to purchase a tram ticket should be observed. You can save time, effort, and mental breakdowns by doing some research.
Dont do this to yourself, please.
I'll offer my personal experience to persuade you to conduct your research. My brother and I concluded that one of the best ways to get around Istanbul would be via the tram. Especially since I was aware of Istanbul's traffic and we stayed around the Hagia Sophia on the European side of Istanbul. We had yet to learn how to purchase a train ticket, and eventually, a man we believed to be with the train department connected us (the department does not exist). #dontgetscammed.
My dad in front of the iconic tram at Taksim Square.
However, you must purchase one Istanbul card (50TL = $4) and top it up. Each ride cost about 9TL; the entire family could use one card.
Also, if you're wondering if it's easy to get around in Turkey, yes, it is. Trains and buses are the easiest way to get around the area and are affordable too! While most of the places of attractions are within walking distance, they feel real far when you're exhausted.
HHWT Tip: Wear comfortable walking shoes! Istanbul is best explored on foot!
4) Get the Istanbul Tourist Pass
I also learned about the Istanbul tourist pass at the same time. Your pass will include an all-inclusive museum pass and tour guides, depending on how many days you need it. You must meet the tour guides at the specified locations to enter several sights, so make sure to do so. The tour guides are patient and will get you the tickets to the attraction upon verifying that you are an Istanbul tourist pass holder. They would walk you in, explain the history and then it’s free and easy! You can stay for as long as you like.
Here's us at Madame Tussauds which is included in the Istanbul tourist pass!
With this pass, we visited all the museums and even went on a nighttime boat ride with dinner. We visited Basilica Cistern, Topkapi Palace, and Madame Tussauds, and we even went to exhibitions and shows like the whirling dervish show and so much more. We got it for 120 euro (each person) for 3 days and saved around 100 euros during our time in Istanbul.
We spent 3 hours at Madam Tussauds, did all of the offered activities, and then got ice cream after!
Outside the whirling dervish show.
#HHWT tip: Do check out the timings for general admissions before going in. My family and I thought that the Hagia Sophia was 24 hours (it’s not). It is only open from 10 am onwards, but the queue starts around 9!
5. Google Maps is a scam (In Turkey, at least)
I can't stress this enough, but Google Maps is a deceiving app in Istanbul. To get about, use city mapper instead. Google Maps will typically tell you that you have arrived at a destination, and then you realize it's 5 minutes away, so it's less accurate. It might be harder to see where you're going.
6. Need a washroom/place to pray? Head to the nearest mosque
One of the prettiest mosques I've been to!
If you need a washroom or are looking for a place to pray, there’s a mosque at every corner!
There is truly a mosque at least 500 metres away from wherever you are, which makes your trip a lot easier, and you also have an alternative to head to if your plan messes up.
7) Some Turkish eateries offer you starters, but it’s not for free.
Some restaurants offer Meze plates, including yoghurt, beans and a few other small dishes. YES, THOSE ARENT FREE. My family and I thought it was free and came with our ordered dishes, but it's separate. However, we did go to some places that gave us free starters, so when in doubt, ask!
8) Leave space for spontaneity, and you’ll discover hidden gems!
STOP TRYING TO DO EVERYTHING EVERY DAY. At least half of my second day in Istanbul was empty; believe me, it was the most fun we had. Though planning is essential, there are moments when you need to let go and take the city as it comes. We got to go a Madam Tussards, tried Hafiz Mustafa Baklava, and got their cakes and tea too! We walked around the city and found some cute shops that sold vintage items, and we came across a remote part of the bazaar called the book bazaar!
We got to talk to locals about politics and life in Turkey and where we should go for the best deals. Only a free-and-east vacation will allow you this flexibility and to make the most of the crazy adventures you’ll have!
Most days, we would spend our day at a specific location and explore the area until we got bored since we had the luxury of time with tour guides to follow or travel with.
9) Eat whatever you’d like
The famous San Sebastian Cheesecake!
The pastries, kebab stands, and bakeries in Istanbul are to die for. The fact that I didn't eat as much as I should have was one of my biggest regrets. Eat every kebab you see, ice cream, baklava, and kunafe you can find.
HHWT tip: Ask for a sample before buying any sweets or baklava. The best baklava I tried was from Hafiz Mustafa. They have assorted desserts and cakes, which usually have a cafe beside the store to enjoy the treats.
10. The locals are nice - Ask directions (dont worry, it’s accurate)
The people of Istanbul are one thing I genuinely appreciate. Everyone was kind and would go out of their way to assist you whenever you needed it! So, if you need directions, don't hesitate to ask! Most of the time, they are very accurate, and the staff is always friendly and willing to offer you an extra tip or two.
11. Communicate always!
Being the group's girl guide was demanding. Because I felt like I was failing my father and brother and was often getting lost, I had a few mental breakdowns. When I apologized, they were shocked since they believed I had done a fantastic job. Stop carrying the burden of being the oldest child. Declare your need for assistance.
I once got lost trying to return to a hotel, and my father had to drag me to the taxi because I couldn't believe I was mistaken. It only took us ten minutes to get back to the hotel.
12. Live, Laugh, Love
Enjoy yourself! You have come such a long way. Dont sweat on the small stuff. Things might get painful and downright tiring, but it will all be worth it in the end!
13. Cat lovers, this is your city!
One of my cultural shockers was how many cats there were in Istanbul and how friendly they were! My brother and I were fangirling over every cat we saw, and we pat them too! Feel free to do so, but be wary as some cats, like humans, like their personal space too!
14. Use Skyscanner/Google Flights
Honestly, a mini tip with a tip, ask the people around you for tips. I asked my uncle for tips as he frequently flies, and he suggested getting tickets on a Tuesday and only on Skyscanner. And I got cheaper tickets. So get a holiday with a steal always.
With that, here are 14 weirdly specific tips for you if youre considering planning a DIY Trip to Istanbul. I wish you all the best for a trip you will never regret!