Things have changed a lot in the past two years since we moved to Istanbul. Political upheaval, terrorist attacks – and a subsequent downturn in tourist numbers. People are staying away from Istanbul, which is actually a shame because it is still a great place to visit. Here are some reasons why.
Istanbul is safe
Now, I know many of you are rolling your eyes at this one, if not spitting your coffee across your keyboards. But hear me out. Yes, there have been terrorist attacks in Istanbul. And some of them have resulted in the death of tourists. But, sadly, Istanbul is not alone in tourists being killed in terrorist attacks – fact is if you are going to avoid places because there is a chance of an attack of some sort, don’t leave your house. The flipside of all this is your chance of being involved in one of these attacks is extremely low. Extremely. Look, I live here. I know how it can be knowing you are going somewhere where previously stuff has blown up. But let me repeat – it can happen anywhere and the chance of it happening to you is really, really, really low. Most attacks in Istanbul are not aimed at tourists but at the police or military forces.
And Istanbul is much safer than most cities this large. In the two years here we have had no problems, and are yet to encounter anyone who reports a theft, mugging or attack, let alone something more serious. Not even a pickpocketing or snatched bag. To quote the United States Department of State (an organisation with a reputation for erring on the side of caution and not downplaying threats) in 2016
Istanbul’s overall crime rate remains lower than that of other cities of comparable size… Generally, the majority of Istanbul and the main tourist areas are safe… Muggings are rare and are typically confined to more indigenous areas during hours of darkness. Violent crimes against tourists and expatriates are also very rare.
I have walked alone (in daylight) as an obviously foreign woman, head uncovered, in neighbourhoods that rarely get tourists, and have never once had a problem. People have occasionally been bemused and assumed I am lost, but in general they have either been extremely friendly or simply just left me alone. I have never been catcalled or insulted. I feel safe, and whether on my own or out with my family.
Istanbul is cheap
Even before the downturn in tourist numbers Istanbul was incredibly cheap, especially when it comes to things like food and transport.
Top end hotels are still pricey – a night in the Grand Hyatt for two is going to cost 470TL (US$128/£102) but a room for those same two people in a guesthouse in a central location would can easily be found for 110TL (US$30/£24) a night. Longer stay apartments work out even cheaper.
A meal for our family of three costs anywhere from 40TL (US$11/£9) to 300TL(US$82/£65) if we really push the boat out, order multiple courses and alcohol. If we just grab a soup or a pilav each at a Çorbacısı (soup shop) it only costs around 8TL (US$2.20/£1.75) each. Restaurants, cafes, street food, self-catering – they are all incredibly cheap.
A single trip on public transport City bus, Metro, tram, funicular, Tünel, ferry (it’s not a zone system, it is based on how many trips you take) is 4TL, or if you get an Istanbulkart it is only 2.30TL. If you transfer to another vehicle the cost is then only TL 1.65. You can use the Istanbulkart for multiple travellers. Other cheap transport options include dolmuş (minibus) that cost around about the same as the bus, or taxi, though be prepared for a wild ride if you choose a taxi!
Entry to museums and tourist sites is pretty cheap, and if you are staying in the city for a few days it is worth getting the museum pass Muzekart.
The food is fantastic
Not only is the food cheap, it is delicious. Seafood is an Istanbul speciality (one look at a map would make that no surprise) but due to the large number of immigrants from throughout the region you will find all kinds of regional specialties, including Gaziantep and Uighur restaurants. I highly recommend taking a food tour when you are in Istanbul – we have taken some with Culinary Backstreets and they were awesome.
Istanbul is fascinating
There is so much history in Istanbul – it has been a major city for millennia and there is a huge number of major cultures represented in its history. This has resulted in so much to see here, even if some of it can be seriously derelict in some cases. Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman, modern – there is something for everyone. Just travelling up and down the Bosphorus you can’t help but be impressed at the buildings and thinking of who has been here before you.
Right now, it’s quiet
What is a downside for the tourist industry is a bonus for you – no longer are the giant cruise ships blocking the best views on the Bosphorus. No longer do you have to man-handle your way through the hordes in the Grand Bazaar. The queue for entry to the Hagia Sofia is much more manageable, and some days non-existent. I was worried this meant there would be a rise in shop owners hassling walkers by (especially in the bazaar be prepared for ‘won’t you come in to my shop/would you like to buy a handbag/why not come and waste your money in my shop today’) but if anything it has toned down.
And there are cops on segways (can’t guarantee you will see them though) and who can resist that