How to Avoid Tourist Traps in Istanbul
Turkey is a beautiful, wondrous place, full of both Old World customs and wonderful modern amenities that make wandering around the Grand Bazaar something of a Pinterest picture favorite.
With ruins as old as Marco Polo, it’s hard not to see why people pack up their suitcases for the chance to travel to the destination of a lifetime. Istanbul marked the beginning of the Silk Road that shared the goods of the East with consumers of the West, creating a bustling mecca that is still a hotspot for travelers today.
But between the lantern booths and the carpet merchants, there are deals to be made—and certainly deals to be avoided—so avoid letting your trip from take a turn for the worst.
What Not to Do as a Tourist in Istanbul
No matter where you are traveling in the world, people will try to take advantage of your status as a tourist. In this article, you'll read about how to handle common tourist traps in Istanbul and learn some great tips for getting the best bang for your buck no matter where you are in the city, be that:
- a factory outlet store,
- the Grand Bazaar,
- a restaurant,
- a boat cruise,
- a taxi,
- or a beach lounge.
1. Don't Buy From Factory Outlet Stores
Like all factory outlet stores the world over, Turkey sports low-cost overstocks of famous brands. However, in the heart of this unique metropolis, it’s not only a sin to go shopping there, but it’s a waste of your time and money.
Many tour companies or people will recommend buying handmade leather items, gold, or carpets in these big Western-style stores, but it’s a much better place to just take a look at the prices and move on so you have some understanding of how much you’re spending. Skip out on the overpriced, less-than-great merchandise.
Pro-tip: when it comes to buying any of the aforementioned items (leather, gold, and carpets) there are a couple of things to remember. Real leather shouldn’t be too shiny. When looking at gold, make sure the stamp says at least 18-carat; that’s when Turkish gold gets to be better quality. And when it comes to carpets, check the corners and the overall design for any mistakes; however, though mistakes usually mean poor quality, when it comes to Turkish carpets, only the machines can make them perfectly. Mistakes mean you’ve nabbed an authentic one.
2. Make Sure to Barter
Haggling is still alive and well in Middle Eastern cultures. More than just being just a way of buying things, it’s also something of a treasured cultural milestone. If you get the chance, you should definitely try your hand at giving a merchant a run for his money, but there are a couple of tips you should keep in mind.
First, never show how much you want an item, even if you want it really badly; the key to getting the price down to something that you’d like to pay is being seen as able to walk away from the table—that’s when they’ll come back and hit you with a better offer.
Second, it’s best if you don’t dress too nicely while shopping, as this could be an indication that you are wealthy, and therefore you can afford to pay more for items. Dress conservatively, don’t show the merchant any bills that you have, and make sure to keep your money, even if you have a lot, hidden in different places on your person so pulling out your wallet to pay doesn’t alert anyone in the bazaar that you are packing.
Third, always settle on a price before the money comes out. No matter how much money you brought, or told the merchant you had, make sure you settle (really!) before closing the deal. Reiterate a few times if you think you’ve come to the selling price, just to be sure that there is no confusion—as soon as the money comes out, all bets are off.
3. Order Only What You Want to Eat
When it comes to restaurant recommendations, it’s best to just forego the habit of saying “What do you suggest?” and order only what you want. Many places in Turkey, and especially in the tourist areas of Istanbul, will have expensive specials that include everything on the menu—and if that’s what you want then great—and they like to wow the tourist crowd with all of these great menu items.
But if you want only one dish, don’t be swindled into buying the package deal—make sure you only order that one dish. While the waitstaff may be a little ticked off at your frugality, there’s nothing wrong in getting things exactly how you like them, so don’t be afraid to be stern, hold your ground, and keep your one order of köfte from turning into a smorgasbord.
4. Take a Boat Cruise
Checking out the sites from the water is no doubt a great way to see the city, but if you actually want to get up close and personal with any of the ruins, don’t let “I want to see the European Fortress” turn into a boat cruise that keeps you miles away from actually climbing into the fortress yourself.
Hotels will always suggest ways for you to see the city. Though sometimes their recommendations are good, don't always trust the hotel concierge if you want a fail-safe way to get through everything off your Turkey Bucket List—he probably gets a commission from whichever option he’s promoting. Instead, head for any of the outposts of the Turkish tourism offices. Not only are they government-run and a little more honest, but you can also grab a free map and discover new places that were never even on your sightseeing radar.
5. Be Wary of Taxi Drivers
Tales of tourists being swindled out of their lira from taxi drivers are as long as the city's history; the yellow cars have made such an impression that it’s hard to imagine Istanbul without them.
Here are a few things to keep in mind so that you don’t become a victim of this notorious street gang: First of all, there is no night rate—don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Second, always give them exact change. Taxi drivers are prone to think whatever you hand them is all for them and will try not to give you anything back.
Also, make sure to strap on your seatbelt—it’s going to be a crazy (but relatively safe) ride! Lastly, if you call them out on any infraction they may have made, the taxi driver might be aggressive, screaming, yelling, or using any number of scare tactics to get you to back down on your claim: Be prepared and don’t back down. If there really is a problem, there’s no system in place for you to report it, so you are the last stand between that taxi and justice—don’t give up!
If you want to avoid the Turkish taxi drivers altogether, I suggest taking public transportation—it’s a better bet in many cases, and I wouldn’t blame you in the least. There are many bus stations for getting around the city, and many hotels will offer an airport shuttle to get you to and from your flight, so make sure you ask before arranging your own transport.
6. Make Sure You Get Your Change
The first time you bid adieu to the charming shopkeeper only to realize you didn’t get your change, it might seem like an accident. After the third, fourth, or even twentieth times, however, you will no longer be starry-eyed at the beauty of the Grand Bazaar; instead, you'll be totally exhausted by all the attempts to swindle you out of your money.
So here’s a tip to the wise: Unless you expressly mean to leave a generous tip, don’t leave the shop unless you’ve gotten your change. Not only will the merchants not alert you of your mistake, but the likelihood that they will return your money if you leave and then comeback gets thinner and thinner with each minute you’ve been gone from the initial transaction. When in doubt, just make sure you ask a couple of times before leaving: Did you give me my change?
7. Remember That Nothing Is Free
When someone advertises that lunch is included on your boat trip, or that the sunbed you’ve got your eye on at the beach is gratis, think twice.
While the boat trips on the river do technically have free lunch that is included in the price of your admission ticket, the drinks will be highly overpriced to make up for it. When it comes to the sunbeds, the waiters for the hotels will see a paying customer lounging in the sun as the perfect chance to fill up their tip jar, so don’t be surprised to find a menu being shoved in your face every time you close your eyes to relax. When you think about it, it’s just their way of taking advantage of the gullible and keeping the tourist market in Turkey alive. Just make sure that you’re aware of their tricks and take absolutely nothing for granted.
8. Don’t Tell Them You're an American
This may seem slightly strange, but if you’re an American out in the Grand Bazaar trying to haggle for the best price, avoid saying that you’re from the U.S.—there’s a bit of a habit in Turkey of making American citizens pay more than the average customer. While I would never condone lying, saying you’re from Canada, Australia, Ireland, or any other English speaking country could save you a lot of money in the long run...just a personal trick to keep in mind!
As long as you keep these tips in mind—that taxi drivers are tough, carpets are supposed to be a little imperfect, and that you shouldn't show anyone the bills in your wallet—you can avoid the scenarios that keep people from going to—or even from going back to—Istanbul to have what many would consider the greatest adventure on Earth. So what are you waiting for? Get packing and bon voyage!