The historic city of Istanbul is Turkey’s largest city and the most popular in Europe. The city played an essential role in spreading Christianity throughout Europe during the Byzantine empire and Islam throughout the Middle East during the Ottoman empire.
It was also an important Silk Road trading route location during both empires. As a result, Istanbul is now a historical, cultural, and religious hub for millions of people worldwide.
As Istanbul is the perfect blend of Europe and the Middle East and is home to multiple UNESCO world heritage sites, it’s only natural that Istanbul sees record-breaking numbers of visitors each year.
It’s the eighth most visited city in the world and a European Capital of Culture. It’s only natural that with such a high population of locals and tourists, safety can become a concern.
Although Istanbul is safe for most people to visit, visitors still need to research and be prepared for the risks of traveling to Istanbul. Is Istanbul safe? This article will walk you through all the safety risks of traveling to Istanbul and our top tips to stay safe.
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Is Istanbul Safe to Visit in 2023?
The American, Canadian, and Australian governments agree that when traveling to Istanbul or Turkey in general, visitors should exercise a high degree of caution due to the threat of terrorism, particularly near the Turkish-Syrian border.
Fortunately, acts of terrorism have not occurred since January 2017. Additionally, these acts typically do not target tourists.
Besides the threat of terrorism, Istanbul is considered relatively safe for tourists and locals. Istanbul is even considered moderately safe for solo travelers and female travelers.
However, visitors should remain cautious as many tourists are often caught in scams, frauds, or pickpocketing schemes. Let’s look further at what you can expect when visiting Istanbul.
Crime in Istanbul
The highest form of crime against tourists in Istanbul is pickpocketing crimes. Pickpockets and crimes constitute a significant concern throughout Istanbul’s streets, especially in major tourist destinations such as Taksim Square, Sultanahmet, The Grand Bazaar, and The Spice Bazaar.
However, you don’t need to altogether avoid busy areas or tourist destinations. By taking precautions beforehand, you can mitigate your risk of being pickpocketed.
For instance, rather than putting your belongings in your pocket, grab a bag that stays on the front of your body like a belt bag. You can also opt for a money belt worn under your shirt for extra precaution.
Mugging and violent crimes can also be a concern when traveling to Istanbul. Although they’re not as common as pickpocketing schemes, you can probably find at least a couple of visitors on travel forums for Istanbul who have had their cash, credit cards, or ID stolen from them.
Victims have reported having their bags snatched or slashed, being threatened with weapons, and even being drugged. Keeping important belongings like travel documents in your hotel safe is best.
Additionally, don’t walk around with all of your cash and credit cards. Although public transportations and Ubers are safe for tourists, some taxi cabs have been known to scam tourists by increasing prices, using tampered meters, or taking unnecessary detours.
To avoid getting scammed by taxi drivers, you can familiarize yourself with Istanbul’s standard taxi cab fares. For instance, the usual fare from Sultanahmet to Taksim Square is 20 Turkish lira.
Many tourists also fall victim to overcharging scams. A popular overcharging scam in Istanbul is the shoe shine scam, where a shoe shiner drops his tools in front of you, and after you help them pick them up, they offer you a free shoe shine.
However, at the end of the polish, they end up charging way more than a regular shoeshine would cost. Tourists have also fallen victim to overpaying for carpets, rugs, or leather goods.
To prevent the situation from happening, you should avoid talking to strangers who approach you directly. You can still talk to the locals, but you will need to come to them rather than having them approach you.
You can still be scammed while purchasing carpet rugs and leather goods, even if you’re savvy enough to distinguish between cheap and quality goods.
Some local shops will price and negotiate their products in Turkish lira. Meanwhile, their credit card processing system charges in euros. Needless to say, the difference is drastic. You can bypass the charade by always paying for goods in cash.
The restaurant scam is yet another way tourists get swindled. Suppose you go to a restaurant, sit down, look over the menu and order your meal.
While waiting for your meal to arrive, your waiter comes over with a dish you haven’t ordered but one that your waiter insists you have to try. You may be inclined to think it’s free, but it’s not.
That item is likely added to your bill, whether you touch it or not. You can avoid being scammed by restaurants by reading reviews online and asking what’s included in the dish before ordering.
Avoid Bad Neighborhoods
Istanbul is a city with 15 million citizens. As expected, the city has its fair share of good and bad neighborhoods. Let’s look at some areas of Istanbul that tourists should avoid.
Tarlabasi is consistently listed as one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Istanbul. It’s located near Taksim Square. It’s so close to Taksim Square that you can accidentally wander into the neighborhood.
The neighborhood is known for its violence and prostitution. The neighborhood is home to many Kurdish Romani and Syrian residents.
Moe recently, there has been an influx of African migrants coming to Tarlabasi. There’s also a sizeable transgender community in the neighborhood.
In recent years, Tarlabasi has been experiencing gentrification as hotels change, and Airbnb buying up properties to take advantage of the low prices close to the Istanbul city center. Even so, as of right now, the neighborhood continues to be unsafe for tourists to visit.
Just north of Tarlabasi is Dolapdere, a neighborhood riddled with extreme poverty, violence, and devastation. The community looks war-torn, and the individuals who live here are often impoverished to starvation.
However, as it were the case for Tarlabasi, gentrification is slowly changing the neighborhood. Some hotels are already being built along with the Arter modern art gallery.
Gaziosmanpasa is a neighborhood on the European side of Istanbul. It’s been a slum for illegal Balkan and Romanian immigrants since the 1950s. The settlers from the 1950s had to build illegal cottages for shelter.
However, in this day and age, the tiny cabins have been replaced with semi-legal apartments and houses with poor foundations.
Most of the residents of Gaziosmanpasa are relatively young and have little to no access to infrastructure, transportation, and culture. As a result, political and religious left and right-wing sentiment has attracted the young demographic and led to violence and crimes.
Turkey’s geographical location and climate puts Istanbul at risk for several natural disasters. Natural disasters can be challenging to avoid, but keeping up with weather forecasts and the news might help you stay safe.
Earthquakes and tremors are common in Istanbul. Although this is not avoidable, you can still mitigate your own risk by researching proper safety protocols during an earthquake and following the advice of local authorities.
Forest fires are a risk in summer when temperatures reach over 40°C. Avoid woodland areas during extreme heat. Additionally, forest fires might be due to unattended open flames in prohibited areas.
Before starting a barbecue, firepit, or cigarette, ensure you’re permitted to do so in the area. Fines can get hefty when you break the rules. Flooding can occur during severe rainstorms.
Roads and bridges can sometimes be closed off due to dangerous conditions. If you’re caught in a flood in Istanbul, listen to the local authorities and follow their safety instructions.
Tips for Solo Travelers in Istanbul
Istanbul is a tourist destination, so for the most part, solo travelers are safe in Istanbul. However, solo travelers, and especially solo male travelers, are a target for many scammers. Here are some tips to help you stay safe as a solo traveler to Istanbul.
When you’re at the airport, get yourself a prepaid SIM, so you always have access to mobile services at all times. This is especially useful if you find yourself in an undesirable neighborhood and need to Uber out as soon as possible.
Learn a bit of Turkish. Not only will you be respected for it, but you’ll also show that you’ve been in Istanbul for a while and are not a good target to scam.
Speaking of scams, scammers in Istanbul target people who are alone. When you’re in Istanbul as a solo traveler, you may want to make some friends to hang around with.
Stay at a well-reviewed social hostel in Istanbul and make friends with other solo travelers. This way, you can go out together. If you’re out at night and noticed many people and families out on the street with you; you’re probably safe.
However, if the neighborhood gets quiet at night and seems a little sketchy, use that prepaid SIM to call an Uber and get out of there as soon as possible.
If someone approaches you out of the blue, is overly friendly, and wants to take you around, just walk away. It may seem rude, but you don’t owe anyone any pleasantries. Especially not in a city known for its scam artists.
Tips for Female Travelers in Istanbul
Being a female traveler comes with challenges, no matter where you go. Istanbul is safe for female travelers to visit as long as you take reasonable precautions. Here are some tips to help you stay safe as a female traveler.
While Turkey has its conservative and liberal areas, Istanbul tends to be very liberal for the most part. As a female traveler to Istanbul, you will not need to cover up or dress modestly.
You can wear whatever makes you comfortable without any problems. However, if you visit a mosque, you should dress conservatively. There’s safety in numbers, so if you are a female traveler, it’s best to go with other travelers.
If you’re a solo female traveler, try to stay at a well-reviewed social hostel where you can make friends with other female travelers. If you feel like going out at night, you can do so with a group of people you trust.
The culture in Istanbul is quite different from most western cultures. This means that catcalling is normal, and sometimes men can be overly friendly.
If you’re being catcalled, just ignore it and walk away. If a man is amiable in the wrong way, just ask him to stop and walk away. Don’t get too drunk. This is good advice wherever you are in the world.
Don’t get too drunk, and don’t accept drinks from strangers. Walk confidently; scammers target the meek. They won’t approach you if they see you walking like you know where you’re going.
Tips for Family Travelers to Istanbul
Istanbul is safe for families to visit, and the city is also putting in more significant effort to attract family tourists. As an added bonus, having children with you can deter scammers from harassing you.
In general, Istanbul is very welcoming to families with children. However, they are not welcome to public breastfeeding, especially in conservative neighborhoods. If you need to breastfeed, you can do so discreetly in a quiet spot.
Frequently Asked Questions
If you still have lingering questions about the safety of Istanbul, read on for some of the most commonly asked.
Do I need a visa to visit Istanbul?
There are currently 78 countries from home where their citizens are not required to have visas to travel to turkey. Among the 78 countries are the United Kingdom, Italy, Germany, Honduras, Finland, France, Greece, Iran, Israel, Japan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Luxembourg, New Zealand, Serbia, Slovenia, Uzbekistan, and South Korea.
Forty countries require an e-Visa, which includes the United States, Canada, Mexico, Australia, Austria, the Bahamas, China, Croatia, the Dominican Republic, Maldives, Oman, Poland, Netherlands, Portugal, Norway, and Ireland.
The remaining countries require a conditional e-Visa. Because we can’t list every country and the type of visa they require, it’s best to check your local government’s website to find out what form of visa, if any, you’ll need to travel to Turkey.
Is tap water safe to drink in Turkey?
Yes and no. While Turkish authorities claim that tap water is safe to drink, most visitors and locals opt for bottled water instead.
At any rate, it’s always best to opt for bottled water when visiting a different country, regardless of whether an authority claims tap water is safe to drink.
Is the food safe to eat in Istanbul?
Not only is food safe to eat in Istanbul, but it’s also highly recommended, as Turkish food is one of the tastiest cuisines in the world.
In Istanbul, street food sellers are required to maintain certifications and permits and are constantly being surveilled by the municipality to ensure that the food is safe to eat. That said, it’s best to be cautious about raw veggies washed in tap water or ice made with tap water.
Can I drive to Istanbul?
The general rule is that as long as your driver’s license is written in the Latin alphabet, you can drive in Turkey for six months with your foreign driver’s license.
If your driver’s license is not written in the Latin alphabet, you can still use it, but you need a notarized license translation. You can have your license translated into the Turkish consulate in your home country.
That being said, driving in Turkey is no easy task. The roads are in good condition, and the signage and parking are straightforward.
However, the bustling streets of Istanbul are swarmed with erratic drivers, speeding scooters, honking cars, and roaring buses. It’s not a pleasant drive and begs the question: should you drive in turkey? Probably not.
Do they speak English in Turkey?
Yes. The official language of Turkey is Turkish. However, English is widely spoken, especially in Istanbul. Even so, learning Turkish while in Turkey is a good idea. Not only will it give you a smoother visit, but it’s also highly appreciated by the locals and is considered good manners.
So, Is Istanbul Safe to Visit?
As long as you’re taking reasonable measures to keep yourself safe, Istanbul is a relatively safe place to visit. However, to be safe in Turkey, you need to research all the scams that can take place in Istanbul and how to save yourself from them.
Luckily, as Istanbul focuses on making the city family-friendly, The city is becoming exceedingly safer as time goes by. Happy travels!