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Istanbul Info

This section covers all the pre-travel basics to help you plan your trip - and how to get around once you've arrived. This is where to find out what paperwork you'll need, what to do about currency, food, avoiding cultural faux pas, web access, public transport, car rental, what plug to use – everything you need to feel informed, confident and ready to travel.
Tourist Offices Abroad
Turkey has tourist offices in many cities around the globe, including London, Paris, Rome, Madrid, Los Angeles, Washington and New York.
Turkish Embassies and Consulates
Several countries have Turkish embassies and consulates. The embassy staff will direct you to the consulate if it isn’t in the same building.
Visas and Passports
To enter Turkey you need a full passport valid for at least six months. Citizens of the following countries require visas, paid for in hard currency at the point of entry into Turkey: UK (£10), Canada (US$60), Australia (US$20), USA (US$20) and Ireland (€10). Photos are not required. You receive a multiple-entry tourist visa valid for three months. South Africans or people with British National Overseas passports must apply for a visa at a con-sulate before travelling. New Zealand nationals receive a free tourist visa on arrival, valid for up to three months.
Duty-Free Allowances
Visitors may bring 200 cigarettes, 50 cigars, 200 g pipe tobacco, 5 litres wine or spirits, 5 x 100 ml bottles of perfume, 1 kg sweets and 1 kg chocolate, 500 g tea, 1.5 kg coffee and 1.5 kg instant coffee into Turkey. You may also buy 400 cigarettes, 100 cigars and 500 g pipe tobacco from the Turkish duty-free shops on arrival. Penalties for possessing narcotics are very harsh.
Travel Insurance
You are strongly advised to take out travel insurance with full medical cover, including repatriation by air. If buying a Europe-only policy, check that it will also cover you on the Asian side of Istanbul.
You do not need inoculations for Istanbul.
Summers are long, sunny and dry, with the odd thunderstorm. It can reach 40º C (104º F), but 31–3º C (88–91º F) is normal at midday in August, dropping to around 23º C (74º F) at night. Winter can be cool and damp, with a little snow and likely January temperatures of around 8º C (46º F) at midday and 2º C (36º F) overnight.
When to Go
In May, June and September the sun is out, the temperature is pleasant and there are fewer tourists than usual. In November or February, prices are slashed.
What to Pack
In summer, pack light clothes for the midday heat with a jacket for the evenings, plus a hat and sunblock. In winter, take a coat and umbrella. To visit mosques, wear long trousers or a skirt that covers the knees, and a shirt that covers the shoulders. Women should also bring a scarf with which to cover the head. Don’t forget to bring mosquito repellent and an adaptor plug.
Choosing an Area
Sultanahmet has charming hotels, great restaurants and easy access to key sights. If you are a night owl, stay in Beyoğlu, where you’ll find most of the best restaurants and clubs. For peace and quiet, stay in the Bosphorus villages.
International Flights
The national carrier, Turkish Airlines, flies to and from more than 100 airports worldwide. Other major airlines and low-cost carriers also fly to Istanbul. Flights are 3.5 hours from London and 9 hours from New York.
Domestic Flights
Turkish Airlines competes with domestic operators including Onur Air, Atlas Jet and Fly Air.
Istanbul has two main airports, Atatürk International and Sabiha Gökçen. Most major airlines fly into Atatürk International, 24 km (15 miles) west of the city centre, on the European shore. Sabiha Gökçen, on the Asian side, is 50 km (30 miles) from Taksim. A few larger carriers such as Japan Air Lines (JAL) and Air France fly here, as does the UK budget airline EasyJet.
Airport–City Links
Atatürk International has good transport links. Taxis and hotel buses are fixed-price (taxis around US$15–20). Havaş buses run at 30-minute intervals to Akmerkez (Etiler, 45 minutes) and Taksim (about 40 minutes). An airport bus also meets the boat at Bakırköy and the metro connects the airport with Sultanahmet and (via the funicular) with Taksim. From Sabiha Gökçen buses link with ferries to/from Bostancı, 14 km (9 miles) from the airport. A costly taxi ride is the only other option, which could wipe out the benefit of a budget flight.
You can travel to Istanbul by train – from Western Europe or from Moscow – but it is a two- or three-day trip. Inter-rail, Eurodomino and Balkan Flexipass tickets are valid in Turkey, but Eurail passes are not.
Train Stations
International trains and those from European Turkey use Sirkeci Station, Eminönü; trains from Anatolia come into Haydarpaşa Station on the Asian shore.
Coaches travel to Istanbul from all over Europe. In the UK, contact Eurolines. Coaches within Turkey are comfortable and popular but ticket prices are complicated.
Coach Stations
Istanbul’s main coach station is at Esenler, about 10 km (6 miles) northwest of the city centre. There is a second station at Harem, just behind Haydarpaşa Station on the Asian shore.
Ferries run to Turkey from Italy, Greece and Northern Cyprus. The UKR Ferry Shipping Company runs a regular ferry across the Black Sea from Odessa.
Istanbul is not on the Mediterranean schedule of all the major cruise companies, but most of them come into the city a few times a year, including P&O, Swan Hellenic, Costa Cruises and MSC Cruises.
A licensed taxi (taksi) is yellow and shows a light on top when available for hire. In touristy areas such as the Grand Bazaar, check that the meter is switched on – and on the correct rate (one red light on the meter for day rate or two for evening). Better still, fix the fare before you get in. Ask a local what the fare should be and haggle hard (see Unscrupulous Cab Drivers ). If you cross the Bosphorus, the bridge toll will be added to your fare.
These cheap, shared minibus taxis run along set routes, and will only depart when they are full (really full – dolmuş means “stuffed”) but will pick up or set down where you want along the route. Ranks have a blue sign with a black D on a white background. They don’t operate in the city centre.
There are two metro sections: one runs from Levent to Taksim, the other from Aksaray via Kocatepe to the airport. A new section is due to connect Taksim with Aksaray by late 2007.
The tram is a small but splendid affair that runs from the airport through the old city, across the Galata Bridge and along the Bosphorus to Dolmabahçe Palace, linking to Taksim via the funicular. It is cheap, frequent, air-conditioned and it beats the traffic. It operates 6am–midnight daily. The Antique Tram runs along İstiklal Caddesi between Taksim and Tünel.
The Tünel, connecting Galata to Beyoğlu, is one of the world’s oldest undergrounds. A second funicular runs from the Bosphorus shore to Taksim.
Buy tokens from kiosks near stations and stops. If you are around for more than a couple of days, get an Akbil ticket – a token that can be used on all buses (except double-deckers), trams, the metro and ferries. Press it into the orange machine as you enter whichever form of public transport you are taking, and recharge it when necessary at stations and kiosks displaying the Akbil sign. A blue (mavi) token operates as a 1-day, 1-week, 15-day or 31-day travel card.
The main ferry docks are at Eminönü. There are others at Karaköy and Kabataş. A useful route runs along the Marmara coast to Bakırköy, from where there is a shuttle bus to the airport (see Ferries ). There are regular sailings from Eminönü to Kadıköy and Üsküdar on the Asian side, but the most scenic way to cross is on the Bosphorus ferry (see Bosphorus Cruise ). Most lines are run by Turkish Maritime Lines and Istanbul Fast Ferry
By Car
Driving in the city centre is a nightmare. If you have come to Istanbul by car, use the ring roads that skirt the city centre and park as soon as possible. The larger business hotels have parking, but those in the old city do not. To take in sights spread out around the city walls, Golden Horn or along the Bosphorus, hire a car and driver – most hotels can arrange this for you.
On Foot
You will miss many of the best aspects of the city, such as the small alleys and markets, if you don’t walk. Wear shoes that you can slip on and off easily for mosques. Traffic will only stop at light-controlled crossings.
The bestsellers are Sabah and Hürriyet. The English-language paper, Turkish Daily News, prints entertainment listings. You can get day-old international papers at major hotels and kiosks in tourist areas.
Foreign-Language Bookshops
There are several shops offering books in English and other languages, but centrally located Galeri Kayseri is the main English-language retailer. For second-hand books, look in the Book Bazaar in Beyazıt.
The free city map available from tourist offices and most hotels is all that most people need. For more detail, look for the Freytag & Berndt Istanbul City Map (scale 1:10,000).
Private Guides
Most travel agents and tour operators in Turkey will be happy to provide a private guide in one of half a dozen major languages. The guide should be accredited by the Ministry of Tourism.
Guided Tours
There are tours by bus, boat, on foot or a mix of them, with full- and half-day options. Plan Tours do an open-topped double-decker bus tour of the city that can be a good way to get your bearings. There are also tours by night and trips to cultural evenings – including belly dancing.
Government Advice
The UK Foreign Office and US State Department websites give detailed, up-to-date advice on the risks of travel.
Finding Your Way Around
Getting around is not always easy – make sure you have full directions and a map before you set off. Write your destination down and show it to the driver or a passerby – chances are they won’t understand your accent. Give/get directions by district first, nearest major landmark next, then the street. Once you are in the vicinity, ask and keep on asking.
Turkey is 3 hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time in summer (March–October) and 2 hours ahead for the rest of the year.
The current is 220V, and plugs have two round pins. You’ll need a transformer to use 110V appliances from the US.
Opening Hours
Banks open 8:30am–noon and 1:30–5pm Monday to Friday; a few larger branches also open on Saturday mornings. All have 24-hour cash dispensers. Post offices open 9am–5pm Monday to Saturday. Shops are open 10am–6pm Monday to Saturday, with some local stores, malls and large shops open longer. Museums are usually open 9am–5pm (closed Monday or Tuesday).
Post and Couriers
Post offices and boxes can be recognized by a yellow and blue PTT logo. Stamps can only be bought at post offices and PTT kiosks. The post can be slow, so if you want to send purchases home, use a courier firm for speed – all the main courier companies have offices in Istanbul.
Most tourist hotels, of any standard, have a computer with free Internet access in the lobby. Many also offer free Wi-Fi, as do some cafés.
Turkey’s mobile phone system is compatible with UK phones, but US cellphones may not work. To save on charges, buy a local pay-as-you-go SIM card or an international card such as sim4travel. Public phones accept credit cards or a phone card bought from a post office. Hotel phones are usually expensive.
Dialling Codes
The international dialling code for Turkey is 90. Istanbul has two area codes: 0212 for the European side, 0216 for the Asian side.
In tourist areas there will always be someone who speaks some English. Written Turkish uses the Western alphabet, but there are some differences in pronunciation. C is pronounced “j” as in “jam”; ç is “ch” as in “church”. S is as in snake; ş is “sh” as in “shut”. İ is used as in igloo; the dotless “i” (ı) is more like “uh”. The ğ is silent, but is used to draw out the preceding vowel. So Cağaloğlu is actually pronounced jar-low-loo.
You are allowed to take photos inside most major monuments and museums, but flash is usually banned and in a few places they also bar tripods. There may be a photographic charge on top of the entry fee.
The Yeni (New) Turkish Lira (YTL) comes in 1, 5, 10, 20, 50 and 100 YTL notes and 1 YTL coins. 1 YTL is split into 100 kuruş, which come in 1, 5, 10 and 20 kuruş coins. The lira was recently devalued by knocking off 6 noughts – people will sometimes, startlingly, still ask you for a couple of million (2 YTL) for a bottle of water. You are allowed to bring unlimited foreign currency and up to US$5,000-worth of YTL into Turkey, but you’ll probably get a better exchange rate if you wait until you are in Turkey to exchange your money.
Small Change
Make sure that you have plenty of small-denomination notes and coins with you at all times, as few traders seem to have any and many will assume that you don’t actually want any change from a larger note
Using Foreign Currency
Most souvenir shops are happy to accept lira, US dollars, euros or pounds sterling. Your change will come in lira.
ATMs and Banks
There are plenty of banks, but changing money can be slow. The many 24-hour cash dispensers (ATMs) accept all Maestro and Cirrus bank cards with a PIN number, and will also give a cash advance on credit cards. Most are programmed with several languages, but pay out only in Turkish lira.
Exchange Offices
If you have cash to exchange, the best place to go is an exchange office (döviz). These kiosks are found in all the main tourist areas. They are faster and usually offer a better rate of exchange than the banks. They rarely accept traveller’s cheques.
Credit Cards
Most outlets dealing with tourists will accept major credit cards such as Visa and MasterCard. American Express cards are less popular because commission is higher. You may be asked to pay a premium to cover the cost of the commission.
Traveller’s Cheques
You can cash traveller’s cheques at foreign exchange desks at banks and post offices and at American Express and Thomas Cook offices, but few outlets, including hotels, will accept them.
Turkey is extremely good value for visitors. The only exception is fuel, which is very expensive. However, haggling for a bargain is part of daily life, and in places like the Grand Bazaar and the old city it’s a necessity. Take your time, shop around and don’t feel pressurized. When you are ready, offer half the price and take it from there. Don’t be afraid to haggle for a fixed-price taxi ride, either, but don’t expect to bargain for goods in upmarket shops.
VAT and VAT Refunds
VAT (KDV in Turkish) is included in fixed-price goods. There are various rates, but the most common is 18 per cent. Prices may rise if you ask for a VAT invoice – a trader who writes an invoice will have to pay tax. To reclaim tax on departure, shop at places displaying a tax-free sign and get a Global Refund Cheque to reclaim the tax (in cash) at the airport. You may be asked to produce the goods, so keep them with you.
A service charge may be included (servis dahil) at a restaurant. If it is not, leave 10 per cent. There are no set rates for hotel staff, but 1–2 YTL for porters and about 5 YTL per day for room cleaners is acceptable. Hamam attendants will generally expect up to 25 per cent of the price. Don’t tip taxi drivers.
Avoiding Bugs
If you are vulnerable to stomach upsets, foods to avoid include salad, seafood from street stalls and unpackaged ice cream. If you do get a bug, don’t eat for 24 hours, then try 24 hours on black tea, water, yoghurt and dry bread. If you still feel ill, seek medical assistance.
Medical Assistance
A pharmacy (eczane) can treat minor ailments and many drugs are available over the counter, without prescription. In every district one pharmacist will be open around the clock for emergencies, with the rota (nöbetçi) posted in all pharmacists’ windows. All hotels will call a doctor for you. There are also good free public clinics (poliklinik) for minor problems.
Istanbul has public and private hospitals – the latter tend to offer a higher standard of medical care and cleanliness.
It is illegal to be out in public without photo ID. If all you have is your passport and you don’t wish to risk carrying it around, take a photocopy of the relevant page.
Istanbul has very low crime levels compared to most major cities. Take normal precautions. If you feel threatened, raise your voice and ask locals for help (see also Things to Avoid ).
Terrorist Threat
Turkey has suffered bombing campaigns by PKK Kurdish nationalists and al-Qaeda. PKK bombs have targeted suburban districts and coastal resorts. Al-Qaeda bombs have been more central, hitting synagogues, the British Consulate and the HSBC bank in Istanbul.
Emergency Phone Numbers
Emergency service operators may not speak English. Ask a Turk to call for you or contact the Tourist Police.
The Turkish police are trying hard to improve their image and, as long as you don’t break the law, they will be polite and helpful. In tourist areas, report losses, theft or other problems at the Tourist Police office.
While embassies are situated in the Turkish capital of Ankara, most countries still maintain consulates in Istanbul. These should be your first stop in case of trouble – they will assist with missing documents, arrange repatriation, or help you to find legal representation if needed.
Children are welcome almost everywhere, but give very blond children a hat or they will attract uncomfortable levels of attention. Some large hotels arrange activities for children, and most will provide babysitting on request.
Be sure to pack plenty of supplies. You can get everything you need in Istanbul, from nappies to baby food, but it isn’t always easy to find them in tourist areas since supermarkets tend to be in the suburbs.
Some Turkish women wear strappy tops and short skirts, but a growing number are returning to wearing scarves. A few – often Arab tourists – wear full burkas. Western women are seen as free and easy – Turkish men will flirt and younger women will be hassled, but you can usually stop it with a polite but firm response. Wear clothes that cover the shoulders and knees, walk purpose-fully and avoid quiet streets at night if alone.
Gay Travellers
Homosexuality is not illegal in Turkey, but it is frowned upon by Islam. There is a thriving gay scene in Istanbul, but locals are not always far out of the closet and there is significant homophobia. Don’t be too demonstrative in public and be careful where you go on nights out; some local gay bars are decidedly seedy. But there are many safe venues in Beyoğlu and several useful websites including
Disabled Travellers
On the whole, the city is difficult to navigate in a wheelchair. Older, historic buildings tend to be totally or partially inaccessible and many mosques refuse access to wheelchairs. But the biggest problem is Istanbul itself – with its seven, often steep, hills and cobbled roads and pavements. The Turkish Tourist Office in London publishes a helpful guide to facilities for disabled travellers.
Older Travellers
You are guaranteed courteous service and assistance – Turkish people revere seniors. At monuments and museums, look out for over-65 discounts.
Student and Youth Travellers
There are three hostels accredited by Hostelling International. You should get in free to museums and monuments with a FIYTO (Federation of International Youth Travel Organizations) card or a 50 per cent reduction with an ISIC (International Student Identity Card) – the latter will also give you intercity train discounts.
Ninety-nine per cent of Turks are Muslim, but the degree to which they practise their religion varies greatly. There are some fundamentalists, but the vast majority believe utterly in a secular state and are completely tolerant of other religions.
The Turks smoke a lot of pungent black Turkish tobacco. There are no-smoking areas in Turkey (including public offices, banks and shops, as well as public transport), and the ban is increasingly observed. Where it is not, there is no point in complaining. A very few international hotels offer non-smoking rooms.
Export Regulations
Any object over 100 years old needs a certificate of permission to be exported. Museums usually issue these on behalf of the Ministry of Culture; a reputable dealer should arrange the paperwork for you. If you attempt to smuggle out antiquities you will find yourself facing large fine or even a jail sentence.