As someone who has moved to Istanbul by themselves, I have a number of concerned relatives and friends who are always worried if Istanbul is safe. And when I say yes, the next question is always about just how safe it really is.
Istanbul is a safe city to visit from what I have experienced living alone. I am not saying that it is perfectly safe, as it is such a big city, with a population of over 15 million, and all sorts of people. For foreigners and tourists especially it is best to take some precautions and stay alert when in busy areas like the Sultanahmet square or Istiklal street.
The city of Istanbul has had a couple of major setbacks in the past years due to political unrest and terrorism with mass casualties that had shaken up the locals and had put a strain on tourism. Though traveling in Istanbul is mostly safe now in terms of terrorism as the state of emergency had ended in 2019, there are some things that you must be mindful of in terms of low-level crimes and scams that seek out gullible tourists.
I have put together a safety guide that should cover everything you will need to know about keeping yourself safe so you are able to enjoy your vacation without worrying about unforeseen misfortunes.
1. Don’t engage in conversation with strangers!
It might sound like a silly thing to tell someone not to talk to strangers, especially when you are traveling abroad but in certain situations, like the one I am going to explain it is best to ignore and keep walking.
This is a moderately common occurrence in the Taksim-Istiklal area where strangers approach lone travelers specifically to ask them to have a drink with them as a goodwill gesture but beware as it is not a harmless invitation. Once they have gotten their guests intoxicated enough, they steal all the belongings that they have, bags, phones, and wallets. This always includes travel documents as well which is every traveler’s worst nightmare.
Another type of stranger encounter that happens in this area men greeting travelers and asking to show them around as an act of apparent hospitality but in reality, they wait until they have shown you a few places until they can guilt you into paying for the tour.
The best thing to do is keep walking and not engage in conversation with such people who are only there to lure tourists and take advantage in the name of hospitality.
2. Be alert, make sure nobody is following you.
Another thing to be careful of is muggers and pickpockets. In crowded streets especially, it is difficult to assess if someone is getting too close to you to pickpocket. Places like the Grand Bazaar, Sultanahmet square, and Taksim-Istiklal Avenue are unfortunately hotspots for such incidents as they are some of the most crowded places in Istanbul. As these are mostly tourist hubs, low-level criminal activities especially are comparatively higher than other areas, where the crime rate is non-existent.
In order to keep yourself safe from getting robbed, the best precaution you can take is to stay alert and make sure you are not being followed and that nobody you don’t recognize is getting too close to you. It is extremely easy to distinguish between tourists and non-tourists based on their demeanor, so you will instantly know if something is not right if you have been paying attention to your surroundings.
Though these places have Tourism Police kiosks set up, there is only so much that they can do in terms of petty crimes, so it is better to be safe than waste the day sitting with the police trying to resolve the mishap.
3. Keep your money safe!
Though it is likely your hotel will have a safe inside where you can keep your valuables and cash. But you also need to keep money with you when you go out for food, drinks, shopping, and sightseeing. And depending on where you are planning to go, for example, if you are planning to spend the day in Grand Bazaar, you are likely to have a lot of cash at hand. You will notice that most people wear their bags on their chest which is honestly the best thing to do, in terms of keeping an eye on your bags.
It is probably best that you don’t keep all your money in the same place when you go out. This way, if an unpleasant occurrence takes place, you will have safety cash in another place and the loss would be comparatively minimized.
Another caution you must keep in mind is to be extremely careful during peak hours in public transport, especially if you are planning to take the tram or metro around 5 PM to 8 PM, there are a lot of people, which gives a bracket to street kids and beggars for petty misconduct. So it is best to keep your bags and wallets in your hands, not risking losing any valuables.
4. Travel Insurance is important.
I can not stress this enough, not just for Istanbul, but as a general rule, always get your insurance before you travel. Most people think of travel insurance as a futile waste of money, but I beg to differ in this case. I understand why it may seem that way because you might think that there is no need to buy an insurance package for vacation, but you should also consider the precautionary aspect of it.
A travel insurance package covers not just medical expenses, in case you get sick or injured during your trip but also you have loss of baggage and theft coverage as well.
I know nobody goes on vacation keeping the worst-case-scenario in mind, but preventive measures turn out to be blessings in retrospect.
5. Have your travel documents on hand.
You don’t need to have your original ID and passport with you at all times, but you must keep a photocopy of your ID card (of your home country), your passport and your travel insurance.
Especially if you are a lone traveler or are traveling in an all-male group, you will have at least one instance of having your documents checked by the police. These are regular checks and nothing out of the ordinary. But in order to avoid any escalation, it is best to have your documents readily available.
However, please do not keep your original documents with you when you go out. If they get lost, or if your things get stolen, it will be a long and exhausting process that could have been easily avoided.
You might also attach your number and hotel details to your luggage. In case if it gets lost or misplaced, it can always make its way back to you. If you are staying at an Airbnb, you can also add your host’s number as well as the address.
Safety tips for female travelers
Similar to any other place, for women, the stakes are higher when it comes to safety and security. Traveling through Istanbul would be no different, unfortunately. In my experience, however, I have seen the good with the bad, which is worth mentioning as well.
While women are given respect and priority in some places, you will also be met with unnecessarily friendly and eager people. Though these are mostly harmless marketing tactics, in which the shopkeepers will compliment you to get your attention.
However, it is best to not be too trusting and excuse yourself if you feel uncomfortable. You are not obligated to be anywhere you are uneasy. Especially if the shopkeeper asks you to follow them to their shop where they promise to host you with Turkish delights and tea, you must immediately leave.
You should also avoid walking alone at night, especially in secluded areas. Another thing that I advise my female friends to do when they are in a new place is to take mental notes of exits and/or determine alternative routes in case they end up in an unpleasant situation. This way you would have an escape plan ready if it comes to it.
Safety tips for solo travelers
If you are traveling through Istanbul by yourself, you are going to have to be extra careful about certain things. The most important being your own safety. It brings me no joy to admit, but lone travelers are preyed upon in areas of high tourist activity.
Like I have already mentioned above, but will reiterate, one of the biggest scams targetted towards those traveling alone is being asked to join a group of locals for a drink. You might take this as a gesture of hospitality, but it is not.
A similar type of tactic that I have been hearing a lot about lately is strangers approaching single men to come with them to a local club. They will try to sell you on the experience of it being the best night you will have. This, unfortunately, will lead to you getting mugged if you decide to follow them.
The best thing you can do to avoid being approached by scammers is by looking confident. Even if you feel like you are lost, pretend like you know exactly where you are going so you don’t come off as gullible, or in other words, as an easy target.
Safety tips for Western Tourists
The only thing that I don’t like about Istanbul is the language restrictions. You might wonder the same thing once you are here. For a city of its magnitude, one that hosts millions of tourists every year, English is not commonly spoken or understood.
Before you arrive, a bit of homework that you can do is Google or find a YouTube video to learn some useful phrases for tourists. It will help you in getting around to a certain extent in terms of asking for directions and understanding directions as well. Knowing a bit of Turkish would also help you get rid of unwanted interruption.
Another thing, especially for US and Canadian travelers to do is to enlist in your countries travel advisory. Enlisting in the advisory will update you of any safety concerns, complications due to political unrest or protests that might hinder your plans. This is a good way to assess if it is safe to travel or not.
These are the only two active travel advisories that I know of, but if your country has one, do enlist so you can receive updates regarding the safety situation ahead of your travel plans.
Keep emergency numbers on hand
The first thing you should do is familiarize yourself with local emergency numbers. Save them on your phone or write them down somewhere. For your ease, I have listed the most important ones below.
112 – Ambulance/Medical Emergency
155 – Police
(0212) 527 4503 – Istanbul Tourism Police
(0212) 663 6400 – Istanbul Airport
(0216) 588 8888 – Sabiha Gokcen Airport
Having emergency numbers handy would save you the hassle of running around in a panic in case things go wrong.
So is Istanbul safe?
Though Istanbul is mostly safe now, there is still a certain level of concern when it comes to traveling to the region. Which is something I understand, since acts of violence and terrorism leave a mark which takes years to erase.
While I believe you can easily travel to Istanbul without worrying about extremely threatening situations, there is no complete guarantee I can give you. But according to Turkish authorities, Istanbul is now free of the state of emergency it was previously in, following the suicide attacks in 2016 and 2017.
That being said, petty crimes and scams are an unfortunate nuisance that tourists still face in Istanbul. It can turn an otherwise great trip into an unpleasant one. But it is nothing that can’t be avoided with precautionary measures.
I hope I have covered the necessary steps and prevention methods in detail. The pointers I have put together should be helpful for you to get out of an uncomfortable situation.
Additionally, I would suggest you install public transport applications in your phone as well before you come to Istanbul. There is a metro application as well as one for the busses schedule. This will make it easier for you to ask directions without getting lost. For instance, if you know which bus you have to take, you will not fall victim to fake tour guides and eager cab drivers waiting to overcharge confused tourists.
If you have a rental car, it is better to have an application like Waze for directions. It might not be the smartest idea to ask pedestrians for directions in some places, and not everyone knows English in Istanbul. So Waze or Google Maps is your best option to keep you from getting lost.
Another recommendation I’d like to give is to have Google Translate on your phone. Though you might not need it a lot, it is a good tool to have in handy especially if you need to translate the menu to your language so you know exactly what you are ordering. Or just to communicate in general.
Finally, I’m going to conclude this by reiterating that Istanbul is mostly safe, if not completely. As long as you know where you are going and you avoid impoverished areas, you will be free of unpleasant encounters. As long as you are careful, you will not face any difficulty.