Whenever I travel to Turkey, my family and friends back home raise their eyebrows. “Okay, but is Istanbul safe?” they always ask me. And yes, for the most part, Istanbul is a safe city for travelers.
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t things you need to know to make sure you stay safe in Istanbul so you can enjoy your trip. Here’s what you need to know about crime in Istanbul and important Istanbul safety tips to help you while you’re in the city.
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Is Istanbul Safe? 5 Things to Know about Safety & Crime in Istanbul
Here are five facts about the current state of crime in Istanbul that you should be aware of. I address how to protect yourself in the next section. So while these things exist, there are things you can do. Being aware of them is the first step.
Turkey is a large country. Whenever the US State Department or other nation’s government issues a travel advisory for the country, check which part of the country the advisory is referring to. For example, currently, the US is advising people not to travel to Turkey due to terrorism threats that are located near the Turkey/Syria border.
No tourist heading to Istanbul, Cappadocia, Bodrum, etc. would be anywhere near this region.
While terrorism threats exist in Istanbul (like they do in Paris, Barcelona, etc) there’s no current heightened threat in Istanbul.
Check the US Travel Advisory for Turkey before your trip, just read them carefully to see what they actually reference.
Potential for Detainment
Right now, press freedom is being deeply curtailed in Turkey, even for foreign journalists. According to the current (July 2019) travel advisory:
Security forces have detained tens of thousands of individuals, including U.S. citizens, for alleged affiliations with terrorist organizations based on scant or secret evidence and grounds that appear to be politically motivated.
U.S. citizens have also been subject to travel bans that prevent them from departing Turkey. Participation in demonstrations not explicitly approved by the Government of Turkey, as well as criticism of the government, including on social media, can result in arrest.
The U.S. government has very limited ability to provide emergency services to U.S. citizens traveling in Batman, Bingol, Bitlis, Diyarbakir, Gaziantep, Hakkari, Hatay, Kilis, Mardin, Sanliurfa, Siirt, Sirnak, Tunceli, and Van, as the U.S. government restricts its employees from traveling to specific provinces in these regions without prior approval.
Now the first half of this is all great advice for someone traveling to Istanbul. Be careful what you post on social media. Don’t go after the government before or during your trip, etc. If you are a journalist, be extra cautious.
The second half is where things can get a bit confusing. The regions are all far form Istanbul, and if you stick to the main tourist areas in Turkey you will not be near any of these.
Crime in Istanbul is Low
Yes, threats of terrorism are possible in any major western city, Istanbul included. And yes, you need to be smart about what you say on social media and avoid political protests. That being said, actual crime in Istanbul is actually quite low.
According to the Turkey 2019 Crime & Safety Report for Istanbul:
There is minimal risk from crime in Istanbul. Even though Istanbul is Turkey’s largest metropolitan city, Istanbul’s crime rates as they relate to foreigners are very low. Remain aware of the potential for petty crimes such as pickpocketing in popular tourist areas and other crowded locations.
Although not very common, petty crime can also occur in locations such as the airport as well as on public transportation, including on buses, dolmuses (hop-on hop-off for pay mini-bus), trolleys, and the metro. Credit card and ATM usage is relatively safe with few reports of fraud, including in locations catering to international clientele.
Be Wary of Tourist Scams
Of course, there are tourist scams that happen in Istanbul just like they happen in all major cities that get a lot of tourism. The most common tourist scam goes like this:
U.S. citizens have reported a particular kind of scam in Istanbul that targets male tourists traveling alone. The victims are unsuspecting tourists lured into bars in the Taksim area or near Fatih neighborhood.
The ultimate goal of the perpetrator is to get the victim intoxicated and then relieve him of his belongings such as backpacks, bags, electronics or other valuable items. Instances of this type of scam occur more often in the summer, at the peak of the tourist season, and are most likely underreported.
Another scam is for someone to just start guiding you around without asking you if you want a tour guide. Then they guilt you into paying for the tour. Avoid talking to strangers and don’t go anywhere with anyone you don’t know.
Beware of shoe shiners guilting you into getting a shoe shine. They’ve targeted you because you are an obvious foreigner, and they will overcharge you.
Always check that your bill only includes the dishes you ordered. Most restaurants would not pull a scam and overcharge you, but a few scrupulous ones will.
Finally, avoid pickpockets by keeping your stuff put away. Never leave your bag unattended (I like to sit with a chair leg through one of the loops on my bag). I also use bags with anti-theft features to help make sure I’m a less desirable target.
Don’t Try to Drive in Istanbul
Unless you have a death wish, the safest way to travel around Istanbul is to either use public transit or go with an experienced Uber / Taxi driver. Even if you plan to drive in other parts of Turkey, skip driving in Istanbul:
Traffic frequently congests Istanbul’s roads, as transportation infrastructure struggles to keep pace with the city’s growing population. Drivers regularly ignore traffic regulations, including driving through red lights and stop signs, and changing lanes without first assessing surroundings. Many of Istanbul’s side streets are extremely narrow and overwhelmingly congested with parked cars, blocked easily by accidents or delivery vehicles.
Roads can abruptly turn into dead ends or change into one-way passages with little or no warning. Drivers must pull to the side of the road to make way for oncoming traffic that, at times, can escalate into road rage by some overly aggressive drivers. Drive defensively at all times, and leave room to maneuver…
Due to Istanbul’s unique topography and historic environs, road travel can often prove treacherous during periods of inclement weather, which can include snow and ice. For more information on driving, review OSAC’s Report Driving Overseas: Best Practices.
13 Istanbul Safety Tips
Here are our essential Istanbul safety tips.
Avoid Political Demonstrations
I know it’s tempting. It happened to me in Tunisia and Iceland. You see a large protest rally and you just have to know what’s going on.
Well, in Turkey, stay away. The government views attending unsanctioned political rallies as a criminal act, which could get you detained or arrested. Plus, there’s a heightened risk of violence in these situations.
So just stay away from political demonstrations of any kind while in Turkey.
Avoid Criticizing the government online
In America, freedom of speech is a concept that protects you from the government attacking you for your speech. This gives you the right to criticize the government openly.
This right does not exist in Turkey. In fact, online speech against the government is cracked down on, even on social media.
To keep yourself safe, avoid openly criticizing the government online or on social media while you’re in the country.
Know what to do if something goes wrong
It’s a good idea to know what you would do in a country if something were to go wrong. Besides your embassy’s contact information, keep these numbers handy:
Tourism Police: (0212) 5274503
Enroll in your government’s safety program
If you’re an American and you are concerned about the possibility of terrorism or political unrest while in Turkey, you can enroll in the State Department’s STEP Program. This lets the government know your travel plans, and they will also email you to alert you if anything happens on the ground.
To be honest, I don’t use it when I go to Turkey (though I probably should) since I feel pretty safe there. I have used it while traveling in Tunisia during protests, and I appreciated the up-to-date emails with what to look out for and areas to stay away from.
There is a similar program for Canadians. If you are a citizen of another country, check with your government to see if they provide these services.
Do not drink and drive
We love going to Turkey for the wine and raki, but you cannot mix this with a night drive. Even a tiny bit of alcohol in your blood is illegal and will get you arrested (not to mention Istanbul is not a place to drive if you don’t know what you’re doing).
Have your travel insurance information handy
Since you’re a smart, safety-first kind of traveler, you know it’s a good idea to get a travel insurance policy before you leave for your trip.
But what do you do with it once you have it? First, it’s a good idea to have easy access to your policy information so you can make a claim if needed. You can also give the policy info to an emergency contact who’s not traveling with you. In a worst-case scenario, they can access the benefits to help you if you’re unconscious.
Something no one likes to think about: In an absolute worst-case, your family can use the policy to have your remains repatriated (provided this is part of your coverage, obviously. I look for policies that include this). No one likes to think about this stuff, but it would be worse if something happened and then your family had to figure out what to do.
Of course, the most likely scenario is you have travel insurance and everything goes right on your trip. That would be awesome. You’d have the peace of mind while you travel but you wouldn’t actually need to deal with anything.
Keep your money safe
Don’t every flash your cash. Use a mix of credit cards and cash in the city, and keep everything tucked away.
I use a Pacsafe Citysafe backpack, which has a pocked inside with RFID technology. This helps to make sure my credit cards won’t get scanned from afar.
It also has interlocking zippers, which means if someone does see that I have extra cash on me, it will make it harder for them to pick pocket me.
If you don’t want to buy a new backpack with safety features, you can use a moneybelt instead.
Don’t drink with strangers
If you read the section above on tourist scams, you’ll know that one of the most common is to invite solo travelers for drinks.
Be wary of being intoxicated in public if you’re alone or in a small group, and be wary of any stranger wanting to talk to you. Istanbul gets millions of tourists a year (you’re not a previous snowflake here), so it’s possible that this is someone who is a scam artists.
Have a hard copy of your card numbers, phone numbers, and passport information
If something does go wrong and your cards and passport get stolen, you need to be able to get them replaced. Have a hard copy in case your phone also gets stolen. This way you can call your banks, your embassy, and then your travel insurance company to get everything replaced without needing access to the internet.
I like to have one copy in my backpack, one copy in my day bag, and email a copy to myself in case I literally get everything stolen.
Never leave your stuff unattended
It’s tempting to leave your stuff unattended when you’re in a restaurant or cafe, especially if you’re traveling solo. How much easier would it be to just leave your backpack at the table while you go to the restroom.
Don’t! Never leave your stuff unattended. Don’t leave your cell phone out on the table. If you’re out in a public place that has a lot of tourists, sit with one of your chair legs through the loop of your backpack.
Be the hardest target, not the easiest. That starts with not letting your stuff be easily snatchable!
Pay attention to your surroundings
Pay attention to your surroundings. The one time I thwarted a pick pocket (in Italy, of course) was because I saw him out of the corner of my eye. He caught me looking at him, and he removed his hand from my backpack.
If I hadn’t have been paying attention, he would have gotten my cell phone, my cash, and my passport!
Don’t get lost on your phone in transit or in a taxi. Don’t keep your headphones on when you’re walking alone.
Make sure you can generally see and hear what’s going on around you so that if something is about to happen you’ll be aware.
Don’t drink the tap water
When I first visited Istanbul in 2011, the tap water was not safe to drink. Since then, they’ve improved the water supply, and technically you can drink it now.
I still would not. It tastes funky and you never know how complete the plumbing fix truly was.
Instead, opt for bottled water or bring your own Grayl Water Filter so that you can filter the tap water yourself.
Women need to use extra caution – just like everywhere in the world
There are very low rates of reported crime against women in Istanbul, and it’s not a city where catcalling is a real problem.
However, that doesn’t mean women shouldn’t be just as vigilant in Istanbul as they would be in their home towns or other big cities.
Don’t leave your drink unattended, don’t drink too much if you’re traveling alone, be wary of any men who try to get your attention, etc.
Another thing to consider is that while there are low levels of sexual assault reported in Istanbul, you should be just as wary of other travelers you meet as any locals.
So, How Safe is Istanbul?
Overall, I find Istanbul to be a safe place to travel (at least as safe as other major cities) when it comes to crime and terrorism. Yes, both tourist scams and terrorism happens in Istanbul, just like London, Paris, and Barcelona. But it doesn’t happen more often than in Europe’s most popular travel destinations.
What does set Istanbul apart from the rest of Europe is the need to hold your tongue on social media and avoid criticizing the government. Stay away from political protests, and don’t make yourself a target while you’re in the country.
Turkey is less free than many parts of Europe when it comes to internet censorship and freedom of the press. This kind of government-sanctioned violence is targeted mainly at its own citizens and foreign journalists.
This is not the kind of thing that will affect the average tourist in town for vacation. However, be smart about your surroundings and keep up to date if there is any unrest.
These are great reasons why you should visit Istanbul. The more connected the world stays (even when our governments try to force us apart), the harder it is to lie to people.
5 Things to Pack to Stay Safe in Istanbul
The Lonely Planet Turkey: a good guidebook can help you with the kinds of safety tips you need if you’re out in the city and feel a bit lost, especially if you don’t have internet or a cell signal. These also have specific neighborhood information that will help you in different parts of the city.
Unlocked Cell Phone: Allison and I both have unlocked cell phones that we bought in Europe (I use a Samsung and she uses and iPhone). This allows up to get sim cards when we travel so that we always have the internet. This has gotten us out of so many jams!
If you don’t have an unlocked cell phone that can use a Turkish sim card, you can buy a cheaper unlocked phone online and bring it with you!
Pacsafe Citysafe or Other Anti-Theft Bag: This is the bag both Allison and I use (and they also make men’s versions). It has a pouch with RFID technology so our credit cards can’t get scanned from afar, interlocking zippers to make it harder to pick pocket, and it’s roomy enough to be a perfect sightseeing day bag.
A Sturdy Moneybelt: If you don’t want to get a new bag with anti-theft features as I use, you can use a moneybelt instead. I prefer to have these features built into my bag instead, but I know for a lot of people a money belt is a less expensive investment than a new bag.
Grayl Water Filter: While the water is *technically* safe to drink now, I would still avoid it. If you don’t want to be buying millions of plastic water bottles, you can get a reusable water bottle that comes with a water filter so that you can stick to the tap water and reduce your plastic waste.
Where to Stay in Istanbul
Accommodations in Istanbul offer great value compared to other cities in Europe. Here is a general range of what we mean by each budget category:
- Budget: A room in a hostel, usually $5-12 USD per night for a dorm bed or under $40 for a double.
- Mid-range: Around $40-80
- Luxury: Around $100 per night or more
Budget: For a great budget-friendly hotel, you can stay in single or double rooms at the Dreamers B&B. Colorful and cozy, the B&B boasts a fabulous location in Beyoglu, less than a kilometer from Taksim Square. You can explore all of Beyoglu from here, and then head to Sultanahmet when you’re ready to see the old city.
Mid-Range: For an affordable, yet trendy boutique hotel, we recommend Peradays. It’s perfect for all Istanbul visitors, from first-timers to Istanbul veterans. The lofted rooms are generously large, so you can spread out and relax after a long day of sightseeing. They also have two cats that live here, Pera and Daisy, which you’ll be happy to greet after counting cats all day when out in the city.
Luxury: Istanbul has no shortage of fabulous hotels, but we love Hammamhane, a boutique apartment-hotel that was originally a hammam, and the sister hotel of Peradays. Built in a historic hammam (Turkish bath), the suites are spacious and luxurious. Located in the heart of Cukurcuma, the antique district, Hammamhane is within walking distance to art galleries, design stores, antique shops, and chic cafés.
Still can’t decide? Check out our guide to the best Istanbul neighborhoods and hotels.
More Istanbul Travel Resources
We have a ton of resources to help you plan your trip to Istanbul! We’re working on our massive post on things to do in Istanbul and Istanbul travel tips, plus you can check out our guide to the best Instagram spots around Istanbul, our favorite Istanbul neighborhoods and where to stay, and tips for shopping in Istanbul.
If you want to be in the city for just a few days (four or less), check out our Istanbul city break guide, which breaks down the best of the city so you won’t miss anything!
For more general Turkey information, check out this guide to planning a trip to Turkey (including visa information) and this guide to other beautiful places to visit in Turkey. You can also check out our Balkan currency guide, which explains how the Turkish lira works and guidelines for tipping in Istanbul.
Finally, Don’t Forget About Travel Insurance!
It’s always a good idea to travel to Turkey or anywhere in Europe with a valid travel insurance policy. Istanbul is a very safe place to travel, but accidents or theft can easily ruin your trip if you don’t have the travel insurance coverage to recover the losses. Recently my aunt fell on a train in France and needed surgery, but luckily her travel insurance covered the costs in full. Thank goodness!
For travel insurance, I use World Nomads. I’ve been a happy customer of theirs for almost three years, and I’ve never had an issue when making a claim. I’m happy to refer them to anyone I meet.
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