The endearing chaos that we call Istanbul can sometimes be a treacherous terrain for visitors who suffer from an extra dose of urban naivety. That’s why the cunning and knowledgeable spirit of locals is a tried and tested resource for those who visit Istanbul to avoid some of the more common scams and rip-offs.
We’ve put together this list of the most common Istanbul tourist traps based on local insights. You’re welcome!
1. Avoid the Tenth Circle of Hell, AKA Istanbul’s infamous traffic
The city’s traffic is a tempestuous creature that flares whenever and wherever it pleases, blocking streets and bridges for hours and hours on end. There are horror stories of people driving for four hours when they could have reached their destination in 30 minutes. Locals will advise you to avoid taxis, buses, or cars whenever possible and make use of the lovely modes of speedy transportation like the ferry, Metrobus, and the metro.
The rule of thumb is that traffic peaks on weekdays in line with the work schedule (so around 9am when people go to work and 6pm when they head home), and throughout the weekend except for Sunday (when everyone is outside).
Any Istanbul tourist can plan a trip in advance by checking out Istanbul’s public transportation website, befittingly called “how to go.” And if that wasn’t enough check out our five best apps that will save your life (and time) in Istanbul.
2. The evil Istanbul taxi drivers
“How can a ride that usually costs around 10TL suddenly become 35TL?” is a common question asked by Istanbul tourists often seen scratching their heads in such scenarios.
Istanbul is a city where everything is possible including (but not limited to) meters that jump up to the next price too quickly and leave you shoveling over half the amount in your wallet to your Istanbul taxi driver. We’d say completely avoid hailing random cabs on the street, but we know that sometimes there is no other way. The next best option is to make sure the cab is connected to a taxi stand, meaning that the vehicle has some sort of logo or emblem on its doors that ascertain a certain taxi company, such as Güven Taxi or Pera Taxi.
There are also a few other scams that you should look out for including the Lira Swap, where your driver will have a nice 5TL bill ready when you hand him a large bill (like a 50) and then expect more money instead of giving you your change. These dubious drivers will also pretend to not have change to bag a few extra TL or “forget” to turn on the meter to name their own exorbitant fare, and (last but not least) trying to agree on a fixed price instead of using the meter (which will always cost you more).
An easier way is to just use BiTaksi, a fantastic app that searches for cabs in your area and sends them your way. With the app you can save your Istanbul taxi driver’s info (making scams impossible) and pay by credit card if you’re out of cash. You can also use the Taksimetrik website to calculate the exact amount pertaining to the distance you’re planning to travel.
3. The flower ladies
The sight of a blooming array of freshly cut flowers on the side of the street may make your botanical whims swell, but we have to pull you away from this particular floral scented scam devised to capture the unsuspecting Istanbul tourist. The flower ladies are a pain in the rear because as soon as they engage with a potential sale they rush to create an astronomically sized bouquet with the most expensive flowers. It’s impossible to buy just one bunch of flowers; you have to buy half a garden tied together with a flimsy ribbon. If you want to buy a nice bouquet that you can afford, go to a flower shop where you can actually pick out what you want and pay a fair price.
4. The dropping-of-the-brush trick
This is a pretty recent Istanbul tourist scam that targets almost anyone who possesses a hint of human decency. The story goes as such: The shoeshine man walks in front of you and drops his brush. You (a decent human being) pick it up for him out of courtesy and suddenly find yourself engaged in a shoe-shining session that you never wanted. Off course, this particular unwanted shoe-care appointment will also cost more than usual (just because). Here’s what it looks like.
So please don’t pick up the brush, just walk away. We know it’s hard, but you can do it.
5. How to bargain at the Grand Bazaar
The dynamic that occurs between sellers and Istanbul tourists at the Grand Bazaar may feel alarmingly similar to that which would occur if you were to dangle bananas at hungry gorillas at the zoo. It gets uncomfortable when you can’t take two steps without hearing “Welcome, my friend!” or whatever other phrase is intended to capture your attention. So what to do?
First, bear in mind that you’re usually not dealing with the shop owner but instead with a salesperson who must fulfill a daily quota. A sound Istanbul tip is to head to the Bazaar a bit later to avoid the window of desperation, preferably between 11am and 1pm.
When you do find something you want, avoid looking too interested. Continue languidly scanning other items and then casually ask about the price. At this point, you should never name your best price because that’s the end of the process. Instead let the man tell you the amount, which you will immediately find too expensive. Make your way to the door so the seller begins to lower the price and look unimpressed until he gets to the monetary range that you initially aimed for. Also remember to always remain calm and friendly because a smile goes a long way (even in the gorilla pit).