At the end of the day, we all need to decide for ourselves whether somewhere is safe enough for us to travel to. As well as blanket threats that affect everyone, safety can be both subjective and intersectional so bear that in mind.
What I’ve written here is partly based on official advice and partly based on my own experience of visiting Istanbul as a white, straight-passing British woman. Ultimately I can’t tell you whether it’s safe for you but I can present you with what I know.
Is Turkey a Safe Country to Travel in?
Overall I’ve personally found Turkey to be a safe country, particularly in terms of solo travel. Generally, you need to be warier of petty crime in Istanbul than violent crime and I’ll talk more about all that in a minute. But let’s look at the bigger picture for now.
In 2016 there was a failed coup attempt in Turkey which resulted in a night of bloodshed and violence. Around the same time, there was a spate of shootings and bombings in Istanbul. These included a nightclub shooting and explosions around the city with suicide bombings at the old Istanbul airport.
Things have been calmer in recent years until a bomb was detonated on busy Istiklal Street on 18th November 2022. Despite that, Governments aren’t necessarily advising against travel except to very specific parts of Turkey. (Advice which was already in place).
The United States currently has issued a Level 2 travel advisory for Turkey meaning “Exercise Increased Caution”. Like the US, the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office advises against
- all travel to areas within 10km (6 miles) of the Syrian / Turkish border and
- all but essential travel to Sirnak and the province of Hakkari which are close to the Syrian border
These places are well over 1000km from Istanbul so if you’re just visiting the city (or any normal tourist areas for that matter) you don’t need to worry about straying into a part of Turkey that’s highly targeted by terrorist groups.
Terrorist Attacks in Istanbul Versus Threat to Safety at Home
In my mind the biggest threat to safety at the moment is terrorism but I do think it’s relative. The bomb in November killed 6 people and injured 80+ more. And while that’s 6 more people than should have died that day, it’s a lot fewer than I hear about being killed in mass shootings in the US. And they seem to happen an awful lot more frequently.
I think we forget about security levels in our own countries because home is familiar to us. Before I got my residence permit in Greece I was living in London which has had its share of terrorist attacks.
Since 2017 the UK terrorist threat level has fluctuated between substantial, severe and critical. Meaning that a terrorist attack is likely, highly likely, or highly likely in the near future. But I wasn’t overly worried about things and it wasn’t something that my colleagues or friends discussed.
Obviously, we need to be mindful of the political situation in Turkey and perhaps we can’t compare it to the UK or US in that sense. But my point is, consider how likely you are to encounter violence in Istanbul versus at staying at home.
I actually visited Istanbul in October/November 2022 and had been home for a week when the bomb went off. Admittedly, terrorism had been at the back of my mind during my visit but I wasn’t panicked about it. I was just conscious that I was keeping my wits about me and my eyes open.
I’d already been planning on returning to Istanbul over the Christmas/New Year period. That time is now and I’m currently writing this from Istanbul where I feel quite relaxed about everything.
Having said that I am being cautious and trying to use a bit of common sense. When I’ve needed to go to Istiklal street I’ve generally gone early than later when there are slightly fewer people about. (Istiklal’s pretty much always busy as far as I’ve seen.)
I did find myself in quite a crowd when I stopped by St Anthony’s Church on Christmas Eve. It crossed my mind then that perhaps wasn’t the best idea but I didn’t feel in any real danger.
For New Year’s Eve though I’ve decided to avoid big events like the street party in Taksim Square. The 2022 bombing is still very recent and there was a shooting in a nightclub on 1st January 2017. Crowded places with the highest chance of collateral damage are more likely to be targeted.
So while I feel safe enough being in the city I think it would be sensible not to put myself somewhere that has a higher chance of being targeted.
Security Measures in Istanbul
Security’s always higher in Istanbul than I’ve seen anywhere else I’ve travelled. Turkish authorities have set up airport-style security whenever you enter shopping malls. So it’s normal when you arrive at a mall or large hotel to put your bag on the conveyor belt for screening while you walk through a metal detector.
It’s the same at the airport, you go through that at the entrance and then again as normal when you get through passport control. Plus when I’ve arrived at hotels or the airport by taxi, it’s been pulled over for the boot to be checked before being let past. So measures are in place to keep you safe here.
In terms of other things you can do for yourself, the official advice is:
- stay away from demonstrations or situations where a crowd could turn into some kind of demonstration or riot. Apart from any other violence, police use all sorts of things to control crowds that you don’t want to get caught up in
- stay away from crowded areas although that’s easier said than done when you want to see the sights
- choose hotels with obvious security like metal detectors at the entrance and security checking vehicles when they enter
- keep an eye on local media
- be prepared to change your plans at short notice and have a contingency plan (especially if you’re travelling with others that you might get separated from)
- if you get caught up in an attack leave and get to a safe place as soon as you can (following the advice of the local authorities at the same time)
- don’t post anything derogatory on social media about the country or government
Official sites actually seem more concerned with COVID as an issue (although not more than anywhere else I don’t think).
Foreign governments are stressing the importance of having comprehensive medical insurance. By that, they mean policies that cover the virus and include repatriation to your home country in the event of a medical issue.
Turkey is a seismic country and does experience earthquakes, I felt one when I was in Izmir in October. They’re common in that area and the neighbouring Greek islands but less so in Istanbul.
Having said that, they do happen and apparently, there’s a “big one” coming in the next few decades that will have a significant impact on the city of Istanbul. So, it’s probably prudent to be familiar with what to do should you experience one.
Staying Safe as a Tourist
Watch Your Belongings
Going back to crime rates, they’re generally low but you do need to watch out for petty crime. Like most major cities you need to be security conscious in the busiest areas particularly if they’re tourist areas.
In Istanbul, tourists will be seen as easy targets for pickpocketing in areas like the Grand Bazaar and around the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia and Topkapi Palace, for example. Keep an eye on your personal belongings at all times and make sure it’s not easy for thieves to access your bag.
It’s probably a good idea to keep your credit card and cash separately. And use the safe in your hotel room so you’re not carrying all your cash around with your every day.
People will tell you the best place to keep your cash and cards is on a money belt. I’ve never got on well with them so you’ll need to work out the best way for you.
Be Wary of Overly Friendly Strangers
Be cautious of friendly English-speaking strangers befriending you and taking you to bars or restaurants. You might find yourself left with a highly inflated bill and violence if you refuse to settle the bill.
Stay Mindful Of Your Food and Drink
Don’t leave food or drink unattended to avoid it being spiked.
Is Public Transportation Safe?
The metro and tram lines are clean, safe and organised. Watch your belongings though, particularly on buses and trams which can be very crowded.
Taxi drivers always seem to be a bit of a law unto themselves when travelling and I’ve heard that Turkey’s no different. To be fair, my experience in Istanbul has been pretty much ok with taxis. I haven’t had to agree on a rate or haggle over prices because either the meter’s always been on or it was a hotel taxi with a flat rate.
Make Sure the Meter’s On
Do make sure the meter is on though (it’s usually in the rearview mirror so you’ll be able to see if it’s on or not.) And if the driver won’t put it on or you feel unsafe when you get in just get out again straight away.
I do flag taxis down in the street but if I’m close to a hotel I often go and ask one of the bellboys to call me a taxi. There’s no guarantee you won’t be scammed or attacked but I feel like the hotel taxis have a bit more accountability, they’re not quite so random.
Know Where You’re Going
The other thing that can sometimes happen (and has happened to me for sure in Greece) is the driver will go the long way or go past the place to add a bit more time, and therefore fare, to your journey.
That did happen once in Istanbul. I just realised we’d gone round in a circle and the driver said we missed the hotel so I’ve come back. Usually, I’m following on GoogleMaps but the traffic was bad and I thought he’d detoured to avoid some of it.
I don’t know if it was intentional or not because instead of going miles round in a circle to clock up the bill he just went the wrong way down a one-way street and cut back round! In the event, he’d taken me to the wrong hotel anyway.
It had a similar name to the one I’d given him but was not the right place. I told him and said I’d get out and walk since it was less than 10 minutes away. When I paid he ended up rounding down the payment so perhaps he genuinely missed the stop after all.
VIP Taxis at Shopping Malls
Either way, taxis are really cheap in Istanbul so antics like that probably won’t break the bank. The only time I did nearly get caught out was when I got a taxi from one of the big shopping malls.
I couldn’t see any normal yellow taxis stopping so I went to the taxis that were pulled up. They were large 6-seater people carriers and so I asked the guy attending if that was the only option. He said yes and directed me to the first one.
My journey was only about 5 or 6 minutes so the meter cost was low. But then the guy said it was an additional 200 TL on top for VIP. He said I was told before I got in but I wasn’t. In the end, I paid nearly twice what was on the meter because I gave him a note and he gave me no change.
I told him that was enough and I wasn’t paying another 200. I pay and tip generously in Turkey but not when I feel like people (men) are taking advantage.
Is Istanbul Safe for Women?
As a female traveler I do feel safe in Istanbul but remember what I said about it being intersectional. To me, Istanbul feels more like being in other European countries than other Muslim countries. Which isn’t to say it feels exactly the same.
When I visited Morocco I felt very uncomfortable and unsafe. Men constantly hissed and catcalled me as I walked. Egypt was the same even though I wasn’t alone. I don’t experience things to anything like that extent in Istanbul. (Although perhaps that’s just because I’m older and fatter these days).
You may well experience catcalls and words from men. You will get stares judging you. I do find even in hotels male staff can be cold towards me. (Because who am I to be travelling alone as a woman?) Or sometimes men are overly friendly. They think a woman travelling alone is looking for sexual encounters. But I’ve found they back off quickly, if a little angrily when you rebuff them.
How to Protect Yourself
My advice to solo female travelers is this:
- you can wear whatever you like in Istanbul (except for in places of worship) but err on the side of modesty to avoid unwanted attention especially in the old town or at night
- don’t smile at random men, too many will take it as a sexual invitation
- if you feel unsafe don’t worry about being polite or people-pleasing. Being rude has kept me safe on more than one occasion in my life
- leave a situation if you’re the only woman there and don’t feel safe
- don’t sit in the front seat of a taxi
- make a fuss if someone touches/gropes you but more in terms of saying stop than insulting the person (you want support from others around you not to turn them away)
- in public places like the metro stand or sit with older Turkish women if you feel you need some level of protection
- don’t wander the streets of Istanbul alone at night (although take note of what other people are doing. If you’re in an area with lots of other tourists or families you’ll probably be ok. Sometimes I walk behind a group of foreign friends or a family. Not so close I’m stalking them but close enough that at first glance it’s not clear whether I’m with them or not
- keep your phone charged up and take a battery pack as backup
- one of the best things you can do is get a local SIM card so you always have data
- download GoogleMaps onto your phone so you can access it offline if necessary
- walk with purpose and confidence. I often put my earbuds in listening to nothing but GoogleMaps directions so it’s not obvious I’m using the app
- if you want to go out at night find an organised group like something on AirBnBExperiences/Viator/Get Your Guide or stay somewhere like a hostel where you can easily meet up with other people
- sometimes when you visit somewhere for the first time it’s good to join organised tours for the daytime too, it can help you get your bearings and you can ask the guide questions about the culture
- know that you can dial 112 from Turkey (and any European country) to get through to emergency services, no country code needed
To be honest, these are things I’d tell you in many a foreign country and probably in most cities.
Visit Istanbul If YOU Feel Safe To
Like I said at the beginning, you need to have a look at the situation in Istanbul or anywhere else you’re planning to travel and decide for yourself whether you feel it’s safe to visit. International travel always comes with safety considerations especially when you’re going somewhere that has a different culture to what you’re used to.
As with other countries, the situation in Turkey could change at short notice. The Turkish Government elections in 2023 could create a more unpredictable security situation around that time. So keep up to date with what’s happening.
Decide whether anything is likely to stop you from having a safe trip (so far as you can anticipate) and if you’d prefer, alter your travel plan until you feel more comfortable.
Writing this post made me feel a bit nervous about travelling in Istanbul and I’m already here! When I step out onto the street I happily go about my day and I don’t feel overly concerned for my safety.
Don’t get overwhelmed by the coulds and the what-ifs. Organise your travel insurance, keep a spare copy of your travel documents and ID, take sensible precautions and have a great time.
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