A multicultural and massive city stretching over two continents, Istanbul’s allure is hard to beat. The city is literally where the East meets the West with a medley of cultural influences in its architecture, cuisine, and religion.
Yet with a history of terrorism attacks and political tension over the last five years, Istanbul doesn’t have the best reputation for being a safe city. Is Istanbul safe in 2020?
In short: Yes, Istanbul is safe for tourists, including female travelers, with some common sense. Also, Istanbul airport is safe, while Sabiha Gokcen International Airport can be a gamble.
I’m here to set the record straight with the facts, important context, and my own personal experience traveling here three times within the past year. I had an overwhelmingly positive experience, and yet there’s still a few safety tips I wish I knew beforehand.
Is Istanbul safe? Past events to consider.
If you’re skeptical about traveling to Istanbul, you’re definitely not alone. My friends and family told me to reconsider going. I also had a few people tell me I should only visit with a man, NOT with another female friend, and certainly not alone.
While worthy of an eyeroll, these concerns aren’t baseless. Istanbul’s recent history of political turmoil and terrorism attacks are factors to be aware of.
The destination took a downward turn in 2016 with a string of terrorism attacks. First in early 2016 there was a suicide bomb near the Blue Mosque, that killed 10 people. The major attack came in June 2016 with the Istanbul airport attack that killed 41 people and injured 240. The final nail in the coffin was a shooting on New Year’s Day in 2017 at an Istanbul nightclub that killed 39 people.
Simultaneously, the Turkish government was crumbling. The military lead a coup (takeover) of the government in July 2016 that left 250 killed and 1,440 injured. This put the Turkish government into a two-year “state of emergency” to pick up the pieces.
As you can imagine, the tourism industry took a big hit after 2016. Tourists were the target for many of these attacks, and thus it seemed it was unsafe to visit. Many operators pulled tours while hotels failed to get any bookings.
The U.S. State Department previously issued a category 3 travel advisory against travel in Turkey. The warning urged citizens to “reconsider travel” to the country based on the threat of terrorism and detention of U.S. citizens after two major cases made headlines.
What Istanbul is like today
Today in 2020, the “state of emergency” in Turkey is technically over. This has seemingly brought more stability to Istanbul and the country as a whole, though there are still cries for lifting limits on free speech.
Though ISIS may not be completely “defeated” as Trump claims, the tensions and risks of the terrorism group in Europe have definitely simmered. There haven’t been any major attacks in Istanbul since 2017.
As a result, the U.S. state department lowered Turkey to a level 2 travel advisory. The warning is mostly specific to the Syrian and Iraqi border. You should be aware of the on-going Turkey and Syrian conflict, but this is nowhere near Istanbul.
Istanbul thrives as a tourism destination today, with millions of tourists visiting from all over the world. Intrepid Travel said that it is one of their top destinations in 2019, and many major publications such as Conde Naste Traveler give the okay on travel to Istanbul.
Yet still, many travelers have asked me is Istanbul safe to travel to.
Why Context Matters
It can be very confusing as a traveler deciphering between actual concern and fear-mongering when visiting a destination. In fact, Istanbul is an excellent example of why context matters in regards to safety. It’s also an example of cultural biases at play when us Westerners deem a place to be “unsafe”.
Istanbul is a massive, modern city
Let me put things in perspective to you. Istanbul is the fifth largest city in the world. It expands over 1,500 square km, or nearly 600 miles.
The population is just under 15 million. Let that sink in. That’s more than inner city London. That’s even more than central NYC.
Naturally large cities have higher crime and unsafe aspects about them. Statistically, London, Paris, NYC, and Rome all have a higher risk of crime. Pickpocketing is an issue everywhere in Europe, but crime in Istanbul is extremely low for a city of its size.
Also due to its size, risk will vary depending on where you are. You’ll notice different attitudes based on what neighborhood you’re in.
For example, the main Old Town area of Istanbul called Sultanahmet I found more conservative. It is the area with the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, and Grand Bazaar. You won’t find many bars in this area due to the religious, Islamic influences.
Generally speaking, people dressed more conservatively in this area. Also, this area is probably where you’d want to practice the most caution for any type of attack targeting tourists.
In contrast, you go a little North into the neighborhood of Balat and its filled with colorful street art and hipsters sitting at cafes. If you cross the Bosphorus Strait into the Karakoy area around Galata Tower and Takism Square, you’ll find the very modern, European side of Istanbul. You have tons of bars, restaurants, and cool shops.
Let’s not forget about the Asian side of Istanbul. I didn’t get to explore this area much, as honestly we got really lost. The area of Uskudar is mainly residential, but worthy of an afternoon of exploring. This was definitely the most chill area of Istanbul, and we felt completely safe.
The point of this is that Istanbul is a HUGE city and still very much a major tourist destination across the world. If you know where you’re going, you shouldn’t have any problems.
You can explore the various neighborhoods of Istanbul with this cafe guide.
Terrorism is a threat in many major cities in Europe (and the U.S.)
I’m honestly not convinced that there is necessarily a bigger threat of terrorism in Istanbul than other European city. There are terrorism hubs across Europe, with attacks in London, Barcelona, Brussels, Berlin, Paris, and Nice in recent years.
Specifically, there have been far more attacks in France over the years than in Turkey. Yet, most people don’t think twice about traveling here.
In 2019, I am more concerned with the threat of home-grown white supremacy terrorism across the U.S. The recent 2019 mass shooting in the border-town of El Paso, Texas killed 41 people, considered the most violent anti-latino attack in U.S. history.
Within two weeks of this attack, law enforcement across the U.S. claim they stopped at least four other attacks by white supremacists with racist, anti-immigration ideals.
I honestly feel less safe in many major U.S. cities due to the risk of mass shooting. It’s hard to know where anyone is safe, really. Terrorism is sadly a risk everywhere when you put things into context. And often, we seem to get desensitized to our own national tragedies than those abroad.
Islamaphobia is at all-time high
Cultural biases ingrained in Western culture without a doubt affect how we deem destinations “safe”. Many of these are rooted in Islamaphobia. Turkey is technically a secular government, but Istanbul’s population is mainly Muslim.
You’ll hear calls to prayer several times a day from the dozens of mosques scattered across the city. Some women are in burkas, others in fancy hijabs that perfectly match their outfit, and other women aren’t dressed modestly at all.
Islam does not make Istanbul less safe. The small threat of terrorism groups (that often target Muslims) and silencing of journalists do.
Is Istanbul really “unsafe” or is it simply unfamiliar to us Westerners? Is the there really a higher risk of terrorism or are we favoring other Western countries with equally or higher risks? Are we uncomfortable because of actual concerns or does Islam make us somehow feel “less safe”?
These are important questions we should ask ourselves before visiting not only Istanbul, but other destinations outside of our Western bubble.
Safety tips for women in Istanbul
You definitely don’t need to go to Istanbul with a male partner. It’s an ideal destination for a girl’s trip, or even a solo trip. I would say it would be a challenging destination to travel solo for the first time, but if you are up for an adventure, go for it.
Here are a few of my primary safety tips for women in Istanbul:
Ignore men selling things on the street
It’s quite common for people (mainly men) trying to sell you things on the street. Shop keepers will invite you into their shop, or male restaurant hostesses will ask you to come take a look at the menu while walking by. This often borders cat-calling at times, as they may try to call you beautiful to lure you in.
Although I find it really unacceptable for men to invade women’s space like this, I quickly realized that these guys are harmless. They have aggressive sales tactics, yes, but if you ignore them and keep walking, they’ll stop.
This is especially prevalent in the touristy parts of Istanbul around the Sultanahmet District and bazaars. You don’t have to feel pressured to buy anything right away, and never accept the first offer at most places. Take a look around first to see the different prices.
As I wrote in my cafe guide to Istanbul, it’s common that some places will offer you a tea or coffee. This is a part of their culture of hospitality, but obviously listen to your instincts if something about it doesn’t feel right. You should never accept free alcohol, unless in the case you’re at a restaurant with dinner I’d say.
Stay in the Galata or Takism Square area
I really enjoyed my stay at the Empress Hotel steps away from the Hagia Sophia. This female-owned hotel also had a couple other female travelers, and we found the staff to be beyond kind and helpful.
However, beyond the hotel, I really preferred the Galata or Takism Square area. I walked around here alone all day, and not one person tried to sell me anything. No one even talked to me. That’s my kind of place!
I think if you want to go out to the bars and mix with the young population, this side of town is better. It’s also arguably better for shopping. You should definitely visit the Sultanahmet neighborhood, but I’d say it’s better to base yourself on the other side of town.
Go out at night in groups
It seems obvious, but I’ll say it anyway. Istanbul is known for its nightlife, and the streets are packed with people around Takism Square until 2 a.m. People don’t leave many of the bars until 6 a.m.
The nightlife definitely seems safe, but I wouldn’t recommend going out by yourself. If you’re alone find a group at your hostel, or meet up with another traveler for a drink. Generally, avoid the clubs where people are handing out flyers and offering you free entrance.
When in doubt, take an Uber or Taxi at the end of the night (or at any time of day, really). They both will be really cheap, and it’s better than walking through dark neighborhoods at night.
This also may be a no-brainer, but you’ll seriously be fine if you remain aware of your surroundings. You don’t need to be paranoid, but stay on alert in touristy areas, avoid political demonstrations, and avoid bashing the government when you are there just to be safe.
Istanbul Airports: Know Before you Go
The new Istanbul airport on the coast of the Black Sea is one of the biggest airports in the entire world. It was just finished at the end of 2019, so the entire airport is very modern, efficient, clean, and safe.
I’ve flown in and out of here twice now, and it’s SO much better than the previous Ataturk airport. Turkish airlines as well as most of the other airlines at Istanbul airport are reputable, so you shouldn’t worry about the safety of this airport at all.
However, I would try to avoid Istanbul’s other airport: Sabiha Gokcen International Airport. Specifically, I would avoid flying Pegasus airlines at this airport, as there were two recent incidents where planes slipped off the run-way with this airline and at this airport. More about this here.
Most likely you won’t experience anything like this when traveling through Istanbul. But I still would go with flying through Istanbul airport instead. If you ever encounter issues, especially with Turkish Airlines, you can tweet to your airline directly.
Turkish Airlines will also offer you a free tour of the city OR a hotel stay if you happen to have a flight with a mandatory layover. More about this here.
There is so much to experience that one trip alone will not cover the entire city. I encourage you to travel to Istanbul despite its current reputation in the media.
If you exercise the same caution in any major U.S. or European city, with a bit of cultural awareness, you’ll be set to have the time of your life!
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