Istanbul, just like every world city, has to cope with its typical tourist scams. Although most Turks are unbelievably honest and would go the extra mile to help you rather than rip you off, in a city with well over 18 million inhabitants, you’ll always find a few people with different intentions. This shouldn’t scare you, on the contrary. Compared to other world cities, Istanbul has fewer tourist traps, and thanks to this post you will be able to spot and avoid these Istanbul tourist scams easily. Once you’re done, don’t forget to check out how to prevent popular Istanbul taxi scams, too.
Before I dive into the details of each different Istanbul tourist scam, keep the following in mind:
- Most of these rip-offs occur in Istanbul’s very touristic, crowded and/or busy places, e.g. Sultanhamet Square, Istiklal Caddesi, Cumhurriyet Caddesi, Taksim Square and its surrounding streets. Therefore, you are less likely to come across scams in residential areas such as Cihangir.
- Their preferred targets are tourists travelling alone (Let’s Have a Drink) or in very small groups
- If you suspect a scam coming up and don’t accept their invitation right from the start, they will never get rude or insult you, and just move on
Let’s Have a Drink
Goal — Get you to enter one of their bars with overpriced drinks and underdressed women. The result is always the same: you end up with a huge bill, often into hundreds of Euros.
Target — Single white men
Set-up — A well-dressed man, fluent in English, approaches you and tries to start a conversation. If you’re a smoker he’ll ask you for a lighter (and if you pay close attention, you may even notice him throwing away a burning sigarette seconds earlier). If you’re not, then he may just walk up to you. And even if you’re sitting alone at a terrace table, he may sit down at the table next to you and start a conversation this way.
Regardless of his approach, the conversation will always lead in the same direction: whether you would like to join him for some after work drinks in a great place (of a friend of his) that he knows.
How to Avoid — Never take advice from complete strangers about establishments worth trying out. You’ll find a nice selection of the best cafés, bars and nightclubs on this site. Just tell him you’re waiting/meeting with two or three other friends and are not interested. Right from the start decline his invitation and move on. Don’t promise ‘tomorrow’, because he may keep on trying his chance for days to come.
Carpet or Leather Shop
Goal — Get you to buy goods in shops he works for, and where you with near certainty won’t get the best bargain.
Target — Anybody wandering around in Sultanahmet and the Grand Bazaar
Set-up — A very friendly guy, fluent in several languages, will ask if you are lost and need some help in locating some of the sightseeing spots and/or Grand Bazaar shops. And as he ‘guides’ you, he’ll pass some of his shops and remember he had to drop something off. He will of course invite you in to meet his family member(s).
Before you know it, you’ll be drinking tea, listening to how only they still make quality leather or carpets, and why you should buy something there. If you manage to keep your wallets closed, he promises to take you to the place you were actually looking for … and the whole procedure starts again.
How to Avoid — When people offer to guide you around, be aware. Instead, if you’re really lost, you take the initiative by asking someone.
Goal — Steal your wallet or other valuables.
Target — Careless tourists.
Set-up — None! Any crowded street, public transport, or place will do.
How to Avoid — Just like any Turk, keep your wallet in the front pockets of your pants, wear your handbags within eyesight and carry back-packs on the front of your body. Make sure all the zippers are properly closed. Also, never leave bags or other valuables such as mobile phones, iPods, etc. unattended on (terrace) tables or easy to grab for bypassers.
Goal — Talk you into getting a shoe shine (for free) and overcharge you afterwards.
Target — Singles, couples, small families or groups
Set-up — They have mainly two tricks up their sleeve to get them to polish your shoes. Either they walk past you and drop their brush on one of your shoes, or they walk in front of you and drop their brush hoping you would pick it up and hand it to him. The result for both cases is the same: to apologize or as a token of gratitude, they start shining your shoes. While you think it’s for free, he’ll demand you to pay much more than the price of a regular shoe shine. If you start arguing, more of his ‘colleagues’ will show up to back him up.
How to Avoid — Don’t pick up the brush and just keep on walking. In case the brush fell on your shoe, tell him that it’s ok and move on. Having said this, there are plenty of legitimate shoe shines in Istanbul doing a great job. They normally don’t move around and ask between 5 and 10 TL. Agree on the price beforehand — for both shoes! (another trick)
Goal — Overcharge tourists.
Target — Unaware tourists.
Set-up — They offer tourists a different price list (in their own language) than locals, with prices significantly higher than they would charge locals.
How to Avoid — Compare the Turkish price list with the one you got, but if nobody in your group speaks Turkish, it’s pretty difficult to do. Make sure to have a good look at the price list, and compare it with the same dishes at similar establishments. Only enter if it looks reasonable for what you anticipate to get.
Goal — Make you pay for things you didn’t order (but consumed).
Target — Unaware hungry tourists.
Set-up — This mostly happens in restaurants specifically geared towards tourists. You and your friends are hungry and tired, sit down, flip through the menu and order your meal, not really paying attention to what’s included and what’s not. You also order a few beers, for example. If you don’t specify which beer brand you prefer, surely he’ll bring you the more expensive Miler than instead of the cheaper local Efes.
While waiting for your food, the waiter brings your aperitifs and puts some nuts or bread on the table. Besides the ordered drinks, he also pour everyone a glass of water. Hungry as you are, everyone digs in and consumes the bread and plate of nuts, thinking this is complementary. Of course you’ll find those items on your bill later on. The same with “can I happen some more french fries, please?” This more often than not will be jotted down as an extra portion.
How to Avoid — Pay close attention to what you’re ordering, and when in doubt specifically ask the waiter what comes with the dish and what you need to order extra. Also be very specific while ordering, and be sure to immediately send back anything you didn’t order and without touching or trying it.
Goal — Overcharge you for the ride.
Target — Anybody
Set-up — Traffic jams, short cuts, etc.
How to Avoid — Check out Tips To Prevent Popular Istanbul Taxi Scams.