In this blog post, we will shed light on some of the most notorious scams to avoid in Istanbul, so you can explore this enchanting city with confidence and peace of mind.
The biggest tourist scams in Istanbul, Turkey, range from missing change to extra additions to your bill and the famous “scenic” taxi route.
Istanbul is a huge city, with a population of over 15 million and countless tourists visiting at any one time. Packed with amazing historical sights and attractions, a beautiful blend of old and new, and of course, plenty of shopping, great nightlife, and fantastic food to be enjoyed, this is a city that everyone must visit at least once.
However, it’s hard to avoid the fact that a city this big is home to tourist scams. When visiting Türkiye’s largest city, you should be aware of the main Istanbul tourist scams. And that’s precisely what this post will help you with.
The regular risk of pickpocketing is increased in a city like Istanbul. Especially places like Sultanahmet and Taksim, where most tourists can be found milling around, distracted by the fantastic things they’re seeing, are vulnerable to this nuisance.
However, if you want your visit to Istanbul to be as incident-free as possible, it merely comes down to being aware of the potential scams that might come your way and, therefore, side-stepping them with ease.
Let’s take a look at 9 of the most common tourist scams in Istanbul.
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1. Great Shoe Cleaning Scammers
You might think you’re doing an older man a favor, but he has something else on his mind. Harsh but true.
You’re walking along, and the man in front of you drops one of his cleaning brushes. You shout after him, and he turns, shakes his head as if to say, “silly me,” and comes back to pick up his brush.
He then thanks you and says that he wants to clean your shoes. You assume he’s doing it as a thank you, but he’s not. He’s about to charge you for it, and once those shoes are clean, there’s nothing you can do about it.
Please don’t feel bad about it, though. This is one of the oldest tourist scams in Istanbul, a scam that’s as ancient as the city’s hills! Be aware of this “trick,” and don’t fall for it when exploring Istanbul’s historic streets.
2. The Great Carpet Shop Scam
It goes a little like this.
A rather attractive, usually young Turkish male will stop you and ask if you’re lost. He might say he’s trying to practice his English, too. You’ll engage in conversation with him because you’re polite, and he is utterly charming.
This is especially the case if you are a single female or a group of women, but he will turn on the charm toward couples too.
If he’s asked if you’re lost, he will offer to escort you to the tourist hotspot you’re trying to get to. On the way, you’ll end up walking past his brother/father/son/uncle’s carpet shop. He’ll say he’s just popping in to drop something off. You’ll be invited to come in as well and have some tea while you wait. He’ll tell you that it’s Turkish hospitality.
You will then find yourself in a room, with your tea in hand, being shown endless carpets. You’ll get the hard sell, which includes telling you they will happily ship your purchases back to whatever country you’re from.
You’ll kick yourself afterward, but it’s surprisingly easy to fall for this Istanbul tourist scam!
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3. The Scenic Route Taxi Scam
This is common in most large cities, but it’s an absolutely classic tourist scam in Istanbul if you’re not savvy about it.
When you get into a taxi, ask the driver how much you can expect your journey to cost. He’s probably going to tell you that it’s a metered rate, but by asking him what you can expect to pay, he knows you already have a price in mind.
So, before you take a taxi, ask a local, e.g., your hotelier or a waiter in a restaurant, how much the price from A to B should be. When you get into the taxi, mention this to the driver.
Some drivers will take you on the “scenic route” through the city if you don’t do this. This will undoubtedly result in the taximeter doubling and even tripling the amount you should actually be paying.
If you’re traveling from Taksim, Besiktas, or anywhere away from Sultanahmet and you have to cross the Galata Bridge to get there; a taxi driver may also tell you that the bridge is closed and as such, they have to go the long way around to get you there.
While the bridge MAY, in fact, be closed, this is extremely rare. This bridge is one of the busiest in the city, and closing it would be big news. If you’re told this “alternative truth,” refuse the journey and find another, more honest taxi driver.
The good news is, after all, that there are more honest drivers in Istanbul than there are dishonest. As in so many other cases, it’s just the minority who give the rest a bad name.
4. Beware the Nightclub Hustle
Traveling on your own can be a blast—until you run into the notorious nightclub hustle. Picture this: a seemingly friendly local strikes up a chat and oh-so-generously suggests a night out at a nearby watering hole.
“Sure,” you think, “what’s the harm?”
But here’s the catch: as you’re clinking glasses and sharing stories, your newfound pal and their entourage are racking up a tab quicker than a politician’s promises before an election. And when it’s time to hit the road, guess who’s left holding the eye-wateringly expensive bill?
That’s right, you.
And to thicken the plot, your ‘friends’ will have pulled a disappearing act worthy of Houdini himself.
You’ll be left not only abandoned but also expected to fork over the cash for those price-hiked beverages. The atmosphere can turn from friendly to frosty really quickly if you can’t pay up. To sidestep this swindle, keep your street smarts about you. If a random stranger is laying it on thick with the charm, it’s your cue to walk away. Remember, solo sipping doesn’t mean you can’t be sociable, but there’s a fine line between making friends and getting fleeced.
5. Where Is My Change?
You’re enjoying delicious Turkish food overlooking the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia when a group of musicians comes over to serenade you. You might have had a few drinks, and you’re really feeling the love for Istanbul’s warm welcome. Then the bill comes.
But you’re still distracted.
If at all possible, try and pay with the exact change or pay by card. The reason is that if your bill was, for instance, 150 Lira and you give 200 Lira, expecting 50 Lira change, you might be sat waiting for quite a while.
You would then inquire about the whereabouts of your change, only to be told that you gave them the correct amount of money.
You know you didn’t. Cue an awkward exchange, and in some cases, no change returned.
Again, this isn’t the case with all restaurants, but it’s something to be wary of. Not giving the correct change, or not giving any change back at all, is one of the biggest tourist scams in Istanbul. Don’t get caught off guard!
6. The Tumbling Simit Seller Swindle
Stroll through the streets of Istanbul, and your senses are sure to be tickled by the delectable scent of simit, Turkey’s beloved sesame bread.
But beware the bread-seller’s performance, a ruse as old as the city’s cobblestones. In this act, a vendor laden with a stack of simits takes a dramatic tumble, clutching his leg and playing the part of the injured seller. It’s a scene meant to tug at your heartstrings—and your purse strings.
While you might feel the pull to play the good Samaritan, hold that thought. This “fall” is a well-rehearsed trap set to make you the day’s catch with a plea for compensation. If you’re ever the audience to this street theatre, the best move is to keep walking. Your helping hand is better reserved for genuine situations, not for those fishing for your sympathy—and your cash.
Pro scam tip: Swap the simit bread for anything – anytime you see someone fall about, proceed with caution.
7. I Thought This Was Free! It’s Not
One of the most recurrent Istanbul scams is adding things to your bill that you consumed because you thought they were on the house. Sometimes, you’ll find that those things were not free and cost quite a lot of Lira.
If anything comes to your table that you didn’t individually order, either ask about it or don’t eat it. Overall, meze usually is free, but not in every single restaurant. So, again, check. If you’re eating at an ocakbasi (a typical Turkish grill restaurant), water will be put on your table, and you might assume it’s there to drink free of charge. Yet, it’s not.
The same goes for bars. You might have a bowl of nuts put on your table when you order a couple of beers. Assuming they’re free, you’ll munch along while enjoying your night, only to be charged 20 Lira for the pleasure.
Check your bill carefully when it arrives and question anything that doesn’t seem right.
8. The “Officer” Impersonator Ruse
Imagine you’re minding your own business, and out pops someone claiming to be the law, demanding to see your passport and wallet. Red alert! Real officers aren’t interested in a peek at your cash stash.
Hand it over, and you might as well say goodbye to your benjamins—or watch your would-be “protector of the peace” take off in a sprint that could give Olympians a run for their money. Here’s a golden rule for globetrotting: your wallet stays with you, period.
When it comes to identification, a photocopy of your passport should suffice for any genuine badge-wearing individual. So, if you find yourself facing a dubious “officer” with an outstretched hand, remember that the only running you should be doing is through the proper verification checks. Keep your wits—and your wallet—about you, and you’ll navigate clear of this con.
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9. The Booze Bamboozle
Let’s chat about a tipple trick that’s been making the rounds in Turkey, especially in tourist hotspots. Now, before we dive in, it’s essential to note that the majority of bars are as straight as an arrow and wouldn’t dream of duping you. However, with the Turkish Lira doing a bit of a nosedive, some establishments have turned to less-than-savory tactics to keep their spirits up and cash flowing.
So here’s the scoop: not all that glitters is gold, and not all that’s poured is pure. There’s been talk of some bars serving up fake alcohol. Yes, you heard that right. If your cocktail tastes more like paint thinner than a piña colada, don’t chalk it up to local flavor—send it back. And if the rumor mill churns out warnings about certain establishments, give them a wide berth.
The sneakier scheme you might encounter is the old watered-down whiskey waltz. Picture this: you order a drink, but the kick is missing. It’s like a soccer game without a ball. You’re not getting the full-strength beverage you paid for, and that’s a straight-up swindle. If your sip seems suspiciously subdued, it’s time to play detective. Flag down your server, state your case, and demand the real deal. After all, when you pay for a lion, you shouldn’t get a kitten.
Now you know about the biggest Istanbul tourist scams!
This is not an exhaustive list of potential tourist scams that may come your way in Istanbul. However, as you can see, you can avoid them all only by being informed, aware, and vigilant.
Most people you’ll encounter in Istanbul are friendly, charming, and welcoming and would be horrified to learn of anything happening to you in this way. It’s always the few that mess things up for the many!