“If you don’t actually want to buy anything, the best way to end the conversation is to say an absurdly low price as your first offer. It can happen, however, that if you say a price a quarter of the listed or otherwise indicated price, the seller may simply shake his head and say that’s more or less what he got it for. At that point, though, you may get it for just 10% or so more. If you genuinely do want something, it’s best to be friendly. While many vendors speak a word or two of many languages, this knowledge is generally limited to what they’ve picked up in interactions with tourists.”
1. People in Istanbul are open and hospitable, and taking photos in the street is rarely a problem. Still, it’s polite to ask permission, at least with a gesture, if you want to take a portrait of someone. In markets and at the bazaar, people are used to tourists with cameras, but if someone does protest, of course, it’s mandatory to cease any attempt at taking a picture. Discretion is advised, especially in the areas around Istanbul’s mosques, since it is not appropriate to photograph people either cleansing themselves before prayer or in the act of prayer itself since it’s considered an invasion of privacy. In fact, foreigners and those of other faiths are not particularly welcome in and around mosques.
2. If you’re a confirmed atheist, or even just someone with no particular religious beliefs, it’s best to pretend some kind of faith if a local person inquires, since Turks (even in cosmopolitan Istanbul) simply cannot conceive of someone not believing in God. It has been many, many years since Turks considered Christians as giaour, or ‘infidel dogs’, and the people of Istanbul have a deep respect for other faiths. As they say: no matter what religion you follow, make sure you have God. God is all one. Atheists, then, are better off holding their peace on this particular subject. Also, while Istanbul is a relatively modern and free-thinking city, it’s still easiest if middle-aged, co-habiting, unmarried couples refer to themselves as husband and wife.
3. Tourists should show respect towards Turkey and the Turkish people. They are extremely patriotic, and it pleases them very much to hear a foreigner praise their country. They are a polite people, but they are unlikely to enjoy hearing a foreigner criticize Turkey, even if it is a criticism which they themselves privately agree with.
4. Turkish men smoke. A lot. If you, as a tourist, end up in conversation with a Turkish man, he’s very likely to offer you a cigarette, and it can cause some offense if you refuse, even if you don’t smoke. The most diplomatic response may be to express thanks but to say the doctor has specifically forbidden you to smoke on medical grounds.
5. Don’t point at things with an outstretched finger, because if someone thinks you have pointed at them, it may be misunderstood as an offensive gesture. Always make eye contact in a face-to-face conversation. To avoid someone’s gaze is also considered rude.
6. Be aware of the different body language: ‘Yes’ is expressed with an abrupt, downward movement of the head, while the gesture for ‘no’ involves tipping the head backward while raising the eyebrows. The ‘Western’ way of indicating no – that is, by shaking the head – is also used and understood here.
7. Tourist couples in Istanbul should avoid any gestures of affection which are too obviously sexual in nature or connotation. What I mean is, it’s fine to give a peck on the cheek, or a hug, or to walk hand in hand, but French kissing or long and overly suggestive embraces should be avoided. There’s no law against it, and the police certainly won’t intervene – as might happen in Dubai, for instance – but it does flaunt local ideas about appropriate behavior. The only consequence you’re likely to suffer is dirty looks from the locals, but I’d still advise behaving ‘respectably’.
8. If you use a toothpick after your meal, cover it with a paper napkin. Also, passers-by in Istanbul are amazed if someone picks their nose in the street.
9. Guys in Istanbul will frequently call out to or wolf-whistle tourists women and girls if they are not accompanied by a man. Fortunately, this is almost always relatively harmless, and the easiest response is in fact not to respond at all, but to avoid eye contact and make no encouraging gestures. If a foreign girl or woman smiles at a man he can easily take this as encouragement. That’s not to say women should look perpetually gloomy and severe, but a degree of moderation may limit the likelihood of awkward moments – of course, the exception is if you want to encourage him, in which case by all means smile! In the touristy Sultanahmet district, you have to be careful about people who call down to tourists (I’m not talking about people working at shops and restaurants) since among them are scam artists and con men.
“Don’t drink beer or any other alcohol in the street, if you don’t have to. Of course, most local people are not saints, and many like a drink now and then, but drinking in the street is seen as uncultivated, and you’re likely to receive some dirty looks.”
It is forbidden for a man to enter a mosque with uncovered shoulders, and for a woman to enter with uncovered head, or in a skirt or shorts which end above the knees. At the bigger mosques, which are visited by many tourists, they make sure everyone is appropriately dressed and hand out shawls or head coverings if needed. At smaller mosques, however, these are not always available. If you plan to visit a mosque on a particular day, pay attention to how you’re dressed. In more conservative, less touristy parts of Istanbul, it’s also worth following these rules, to ensure you don’t cause any offense to local sensibilities.”