I came across the Istanbul Tourist Pass while researching things to do in Istanbul for an upcoming trip.
It sounded promising – access to over 70+ attractions and tours for a fixed low price. It almost sounded too good to be true. But since post-pandemic travel costs were sky-high, I was eager to reduce my expenses by any means necessary.
I desperately wanted this to work.
After spending 8 days in Istanbul and thoroughly putting the Istanbul Tourist Pass to the test, I was deeply disappointed, with a bad taste in my mouth.
Turkiye’s capital has centuries of experience running scams of all shapes and sizes – from opportunistic to well-organised. Pick-pockets in busy tourist attractions. Taxi drivers falsely claim their meters are broken and demand an over-priced fare. Fake guides in front of the Blue Mosque claim it is closed in an attempt to lure you to their carpet shop. Shopkeepers offering “low prices” end up charging credit cards the amount in Euros instead of Lira. A free shoe shine that isn’t really free. The list goes on.
They all follow the same format: start off friendly and seemingly innocent, lure you into a false sense of security, and then once you’re hooked, the shoe drops.
To summarise the whole article… would I buy the Istanbul Tourist Pass again next time I visit Istanbul?
Short answer, no. Hell no.
Unlike romance novels and superhero movies, life is rarely black and white. And the Istanbul Tourist Pass has some redeeming qualities, but you should also be aware of its limitations, pitfalls, and dark underbelly.
I'll be clear: no one asked me to write this article. But if you feel compelled to buy the pass anyway, please consider doing so via my link here. I will receive a small commission at no extra cost to you.
But if you’re curious whether the Istanbul Tourist Pass is a scam, then keep reading, and I’ll explain the details.
You might notice that my writing style over the years has been decidedly optimistic. I go by the adage, "pick flowers, not weeds". But once in a while, I come across something very, very concerning. My first priority is always helping my valuable readers who have come to trust my advice and guidance. And if I were to shy away from some inconvenient truths, and you fall prey to the same shady tactics, then the fault would lay with me.
So here’s the full story, warts and all, and I’ll let you decide if you think Istanbul Tourist Pass is a Turkish scam.
Is the Istanbul Tourist Pass Worth It?
From a financial perspective, it depends on how many of the attractions and tours you’re planning on using. Be careful about using the “value” of each attraction on the website, as it’s often inflated.
If you were to just directly purchase the few good attractions, then it would probably be cheaper than buying the Istanbul Tourist Pass.
You definitely won’t end up using all the attractions in a single visit to Istanbul. I felt compelled to use as many attractions as possible to get my money’s worth, but it also led to burnout… there’s only so much you can do in one day before you drop.
Still, the convenience of not having to deal with many different providers is a big bonus.
If you cram your itinerary, you could save a considerable amount, but a vacation should be about wonderful experiences, not just about money.
Let me pick the flowers first before I get into the nitty-gritty. Some of my favourite experiences in Istanbul were:
Princes Island Boat Trip (Büyükada)
Escape the hustle and bustle of the big city and relax on this quaint island, lined with cobblestone streets and an unusually large number of ice cream vendors. The locals were so friendly and generous, I was apprehensive at first after being burned so many times in Istanbul. But there was no catch. They’re just genuinely sweet.
It takes 75-100 minutes to reach the island via ferry (depending on the weather). This is just enough time to unwind and release the tension with the help of gorgeous skyline views and gentle rocking side to side. Keep in mind that this trip will take up most of the day, with the last return ferry leaving the big island at 3:30pm. Book your ferry tickets online in advance.
Tip: I recommend the restaurant, Taşfirinn2, just a 5-minute meander from the ferry terminal. Staff are super hospitable, portion sizes are large, and the food is delicious.
Whirling Dervishes (Hodjapasha Culture Center)
There is something mystical about watching talented dancers spinning in a trance-like state around and around and around. Inside a restored 550-year-old Ottoman Turkish bath, guests are seated around the edge of a circular, dimly-lit room, while ‘semazens’ recount stories, not with speech, but through symbolism and coordinated movements matched to the rhythm of live music. “Dance” is not the right word. You just have to see it to understand. Buy tickets online in advance.
Tip: Before the performance, take the time to read the exhibits in the waiting room, describing the history and philosophy of Mevlevi Sema, a Sufi order based on the teachings of Rumi.
This is on the touristy end of the scale, but it’s still a remarkable piece of architecture and history, and something that every visitor to Istanbul must do at least once. This is one of the oldest surviving towers in the world (dating back to 507 AD, with the current iteration from 1348 AD), and for while, was the tallest building in the world at a whopping 67 metres. From the top viewing deck, you can soak up 360-degree views of Istanbul and the Golden Horn. Buy tickets online in advance.
Tip: Arrive early, near opening time (8:30am), and expect to wait up to an hour or more in the queue before entering.
If you like to drink, find out how it’s done in Istanbul. Istanbul Party Pub Crawl starts off in a bar within the historic district of Sultanahmet and a few drinking games. Then onto a bus to 3 clubs in the nightlife district of Beyoğlu, near Taksim. No queues or waiting. Just a free shot on entry at each venue, great music, and a fun group of party animals.
Ok, now the niceties are out of the way.
How Istanbul Tourist Pass Works
You won’t find this clearly outlined on their website. So to fully understand the dynamic of what goes on under the hood with Istanbul Tourist Pass, I’ll fill you in on the process.
The company that is behind the pass is named “Cityberry Tourism” (their website doesn’t load, so I didn’t link it – not a good sign). They include a handful of in-house tours run by their team of 3 friendly guides. I couldn’t fault the guides – they were super nice. The in-house tours are: Blue Mosque (and Hippodrome), Hagia Sophia, Basilica Cistern, Topkapi Palace, Archaeological Museum, and Dolmabahçe Palace.
The management also partners with 3rd party attractions and experiences who get a cut when you use the pass. There’s no way you can use all 70+ attractions in a single trip to Istanbul, so they bank on the hope that you’ll only use a small fraction of the attractions. The fewer you use, the more profit they make.
In order to get the most number of experiences included with the pass, they cut corners in terms of quality – both for in-house tours and 3rd party experiences. But I’ll explain more later. Suffice it to say that quantity does not trump quality.
It’s not all black and white. So let me break it down into the good, the bad, and the ugly. There’s a lot to go through, so I’ll keep it condensed.
- The card price is relatively low compared to the advertised value of tours and attractions.
- The slick website has lots of useful info, including attraction opening hours, and tour meeting points.
- It’s easy to organise your entire Istanbul itinerary with 1 supplier.
- Digital delivery for the pass, with easy ticket redemption (every attraction/tour understood the process).
- You can make all tour/attraction bookings within the app (kinda).
- The card includes some high-quality attractions (like Madam Tussauds).
- Some experiences/tours include pick-up from your hotel (although they’re not always punctual).
- WhatsApp support is included and is relatively responsive.
- There were some attractions and experiences I loved, like Whirling Dervishes.
Ok, now that we got the easy stuff out of the way. Let’s lift the lid.
- Some of the attractions are far away from the historic city centre, and you’re not likely to use them. They’re just fluff.
- Digital delivery was not instant (from Viator) – it only occurred during Turkish office hours. So don’t leave it to the last minute as I did. You’ll need to book the “free” airport transfer service at least a day in advance.
- You can’t use most big attractions (such as Basilica Cistern) whenever you want – you have to go with a guide at pre-determined times.
- Some attractions have a lot of overlap – the Bosphorus Cruise and Hop On Hop Off Cruise are technically different but cover the same territory, so there’s little point in doing both.
- The in-house tours were extremely short – most only half an hour – which is not enough to explore or learn much. So the guide’s job is more about arranging the bulk tickets and ensuring all guests get inside. After an introduction, they often disappear and leave guests to their own devices. In fairness, the length of the tour is indicated on the website. Just don’t expect a “full” tour each time compared to what you’re used to.
- The poor in-house tour guide was stranded at Dolmabahçe Palace, waiting for the management to transfer money to buy the bulk entry tickets. Guests sat around waiting for almost an hour. The guide was frustrated but professional about it, but I could tell he felt like the ham in a sandwich.
- The “my pass” feature on the mobile app logs out at least once daily, which is annoying. A small inconvenience, although when you’re at a ticket booth, fumbling around and wasting time is pretty annoying. But still – how hard is it to save this info in the app?
- When making bookings via the app, you have to enter the same info each time which is annoyingly repetitive and a waste of time. They use cheap integration with Jotform to submit the info you provide – it’s not as efficient or polished as it could be.
- I experienced late hotel pickups on some tours (by up to 45 minutes).
- You still have to queue for Hagia Sophia (upwards of an hour on the day I went) – which would have used the entire scheduled tour time. So I bailed and went to a nearby rooftop restaurant instead.
- I had to request my tickets to Galata Tower via Whatsapp because they weren’t delivered via email. So keep on top of all your bookings. You can’t just blindly rely on the Istanbul Tourist Pass team.
- The tour to Miniaturk was run by a 3rd party tour agency. It was the most uninspiring tour I’ve ever done. It was nothing more than a glorified taxi. Fortunately, on the day I went, there were only about 5 guests. The “guide” was glued to her phone making personal calls most of the time. Her interactions with guests were nearly nil. She left some guests behind while crossing busy roads – no care was shown. It’s a miracle all the guests made it back to the bus in one piece.
- You only get 1 tourist photo per pass – not per adult. Even though you paid for 2 full-priced passes in 1 order. The photographers do half the work. They clarify this on their website/app in small print, but there’s no good reason. The staff who lured customers even aggressively demanded a tip at the end of the photo shoot – even though I had paid an inflated price for extra photos. WTF?
Ok, now that we got that out of the way, let’s wade waist-deep into the murky waters of the Istanbul Tourist Pass. Grab a life jacket, just in case.
- The values of attractions and tours on the website are almost always inflated – some more than others.
- The number of tours included is inflated (Blue Mosque & Hippodrome are the same tour). And spending 30 seconds walking through the Hippodrome toward the Blue Mosque does not constitute €12 of value as they claim.
- Many included 3rd party tours and experiences are low quality. This is so rampant that I just don’t know where to start.
- Some in-house tours are overcrowded - 40+ guests to 1 tour guide in the Basilica Cistern. Most guests couldn’t hear what the guide was saying and were getting frustrated. Even the guide was complaining about the management’s greed and poor decisions, encouraging guests to file a formal complaint. That’s a huge, huge red flag.
- The Bosphorus dinner cruise was terrible. Or whatever is worse than terrible. I’ve had a lot of travel experiences, and this was one of the worst in my life. I casually browsed the Google reviews for this dinner while waiting for the boat to leave the dock, and a chill went up my spine when I read, “if you are reading this and the boat has not left, get off now while you still can”. I should have listened. The waiter put a single chicken nugget on my plate even though I had clearly requested a vegetarian option multiple times to multiple staff (and it was in my booking). The food was inedible – the pasta was not just bland but downright disgusting. How does a chef make such a simple dish so badly? My neighbouring vegetarians had the same repulsed reaction. My table included views of the air conditioning unit – not the Bosphorus. The photographer was bossy and harassing. A Spotify playlist would have been 10x better than the DJ – terrible song choices, and even worse transitions, no flow, awkward silences, no emceeing. I felt sorry for the belly dancers putting in a big effort jiggling from table to table (to receive tips), but almost every guest was so repulsed by the whole trip, they just looked the other way. The only people who seemed to have “fun” (I counted 3) were too drunk to be aware of what was going on. They would have enjoyed themselves in an empty, windowless room as long as there was a bottle of wine. I have to tie my hands up while typing this to avoid using expletives.
- The Segway tour operator “forgot” my reservation. I turned up at the appointed time in the appointed place (a dingy unlit office down a dark, eerie hallway), only to find there was no tour. The guide was not there. I contacted him on the phone, and he said he either forgot or didn’t see the email when I made my booking 5 days prior. He proceeded to blame me for this since I had not followed him up – um… am I taking crazy pills? Did this guy do the full “blame, excuses, and denial” spiel in one fell swoop? Yes. I told him exactly what I thought about his poor attitude. Eventually, he offered to do the tour on another day (which would have clashed with my tightly-packed itinerary). But I had to ask myself, would I want to spend an hour and a half with a twat like that? Hell no! After scrolling through other Google reviews on that business, it seems to be a trick he runs regularly. Even weirder is that some of the reviews are 5 stars because they are grateful the guide turned up on his “day off” to do the tour. No son, you didn’t do the job you were supposed to – manipulating and gaslighting guests that way is not cool.
- Airport transfer – I had an early morning transfer booked for 4.45am. The driver sent an SMS at 4:07am (before I woke up) saying the address he was given was incorrect. Not true. He called as I woke at 4:15am and was unable to speak a word of English just blurted out, “SMS”. So I looked at his message, and it seemed like he couldn’t find the hotel, so I sent him the full name, address and Google Map link for the pickup point. He responded, “ok”. I waited in the hotel lobby, and after he was late, I asked my hotel front desk staff to talk with the driver. He still couldn’t work out where the hotel was – it took 3 calls. And he turned up 12 minutes late in a large minibus when a regular sedan would have done fine. In the booking, I had indicated the destination at the airport, number of passengers and 0 large suitcases (only travelling with a carry-on). That’s terrible when I have paid a premium of about twice the price of a taxi expecting a service that would save me headaches and hassles and instead create more. To top it off, he drove down the freeway at a fraction of the speed limit. My only communication with him was via Google Translate, and I asked why he couldn’t go faster. He replied, “speed camera”. But I watched as car after car overtook us. Istanbul taxis usually drive like they’re in a James Bond chase scene, and you hold on for dear life, but the one time I needed him to speed up, and he was a turtle. The final cherry on top was that he missed the turnoff to the airport and took a longer route which put me even further behind schedule. Where did this guy get his taxi license? A cornflakes box?
I Gave Them A Chance For Redemption
I raised my long list of concerns with the Istanbul Tourism Pass support agent on WhatsApp, and they were not willing to step in and assist. They made excuses and deflected the genuine issues I experienced. They used prefabricated stock responses with PR mumbo jumbo, and finally insisted that I submit my complaints via email so they could make an “overall valuation”. Which meant they’d do absolutely nothing.
I could tell they’d run this routine many, many times.
I hate doing this, but in the end, I pulled out the “travel blogger” card, and gave them fair warning of who I was, and if they treated me this way, I could only assume they do it every day to other tourists as well. And I felt compelled to share my experiences. They financially benefit from douchebags like Mr Segway, and although they claimed to “understand” my situation but declined to do anything about it, including any partial refunds.
Wow. Really helpful. Thanks.
As long as there is a flow of fresh-faced foreigners into Istanbul, there are new suckers to take advantage of.
It’s been like this for centuries. Nothing has changed.
Here's a message I received from one of my readers who went to Istanbul after reading this article, Dervis M:
"I took your advice and did not buy the tourist pass. And in the end I paid less for the places I visited. It turns out that you do actually need to leave an ID card/passport or similar in the palaces to get a headset. People I talked to in Istanbul who got the headset said it went OK, but I had only my passport and didn't get the headset. You're right, a driver's license or any other card that can be cancelled easily would do the trick.
Again, thanks for writing that blog, it made sure I didn't get dragged into something that wasn't as they said it was. Good luck on your future travels."
If You Don’t Want to Use The Istanbul Tourist Pass
Ok, Josh, you’ve convinced me that Istanbul Tourist Pass is a piece of shit. Now what?
Rather than relying on a “discount” tourist card that leaves you high and dry, you can have more control over what you do with your time in Istanbul by building an itinerary that fits your schedule and interests, and dealing with independent providers.
To make your life a little easier, here are links to book some of the best experiences and alternative tours in Istanbul:
- Transport: Bus from airport (HAVAIST), private transfer
- Attractions: Galata Tower, Whirling Dervishes, Madam Tussauds, Museum of Illusions, Flyzone, Pub Crawl, Ferry to Princes Island.
On these platforms, you can read reviews from other travellers, so you know what you’re getting into. There’s a greater degree of transparency and accountability, and a helpful support team in case something doesn’t go to plan.
That’s how it should be.
The Bottom Line
While The Istanbul Tourist Pass might not be an outright “scam” in that it delivers on most of what it promises (albeit poorly in some cases). It definitely crosses the line into dishonest and shady tactics.
It is completely possible that you can have a somewhat ok experience using the Istanbul Tourist Pass, as long as you’re aware of all the caveats upfront and set your expectations exceptionally low.
But you should really ask yourself the question… is that how you want to spend your vacation in Istanbul?