Traveling can be an expensive game, but that doesn’t mean it has to be. We’ve set our sails on the former Ottoman capital to discover how you can get an authentic slice of Turkish life on the cheap. Take a trip to this transcontinental wonderland with our favorite treasures of Istanbul that you can experience without spending a single lira!
Take a tour
Istanbul is one of the most densely populated cities in the world, so get your bearings with a city tour. Avoid the overpriced companies and book yourself in with the New Generations Tour company instead. This clan of friendly, multilingual locals will take you by the hand and guide you through Istanbul’s finest neighborhoods and attractions.
Highlights include a quick jaunt through the legendary Old Books Shop to glance at ancient Islamic calligraphies and a visit to the Byzantine cathedral, turned imperial mosque, turned public museum, the Hagia Sophia. Starting at 10:45am every day in the old city’s Sultanahmet Park, the tour lasts 2.5 hours and won’t cost you a thing.
See the buzzy Cihangir neighborhood
The heart of the Beyoğlu district, Cihangir is the go-to place for French architecture and long sessions of people watching.
On any given early afternoon you’re likely to spot a surge of hip Istanbulites sharing the streets with devout religious folk. Right next to the sleepy old town of Sultanahmet, this is a lively spot, with fantastic street-side musicians and a colorful approach to urban housing.
Let your nose lead you through the Spice Bazaar
Istanbul has many incredible shopping markets that are worth browsing through, but our favorite is, without a doubt, the Eminönü district’s near 400-year-old Egyptian Bazaar.
As you wander through its many colorful aisles, smelling the thousands of exotic aromas as you go, you’ll be surprised to find how the Bazaar reflects the ethnic diversity of the city, with spices from the European West melding with the Asian East, and all for the hungry crowd of ethnically mixed Istanbulites to devour.
If you want to continue browsing, head over the bridge to Beyoğlu’s famed İstiklal Avenue. Forty minutes away by foot, this pedestrian street is often called the beating heart of Istanbul, with people coming in their thousands to chow down on the locally favored “wet burgers” and frequent the rowdy tavernas inside the Flower Passage (Çiçek Pasajı).
Cross the Galata Bridge
Erected in 1994, the Galata Bridge symbolizes over 16 centuries of Byzantine and Turk history, replacing four other bridges that once stood over the Golden Horn estuary. Most people travel over it by tram or car, but a stroll along the 490-metre walkway allows a pleasant insight into daily life in the transcontinental metropolis.
Stop and watch the local fisherman reeling in the Bosporus strait prey from dawn to dusk, play backgammon with the enthusiastic locals or head underneath for the canopied marketplace. All the while, don’t forget to appreciate the bridge’s panoramic views of the city.
Seek solitude in the New Mosque
Just at the foot of the Galata Bridge is the Yeni Cami – otherwise known as Istanbul’s New Mosque. Don’t let the name fool you though, as this palatial beauty’s origins stem way back to 1597, making it one of the oldest places of worship in the entire city.
And it is stunning! A spot of silence among all the city madness, the mosque is supported by marble and gold columns and slathered with striking 17th century İznik tiles of green, white and blue. Istanbul is filled with jaw-dropping imperial architecture, but nothing quite matches the splendor of this spot.
Istanbul is absolutely flushed with many museums and art spaces to visit. Top of the pile is the Pera Museum. Opened in 2005, the institute successfully chronicles the city’s rich cultural heritage, with three permanent collections titled “Orientalist Paintings”, “Anatolian Weights and Measures”, and “Kütahya Tiles and Ceramics”.
The multi-story gallery also plays host to visiting exhibitions from internationally renowned artists such as Rembrandt, Picasso and Kahlo. Entry to the museum normally costs 15 lira, but you can even get in for free every Friday evening between 18:00-22:00.
And – if you’re craving a bit more educational fun – Istanbul’s two SALT institutions are the best spot to educate yourself on the city’s economic backdrop and the hodgepodge of architectural styles. Standing proud in Beyoğlu and Galata, both centers collectively boast a research center, walk-in cinema and massive gallery exhibition spaces – always delivering politically charged, dazzling artwork, and always for free!
Soak up the sun on the Prince Islands
If the constant buzz of the city becomes too much, you can always seek refuge on a day trip to one of the nine Prince Islands, or ‘Adalar’, as they’re collective known to the locals, located just 12.5 miles south-east of the city in the Sea of Marmara.
Best of them all is Heybeliada (meaning ‘Saddlebag Island’). At a 2226th the size of Istanbul, the little isle features small beaches and a vast green mountainous landscape – perfect for any hiking enthusiasts. In fact, this is definitely a trip for the adventurous type, as visitors have to rely on transport by foot or old-fashioned horse-drawn carriage as automotive transportation is strictly prohibited.
While you can spend the day exploring for free, it will cost you a measly 6.5 dollars for the return ferry trip, which runs every day from the Kabataş quarter, from sunrise to midnight. Not exactly “free”, but a money-saving excursion worth splashing out on nonetheless.
Party in Ortaköy
After a long day’s exploring, you want to return to a spot in Istanbul that is buzzing with life and in the heart of the action. Look no further than Ortaköy! By day, this neighborhood is populated with people gazing over the Ortaköy Mosque, while budding artists try to sell their wares at pop-up art markets.
By night, the breezy atmosphere makes way for a chic night-life, with many of the clubs – including the world-famous converted mansion known as Anjelique – offering free entry (making those slightly pricey cocktails all the more enticing).
If you’d rather skip the all-night partying, Ortaköy is the perfect spot for a late night saunter. Soaking up the Marmara Sea breeze and the city’s radiant golden glow shimmering on the water, it’s a magnificent, perhaps even romantic end to a day in Istanbul. Sometimes, the best things in life really are free.