Istanbul, formerly Constantinople, is one of the most incredible cities in the world. Sitting astride two continents, Istanbul is a city of gorgeous and iconic mosques. This city is filled with all sorts of exciting activities to do, delicious food to devour, and historical sights to absorb. However, while Istanbul is not as expensive as many cities in Western Europe, it can still be a pretty pricey place to have a good time. While off-season (fall and winter) is the best time to go, you still do not need to break the bank if you can only visit during the on-season (spring and summer).
The first time I ever went to Istanbul, I was a broke backpacker who had just spent most of my money on a one way ticket from the U.S. I wanted to see and do everything, but was not sure how to stretch my finances. Hopefully you will benefit from my hard-won lessons of visiting Istanbul on a budget.
Istanbul at a Glance
City Population: 13.5 Million People
Currency: Turkish Lira
Trivia: The Hagia Sophia, a iconic attraction, was originally built as a church, then converted into a mosque in 1453, before finally becoming a secular museum.
Where to Stay in Istanbul
If you are a first time traveler to Istanbul, then I would highly recommend staying in the Sultanahmet area. It is the old part of the city and most of the main attractions can be found within walking distance. Sultanahmet is host to a wide range of hotels that go from uber luxurious to bare bones hostels.
For those travelers who want to really make their money go far, dormitories in hostels are the way to go. Unreviewed hostels (so you will be playing Russian roulette) start at around 3 USD per night. More reputable establishments will offer a bed for 7 USD a night. If you want a private room, you will have to fork over 15-20 USD a night.
The other main area to stay in Istanbul is the Taksim Square/Istiklal Street area. This has a lot more nightclubs, restaurants, and is the center of the bar scene. Here hostels go for closer to 9 USD a night for a bed. Privates are around the same price as the Sultanahmet area.
Women can also find all-female dormitories that cost around 15 USD a night, but these really pride themselves on safety and security.
Another option is to look on websites like Airbnb, which sometimes offer cheaper prices for nicer apartments and rooms offered directly by owners.
What to Eat in Istanbul
If you are serious about saving money in Istanbul, stay far, FAR away from tourist traps and restaurants. These are down the narrow streets around Sultanahmet where you will literally see row after row of restaurants. If you are absolutely starving, search for eateries not so close to the main street since the ones at the back tend to be less expensive. I would also not recommend eating under Galata Bridge, since these seafood restaurants are pricey.
Stick to street food like the stuffed mussels (they are DELICIOUS) and the quick kebabs. The kebabs are especially filling and you can find them everywhere. Do not forget to try different types of baklava!
Transportation in Istanbul
Walking is free, good for your health, and you get to experience more of the local life. Sultanahmet is very walker friendly and you can just hit up the Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, Basilica Cistern and then head over to the Grand Bazaar. Then take the tram/metro to Galata Bridge and walk to Galata Tower and then through Istiklal Street to Taksim Square. Or you can take the tram/metro to Taksim Square and walk back.
Ferries are also quite inexpensive at only 1,75 lira to 3,5 lira depending on the distance.
Activities and Sights to See in Istanbul
Many of the mosques are completely free to go into. All you need to do is make sure that you are dressed properly. Wear long pants, cover your shoulders, and some places also require you to cover your head. Most mosques are accustomed to tourists so they provide scarves for you to drape around your body depending on what you need to cover up.
The magnificent Blue Mosque is completely free and right across from the Hagia Sophia. You should also visit the Suleymaniye Mosque. The entrance area to Topkapi Palace does not cost anything and is a lovely park that you can relax in.
I do recommend a visit to a Hamam (Turkish bath). Try to go to smaller ones or off the main streets so that you avoid the tourist traps. You will have the experience of a sauna, a invigorating scrub, a bubble bath, and an oil massage. Absolutely worth the minor splurge.
There is a lot to see and do in Istanbul that does not require you to spend a penny. This magnificent city is so full of history that it is practically bursting at the seams. This is also a great place to haggle and bring prices down. If you are using price as a deterrent to avoid Istanbul, you can cross that obstacle right off your list. Visit this city on the Bosphorus, drink lots of cay (black tea), and enjoy your time among some of the most friendly and hospitable people you will ever meet in your life. Istanbul, and Turkey, stole my heart while leaving my finances intact. Let it do the same for you.