“Dizzy” is a word we often hear people use to describe colorful, chaotic, history-rich Istanbul. There’s something travelers seem to love about throwing themselves into the alluringly confusing city – and with new flight routes and relatively regular airfare sales, doing so has gotten easier and easier. In the midst of all the sensory overload, orient yourself with this by-the-numbers guide on affordable thrills that can be had for $5, $10, and $100:
$5: Cheap Eats
Before you go Googling “best restaurants in Turkey,” just remember: It’s all about the street food here. Considering that most treats average just over $1 (1-5 lira) depending on which part of town you’re in, you can certainly stitch together a robust meal for as little as $5. Sesame bagel-esque simit, cheese borek pastries, rice-stuffed mussels called midye dolma, and fresh-squeezed pomegranate juice are all staples.
Strong, Turkish tea, which goes for roughly 1 or 2 lira on the streets, is actually offered free at various shops. But if you love your drinks with a view, indulge in sit-down service overlooking the Bosphorus at Setüstü Çay Bahçesi. While samovar-style tea for two sets you back by $3.60 (8 lira) here, you’ll get 7 or 8 cups out of it.
Likewise, the legendary döner kebabs are typically $2.70 (6 lira) from street vendors. A modest upgrade to $5-7 (10-15 lira) gets you an adana kebab, a spicy, hand-minced variation of the ubiquitous classic. For the more adventurous, kokorec, a sweetbread with fillings like lamb intestines, goes for around the same price.
Gastro-travelers would also be remiss if they didn’t head down to the docks in Eminönü for a two-hour cruise along the Bosphorous ($4.50) and the deliciously plain and fresh fish sandwiches ($2.70). Of course, if you don’t want to set out on the waters yourself, you can always simply walk over the Galata bridge with sandwich in hand to watch the boats glide by. We hear sunset and night time is lovely along the docks, but cruises are better when the sun’s still out. (Other rides to consider: a $1.35 ferry to Kadıköy, on the Asian side of Istanbul, where less touristy and cheaper markets, restaurants, and more await.)
Frugal foodie tip: Street vendors aside, be on the lookout for büfes – essentially Turkey’s answer to NYC’s midtown delis.
$10: Iconic Sites
It has to be said: So much of what people fall in love with in Istanbul – the architecture, the colors, the energy – is free to experience. Visiting the Blue Mosque won’t cost you a thing, and neither will browsing the Grand Bazaar. (We hear the Egyptian/Spice Bazaar is slightly less claustrophobic with friendly, jokester vendors, while Feriköy Flea is the local hipster market of choice.)
Some iconic sites do charge entry fees that, while steep for the area, are relatively modest compared to admission to many North American attractions. Two worth shelling out for are the basilica-turned-mosque-turned-museum Hagia Sophia, which now charges $11 (25 lira) per person, and Basilica Cistern, the network of 100+ underground chambers, which asks for $5 (10 lira). To glimpse the heyday of the Ottoman Empire in all its glory, get tickets to Topkapi Palace, once home to the empire’s sultans, for $9 (20 lira).
Historic “Old City” Sultanahmet may be touristy during the day, but it’s actually much quieter at night than Taksim Square or Beyoğlu, where many restaurants, bars, and shops are concentrated. Here, $100 gets you a night (or a night and a half, depending on the week) at Esans Hotel in July and November – rates start from $120-225 May through June and August through September. The property is decked out in tasteful 19th century Ottoman decor and boasts rooftop views of Hagia Sophia and the Bosphorus and Marmara seas.
In November, $100 covers all beds in a four-bedroom minimalist-chic room at designer hostel #bunk, a property in “New Town” Beyoğlu. Rates are $35 per person in more popular months, but they always include complimentary breakfast, fast wifi, private lockers, and even laundry services. More to love: Their rooftop terrace, with lounge-worthy cushions aplenty, even has a Jacuzzi tub.