Though euros, pounds, or dollars will still go a pretty long way in Istanbul, the city seems to be getting more expensive by the day. Here are some tips for minding your kuruş (the Turkish equivalent of a penny) and getting the most out of your travel experience.
Eating and drinking
- Don’t be afraid to eat on the street; follow the locals and feast on fish sandwiches (balık ekmek), stuffed potatoes (kumpir), and döner kebap.
- Storefronts bearing the words büfe, pideci, çorbacı, or börekçi are reliable places to grab cheap eats.
- Shopping at Istanbul’s markets is a fun way to stock an inexpensive picnic. Eminönü and Kadıköy both have bustling markets with lots of tempting tastes.
- Stick with rakı and Turkish wine or beer; foreign alcohol is outrageously overpriced and cocktails are generally not well made.
- Ask the price of fish, which is often not listed on restaurant menus, before ordering; it can be very expensive.
- Be sure to check the bill, especially at meyhanes, tavern-like restaurants that serve alcoholic beverages along with a variety of mezes, or small plates. If you're not careful, items you didn’t order (or ordered but never received) can too often end up on your tab.
- Tipping 10 percent is fairly standard at restaurants, though not expected at more casual eateries.
- Avoid eating at most places in Sultanhamet, where food is generally overpriced and of low quality. (See my guide to Istanbul Cafés and Restaurants for some notable exceptions.)
- If a bar or restaurant has a view, especially of the Bosphorus, be prepared to pay a premium for your drinks and food.
- Public transportation is plentiful and generally reliable, as well as reasonably priced at 1.75 Turkish Liras for a one-way ride on any mode of transit. The tram line is especially useful for tourists.
- Travellers who will be using public transportation extensively should consider buying an Akbil, or electronic ticket. See my guide to How to get around Istanbul for details.
- If you take taxis, make sure the driver turns the meter on, and have an idea of how to get where you’re going before you hop in the car so you can tell if he’s giving you the run-around to jack up the fare.
- The speedy, comfortable, and reasonably priced Havaş airport shuttle (www.havas.com.tr) is the all-around best way to get to and from either airport if you’re staying near Taksim Square. To really pinch pennies, take the bus (96T from Atatürk, E-3 from Sabiha Gökçen) or the Metro.
- Avoiding driving yourself if you can; both renting a car and filling it with fuel are expensive, and the stress of dealing with Istanbul’s traffic could cast a pall on any vacation.
Sights and attractions
- Get up early and visit on a weekday to avoid the worst crowds at the most popular attractions, particularly Topkapı Palace, Aya Sofya, and the Bosphorus Tour.
- A detailed guidebook is probably a better investment than paying tour guides at the different sites, who vary widely in quality.
- Most museums are closed on Mondays, with the notable exceptions of Topkapı Palace, Aya Sofya, and the Kariye Museum.
- Be respectful in your dress and behaviour when visiting mosques, and avoid entering during prayer times, especially the one on Fridays at midday.
- A trip to Büyükada - The Princes’ Islands is a steal at three Turkish Liras each way for the enjoyable ferry ride.
- The well-run Istanbul Modern contemporary art museum is free to all comers on Thursdays, when it stays open late (until 8pm).
- Strolling and people-watching in Eyüp, Ortaköy, Beyoğlu, and Istanbul’s other diverse, picturesque neighbourhoods is fascinating and free.
- You can see free art at Istanbul’s many galleries, generally clustered in Cihangir, Galata, Tophane, and Teşvikiye neighbourhoods. The big banks on İstiklal Caddesi often have interesting free exhibits as well.
- Great views can be had for nothing (except perhaps the price of a bus ride) from the hillside cemetery in Eyüp, atop the old city walls, and Sanatkarlar Parkı in Cihangir.
Other useful tips
- Choosing accommodations near what you most want to see and do will save you money on getting around. If it’s serious sightseeing you’re after, Sultanahmet is the place to be; shoppers, foodies, and partiers should lay their heads in Beyoğlu.
- If an item doesn’t carry a price tag, feel free to bargain for it; a common rule of thumb is to start at half the shopkeeper’s first offer. Once you’ve agreed to a price, though, it would be very rude not to buy.
- Cafés and restaurants along İstiklal Caddesi generally have free WiFi -- just ask for the password.
- If a roving shoeshine man drops his brush near you, don’t pick it up (seriously); it’s generally a trick to try and rope you into paying for a shine.
- Male travellers especially should be wary of overly friendly locals offering to take them out for a night on the town, a common beginning to a sometimes nasty scam.
- Careless, unpredictable drivers and a lack of sidewalks make traffic the biggest danger facing most visitors. Keep your eyes and ears open and your wits about you.