Istanbul on a budget

by Andrea.McVeigh

Not only is Istanbul the only metropolis in the world to straddle two continents, it's also a city where you don't have to spend a fortune to have a great time


Istanbul, the largest city in Turkey, has a bit of an image problem, according to the local tour guides and hotel managers. People who have never been there often imagine it as another Cairo or Marrakech - hot, hectic, noisy, chaotic and ancient.
It can be hot, no doubt about it, especially in July and August, and it's definitely ancient, having been settled since 667 BC, but it's also sophisticated, calm, exciting and modern. And, with sterling strong against the Turkish Lira, now is the time to find out for yourself, with great bargains to be had on accommodation, food and transport. Like any major city, Istanbul has its rip-off hot spots but, overall, prices are much cheaper than in the Euro-zone, and some of its greatest delights are free. And even with a great exchange rate, nothing, but nothing, beats free.   
The high season in Istanbul starts around June, but spring and autumn are ideal times to go - the weather is pleasant, the sun shines and cool breezes offer some succour when you're traipsing around the tourist sights. 
First up in the free category is the city's famous Hippodrome, at Sultanahmet Square. It dates from the third century AD and was the place where Byzantine emperors hung out, watched chariot races and generally carried out the business of ruling. Standing proud in the centre is the 3,500-year-old Obelisk of Theodosius.      
If your stay takes in a Thursday, take advantage of free entry into Istanbul Modern, the museum of modern art. On other days it's a mere 7 YTL (c£3) to get in, with children under 12 years allowed in for free. 
Then there are Istanbul's numerous architecturally-stunning mosques, where entry is usually free, although donations are appreciated. The most famous is the Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmet Camii), so named because of its decorative blue and white interior tiles. Also demanding of a visit is the most important imperial mosque in the city, the Suleymaniye mosque, which stands on top of one of Istanbul's seven hills. Visitors to the mosques are expected to take their shoes off and women should cover their heads. 
Other attractions come at a small price, and they're worth it: what you get for your money, compared to other cities in Europe, leaves you culturally quids in. One of the city's main tourist spots is the Topkapi Palace (admission c£8.50), once home to Ottoman leaders and now filled with dazzling collections of jewels, clothes and Islamic relics. Its manicured gardens and lavish Harem draw visitors from around the world.
Another highlight is Aya Sofya, also known as Hagia Sofya, originally a church, then a mosque, now a museum and religious monument, and one of the world's most magnificent examples of Byzantine architecture, with its enormous ceiling dome. Although the icons and images were initially covered up, the white plaster used for the job eventually crumbled, and you can now see examples of the lavish gold and silver mosaics underneath. (Admission c£8.50 for adults; free for children under six.)
It's a pleasure to walk the wide, clean streets and green areas between the mosques and museums of the Old City, stopping for a sojourn to see the underwater lakes of the 6th-century Basilica Cistern, which provided water for ancient Constaninople (entry c£4).
What you save on attraction charges, you may well end up splurging in the covered Grand Bazaar, the city's bustling buy-it-now centre of street commerce in the heart of what's known as the historic Old City. In the Ottoman era, this was where traders from across the globe sold their wares. These days, you can pick up tourist trinkets, T-shirts, handicrafts, designer knock-offs and Turkish coffee sets in the labyrinth of streets - but be sure to haggle. Another must-see-for-free is the colourful Spice Market, where the air is thick with the scent of cinnamon, clove and olives and the variety of Turkish delight on offer is mind boggling. 
After a morning spent soaking up the sights, smells and sounds of the bazaar, head to the shore at Eminonu while you listen to the call to prayer. Istanbul is divided by the Bosphorus strait, which separates Europe and Asia, reaching north to the Black Sea. It's a busy stretch of water, filled with cargo ships and tankers, and you can take a ferry from the Bosphorus Public Excursion Ferry Dock on the Eminonu Quay for c£4 for a 90-minute one-way trip or £7.50 return, stopping at, among other places, Besiktas and Yenikoy.
People in Istanbul love to eat, and every second storefront seems to house a restaurant or café. But, even though prices are cheap, and the ubiquitous pizza and burger chains plentiful, nothing beats the taste of street food, cooked fresh. In the more touristy areas, stall holders will call out to you, tempting you with offers of everything from filled baked potatoes to what must be the national dish of Turkey, the kebap. Don't pass up the opportunity. Like fish and chips on an English seaside pier, there's nothing like tucking into a streetside kebap, surrounded by the bustle, noise and exuberance of the world's fourth largest city.  
The favourable (to UK visitors) exchange rate makes accommodation cheap, too. If you save so much in other areas you can afford to splash out on your hotel, then possibly the best choice in the city is the Çiragan Palace Kempinski Istanbul, a former Ottoman imperial palace on the shores of the Bosphorus.  Most of the rooms have balconies and the Bosphorus-view rooms offer the best vistas - it's simply the place to be, if you can afford it.    
If it's budget all the way, there are numerous backpacker hostels - but just a little more cash will get you one of the best of the budget hotels: Hotel Sapphire in the Sirkeci area, near the train station. It offers clean, compact, if a little dated, rooms from around €60 per night (for a single room in low season) to around €80 a night (for a double in high season), and the service is great. Equally good is its location, a 10-minute walk away from all the major attractions
Another budget favourite is Hotel Sebnem, right in the heart of the Old City in Sultanahmet, from €50 for a single room in low season. If you can stretch your budget to around €70 per night, ask for a double room with a sea view. More traditionally Turkish in atmosphere and design, it's a serene oasis of comfort and calm. Despite its 'where it's at' location, it's on a quiet, traffic-free, side street, and the generous breakfast buffet will set you up for the day. The rooftop terrace with views over the Bosphorus is another draw.   

Getting there

Turkish Airlines flies to Istanbul Ataturk International Airport from Dublin, Heathrow, Stansted, Birmingham and Manchester. Pegasus Airlines flies to Istanbul Gokcen International Airport from London Stansted.  


With many years of experience in journalism under her belt and a well-stamped passport in her back pocket, writer, broadcaster and DJ, Andrea McVeigh, thinks that any time spent at home is time wasted when there's a whole wide world of fun, culture and adventure to discover. Whether it's climbing the Sydney Harbour Bridge, sipping cocktails in West Hollywood, eating fried silk worms in Korea, or giving visitors the low-down on her home city of Belfast, Andrea has been there, done that and bought the tourist T-shirt (not to mention the key-ring, bumper sticker and souvenir pen).