Istanbul on a shoestring

There’s something about Istanbul that captivates me. It could be the culture, the architecture, the food, the people, I just can’t put a finger on it. Istanbul was the city that I spent the most amount of time in, mainly because I had to go around other countries from there, setting it as my base for a while. During my repeated visits, there were always new places to go, streets that haven’t been explored, and yes, never-ending Turkish food to try. It is possible to go day by day on a very little amount of money. There’s cheap street food, reasonably priced stores everywhere selling anything and everything you need, tea that costs about 50 cents to a dollar and apart from the attractions that you have to pay for, there’s a lot to see and do within the busy and lively streets of Istanbul.

If you didn’t already know, Istanbul is where the line draws between Europe and Asia. You can easily hop on a boat over from Karaköy toKadıköy and you’ve jumped over a continent! The idea of that is pretty cool, but when you take a boat over it barely feels any different. Some people said they expected the “Asia” side of Istanbul to be different, more “Asian”. I don’t know how a place should look more asian when people tell me that but it’s just like the European side of Istanbul. If not, it actually more local, more affordable, more ‘real’. Whereas the European side of Istanbul is where all the famous mosques and attractions are at, and that also means really crowded and lively, also slightly more expensive than the Asia side in general.

Getting in by bus:
We hopped on an overnight bus from Thessaloniki (Greece) into Istanbul (Europe side). It was a comfortable 10 hour journey, but the women seated behind me talked ALL THE WAY. And I mean non-stop gossip. I had popped a Valium hoping to get some rest but was so annoyed at how loud they were, and oh I forgot to mention they were seat-kickers too. Once we arrived at the border, it was really straightforward.People got off the buses and bought bottles and bottles of alcohol from the duty free shop. It didn’t occur to me that the price of booze would have doubled since leaving Europe, so we didn’t get any. But once we were at the hostel, we found that everybody had at least purchased a bottle of liquor from the duty free shop. So if you’re crossing by land into Turkey, make sure you get yourself a bottle of something as alcohol is so expensive in Turkey!

To and from the airport:
There is an express bus from the airport to the city (Europe & Asia) and the company is called Havataş. This takes you directly to the city and costs a lot less than taking a taxi. There are two airports, one on the Asia side (Sabiha Gökçen), and the other on the Europe side (Atatürk). This bus service goes to the airport from the city too, and the schedules are quite frequent. You can check the timetable and locations on the Havatas website here.

Where to stay?
Location is SO important when you’re planning a trip to Istanbul. If you stayed on the wrong continent, or the wrong area, you’d be spending a lot more on transport and that is also very time consuming. Locating yourself in the middle of ‘everything’ saves you time and money since you can practically walk everywhere. If you refer to my rough map, you can see the different districts within Istanbul and the best place to stay in my opinion is the Galata district. Staying in this area, it’s easy to walk everywhere, to Taksim, or to the historical district where the Hagia Sofia is. The three red house icons are the different hostels that I stayed in during my visit.

Istanbul-mapClick to enlarge

1. Bada Bing Hostel (Galata district) – Europe Side
Best location in my opinion, they provide free breakfast but it’s not very good and most people don’t eat it. But the beds are comfortable and it’s situated in the perfect spot so this is my top choice!
Price:€14 for a dorm

2. Starlet Hostel (Sultanahmet district) – Europe Side
This place is still decently located, and the price is reasonable for the comfortable beds and homey feel. Breakfast is also provided. Staying in this hostel may be a stone throw away from the historical district, but if you walk in the other direction you can also find yourself behind the smaller streets, off the tourist path and therefore a lot of cheap eateries in the area! We found 2 lira for a kebab sandwich and ayran (yogurt), that’s less than a dollar !
Price:€8 for a dorm

3. Hush Moda Hostel (Kadikoy) – Asia Side
Just a short walking distance from the pier, Hush Moda is a modern boutique hostel that is positioned right in the middle of exactly where you’d want to be in the Asian side of Istanbul. It’s in the heart of shops, markets, eateries, and has a sick rooftop bar to chill out at!
Price:€12 for a dorm


Crossing the Galata Bridge:
This bridge connects the Taksim/Beyoglu districts to the Historical/Sultanahmet district and many people choose to take a tram, but it’s more rewarding if you take a walk across this amazing bridge. Not only do you get picturesque views of both sides of the city landscapes, you also get to witness many local fishermen working their fishing lines from day to night. Beneath the bridge lies a string of restaurants serving fresh seafood and Turkish delicacies, they tend to tout a lot if you’re just walking by, and I personally didn’t try the food here just because it was pretty steep for me, but I reckon there’s better and cheaper seafood available across the bridge in the Galata district — The Fish Market.

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The Fish Market:
Forget the gimmicky fish sandwich boats. These boats are the #1 tourist traps, especially for people who visit Istanbul for the first time. They have some boats anchored by the dock and they also double up as an outdoor kitchen where chefs flip fishes over the grill, pack them into stale baguettes topped with some raw onions, and then pass them off as authentic turkish fish sandwich. These sandwiches are then passed over to land and you collect it, eat and and realize that that crappy fish sandwich is filled with bones. The fish market, however… is right across the Galata bridge on the Galata district side, and is busy usually in the evenings. There are plenty of fish sandwich booths, selling the same type of fish sandwiches as the gimmick boats, except, they’re de-boned, grilled to perfection with peppers, vegetables and fragrant spices, then sprayed with fresh lemon juice. You can also go into the eateries here and eat some Hamsi (fried anchovies) or calamari, they’re all fresh catch and definitely the cheapest place to eat seafood in the area.

Gimmick fish sandwich boats

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What to do:

Hagia Sophia
When in Istanbul, going to the Hagia Sophia is a must! There is a 3 day attractions pass for people who decide to go to different palaces and mosques and for a bundle price it could save you some money. Otherwise you could also get a singular ticket to enter.

It was really spectacular inside, unfortunately one section of it was under construction when we visited

The Hagia Sophia from the outside

Always remember to look up!

Golden mosaics. There was a hilarious sign requesting that tourists refrain from using flash photography as it will damage the artworks. I can’t help but giggle at the logic of that. There were plenty of jokes made about how everything is slowly cracking whenever we see someone using flash.

View out the window

Group shot at the thumb hole! They say it’s for good luck if you can spin one round with your thumb in the wall


Blue Mosque
The Sultanahmet mosque, also known as the blue mosque is named as such because of blue tiles adorning the walls of its interior. When I first stepped in, the chandelier took my breath away, it was hanging low from the high ceiling and the whole place looked serene despite the huge crowd of visitors roaming around this mosque. Entry is free but all shoes have to be removed and ladies are required to wear a headscarf. They do provide scarves but just in case, you should always have your own prepared in Istanbul. Also be sure to be decently dressed, that means no over-exposing clothes or short shorts allowed


The details in the ceiling never ceases to amaze me

Hanging chandelier

Outside of the Blue Mosque at sunset


Grand Bazaar
The architecture of the Grand Bazaar is spectacular, the place is huge with a huge variety of goods sold inside. Trinkets, turkish souvenirs, carpets, bags, pouches, intricate lamps, you name it, you got it. However the prices are a little bit inflated just because many tour groups who are short on time head there for a quick shopping trip before heading to another location, and they buy EVERYTHING. It’s a shame because you can easily get the same type of goods around the Spice Bazaar for 1/2 of the price, sometimes less. I wouldn’t advise buying anything from the Grand Bazaar, especially if you have extra time. And with many stores selling the same things, you should remember to always haggle for a better price



Spice Bazaar
Weaving in and out of the Spice Bazaar is serious business, especially with the crowd. you can see a shop and think you’re going to come back for it, but you might never find it again. The streets are a maze and unless you’ve been walking around the area for a few days it wouldn’t be easy to recognize the way. Apart from the main Spice Bazaar that sells mountains of turkish delight, baklavas, turkish snacks, teas, coffees and other edibles, surrounding it is also an outdoor market that sells almost everything that you can find in the Grand Bazaar but at a better value.

All sorts of snacks, dried fruits & turkish delight


Take a boat to Asia side
Hop on a ferry from Karakoy pier (Europe side) and head towards Kadikoy pier (Asia side). The journey takes about 30 minutes and you can enjoy a nice view as you sail across the Bosporus. You can find the schedules here. If you bring along some snacks, or bread, you can feed them to the seagulls as they fly around the ferry. Breathtaking sight!

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Exploring the Asian side (Day Trip)
You could choose to stay on the Asian side, or just take a day trip. There’s the usual market, selling almost everything you can find on the Europe side, except certain things might be of a better value here. There are many streets with nice cafes, second hand thrift shops, antique shops, tea houses and lots of shopping to be done as well. I spent a couple of days there just to explore the area more, but for those who have a tight timeline, a day trip is sufficient.

Walking through the market and stores

It’s a lot quieter and less crowded as compared to the European side

Heaps of vintage and antique shops waiting to be discovered!

“Paws off my silver”


Visit Taksim
I didn’t find Taksim very appealing, and even though many people like to stay there, I’d prefer not to. This is where the parties happen, the bars, clubs, shops and it’s always crowded with tourists, especially at night. But if you’re in Istanbul, it’s worth a visit just to check out the vibes. There are a lot of eateries selling turkish food and a couple of art galleries for people who aren’t too into shopping.

(Photograph by Alexander Sehmer, Flickr)

(Photograph by Alexander Sehmer, Flickr)

Galata tower

Visit this medieval stone tower, one of Istanbul’s most striking landmarks, it is a high, cone-capped cylinder that dominates the skyline and offers a panoramic vista of the city’s historic peninsula. There’s always a long queue around sunset but if you go earlier, it’s less crowded. The entrance fee is pretty expensive in my opinion and unless you’re feeling a little generous, I suggest it’s better to just look at the tower from below.



Vintage & Antiques galore
There is a district filled with antiques, quaint cafes and little shops and it’s only a stone throw away from Taksim. Yet it is still off the tourist track, but being vintage hunting fools that we are, we managed to find this place. Be sure to go earlier because the shops close pretty earlier and a couple of hours is required if you do want to go into each shop. There’s plenty of vintage and antiques shops littered around every corner of the streets in this district. The trick is actually finding this vintage district.

The neighborhood’s name is called Firuzaga Mahallesi, but people know it as Çukurcuma (choo-KOOR-joo-mah) so try asking around for directions. If not, from the map, look for Sıraselviler Caddesi or Cypress Avenue, explore around a bit and get lost in the streets filled with hidden pre-loved treasures

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Smoke shisha and have some chai
It’s the authentic Turkish thing to do! Nuff said. There’s a popular shisha area on Narghile island, near the Istanbul Modern Art Museum but I didn’t like that place so much. The tea was expensive and the place is really done up and not too cosy for a chill out session. My favorite would be a slightly hidden shisha alley Cemberlitas Hamam (Along Yeniceriler Cad). You’d have to walk in a small street, that looks like a dodgy backdoor of a bar and there will be people walking around with charcoals and metal thongs, holding trays and trays of chai.

shisha x rummikub

This is the entrance to my favorite shisha area, it’s pretty near the grand bazaar if you just walk straight down the main road

3 different shisha joints crammed in one spot.

Try the apple tea and rose mint flavored shisha! My favorite combination 🙂

And of course bubble & smoking



Dolmabahce Palace
There are two sections to this palace, Selamlik and Harem, and I would recommend that going for the tour around the selamik instead because it’s bigger and more grand than the Harem. The tours are all guided and are scheduled every hour or so. No photography is allowed inside but you can see many people trying to sneak some shots. I’ve never been to a palace prior to this and I would say it was worth paying for despite how it set my budget back. The inside of the building is just magnificent and grand, and no amount of blurry shots are ever going to do it justice. It’s also possible to laze around in the gardens or sit by the benches along the waters and relax.



What else to do? Indulge and explore your tastebuds

Check out all the food I ate in Turkey here: Meals on the go 03


Wanderer of lands, searcher of souls. Last seen tree hugging and running wild into the mountains. Might have eaten all the ice cream in the tub.

3 Responses

  1. Michelle says:

    !!!!! Dolmabahce Palace. I wanted to visit that place. Alas..

  1. March 8, 2014

    […] Istanbul on a shoestring […]

  2. March 10, 2014

    […] To read more about traveling in Istanbul on a shoe-string, click here […]

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