What It Costs: Travel in Istanbul
Istanbul is not the obvious budget travel destination it once was. Prices here can be equivalent to Western Europe for careless spenders, but a visit to Istanbul can also be done for much cheaper. As a major world city and with so many cheap connections on budget airline Pegasus, Istanbul makes a tempting short trip from Europe or part a longer exploration for backpackers. You need not necessarily blow all that money you saved on flights, though, and with mindfulness towards your spending habits this incredible city doesn’t have to bust your travel budget.
At the extreme low end of the spectrum expect to spend around 35 Lira per day, which at current exchange rates is around $12 US. This would mean staying in a large and not very nice dorm, eating all your meals at the most budget-friendly street stands or self-catering, and not visiting any of the tourist sites that charge admission. On the other side a budget-minded traveler could get by very comfortably in cozy dorms with some restaurant meals and some street food with visits each day to one or two big tourist sites for 100 Lira each day, or $34 US. This is a wide range, of course, and we’ll look more in each section at the options available.
A Day’s Expenses for Travel in Istanbul:
Breakfast of Simit and Cheese from street stall: 1.5 Lira ($.50 US)
Entrance to Hagia Sophia: 25 Lira ($8.50 US)
Tram ride round-trip without discount: 6 Lira ($2 US)
Fish Sandwich and Ayran at Karakoy: 6 Lira ($2 US)
Budget Restaurant Dinner with One Beer: 20 Lira ($6.75 US)
Comfortable Budget Dorm Bed: 25 Lira ($8.50 US)
Total: 83.5 Lira ($28.30 US)
One important note: though Turkey has generally provided a visa on arrival for most foreign nationalities, starting April 2014 this will cease to be true. For arrivals past that date, travelers will need to apply for an e-visa. In either case, visas cost $20 USD for Americans and more for some other nationalities.
Meals, Accommodation, and Transport
Meals. Perfectly passable street food exists in Istanbul, especially around the Galata Bridge area. My personal favorite is the Balik Ekmek (fish and bread), a huge sandwich of fresh grilled fish and a couple of vegetables slapped together on a big crusty half loaf for 5 Lira. Avoid the crowded floating kitchens near Eminonu, and check out instead the shops inside the fish market on the Galata side of the Golden Horn. Just a few minutes away from here is the Karakoy Gulluoglu baklava shop, if you need something sweet to finish up with.
Slightly more expensive are small cafes selling basic Turkish favorites like pide (Flatbread baked with cheese or meat toppings), doner (meat and bread with scattered veggies, you know the deal), kofte (meatballs), and lahmacun (flatbread with meat). At small cafes or ‘bufe’ restaurants, you should be able to pick up any of these or other Top 10 Turkish Foods for 10 Lira with a local drink.
The best budget tips for food in Istanbul are to skip the Sultanahmet area restaurants and try to avoid alcohol.
* Alcohol across the city is relatively expensive compared to other costs, and the party scene just isn’t all that exciting. Instead, consider a shisha pipe with a group of friends rather than a night out.
* There are a few decent cafes tucked in the Sultanahmet area, but by and large the options are tourist-central are overpriced and not all that great. Take a tram ride in a few stops either direction and you’ll generally find much better and cheaper.
Accommodation. Property is expensive in Istanbul, and this is reflected in accommodation costs. A bare-bones dorm for 15 Lira is possible, but don’t expect much in cleanliness or comfort. From 25 Lira you can expect nicer rooms, luggage storage, and breakfast included as well. Many guesthouses in Sultanahmet will have fantastic views from a rooftop terrace, often the same place breakfast is served. Most budget guesthouses are located in the Taksim and Sultanahmet areas. Sultanahmet is more of a tourism scene and Taksim more appropriate for partiers, so plan accordingly.
(One other consideration: there are currently over 47,000 registered Couchsurfers in Istanbul. However, anecdotal evidence reports that without careful screening of potential hosts a female traveling solo will have the most luck finding a host… Make sure to spend time looking for a compatible couch host.)
Transport. Getting around in Istanbul should be one of your smallest expenses. Public transport leaves from Ataturk Airport to the city center for 6 Lira, or from the city center a one-way ride in either direction is 3 Lira. With an ‘Istanbul Card’ prepaid card, public transit is 30% cheaper.
Taxi fares are also reasonable, but like any big city be sure to bargain. A taxi from Sultanahmet to Taksim at night should run 15 – 20 Lira, and from Sultanahment to Ataturk airport around 40.
Sightseeing in Istanbul
Sightseeing can be expensive if you try to pack in too many tourist sites. Places like the Hagia Sophia (25 Lira), Basilica Cistern (10 Lira), Galata Tower (10 Lira), and Chora Church Museum (15 Lira) are not incredibly expensive by themselves but after seeing three or four in one day your budget will be done. Pick the ones you most want to see (hint: the author considered Dolmabahce and Topkapi Palaces extremely overrated) and space those out over a few days.
Better value tourist sites (places where you will want to stay longer but that cost less): Istanbul Archeological Museums (5 Lira), Public Bosphorus Ferry Cruise (25 Lira), and Princes’ Islands Bicycle Rental (10 Lira). All mosques in Istanbul are free to visit, as are the Grand Bazaar and Spice Bazaar. A novel option for most budget travelers, I ended up on a ‘Dinner with a Local Family‘ tour one night that was quite interesting as well.
ATMs and Cash
A lot of establishments involved in Istanbul’s tourism sector will accept credit cards. For cash needs, ATMs are prevalent throughout the city. Moneychangers are quite common as well, but often at extremely disadvantageous rates. *Updated Feb 2016, $1 US = 2.95 Turkish Lira.
Making the most of your time in Istanbul
Istanbul is a really interesting city, one of my favorite places to spend a few days wandering without many set plans. Spend some time at the major tourist areas, as there really is a lot to see in Sultanahmet and Fatih. Also make sure to make time to wander around less touristy neighborhoods like Samatya and Moda to get a closer look at what real life is like there and what the city feels like outside of that tourist bubble.
Looking to break free from the big city? Read more about Losing the Tourists in Eastern Turkey.