The largest city in Turkey and the sixth largest in the world, Istanbul mixes the old world with the new as modern skyscrapers tower over ancient mosques. You could easily spend a fortune while travelling here, but you’ll have just as much fun if you keep that pocketbook closed and see the city on the cheap.
Walking Tour of the Old Town
If you want an inexpensive place to lay your head, the old town is filled with hostels and budget accommodations. Many hostels have private rooms and function much like a standard hotel so you can let go of the idea that cheap sleeps can only be found in a crowded dormitory.
There are several options for visiting the old town; ask your hotel if they have a walking map, download an itinerary from the internet or just set out with a map and an open mind. The stores are fun to visit and even though you may feel pressured to buy something (especially after having tea with a shopkeeper), you can always tell them you want to see the sights first. Many of the mosques are quite beautiful from the outside and the coffee shops make a great spot to stop and people-watch.
One of the largest mosques in the city, Süleymaniye dominates the old town and is one of the grandest of the old mosques. The gardens and minarets are striking and the inside of the building is breathtaking. Visitors are expected to take off their shoes and women must cover their heads, but headscarves are provided and you’ll be given a bag to use for your footwear. The stained-glass windows, mother-of-pearl inlays, painted walls and sheer size are so overwhelming that it can be disorienting. Take a few minutes to collect yourself and wander around the garden before returning to the street. (Free, donations requested)
The Sultan Ahmed Mosque, also called the Blue Mosque, has six minarets surrounding a main dome and eight secondary domes. It’s worth getting a look at even if you don’t want to go inside, but you should. The lower section of the interior is lined with Iznik ceramic tiles in flamboyant designs of flowers and fruits. The upper levels are covered in blue paint and the interior is lit by 200 stained glass windows. The mihrab is made of carved marble and the lamps, although less impressive after being stripped of their gems, are still designed to contribute to the decor of the interior despite having been added many years later. (Free, donations requested)
Originally built beneath a basilica, the cistern held water for the Great Palace of Constantinople and was abandoned when the rulers left the Palace. The cistern lat forgotten until it was accidentally rediscovered in 1545 when a scholar found residents that could miraculously obtain water by lowering a bucket into a space below their basement floors. Walkways allow visitors to walk through the cistern and view some of the more interesting columns that hold up the roof. (10 TL)
The Grand Bazaar almost defies description and is one of the oldest and largest covered markets in the world. Its 61 labyrinthine streets hold about 3000 businesses where shoppers can purchase clothing, artwork, fine jewelry or even pets. Dozens of alleyways branch off from more major throughways and even casual shoppers can easily spend half a day here enjoying the stores. (Free to a small fortune, depending on your restraint.)
The Spice Bazaar is a feast for both the eyes and nose as you sniff your way through bins of fresh spices and bright candies. This used to be the last stop for the camel caravans as they travelled the Silk Routes and it’s still a destination for serious spice and herb shoppers. Many stores sell dangerously tempting sweets and treats that can easily add up to several pounds of deliciousness, especially after you’ve sampled some of the best. (Free to a few pounds unless you bypass the candy)
Skip the pricier tours and hop a ferry boat for a water tour of the Bosporus. A ticket is cheap and you can take a ride to the Princes’ Islands to wander around. The islands were once an exile for Christians and Jews and are now often weekend retreats for busy Turks wanting to escape the city. Buyukada has a 12th century monastery to visit and Heybeliada has the Holy Trinity Monastery. If you’d like to go for a swim, get off at Burgazada where the best beach is. ($2-$3)