10 Budget Friendly Activities in Istanbul
Updated: Mar 26, 2019
With our time in Istanbul having coming to a close, here are some of our favorite experiences from this sprawling, ancient, beast-of-a-city. We stayed a week, which is really only enough time to scratch the surface and realize you could spend months exploring and finding something new each day.
Take any ferry and feed the seagulls following the boat.
The ferries are really cheap (less than 1$) and comfortable. We liked the ferry from the European to Asian side, but you could really take any of them. Go inside and buy a circular bread from one of the vendors, walk to the back of the ship, and throw some crumbs to the flocks of birds chasing the boat. If you’re lucky, there will also be musicians playing on the boat. On our last ferry, a performer gave a rousing edition of Elvis/UB-40 “Cant Help Falling In Love.”
Go see the whirling dervishes
Although tickets were on the pricey side, this was one of the most unique performances we’ve ever seen. The dervishes are a group of Sufi followers of Rumi, and this ceremony is their expressing of devotion and union with the divine. They spin in the same direction of the earth, the same direction that the earth rotates around the sun. The idea here is that everything in the universe is characterized by revolution, down to electrons circling the nucleus of an atom. By their ceremonial spinning, the dervishes are putting themselves on the same axis of rotation as the rest of creation.
We found the best place to see the dervishes is the Galata Mevlevi Museum. Performances are only on Sundays at 5pm. You can start buying tickets on Saturday -- it is good to buy these ahead of time, as sometimes the shows sell out.
Drink lots of fresh juice
There are juice stalls EVERYWHERE! The most popular are orange and pomegranate juice, but there are places with many other options. The juice is cheap (between $1-$2 for a large cup), and they squeeze it right in front of you.
Drink a Turkish coffee and get your fortune told
Wander around some back alleyways until you stumble into a tiny Turkish cafe, run by a friendly man with an enormous mustache. They will have some coffee on the stove, bubbling in tiny bronze cups. Drink it slowly, as the grounds have all sunk to the bottom, and if you aren’t careful they’ll end up in your mouth.
If you’d like, you can also get your fortune told at certain establishments around town. This is called ‘fal’, and costs about 10$. The fortune teller takes the grounds of your coffee and reads your future, based on the premise that you’ve transmitted your feelings and emotions into the grounds. No matter if you're a skeptic about this sort of thing, it’s a really cool experience either way.
We went to Symbol Cafe for this, which also included a beautiful terrace that offered expansive views of the whole city.
Go to the famous attractions: Blue Mosque, Hagia Sofia, Galata Tower
Yes, there will be a lot of tourists here, but for good reason. These are some of the most ancient and magnificent buildings in Turkey, and a if you visit, you’ll realize why they’re so popular.
Peruse a bookstore.
After walking around town you’ll see that Turks are a very cultured people, and they love their bookstores! But, if you don’t read Turkish, many of the shops won’t have anything for you.
Luckily, though, there are a couple of really good English bookstores in Istanbul. Our favorites are: Homer Bookstore, Robinson Crusoe, Pandora Bookstore
Walk around the Bazaars
(but don’t buy anything) (unless you really like it. And even then, pretend you don’t).
The big ones are clustered together: Grand Bazaar, Egyptian Bazaar, Spice Market. There are so many eye-catching items here, so don’t be afraid to peruse and talk to shopkeepers. Just be prepared for a lot of pushiness and some rudeness, especially if you’re a woman by yourself. Check out our more detailed post on markets here.
These Bazaars have almost any item you can imagine, and many you can’t. Get ready for sensory overload.
Drink a cup of pickle juice by the waterfront.
A cup of pickle juice costs 50 cents, on the Eminonu side of the Galata bridge. You’ll especially appreciate this digestion aid if you’ve been traveling for a long time and have all sorts of foreign things in your gut. Visit any of the little purple stands for a cup, and then sit down on a bench and watch life go on by. After, take a walk on the top part of the bridge, passing Turkish fisherman who are seemingly there every single day without fail.
Eat good, cheap, vegetarian food.
See our post here about vegan food in Istanbul here.
Make friends with cats
The people of Istanbul really respect and love their cats. The strays around the city are better taken care of than many of our own house pets. They put food out for them, create small shelters, and usually someone in the neighborhood has adopted them as their own.
Many of them are really friendly, so if you love felines, you’ll be in for an extra special treat.