Updated July 2023
A cultural traveller can also travel first class, but will do it in a historically interesting way! And what better place to do it than in this epic city: Istanbul!
To enjoy a luxury city break in Türkiye’s largest city formerly known as Constantinople is all about a few key things. Sights, hotel, transportation, shopping and eating. In Istanbul, you can do this for the same amount of money as a small budget trip to Denmark. Even though, the prices have jumped since I first visited, it’s still a cheap country to visit.
Getting from the airport to Istanbul center is the first thing that sets a budget trip apart form a luxury.
Sure, a taxi is only 8€, but you have to find one first. Make sure it’s a registered one and not a fake one dropping you somewhere. Get small notes beforehand, so you can give exact change or it will be “no change sorry”. Even though you make sure a meter is ticking, then you follow the route on your phone to make sure the driver doesn’t drive a huge detour.
On our first visit, we just took an Uber – a black transporter with leather seats, charger for your iPhone and toned windows. It was 11€. On the way back to the airport, we had the hotel call a taxi and there was no problems. So maybe the rumours are only justified when arriving.
The metro and the tram are 1€, but you’ll stand all the way. There are automatic ticket machines taking notes, and the system is pretty easy to use.
FREE SIGHTS IN ISTANBUL
The Blue Mosque or Hagia Sophia are hard-hitting top attractions. With good reason. Since my last visit, Hagia Sophia turned from a museum back to mosque again. One good thing about it: now it’s free. The bad thing: it closes for prayer.
Hagia Sophia is epic! Definitely one of the world’s great monuments. Originally built as a Christian church (532–537), but then became a mosque, a museum, and now a mosque again. Christian and Islamic symbols are both present – especially look for the Byzantine mosaics. Unfortunately, on my second visit, the upper gallery wasn’t accessible.
Right across built to match the Hagia – and to top – is one of the absolutely most beautiful buildings IN THE WORLD. The Blue Mosque or rather the Sultanahmet Camii.
It was finished in 1617 and is known as the Blue Mosque because of the blue tiles inside. The first time I went, the interior were full of scaffolding. But this time, I really got the full monty.
Both mosques are part of the same UNESCO World Heritage Site: The historic areas of Istanbul.
If you follow me on Instagram or read my articles, you know I’m kind of dark tourist. So I will highlight another free sight, that many miss despite it being right next to these two giant attractions. Also free to enjoy.
The burial site of the Ottoman Sultans is magnificent and there are only few visitors. They house the sarcophagi of 5 sultans and their family members including Sultan Ahmed Khan and Murad IV. Some murdered by their own family members. Yikes!
The Galata bridge across the strait of Bosphorus is a great place for people watching. All day and especially in the evenings, you’ll find people fishing from the bridge.
HOTEL IN ISTANBUL
The second, but even more important element is the hotel. As a cultural traveller: don’t just take the most expensive one. You have to go for the most historical important one, that is also the highest standard -like Pera Palace.
If Hemingway, Jackie O, Greta Garbo, Agatha Christie, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Sarah Bernhardt, Hitchcock, Ian Fleming and Ataturk himself stayed here – it’s good enough for me. You get off the orient Express from Paris and go straight here…
Okay, this is not a cheap hotel. Compared to how inexpensive hotels and hostels in Istanbul are, we payed a fortune. In all for 3 nights for 2 people 535€ – including breakfast and entrance to the spa. And compared to what you usually pay for a standard hotel in London or New York – this is extremely reasonable. And it’s the best hotel, I’ve ever stayed at (and not my first 5-star hotel). Being upgraded for free didn’t make it any worse.
But you can easily find a 4-star hotel at half the price we payed. But then you miss out on this view… On my second visit I stayed at 4-star hotel since prices are now higher. But it was not worth it.
Leading to us one of the most important things to do in Istanbul (and Türkiye): The food!
FOOD & DRINK
Türkiye has some very delicious cultural traditions and good produces like oranges, pomegranates and cheese. The food tells you about the climate and the living conditions of the locals. And Istanbul has it all.
For drinks you have to try apple tea (super sweet), ayran (surprisingly good salted yogurt drink), raki (after dinner with fruit) and the local wine (the expensive red ones are the best).
77€! That’s the price for a 4-course dinner in the best restaurant in town. Mikla is #40 on the list World 50 best restaurants. At that price you could eat here every night compared to other big European cities. But as a cultural traveller the trick is to find restaurants serving local produced and traditional dishes. Hence: local wine, lambs heart and manti. The view from the restaurant at the top of a hotel is spectacular, so get a seating around sunset.
Great food is luxury, and it doesn’t have to be in fancy restaurants or expensive. A more down to earth place is Arada Cafe. 15€ for 2 very large breakfasts/brunches. But it’s busy in weekends. Go upstairs for the best tables.
The street food however, you can’t spend a lot of money on. In Istanbul you have to eat some köfte and durum as well – the durum wasn’t big, but it was only 1,5€. We had the best köfte in Sultanahmet Köftecisi near Hagia Sofia serving you since 1920. And the absolut best döner in Dönerci Sahin Usta. Expect to wit in line and have Turkish people asking you how you know of this place. One guy had driven 100 km just for that durum. And it was that good.
For a midtime snack, try the beloved chestnuts or the Simit – a circular bread with sesame seeds found across the former Ottoman Empire. It’s looks dry, but it’s not.
Turkish delights is half-price, but I eat more than twice as much as at home, so there’s really no saving here…
The story goes that Sultan Abdul Hamid I had it made for his 4 wives to please them. The Sultan called on local confectioners to create a candy or dessert they would love. A sticky sweet, cubed jelly with nuts, won the contest. The Sultan and his wives loved it – and I love it.The real name is Lokum – which in Danish is slang for toilet…
A really good place to get them is Afyon Lokum atölyesi, where only women work.
If not for anything else, head for Istanbul for the shopping. Gold, leather, spices and textiles for half the price.
Most of the high quality leather bags you buy at home are made in Turkey anyway, so cut out the middle man. I bought a really nice shopper with matching cross-body for 200€ when I first visited in 2019. By 2023, it was so damaged I bought a new rucksack in camel leather for around the same price. Probably paid to much…
Hamam towels whisper luxury. These were made of organic cotton and sold in Jennifer’s Hamam in the Arasta bazaar near the Blue Mosque. I recently bought some in Egypt as well, but this time I expanded the collection with a bathrobe. It’s soo nice. It makes my thin-cottoned kimono from Zimbabwe seem ridiculous (1. world problems…) You can probably find them cheaper somewhere else, but these are made on old looms. You know luxury – the cultural way. They are about half price compared to Denmark.
Especially gold is a good buy. We bought two gold signet rings engraved with our initials from the shop Sara (my name) in the Grand Bazaar. It took 20 min. to resize and engrave the rings, and it was at least half price from home. And we had apple tea while waiting.
Unfortunately, the price has also risen dramatically when I visited this year. More people were selling gold than buying. I bought a long gold necklace for a 100€. Not that cheap.
The Grand Bazaar is shopping Ottooman style and is actually one of the largest in the world since the 1700’s. There’s even a decent toilet, and since we didn’t have small change a Turkish woman payed for us. Again proving how nice the Turkish people are when you visit. When we finally gathered all our change, we tried to repay her, but she was almost insulted. Then we tried to give the change to the woman managing the toilet, but she refused as well. Extraordinary country.
You can also find contemporary designers like the Istanbul-based mindful clothing from A Hidden Bee, and the area between Sishane and Tophane stations near Karaköy has some fine small boutiques.
When I look back on the trip – lying on the big grey warm marble slab with my sister in our wet towels with ugly leather slippers, while 8 Turkish women chattered away as they were scrubbing 8 other women – it’s just make me smile. Nothing is more life empowering. So obviously, I also went here on my 2. visit to Istanbul.
Luxury and wellness often go together. No matter if you are travelling with a full pocket or on a shoestring, you have to go to the hamam in Istanbul. For real budget, try a local one, but remember to bring your own slippers, hamam towel (which you of course just bought) and soap. Notice, the hamams are divided into men and women. If you’re a couple, you’ll have to find a more touristy one at a hotel.
Again: don’t go for the first. Seek out one of the old hamams. The one near Hagia Sofia is old, but also extremely expensive. My favourite is the recently restored Kilic Ali Pasa that was built in 16th century and named after a general and was meant for the navy boys. It was sooo good. Clean, friendly staff and so relaxed.
But if you travel with your sister like me and can spare 55€ on an unforgettable experience, let someone else handle everything and avoid carrying a wet towel. And most important: some strong Turkish lady will scrub you, massage you and soap you in. For my 2. visit, the prices were the same. SOOO worth it! I can’t wait for my 3. visit.
You can also order extra massage, but this is more than enough to make you feel like your in heaven. I think you can actually see how relaxed we were afterwards…
Istanbul of course made it almost to the top of my Best & Worst Destinations from 2019 If you’re into Turkey head for the coast and Take a day trip from the beach to the ancient city of Perge.
Do you ever splurge out when travelling?