Enjoy a Luxury Weekend in Istanbul, Turkey on a Budget.

A cultural traveller can also travel first class, but will do it with in a historically interesting way!

To enjoy a luxury city break in Turkey’s largest city is all about a few key things. Hotel, transportation, shopping and eating. In Istanbul, you can do this for the same amount of money as a small budget trip to Denmark. So my sister and I splurged out on a luxury weekend.

The view from our room - seriously

TRANSPORTATION

Getting from the airport 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. 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.

There’s an historic tram going up and down Istiklal, but it was more for fun and called Nostalgic Tram. Like other trams they began as horse-driven trams, which seems so stupid now, but made great sense back then.

But we didn’t just use Uber, but also took a normal cab and the normal tram. The metro is only from 1989 and not interestingly decorated, but works well. Taking the public transportation system makes double sense, because the traffic is dense and many roads are too narrow for cars. 

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.

HOTEL

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. But 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…

Normally, I don’t recommend just hanging out in the hotel’s bar, spa or patisserie (yes, it had a patisserie), but in this case Hemingway apparently drank whisky in the Orient bar. Soo… It’s culture you know…

FOOD & DRINK

Turkey 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. For drinks it’s 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 there 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.

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.

Great food is luxury, and it doesn’t have to be in fancy restaurants.

Turkish delights is half-price, but I eat more than twice as much as at home, so there’s really no saving here…

SHOPPING

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€.

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 signet rings engraved with our names 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.

Me and my shopping bags....

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. 

There are of course a lot of fake shoes and Gucci bags,  but with prices at 5€ for Nike shoes – you get it. I payed 40€. 

WELLNESS

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.

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. For budget, try a local one, but remember to bring your own slippers, hamam towel (which you of course just bought) and soap. And also to be the same gender as your fellow traveller, since it’s women only. If you’re a couple, you’ll have to find a more touristy one.

But if you can spare 55€,  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. 

The ceiling in the hamam

Again: don’t go for the first the best. Seek out one of the old hamams. The one near Hagia Sofia is old, but also extremely expensive. The recently restored Kilic Ali Pasa 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.

  • Arrive and get some warm hand towels and a cold drink
  • Change into hamam towel and slippers
  • Have someone pour warm water over you
  • Lay for 20 min on a warm massage bench
  • Scrubbing and soaping and rinsing and massaging
  • Dry off and relax with some mint tea

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…

If you’re into Turkey head for the coast and Take a day trip from the beach to the ancient city of Perge, or if you want more luxury join an ancient tradition and travel for great spa resorts!

Do you ever splurge out when travelling?