Istanbul – Top Backpacking Hacks for a Shoestring Budget

I was deeply fascinated by Istanbul after having read and re-read Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul – Memories And The City. Pamuk’s glorious anecdotes of his life in Istanbul and fine detailing of huzun (melancholy and nostalgia) in the timeless city had unknowingly resulted in a yearning for Istanbul for me. On this visit, I felt like I was living and breathing those experiences. After all, how do I introduce this humongous city straddling two continents? Over the course of 4-5 days spent in Istanbul; in my own customary style I was able to zero in on some hacks for backpacking for a shoestring budget.

With some research, you could be having breakfast in Sultanahmet, Istanbul with this view!!

How does one experience the vibe of a city as myriad and huge as Istanbul?

If I have to answer that in one line, I would suggest everyone should walk their way around Istanbul. There are numerous walks on offer that are a must for soaking in the vibe of Istanbul. Among them are 1. A walk along the Bosphorus where Europe meets Asia; 2. Walk around the old markets and open air cafes of Sultanahmet for a perfect mix of modern and heritage; 3. Walk along the busy corridors of the Grand bazaar and the Spice Market; 4. Feel of bustling and bursting energy of modern Istanbul on a walk through Istiklal Caddesi street.

It is imperative to wear good walking shoes and keep oneself energized on ample supplies of ‘Simit’ (freshly baked local bread, available for 1.5-2 TL), ‘Kestane’ (roasted chestnuts, available at a fixed price of 10 TL for 100 grams) and kebabs being sold by cart vendors across Istanbul. Then there are those inviting cafés serving world famous Turkish coffee and delicious tea for the parched throat. When you get tired of walking, take a ferry ride on the Bosphorus at the golden sunset hour and marvel at the city washed in crimson and orange hues. 

Gala Tower as seen from the Bosphorus cruise. Mind you, it is very windy and cold on the ferry so its best to be carry a jacket and don’t forget the wine!

Here, I am noting down some of my personal experiences from around Istanbul which will come in most handy for planning a budget trip :

Currency Exchange to Turkish Lira at Airport

As soon as you land in Istanbul, exchange currency for at least a nominal amount like 50-100 TL (TL=Turkish Lira) at the airport. The AKBank counter inside the airport has good exchange rates (exchange rates at airports aren’t very good, so you don’t want to burn a lot of money in currency exchange and should only change the bare minimum required). Do not exchange your currency at Travelex; they have the most atrocious exchange rate!

Remember to check the latest exchange rate before boarding the flight to Istanbul. We were carrying Euros since my basic research had revealed that both Euro and Turkish Lira could easily be used as interchangeable currency in Istanbul and also across Turkey. Also, remember to take the exchange of 50-100 Turkish Lira in small denominations of 10 Lira notes so that you can make use of it for the first step of money saving; reaching Istanbul city from the Airport.

Exchanging Turkish Lira in Istanbul

Once you have reached somewhere in Istanbul, money changers are in plenty across the touristy areas of Sultanahmet, Grand Bazar and Taksim Square. Most offer very competitive rates. Eg: Euro to Turkish lira on xe is 6.50, these money changers offer a rate of Euro to Turkish Lira at 6.35 to 6.44. Remember that this rate includes all the commissions and charges and is a flat rate. So for 100 Euros you should get about 635 to 644 TL. Money changers are also prominent on the tram line from Cemberlitas to Kabataš.

Remember that these freshly baked breads come free with any dish that you order across Istanbul and Turkey.

Public Transport From Istanbul Airport to Sultanahmet 

As soon as you exit the confines of Istanbul airport, signboards with ‘Shuttle Transfer’ to Sultanahmet/Taksim are scattered across the Exit gate. The price for the shuttle transfer ranges from 15 Euros to 25 Euros per person (Approx. 90-150 TL per person). The temptation to take this organised shuttle transfer is justified since you have just arrived in Istanbul but if you want to save money, do not take the shuttle transfer.

From Ataturk Airport, after getting the Istanbulkart issued we took the metro towards Yenikapi and got down at Aksaray station; then crossed the road to reach the tram station at Yusufpaša and took the tram to Sultanahmet. This way, we spent lesser than 10 TL per person and made it to our hotel in Sultanahmet in 1 hour.

Surreal evening colours of Istanbul.

I’m not sure how the metro from the New Istanbul Airport in Arnavutköy operates but have been reliably told that the Havaist buses are currently serving all parts of Istanbul and the charges are around 15 TL to 20 TL per person for different routes.

Ask Rates in both Euro and Lira

Most establishments in the touristy part accept Euro, US Dollar and Turkish Lira. Best is to compare the rates in Euro and TL, and pay in whatever turns out to be comparatively cheaper.

Example : Suppose you are shopping for shoes at one of the small outlets in Sultanahmet. The Euro to TL exchange rate is 6.00. The shop owner will most likely quote rates in TL, say 100 TL. After a bit of bargaining you arrive at a sum of around 70 TL and ask the price in Euro also. He may quote 10 Euros. Therein lies your chance to save valuable money. Not only do you save on exchange rate conversion that you would have invariably lost had you converted from Euro to TL, but also a neat 10 TL saved on the 70 TL price. For smaller establishments and non-touristy parts of the city, its better to carry TL.

Wine, anyone? Thats why the expert tip of carrying one wine bottle wherever you go!

Save those big bucks on cab. Buy the IstanbulKart 

IstanbulKart is your multi-purpose metro card that works like a debit card. The cost of Istanbulkart card is 10 TL (with a balance of 4 TL) and it works on the Metro Line, the Tram Line, in the buses and also on the ferries. Even the 6 TL spent on Istanbulkart is refundable at some shops. Istanbulkart can be used for upto 5 people; i.e 5 people can use the same Istanbulkart and the prices for the second passenger are sometimes lesser too! So, first passenger is charged 2.40 TL per ride & for the second one it only costs 1.60 TL. Fares on the Istanbul metro line are not based on distances, so what it means is that you can travel even long distances for 2.40 TL.

You get charged only when you register in and out of the metro / tram stations or change the mode of transport from a metro to a tram or ferry or bus. Istanbulkart can be purchased from automated card machines at almost every metro, tram, ferry station across Istanbul. Keep an eye out for ‘Biletmatik’ machines that can issue Istanbulkart and you can also reload your Istanbulkart balance on this machine.

Elated to see this Rajasthani design somewhere in Turkey. Very very expensive at the quoted price of 70 Euros! Better to buy in Rajasthan only at 600-700 Rupees.

Stay connected through AllDayWifi Internet 

In an unknown country, google maps has become our first point of contact. So either you get international roaming activated on your phone, or use the free airport wifi to figure out the directions to your hotel / hostel or buy a Turkish Sim Card / data card for internet. I’d highly recommend booking an #AllDayWifi device before you land in Turkey.

All Day Wifi is a cute looking palm-sized wireless device that connects internet with your phone through a wifi network. #AllDayWifi comes with a charger in the box, a power bank and password for the AllDayWifi device. The device can be delivered at your hotel or any other convenient location depending on your requirement.

Prices for AllDayWifi start from around $7 per day so it’ll cost around USD $70 for a 10 day trip. If you put your intended location in Google Maps; the route suggested will specify options for metro/tram/bus and will also include live locations of these transport options so that you can reach your destination in the minimum effort possible.

Note : I collaborated with #AllDayWifi but the experience was genuinely fantastic.

Take the intercity buses to travel long distances

While the idea to take intercity buses may seem expensive when compared to flights, it isn’t actually so as they offer a world class travel experience. The bus to be expensive can be said to be especially true for Turkey in terms of comparing the costs for buses and flights. Sometimes the fares for flights are much cheaper than bus fares (yes, you read that right!).

These small carts sell simit, kestane, steamed corn, freshly squeezed juice and are ubiquitous around touristy sites in Istanbul.

Although some destinations have airports that are far away from the main city, and that may make buses a better proposition than flights. For e.g.. Cappadocia airports like Kayseri and Nevsehir are at a distance of 40-80 kms away from Cappadocia. Airport transfers are very expensive and a seat in the shuttle costs around 40 TL. Taxis and cabs are much more expensive.

The buses are decked with airplane-like seats with enough leg space and a butler serving drinks (juice, tea, coffee) and snacks throughout the bus journey. Also, taking a night bus saves the hotel stay cost while offering a comfortable sleep experience. Therefore, it might seem expensive and time consuming at the outset, but the bus journey ends up being more economical than a flight. We tried Metro Bus and Kamil Koç and also noticed that Pamukkale and Ulusoy buses looked swanky and nice and I will recommend all of them.

Also check : Villa Life on the Mediterranean Coast in Kas, Turkey

All the buses depart from Otogar (Bus station is called Otogar in Turkish) which can be easily accessed by the metro. There are many travel agents who can enable the booking of a bus ticket to Cappadocia/Ankara/Bodrum/Antalya/Trabzon/Gaziantep among other places. I’d recommend booking tickets through the official bus company’s ticket counter around 2-3 days in advance as there is usually a indirim (discount) on tickets booked in advance!

No matter how many times you have seen it – an entirely different feeling to see these morning colours for real.

Correct Price for a Bosphorus Ferry Ride

In his widely read memoir, ‘Istanbul – Memories and the City’, Orhan Pamuk defines the Bosphorus as his companion on sad days. He writes, ‘Life can’t be all that bad, I’d think from time to time. Whatever happens, I can always take a long walk along the Bosphorus.’ The Bosphorus connects the black sea with the sea of Marmara, and the sparkling blue waters of Bosphorus shine in between the Asian and European side of Turkey. Ferry rides in the Bosphorus at the golden hour of sunset are equally popular among the tourists as well as the locals.

For first time tourists, the most convenient way to board a ferry for a Bosphorus boat cruise is to get a ticket from one of the multiple vendors in and around Sultanahmet square. They also arrange for a pick up and drop from your hotel. But that could cost a bomb, especially for us Indians, as the quoted price is in Euros (the lowest they quoted was 50 Euro per person!). Finding it abysmally high for a simple boat ride, we left it for another time. While having lunch the same day, we got an idea from the locals of asking their pick up spot for the ferry ride, with the language troubles we could only grasp one word – Eminönü.

We took the tram to the European side of the city, and got down at Eminönü, the harbour station, and found a guy selling ferry rides for 25 Turkish Lira per person (Approx. INR 350), we agreed a price for 20 Lira per person, and voila, we were cruising on the Bosphorus in no time. Witnessing the orange hues spread across the monuments of Istanbul is an experience worth cherishing. P.S. – Don’t forget to carry your own bottle of wine and enjoy the Istanbul skyline like never before! Carefully pack the wine glasses and don’t break them!

Ask the locals where do they eat Dondurma and someone will offer to take you to their preferred place – usual price for this is 5 TL. Avoid the touristy stalls in Sultanahmet that sell Dondurma for as much as 20TL! Just take the videos instead.

Carry your own bottle of wine, wherever you go

For us, Turkey turned out to be the wine country we had been looking for since a long time. Despite high government taxes on alcohol, a bottle of good quality wine would typically start from 15-20TL. One could end up buying award winning Turkish wines for as little as 30TL (INR 400). But if one wanted to have a glass of wine at a bar or a café, it would turn out to be as expensive as it would be at any other place in India or the world.

So another hack we discovered was – carry your own wine bottle wherever you are going. Turkish people don’t mind you drinking your own wine while dining or sitting in their premises or restaurant (which doesn’t serve alcohol). They are, in fact, more than happy to lend you a wine opener, and the right wine glass, which elevates your wine drinking experience to another level. Imagine sitting in an open air café and enjoying fine quality wine watching the world go by!

Usual breakfast spread at a hotel in Istanbul and Turkey. The Turkish take their breakfast seriously and it is good to have this great variety early in the morning to prepare you for a grand day of wandering around the streets of Istanbul.

As a matter of fact, we slurped off more than 2 bottles of wine per day on an average while travelling in Turkey. On the Bosphorus ferry ride, we saw other passengers asking the management where they could have the wine too, looking at us sipping our wine! P.S: My favourites are Kalecik Karasi and Ocuzgozu Bogazkere. Psst. The best places to buy liquor in Turkey are the Tekel shops.

Shop at the local markets in other cities

While we roamed around the markets of Istanbul at length, we got our best bargains at the local markets in Kas and Urgüp in Cappadocia. Invariably we didn’t quite like the products in the touristy markets like Sultanahmet. Our best shopping experience was the weekly bazaar in Kas which was a truly local affair with separate enclosures for vegetables and fruits, clothes, home decor, accessories and even small stalls making fresh Gozleme. In case you are looking for branded stuff, shop at LC Waikiki and Zara. In fact, we were a bit surprised after coming back to Istanbul that the prices compared to the quality were actually higher than in other places.

Live Music Experience at Istiklal Caddesi

Istiklal Caddesi Street is one of the liveliest streets in Istanbul and is a 3 km walk offering experiences in the form of bars, nightclubs, cafés, Baklava shops, boutiques, galleries, theatres, cinemas. To find authentic live music experiences, get off the main street and roam around the by-lanes. We followed the music and ended up finding a beautiful and cozy open air sit-out which had live music of our choice. Having read multiple stories of people being duped with humongous drinks bills in Istanbul, a safe bet was to keep paying for each round of drinks.

So, I got this handwoven double bed cover with tassels in a local bazaar market for a price of INR 1760. Upon asking for the same piece in a boutique shop in Kas, I was told final price not less than 100 Euros! Go, take your pick.

To end this post, I would say that Istanbul is one of the most fascinating cities in the world and is a heady mix of old and new. Having evolved from its days as Constantinople and an important trade centre, having seen the rise and fall of Byzantine and Ottoman empire, the city has a lot to offer the curious visitor. Take your time to explore the city at ease; hopefully the above tips will be helpful in saving some precious money so that you can stay longer on the road!

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16 thoughts on “Istanbul – Top Backpacking Hacks for a Shoestring Budget

  1. Looks like you had a great experience in Istanbul. I have never been there before and would love to visit Istanbul someday. Thanks for sharing your wonderful guide. Keep blogging! 🙂

  2. It is often cheaper to use your ATM card, depending on how much you withdraw at one time. Sometimes you have to search a bit to find a bank which does not charge a processing fee on a foreign card.

  3. I read your posts and get afflicted with a serious case of wanderlust. Turkey has always been on my bucket list because of the history it has seem. Let’s hope I get to experience Turkey someday

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