The 10 Best Ways to Spend $20 in Istanbul

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From haggling at the Grand Bazaar to touring underground architecture and traveling to Asia and back, few destinations offer the non-stop excitement of Istanbul, Turkey. And although this Turkish metropolis is known for its high prices more than its affordability, it can easily be explored and enjoyed on any budget. These 10 sights and activities in “The City of the World’s Desire” offer big memories for a little price.

#1. Hagia Sophia

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It may be flooded with tourists, but the Hagia Sophia museum, dating back to 537 AD, is worth a visit no matter how crowded it can get. The golden tiles, mosaics, calligraphic panes, marble cubes and columns are just some of the many architectural and artistic styles that will take your breath away.

Cost: 30 Turkish lira — about $15

#2. Basilica Cistern

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With so much history every where you look in Istanbul, you may not realize that it’s underneath you too. The Basilica Cistern is a former underground water reservoir that was built during the Byzantine Empire in 532 AD. There’s still water resting on the ground between the ancient columns, so you’ll probably see some carp swimming beneath the wooden platforms you’ll be walking in. This trip back to the sixth century is a must for curious travelers who like to get a little bit spooked.

Cost: 10 Turkish lira — about $5

#3. The Grand Bazaar

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Budget shopping doesn’t get much better than at Istanbul’s famous Grand Bazaar. You’ll have to hold yourself back from spending more than $20 at the over 3,000 unique shops and 60 covered streets that make up the Bazaar, but simply enjoying the bustling scene from one of the many cafes can be enough to get the historic Grand Bazaar experience.

Cost: Prices vary greatly based on what you’re seeking, but whatever you do, don’t forget to haggle.

#4. Visit a Real Hammam

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More widely known as Turkish baths, hammams are available everywhere from swanky tourist hotels to the more affordable Asian side of town. The expensive Turkish bath experience at your hotel isn’t the most authentic option, so resist the urge to be pampered in the comfort and convenience of your hotel. Turkish baths on the Asian side are far cheaper than those on the European side with Carsi Hamami, located right near the ferry stop, costing only $17 for entrance, a scrub and a massage. Famous (and often touristy) hammams on the European side like Cagaloglu and Çemberlitai Hamami cost roughly $27 for entry and much more for scrubs, massages and other treatments.

Cost: 32 Turkish lira (or $17) for a full treatment at Carsi Hamami

#5. Walk the Galata Bridge

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Time your walk across the Galata Bridge for sunset, and you’ll end up snapping photos long after the sun goes down. In addition to this being one of the most famed sunset spots in the city, the Galata Bridge is full of fishermen and street vendors for excellent people-watching. The restaurants and cafes underneath the bridge serve food and drinks day and night, making it the perfect place to enjoy a post-sunset meal.

Cost: Free

#6. Istanbul Modern Museum

Photo credit: AmiCalmant
Photo credit: AmiCalmant

Istanbul Modern Museum’s location along the Bosphorus is reason enough to visit, but the collection of modern Turkish art is what will make it one of the highlights of your Istanbul vacation. Spend your day browsing the variety of temporary and permanent art exhibits or catch an art-house film in the cinema, then stop for a bite to eat or a cup of coffee at the museum’s scenic restaurant and cafe.

Cost: 17 Turkish lira — about $9

#7. TurYol Bosphorus Cruise

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Cruise along the Bosphorus taking in some of Istanbul’s most famous sites from both the European and Anatolian sides. The TurYol cruises last about 1.5 hours, and they leave the port every hour, so you can buy your tickets on a whim and hop aboard without stressing about departure times.

Cost: 12 Turkish lira — about $6

#8. The Spice Bazaar

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If the Grand Bazaar overwhelmed your shopping senses, the Spice Bazaar, located in the Faith district of Istanbul, offers a more low-key shopping experience. The bazaar was once called the Egyptian Market because of the massive amount of goods shipped in from Cairo, but now the shops and vendors sell a variety of spices, soaps, lotions, dried fruits, produce and of course, touristy trinkets.

Cost: Visiting the Spice Bazaar is free, but if you’re looking to make a purchase, don’t forget to haggle.

#9. The Blue Mosque

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The Blue Mosque, also known as the Sultanahmet Mosque, is another one of Istanbul’s most prominent tourist attractions. And you’ll be so distracted by the beauty of the 260 stained-glass windows and 20,000 blue tiles that you won’t even notice the crowds of people admiring them with you. Unlike some other tourist attractions in Istanbul, the Blue Mosque is still active, so you’ll want to time your visit around when it’s closed to non-worshipers for the five daily prayers.

Cost: Free

#10. Visit Asia

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Istanbul is the only city in the world to cross two continents. The Asian side of Istanbul, also known as the Anatolian side, may not offer the same world-renowned tourist attractions as the European side, but visiting Europe and Asia in the same day is enough reason to cross the Bosphorus Bridge. And while you’re in Asia, take some time to relax at the Kadiköy daily market — near the ferry stop if you decide to take a boat instead of the bridge — to browse the bookstores, cafes and other quaint shops.

Cost: 3 Turkish lira per ferry ride — about $1.50

About the Author: Courtney McCaffrey

Courtney McCaffrey is a travel writer and editor based in Wilmington, N.C. In addition to writing, she lives for travel - seeing new places, experiencing new cultures and surfing new waves.

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