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While Istanbul is generally inexpensive for western tourists, you can still save more by visiting at the right time. The best time to visit is between September and May, when there are no summer crowds. If you want to really save money, however, come in January or February, when it’s really off-peak season. You’ll have to bring an overcoat, but winter in Istanbul is often mild and heavy snow is rare.
Bear in mind that Turkey is a Muslim country; during the holy month of Ramadan, the room rates rise because it is a hot spot for visitors from the Middle East. This usually doesn’t affect the prices of low-cost hotels, but you should check which days Ramadan falls before your visit to make sure.
While arriving without a booking is not advisable in the peak season, there are plenty of last-minute deals in the November – February period. Another option is to haggle at reception. Turks are always open to negotiation, and you can always bargain at the front desk.
There is plenty of affordable accommodation in popular places like Taksim, Galata, and Sultanahmet, but there are some neighborhoods outside the usual tourist trail that also offer great bargains. Aksaray is a few tram stops from the main tourist areas and has a good range of hotels with prices starting at $30 per night. It has a reputation for having a (rather underwhelming) red-light district, but the neighborhood makes up for it with cheap local and Arabic food and a multi-ethnic vibe.
Uskudar on the Asian side is a fantastic option. Safe, and with stunning views, Uskudar is a historic suburb with ferries which take you to the European side in 8 minutes. There aren’t many hotels, but you’ll find some good Airbnb options.
Turks are famous for their hospitality and make wonderful hosts, so it’s really worth taking a look at Airbnb. There are over 1,000 Airbnb listings for Istanbul, many of which are in the Taksim/Beyoglu/Galata area, but there are other lesser-known neighborhoods as well. While many of the centrally located apartments have higher price tags, you can still find some great bargains around the center and Sultanahmet. Also check some other neighborhoods like Uskudar, Kadikoy, Fener, Balat, and Fatih, all of which are interesting neighborhoods and have good transport options.
While Airbnb does have some real bargains, prices are pretty comparable with hotels. There are very few available for less than $35-40/night, which is just under what most budget-priced hotels would charge during winter.
Hostels are a good choice for those on a budget, as they are generally clean and well-managed. There are plenty to choose from, mostly around Abkiyik Caddesi, one of the busiest tourist areas in the old city. Look for one with a rooftop bar such as the Orient*, which provides an unbeatable view of the Blue Mosque.
There are some notable hostels outside of the old city, particularly in the trendy Galata neighborhood, where the hostels are newer and a little more upmarket. Here you’ll find World House*, which has one of the best hostel cafés in Istanbul. A few streets away is Rapunzel Guesthouse*, whose building dates back to 1872, but has a decidedly modern feel. It also has a women-only dorm. Sumo Cat* is a very hip little hostel, which features wall murals in all the rooms. Chambers of the Boheme* in Taksim will put you in the center of Istanbul’s clubs and pubs.
In Istanbul’s hostels, breakfast is usually a standard yet quite substantial Turkish breakfast, and is nearly always included in the price. Free wi-fi is another standard feature. Prices are very reasonable and range from TL21-45 for a dorm of up to 10 people, and TL42-80 for a private room.
Some of Istanbul’s most authentic attractions are open for free. Step back to the Ottoman Empire by visiting Istanbul’s many mosques, or soak up the atmosphere of the Spice Bazaar or the Grande Bazaar. One tip for bagging bazaar bargains is to wander around the back and sides of the bazaar, as many of the shops are actually cheaper than the ones inside.
If you buy a travel card, you can take endless ferry rides along the Bosphorus to visit some interesting and historical neighborhoods such as Eyup, which is home to the house of Pierre Loti, a French navy officer who made the Orient his home. There’s a wonderful walk past a cemetery to a coffee-house with spectacular Bosphorus views. Ortakoy offers an array of little bars, restaurants, and shops and is a great place to spend an evening.
Uskudar and Kadikoy on the Asian side are worth a visit. There are more locals on this side and the vibe is definitely less touristy. Go to Uskudar on a Friday and shop for bargains at the weekly neighborhood bazaar. While you’re there, hop on a bus to Kuzguncuk and view the quaint Armenian architecture, or visit the churches and synagogue.
Istanbul’s Bosphorus islands are a popular local landmark and are accessible by ferry from the European side. The best thing is that there are no cars. Instead, rent a bike, or travel by horse and cart. Istanbul can be a crowded and noisy city, and the islands are a great place to escape for some peace and quiet.
If parks are your thing, take a relaxed stroll through Gulhane Park, the home of the annual tulip festival in April.
Istanbul has two international airports: Ataturk on the European side, and Sabiha Gokcen on the Asian side, both of which are quite far from the city center. Taxis are readily available and reasonably inexpensive. However, due to Istanbul’s congested traffic, you could end up paying twice as much as you originally expected. A better bet is to use the airport bus service or Havatas, which takes passengers from both Airports to Taksim for around TL10. If you are staying on the Asian side, there’s also a service to Kadikoy.
There are plenty of Airport hotels around Ataturk Airport, although budget options are limited. You’ll find most them in Bakirkoy and it is fairly easy to find a room when you need it. Choices are a little more limited for Sabiha Gokcen, and most of the hotels are in Pendik, which is at least 7kms from the airport.
One of the first websites you should check out is Istanbul Eats (http://istanbuleats.com). The guys who make this site are American expats who care about one thing -- finding cheap and delicious food in places where you would never have thought to look. This site is the budget traveller’s food bible.
Istanbul’s museums are definitely worth checking out. They include the Topkapi Palace as well as the famous Hagia Sophia, a former basilica which is considered one of the seven wonders of the medieval world. Visiting all of them could hurt your wallet a little, so it’s a good idea to invest in a museum card (http://museumpassistanbuldistributor.com). If you plan to visit at least a couple of museums, the cost is worth it. There is also something called the Istanbul Tourist Pass, but the cost of the card is actually more than the total cost of the entry fee to the places it allows you to visit, so it doesn’t offer much value.
One site that is essential is the Municipality’s transport site (http://www.iett.gov.tr/en) which has information on public buses and metrobuses, and the discount travel card, which gives you access to discount travel on buses, ferries, metrobuses, the metro, trams, and the funicular. Download the app for information on the go. There is a separate website for checking ferries (http://sehirhatlari.com.tr/en).
With so many things to do, and places to stay, it's no wonder Istanbul is one of the world's favorite destinations. If you come during the off-peak months and take the time to wander out of the usual tourist haunts, you can look forward to an affordable holiday in one of the world's most fascinating cities. Check the flights and hotels listed on Hipmunk to finalize your arrangements.
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© 2015 Hipmunk, Inc. Hipmunk is a trademark of Hipmunk, Inc.
© 2015 Hipmunk, Inc. Hipmunk is a trademark of Hipmunk, Inc.