Exchange rates are very favorable these days for travelers visiting İstanbul with dollars, euros or pounds in their pocket, though inflation keeps creeping (sometimes jumping) ever-upward to try and keep pace. You can feast on street food for pocket change, and the city’s marvelous mosques and parks are just a few of its attractions that can be visited at no cost at all.
Admire the architecture of mosques
İstanbul's Ottoman mosques top the seven hills of the Old City and adorn many streets. These architectural wonders are open to everyone regardless of their religion, but non-worshippers should avoid going inside at prayer times, which are displayed near the entrance. All visitors must dress modestly, with women covering their heads.
The elegant Süleymaniye Mosque has a grand complex of buildings around it, and an equally impressive perch overlooking the Golden Horn to Beyoğlu. Tucked away in the bustling market streets of Eminönü, the intimate Rüstem Paşa Mosque boasts wonderfully rich tile work.
Sample the contemporary art scene
Turkey’s banks and business dynasties have funded the creation of some top-notch cultural centers, primarily in the Beyoğlu area. Their largesse means many can be visited for free, including SALT Galata (and its sister institution SALT Beyoğlu), Yapı Kredi Kültür Sanat, Akbank Art, the Koç University Research Centre for Anatolian Civilizations and the İstanbul Research Institute.
The Pera Museum offers free admission every Friday between 6 pm and 10 pm; there is also free admission on Wednesdays for students. On the banks of the Bosphorus, the Sakıp Sabancı Museum offers free entry to all on Wednesdays.
Contemporary art galleries such as Mixer, Anna Laudel and Galerist are always free to browse.
Many piles of spices in different shades of yellow, orange, brown and red, all with tags indicating the name of the spice and the price
Browse through the busy markets
Locals love to shop! The hundreds of traditional street markets in İstanbul retain a loyal following, even when there are many modern malls to choose from. Explore the sprawling Grand Bazaar for both treasures and tat. Alternatively, get a sense of vibrant local life in the streets around the side and back of the Spice Bazaar in Eminönü and at the Kadınlar Pazarı in Fatih. The famous produce market in Kadıköy runs every day except Sunday. On Wednesdays, the best market to browse is in the streets surrounding the Fatih Mosque. On Saturdays, head for Feriköy for Turkey’s first organic bazaar.
No matter which market you visit, you’ll find that each vendor carefully arranges their colorful displays of olives, produce, dried fruit and nuts, fish, cheese, pickles and much more, making for great photographic opportunities.
Relax in parks and gardens
Two favorite local pastimes are picnicking and promenading, and there are some lovely parks and gardens open to the public. Gülhane Park – once part of the Topkapı Palace gardens – is particularly beautiful.
Take a stroll around the historic Hippodrome in Sultanahmet; visit hilly Yıldız Park in Beşiktaş; and the gardens around Hıdiv Kasrı. Emirgan Park on opposite shores of the Bosphorus is very family-friendly.
Gülhane and Emirgan Parks are two of the most popular spots to enjoy the annual İstanbul Tulip Festival in April when millions of bulbs planted around the city bloom in a riot of colors. Maçka Park in Şişli is a favorite place for locals to while away a sunny weekend afternoon, as is the Moda shoreline in Kadıköy, where the sunset views are spectacular.
Savor the serenity of churches
İstanbul has a surprising number of still-functioning Christian churches, many with great historical significance. Patriarchal Church of St George in Fener is maybe the best known of these, as the symbolic headquarters of the Greek Orthodox Church. Perhaps the most distinctive, though, is the nearby Church of St Stephen of the Bulgars, constructed from cast-iron pieces shipped to İstanbul from Vienna. None of these churches charge an official entry fee.
Lesser-known but still lovely houses of worship include the tiny All Saints Moda Church on a leafy residential street in Kadıköy, and the Üç Horan Ermeni Kilisesi, an Armenian church with an incongruous location in the Beyoğlu Fish Market.
Marvel at Byzantine monuments for free
The 4th-century Aqueduct of Valens, which today towers over a multi-lane roadway, once carried water into İstanbul from north of the city and is still an impressive sight. Many of İstanbul’s Byzantine churches were converted into mosques after the Ottoman Conquest in 1453 and still function as such, including the Little Aya Sofya and the Gül Mosque.
Other Byzantine monuments that can be visited for free include two beautifully restored cisterns in Sultanahmet – the Şerefiye Sarnıcı (Theodosius Cistern) is one; the other can be found in the basement of the Nakkaş carpet store – and the historic city walls built during the reign of Emperor Theodosius II. The best place to see the latter is around Edirnekapı in the Western Districts.