Istanbul is a thoroughly modern place, but it traces its roots back to 660 B.C. It’s the former seat of the opulent Byzantine and Ottoman empires and is divided into European and Asian sides by the Bosporus Strait, offering a wealth of history and stunning scenery.
Entry to imperial palaces, museums and most other monuments and sites is not free, and “Istanbul prices” are notoriously higher than the rest of Turkey. Still, residents say that the most pleasurable pastimes in Istanbul — such as walking along the Bosporus or through the Grand Bazaar — cost next to nothing. Here are five things to do in Istanbul that are free.
• Time travel walk: Take an estimated one-hour long walk from Taksim Square into Istiklal Avenue and down to the Galata Bridge for a time-travel experience. Taksim, considered the city’s main business and entertainment center, hosts a monument to Turkey’s ubiquitous national hero, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, and other founders of the modern Turkish Republic.
Istiklal, once home to Christian traders and European diplomats, is still lined with consulates and churches. The bustling area is alive well into the night with street performers, peddlers and music coming from shops and cafes. Walk past Tunel, the subway line dating back to 1875, to the Galata Tower, a stone medieval observation tower, and Galata Bridge spanning Istanbul’s Golden Horn waterway.
• Spice market and grand bazaar: Across the Galata Bridge, on Eminonu Square, is the 17th century Spice Market, or the Egyptian Bazaar, with stalls beautifully displaying spices, dried fruit, nuts, apple tea, essential oils, and “Turkish Delight” candy.
A 20-minute walk leads to Beyazit Square, home to the 15th century Grand Bazaar. Listed among the United Nations’ World Heritage sites, the Bazaar consists of a maze of covered streets and alleyways with some 4,500 boutiques selling traditional crafts, carpets, leather goods and jewelry.
• Mosques and churches: Istanbul is scattered with religious sites and most of them, particularly Muslim and Christian houses of worship, are free. There are many to choose from but the Sultanahmet Mosque, better known as the Blue Mosque, in the historic Sultanahmet district should be on top of anyone’s list. The mosque stands out with its six minarets and a cascade of domes.
• Walk along the Bosporus: The narrow waterway — lined with Ottoman palaces and waterside mansions called “yali” — connects the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara and bisects Istanbul into European and Asian sides. Scores of large oil tankers, cargo ships, and other vessels sail through the waterway each day. The best stretch for a walk is on the European side of the shore from the small former waterfront village of Ortakoy to the 15th century Ottoman fortress of Rumelihisar.
• Princes’ Islands: Though visitors have to splurge on a cheap ferry ride (around $2) to get there, the Princes’ Islands in the Sea of Marmara are a throwback to Turkey’s multicultural past. The islands were initially a place of exile during the Byzantine era, but Turkey’s Christian and Jewish minorities eventually settled there. The four main islands are today weekend retreats for Turks looking to escape the hustle and bustle of the city. With some exceptions, motor vehicles are not allowed on the islands and the main forms of transport are horse-drawn carriages and bicycles.