6 Budget slow travel tips for Istanbul

istanbul budget slow travel tips include a bosphorus boat ride

Last Updated on December 14, 2023 by Ellen

These budget slow travel tips for Istanbul can help stretch your money. At the time of our visit, Turkiye faced a financial crisis. The Turkish lira had lost 60 percent of its value against the dollar in the previous two years, and inflation was around 60 percent.

For us American travelers, costs were entirely manageable thanks to a strong dollar, although everything cost more for everyone because of inflation.

6 Budget slow travel tips for Istanbul

The general ideas behind some of these budget slow travel tips will work in many cities, but these are written specifically with Istanbul in mind.

1. Cheap(er) eats

The Turkish word ‘lokanta’ means restaurant. But when you see a lokantasi — it’s usually cheaper.

lokantasi meals in istanbul -a budget slow travel tip
Ellen & Theo eat in a lokantasi in Istanbul, September 2023.

A lokantasi is actually like a cozy cafeteria. You slide your tray down and make selections, and carry the tray to your table.

Some restaurants are a hybrid — they have the cafeteria-like selection area, but then a waiter brings the food to you.

Look for establishments with ‘lokantasi’ in the name, and no waiters for cheaper dining.

All restaurants frequently changed prices because of the currency crisis. Most menus had sticker prices, and some had none listed at all even though they weren’t ‘fine dining’.

Like everywhere, restaurants in tourist areas and hip neighborhoods are more expensive.

One standout restaurant worth mentioning: Arya Lounge. *Magnificent views*, good food at reasonable prices, decent service.

theo ellen istanbul skyline
Istanbul’s European and Asian sides behind Theo & Ellen at Arya Lounge.

We spent $40 on dinner. That’s way less than what we’d spend in Applebee’s back home (yuck).

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2. Cafe days (and nights)

Cafes are everywhere in Istanbul. These serve coffee, tea, and small bites. This is partly why it feels so European to me. Grab a drink and watch the world go by.

Try the street cafes tucked into neighborhoods instead of the chains found on busy tourist roads.

That said, the cheapest Starbucks in the world might be in Istanbul. A venti brewed coffee was $2.26, grande size was $2.04. Small Turkish cay (black tea, no milk) was only $1.

3. Everywhere is a photo op

picture montage istanbul

Photos are free to take, and everywhere you turn is worthy of a photo in Istanbul. Street cafes, mosques, cats, twisty roads and alleys, older classical buildings and newer construction, the Bosphorus, the Marmar Sea, ferries, and more.

If you love to take photos, you will love Istanbul.

4. Free events

Pay attention to local events calendars. During our month-long visit to Instanbul, the Beyoglu District had a cultural festival with free events like concerts and a demonstration with hundreds of whirling dervishes!

It’s easy to find free events in a major city like Istanbul with simple searches. I’ll share more examples here.

Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia was changed from a museum back to a mosque. As an active place of worship for Muslims, you simply wait on the line and enter with no admission fee. Touts approached us to offer ‘skip the line’ services and guided tours, but the line wait was only 20 minutes.

Inside, we visited the free (and excellent) information center inside. The government employee inside the mosque answered all of our questions and was super kind.

hagia sophia montage

Other mosques also allow free visits, provided you are respectfully dressed.

Free walking tours

There are something like more than 60 different tours on GuruWalk, which is what we generally use. You book a slot in a group and tip the guide after the tour what you feel the tour was worth. The suggested tip on most tours in Istanbul is the equivalent of $10.

free walking tour is a budget slow travel tip for istanbul

Other free walking tour sites work the same way, but some require credit cards for booking. GuruWalk does not and that is why we use them. (The ‘off the beaten path’ tour wasn’t that great in Istanbul, but the old town tour rocked!)

Special exhibitions

This last example was a limited event. The Istanbul International News Photography Awards exhibition for free. Since we retired from the news business, this really interested us. I mention it here because I found it by looking around – literally! I saw a billboard in Turkish and used Google search and translate to get the details.

5. Boats on the Bosphorus

There’s something magical about the Bosphorus Strait – the narrow body of water that separates Europe from Asia. And there are two ways to be on the water and in the middle of two continents.

One is a simple ferry ride. There a few routes that cross over. We went from Karakoy to Kadikoy. It cost less than $1. The ferries are comfortable, roomy compared to the bus, tram and metro. You’ll have to map out what you’re looking at on land and look up the information.

ellen and theo on the bosphorus strait
Ellen & Theo on a Bosphorus boat tour.

Or, take the Bosphorus boat tour and listen to recorded English explanations of the big sites. These run 90 minutes to two hours and cost the equivalent of $5.50 from the Eminonu dock.

We had the best seats by chance – corner last row on the driver’s side – for unobstructed views closest to land. Sunset was a great time to go.

6. Use ATMs with lower fees

I’ve done searches on which bank ATMs foreigners should use, but as usual, that current, reliable information is difficult to find. I’ve read some travel boards where foreigners are charged up to 8 percent of the withdrawal amount at regular bank ATMs in Turkiye – yikes!

One of our free walking tour guides told us the government banks didn’t charge outrageous ATM fees. He recommended Vakif Bank and Halk Bank as having low to no extra fees. We used Halk Bank.

I also tried Meta AI on WhatsApp for the first time. I can’t speak to the fees because we didn’t use them. Incidentally, I found it funny that Citibank and HSBC ‘affiliated banks’ popped up in the answer. I can’t help but wonder if that’s some sort of advertising…

meta ai travel expert 'lorena' gives atm tips

General ATM tips for budget slow travelers in every country on Earth:

  • Skip the local conversion option on ATMs
  • Use ATMs attached to banks whenever possible
  • We like Charles Schwab ATM cards for fee reimbursement


The real cost for experiencing budget slow travel to Istanbul is priceless. Our readers know we value experiences over things, and we enjoy life on our terms.

We hope you can use these ideas on your visit to this beautiful city! And if you have additional ideas to share, we’d love to read in the comment section below.

Life is Now!

UPDATE, DEC. 14, 2023: The Istanbul Modern Art Museum had free admission every Thursday from 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. at the time of publication on Oct. 1, and was included in the ‘Free Events’ section above. But the museum later changed the rules prevent foreigners on tourist visas from free entry. The updated rules are on their website.

Thanks for reading, “6 Budget slow travel tips for Istanbul.”

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2 thoughts on “6 Budget slow travel tips for Istanbul”

  1. We love GuruWalk! I hope you got Pinar for your Istanbul walk. She was awesome!

    For ATMs, if you ever get back to the States, we use the Charles Schwab investor checking account. All of our ATM fees are refunded, which was great in Türkiye because of the inflation. We could withdraw just enough for a couple of days and not get caught up with the ever depreciating currency.

    One trick we learned in both Istanbul and Buenos Aires was to look for recent menu pictures on Google Maps for restaurants we were interested in. While prices changed constantly, you could at least gauge high/medium/low on costs.

    Our favorite lokantası was Balıkçı Lokantası, https://maps.app.goo.gl/3M71DBCdKhU4jKdZA?g_st=ic

    1. If we’re in that neighborhood again we will definitely go to Balicki Lokantasi! Thanks 🙂 Great trick on Google maps. We got used to picture reading when we left the Philippines and discovered some places never reopened… And we do use CS, but we still try to get no/low fees since we use those cards *a lot.*

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