You’re visiting Istanbul to explore this magnificent city in all of its glory? It was quite literally the centre of the world for more than 1000 years, so there’s no lack of things to see and do in Istanbul. With all of that history, you’re probably concerned about the hit to your wallet to visit all of these amazing historical attractions. Not to worry, we spent a month in Istanbul on a tight budget and we’re here to help alleviate those concerns. We found lots of cheap things to do in Istanbul and we are happy to share 11 interesting and fun locations and attractions you can see for absolutely free (or practically free!)
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Hagia Sophia, The Blue Mosque & the Hippodrome
The Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque and the ancient Hippodrome are probably at the top of everyone’s list of things to see in Istanbul. We’ve included them together as they are a stone’s throw away from each other and you can definitely visit all three in one day if you choose. You could also split it up if you’re a big architecture buff and you want to spend more time soaking in the magnificence of the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia (they share a courtyard) on their own.
An architectural marvel, unrivalled by any building we have ever seen. When we turned a corner and this wondrous structure appeared before our eyes for the first time it actually took our breath away. The Hagia Sophia often appears in lists of the most beautiful buildings in the world and for good reason.
Originally built in 537 CE it was the largest cathedral in the world for more than 1000 years. When the Ottoman Empire finally succeeded in toppling Constantinople in 1453 it was converted into a mosque. It was the Ottomans who built the four beautiful minarets you see standing around it today.
Not to be outdone, the interior is just as magnificent as the exterior. Adorned with numerous Christian and Islamic murals and intricate marble carving work, you could spend hours just spotting the expertly crafted details.
Be sure to follow the dress code for your visit: Your shoulders and knees should not be exposed and women must cover their hair. If you forget, there are scarves and wraps for sale just outside the mosque.
Sultan Ahmed Mosque AKA The Blue Mosque
This masterpiece was completed in 1616. The Blue Mosque’s interior is renowned for it’s beautiful stained glass windows and intricate tile-work, but due to the ongoing renovation, we didn’t get to see any of it! The exterior however is as breathtaking as the Hagia Sophia and standing in the central courtyard between them is to be surrounded by two of the most spectacular buildings in the world. If you’re in the courtyard during the call to prayer, the call alternates between the two mosques is an experience that gave me goosebumps. I certainly recommend it. Once again, note the dress code!
Sultanahmet Square aka The Hippodrome of Constantinople
Originally constructed in the early 3rd century CE the Hippodrome was later renovated by the emperor Constantine in the 4th century. Many of Istanbul’s landmarks were constructed by Constantine after he christened the city Constantinople (previously Byzantium) and declared it the new capital of the Roman Empire. The Hippodrome was used as a horse-racing track and the outline is marked by paving stones today. The Hippodrome had the capacity for 100,000 spectators and was modelled after the Circus Maximus in Rome. While you wander the Hippodrome, imaging ancient Roman games, you can also see the landmarks that were placed here by the emperors to adorn their capital. These include the Walled Obelisk and the Serpent column. A highlight is The Obelisk of Thutmose III, it’s almost 3500 years old! It stood in Egypt for almost 2000 years before being moved to the hippodrome by Theodosius in the 4th century CE.
Take a Day Trip To Üsküdar
Üsküdar is a scenic residential municipality on the Asian side of Istanbul. You could start in the northern section of Üsküdar and visit the area called Kuzguncuk. Lined with cafes and restaurants down the main street, you will no doubt want to stop to take photos of the side streets and the brightly coloured houses dotting almost every laneway you pass.
Next, wander south along the Üsküdar coast walkway towards the ferry terminals and busy waterfront area. The entire waterfront area is filled with shops and restaurants as well as a metro station. This picturesque waterfront area is filled with several gorgeous Mosques and you can watch the locals fishing in the Bosporus Strait.
While you are enjoying the busy waterfront, be sure not to miss the Maiden’s tower. The original tower that stood at this location once held a steel chain that spanned across the entire Bosporus strait to the city of Constantinople. The current iteration of the Maiden’s tower was built in the 1700’s. There is also a cafe/restaurant inside if you want to stop for a bite. Cost: Free
Visit the Grand Bazaar
The Grand Bazaar is one of the oldest and biggest covered shopping areas in the world. In operation since 1461 this labyrinth of over 4400 shops is certainly on your list of things to do in Istanbul. We aren’t the kind of people who enjoy shopping when we travel, but wandering through the bazaar is an experience.
Dodge the dozens of tenacious carpet vendors and have a stroll around to snap some pics of the beautiful textiles and lanterns for sale. The fountains, gates and beautiful ceilings of the building make it a sight you shouldn’t miss. Cost: Free
Not far from the Grand Bazaar the Süleymaniye Mosque is one of the most spectacular sites in Istanbul. Opened in 1557, the mosque was the largest in Istanbul for almost 500 years (surpassed only by the Çamlıca Mosque in 2019!) Surrounded by the beautiful marble mausoleums of Suleiman the Magnificent and his wife Hurrem Sultan (Roxelana), the grounds are large and beautifully decorated with archways and vegetation.
The site of the mosque is also, by far, the best spot we found to take in sweeping views of Istanbul. Situated on Istanbul’s third hill, it offers a commanding view of the Golden Horn and the city beyond.
Have a Picnic at Kadiköy-Moda Coast Park
The Istabulites like their green spaces and this beautiful location is no exception. Exquisitely clean and offering gorgeous views of both the sea of Marmara and the Bosporus strait, you’ll see the locals picnicking and enjoying the sunset. This park sits on the Asian side running all the way from the ferry terminals in Kadiköy towards the Şükrü Saracoğlu Stadium.
If you’re not bringing food from home, stop at the famous Kadikoy produce market and buy whatever strikes your fancy among the stalls of olives, pickles, deli meats and cheeses. Don’t forget to grab some Turkish delight or baklava for dessert Cost: Only the cost of the snacks you’ll pick up.
Nostalgic Bosphorus Boat Cruise
The Nostalgic Bosphorus Boat Cruise isn’t free, but it’s hard to get more bang for your travel budget buck than 25 lira for this round trip cruise lasting 6 hours. The cruise is a relaxing way to spend your day, watching the sights of Istanbul float by.
There is a 2.5 hour stopover at the town of Anadolu Kavağı near the Black Sea. There you can explore the ruins of a site called Yoros Castle. We loved it so much we wrote a whole separate post about it, find it here! Cost: 25
Turkish Lira per person round trip. This works out to about $3 USD per person or about 2.50€. Hard to beat that kind of price for a full day’s activity!
Taksim Square, Istiklal Street & Galata Tower
We included these 3 activities together as combining them is a fun way to spend a day. Start this journey in the centre of Taksim square and soak in the Republic Monument that celebrates the formation of an independent Turkey in 1923. While here be sure to visit the picturesque and historic Gezi Park. Wander your way down to Istiklal street to start your journey south towards Galata. Isitklal Street is filled with International shops, cafe’s, restaurants and sweet shops and is lined with magnificent late Ottoman era buildings.
Follow Istiklal street south and you’ll make your way to the famous Galata tower. Originally built as a lighthouse and later used by the Ottomans as a fire lookout it is a site to behold and one of the most photographed monuments in Istanbul.
Check out our video below for our day spent exploring this part of the city
Sticking to your travel budget
While there are many attractions in Istanbul and the dollars can add up very quickly, there are many things you can do for little to no money. Istanbul is an amazing city and while we would all love to see EVERYTHING, most of us have a budget to be mindful of. If you have visited Istanbul and have suggestions for inexpensive experiences you enjoyed, leave a comment down below and let us know.
Looking for other things to do in Istanbul? Check out these great deals
Where to Stay
- Luxury Accommodations – Ritz Carlton Istanbul
The Ritz-Carlton, Istanbul is located in the heart of the city overlooking scenic views of the city and the Bosphorus. This brand name speaks for itself. You will be immersed in luxury throughout your stay
- Mid Range Accommodations – Novotel Istanbul Bosphorus
Novotel Istanbul Bosphorus Hotel is located in the heart of the trendy Karakoy to explore the artistic and cultural activities, as well as the Golden Horn, historical Sultanahmet and Galata.
- Budget Accommodations – Hotel Peninsula
Located conveniently in historic peninsula, just 300 m from the sea. Topkapi Palace is 700 metres, Hagia Sophia is 450 m and Basilica Cistern is 550 m from the property. Guests will also enjoy the delicious free breakfast
- Budget Hostel – Bahuas Guesthouse
If you are on a tight budget and don’t mind a hostel, this one is not to be missed. With private rooms as low as $25 per night and shared dorm rooms as low as $9 per night. This hostel even organizes their own events every day of the week. From pub crawls to attractions.
- Or search a broad range of accommodations here