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Istanbul is one of those cities that is surrounded by some sort of mystery. Enchantment, some might call it. And enchanting it is. Just walk along the pier and watch the fishermen, meander through the bazaar, or soak in the minaret-studded skyline at dusk and you’ll know it is somewhere special.

The view from our (super cheap) ferry ride.


Like any other big tourist hub, though, Istanbul is certainly a place where–if you’re not careful–your money will slip through your fingers. So how to avoid it? Here are 5 tips to keep your pocketbook balanced and your wanderlust sated!


Buy an Akbil/Istanbulkart. 
This is a basic transport card, and will save you tons of dough on public transport, which is the main way to get around a traffic-clogged city like Istanbul. Technically these are 2 different things that get you the same discount, although one can use “akbil” interchangeably and folks will know what you mean. The Akbil is a little stainless steel button with a computer chip inside, whereas the Istanbulkart is like an Oyster Card or similar, which is just an RFID Transit Card. Both afford a traveler huge discounts on bus, tram, and ferry fares. Pick one up for 10 TRY at an Istanbulkart vending machine, at a kiosk in a major hub or metro station (Sultanahmet, Taksim, Eminönü or Beyazıt/Kapalı Çarşı (Grand Bazaar). Look for the phrases Akbil, Istanbulkart, or Dolum Noktası (Refill Point).  
My trusty Istanbulkart…

 

Try accommodation outside of Sultanahmet and Taksim. 
Although hostels in the city center in areas like Taksim and Sultanahmet–closest to the main sightseeing spots–are not super expensive, the good ones aren’t very cheap either, even with the pretty good exchange between the US $ and the Turkish lira. Most hotels in the city center generally don’t run low (I’m told that real estate prices in those neighborhoods are the highest in the city) and sometimes it’s nice to get away from the tourist-filled area of town and get a more local look into life in Istanbul.
My Instagram triptic of the view from our Roomorama apartment.
 If you want to save a few bucks and get a different perspective into the city, check out the 1,000+ hosts Istanbul has on Couchsurfing (which would be free!). Or, check out Roomorama or AirBnB. When my boyfriend and I first came to the city in August, we rented a room from Roomorama, where we found a flat in the Mecidiyeköy neighborhood for only $16/person/night, with a full kitchen, high-speed internet, washer/dryer, by shops, grocers, and only a couple stops away on the metro from all the excitement of Taksim and history of Sultanahmet. We really enjoyed being close to the sights but more part of the Turkish fray–a neighborhood that many people we met called a “concrete jungle,” but as time went by, it really became our concrete jungle. We felt like we were experiencing and seeing much more typical Turkish life; we were definitely the only tourists in the neighborhood. Plus, it was cheaper than many of the hostel dorm rooms!
 
Take a regular ferry instead of a Bosphorus Cruise. 
One of the most unique aspects of Istanbul is its division by the Bosphorus, and a highlight of sightseeing in Istanbul is seeing the city from the water. There are tons of options for Bosphorus cruises, ranging in price from 10TRY to hundreds of dollars, depending on the degree of luxury (or price gauging) the company provides. When we first arrived in Istanbul, we did a 10 TRY cruise from Eminönü that went for about an hour and a half out and back. It was fine, the weather was good, but when I returned this month, we realized we could have done it a bit differently. 
 
Instead of doing a run-of-the-mill Bosphorus cruise, we could have taken the regular ferry  for only the cost of a bus ride! And explore a new neighborhood while we’re at it!
 
For example: the other day, we were coming home from Kadıköy and ferried from there to Beşiktaş  Although it wasn’t 90 minutes long–maybe more like 20 minutes or so, we got a beautiful vista of the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia on the way in. But you could take the hour-long ferry from Kadıköy to Sariyer, for example, explore the fishing-village feel of the seaside district, get some killer börek, which the district is known for, and take the nearby Haciosman metro back to Taksim or wait until the evening ferry returns you to your first stop. 
 
Eat street food! 
Turkish food is much more diverse than just kebap, and I could definitely write an entire post just about Turkish street food. Although it can sometimes be tricky to eat much street food if you have specific dietary needs, especially gluten-related, or nut allergies, you can still save a few bucks and have some delicious Turkish fare while in Istanbul. 

 A general eating tip, though: avoid Sultanahmet. I know I keep mentioning this area, but that’s because that’s where most of the tourist-related stuff is. Vendors are very aware of this, and have no problem taking advantage of tourists. Avoid eating in places that don’t list food prices on a menu. Or, if you’re going to eat somewhere, discuss prices before eating and ideally have them write it down for you, so when a bill is written down then you can be sure they charged you what they said they would. 

 
Anyhoo, here are some of our favorite street foods that we’ve tried in Istanbul. 
çiğ köfte: What used to be basically a steak tartare type of dish is no longer sold on the street in its meat form, but is still a delicious, spicy treat that is actually vegetarian! For 5 TRY you can feed 1-2 people.
pilav: I’m not sure what makes Turkish rice better than any rice I’ve had (with the exception of my grandmother’s arroz con pollo), probably the butter or the addition of garbanzo beans to mix it up, but it’s frickin’ awesome and you can get it cheap; like, 2 or 3 TRY cheap. There’s a fabulous place right by our apartment where you can get a tavuk pilav (rice with shredded chicken), ayran (a yogurt drink), tea and a dessert for only 5 TRY!
kumpir: basically, the most loaded baked potato ever. Besiktas’ Ortakoy area is famous for this dish; although they’re more on the pricy side–10 TRY–it’ll fill you up until the next day. Toppings can go from sausage to corn to pickles to whatever they’ve got on hand, so you can keep it vegetarian if you want (and if you ask them to skip the butter, you can make it vegan). Extra points if you go for one of the amazing waffles sold there for dessert.  

Here’s my kumpir. I got pickles, corn, olives, sausages (which were basically like sliced hot dog), ketchup, butter, and possibly mushroom. I don’t even remember at this point, it was so delicious and filling, though!

 

kokoreç: for the more adventurous meat-eaters out there, this is the Turkish variant of kokoretsi, if you’ve eaten it in Greece, or kukurec from Albania…seasoned and roasted intestines wrapped in offal! I’ve never had it, actually, despite my taste for haggis, but my boyfriend loves it–plus, it only averages about 5 TRY.
bal
ık-ekmek (grilled fish sandwich)*:especially down at Eminönü and around/under the Galata bridge you can get a freshly grilled fish popped into bread for a truly Istanbul-style fish sandwich. About 8 TRY for something you’d likely pay $10-$15 for at home.
börek: One of my personal favorites also happens to be a specialty in our district, Sariyer. Fried phyllo dough filled with different stuff–cheese, meat, potato, etc–and is really rich and tasty! Price varies on how much you eat, but for example the other night we went to a place in the neighborhood and had 2 teas, 2 hearty servings of deliciousness, and a water bottle and only paid 14 TRY. That’s $7.85 for 2 people.


 Whatever your pocketbook, Istanbul will surely have what you’re looking for. So, what are you waiting for!?
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