Playing a pivotal role in connecting the East to the West, the city of Istanbul is a treasure trove of history, culture, art, and more. From the towering minarets of mosques, to the crowded bylanes of the local bazaar, it is a beautiful confluence of European imperialism and Asian heritage,which is why thousands of tourists flock here each year.

Also known as the city of seven hills, Istanbul has a long list of experiences to offer to everyone from luxury travellers to people on a budget.  If you’re a part of the latter group,r, this city has so much more than just affordable accommodation to offer. 

Read on to know more about some of Istanbul’s finest (and free) attractions.

A Rendezvous With History

Turkey has been ruled by almost everyone who left a mark in the books of history, from the Romans to the Greeks and finally the Ottomans.Each leaving behind their influence on the country’s history and culture.  Take a walk through time by visiting the various monuments and museums that offer free entry.

1. Blue (Sultanahmet) Mosque

 

More than five centuries old, the Sultanahmet Camii, or the Blue Mosque, is a local place of worship, which is also open to tourists. With over 20,000 handmade ceramic tiles and 200 stained glass windows, the Blue Mosque is a veritable visual treat that has been pulled out of a page in history. Something that sets the Blue Mosque apart from all the other mosques in the country is its six distinctive minarets, compared to the usual two or four of the others. This mosque continues to attract tourists from all over the world who come to admire its magnificent architecture and larger than life structure. 

Timings: The mosque is open from 9 am to 6 pm and remains closed during the five prayer call times. It is best to visit mid-morning after the second prayer is done if you want to avoid the crowd.

2. Suleymaniye Mosque

Suleymaniye_Mosque

Built in 1557, the Suleymaniye Camii mosque is the biggest mosque in Istanbul and is one of the best examples of Ottoman Islamic architecture. It is located near the Grand Bazaar and is adorned with peculiar colours and fine calligraphy. The mosque complex also houses a beautiful garden with a terrace offering spectacular views of the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus. In addition, the complex also has a hamam, hospital, kitchen and a library inside. 

Timings: The mosque remains open between 9 am and 6 pm, and is closed for tourists during the prayer calls, five times a day.

3. Zeyrek Camii

 

Originally an ancient monastery, Zeyrek Mosque is located in the Fatih district and overlooks the serene waterways of the Golden Horn. Built in the 12th century, the structure houses three buildings inside – two churches converted into mosques and an abandoned chapel. The architecture is one that’s typical of the Byzantine period and is considered the second largest Byzantine structure still standing in Istanbul. 

Timings:9 am – 6 pm every day

A Tryst With Art

From contemporary art to vintage pieces, Turkey’s art scene is alive and thriving at the moment. Here are a few museums that are free and a must-visit for tourists. 

Ithaka Pro Tip: These museums can be hard to find in the city, so it is best to find their location beforehand.

4. Quincentennial Foundation Museum of Turkish Jews (Zülfaris Synagogue)

Zulfaris synagogue

Turkey also has a hint of Jewish culture, and glimpses of this can be seen at the Zülfaris Synagogue, which is now converted into a museum. Learn about the life of Sephardi Jews and their Ladino language along with admiring some Jewish art here. The Synagogue is also  well hidden from the popular tourist eye so you can explore the place comfortably at your own pace. 

Timings: 10 am – 6 pm (Mon-Thurs), 2 pm – 2 pm (Friday). Shut on weekends and public holidays. 

 

5. Dogançay Museum

 

The country’s first modern art museum, Dogançay is set in a century-old building and houses works of a few of the most popular artists in Turkey, the father-son duo of Adil and Burhan Dogançay. .  A few of the most popular works inside include documentation of Dogançay’s world travels in the form of photographs and canvases, which are some of the most realistic and thought-provoking pieces of art you’ll ever see. Situated in a lesser frequented lane of the otherwise central Beyoglu, this museum is easy to miss so make sure you keep a map in handy or keep asking the locals around. 

Timings: 10am – 6pm (Tue-Sun). It is closed on Mondays. 

6. Elgiz Museum of Contemporary Art

Gilbert & Stuart

Formerly known as Proje4L, this museum was founded more than a decade ago to promote contemporary art in the city. Though this museum showcases a few classics by Gilbert & George, Cindy Sherman, and Barbara Kruger, it also regularly hosts young up-and-coming artists and local curators. Situated in one of the city’s high-rises, it even has an open-air terrace for experimental, mixed-medium art pieces.

Timings: It is open from Tuesday to Friday, 10am to 5pm, and on Saturdays from 10am to 4pm. It is closed on Sundays.

A Visit To Local Markets

Live like the locals do. Take in the gorgeous sights, unique sounds, scrumptious tastes, and mesmerising smells of the markets – absolutely free. And if you want to take a piece of Turkey back home, there are plenty of affordable deals and products at these venues. Look up our shopping guide here. 

7. Grand Bazaar

 

One of the largest, oldest, and most popular markets in the city, visiting the Grand Bazaar seems like you’ve entered 19th century Turkey – with all the colours and fragrances. From affordable pashmina fabrics to striking lamps, antiques, and more, this market has more than 40,000 shops and 66 streets. One can easily spend a few hours here exploring the Bazaar, hopping from one shop to another. Be careful of your belongings and check out the map before you enter, as it can be overwhelming to find your way out.

Timings: 9am – 7pm (Mon-Sat).  The market is closed on Sundays.

8. Bomonti Flea Market

 

While most tourist attractions in Istanbul are shut on a Sunday, the Bomonti flea market, a favourite among the locals, and remains open this day. You’ll find almost everything, from vintage cameras to timepieces, vinyl and more here. You can even sample some delicious local sweets for free at the shops before picking some for home.

Timings: Open only on Sundays, from 9 am to 6.30 pm

Besides these, you can also visit Misir Carsi and Kapali Carsi to get a glimpse of some rare finds of the city. Don’t forget to bargain at all these places.

A Memory For The Heart (& The Camera)

9. Yildiz Park

Yildiz Park

In the heart of Istanbul lies the beautiful Yildiz Park, a green retreat that’s ideal for couples and families. From tiny cafes to a large play area and majestic trees, the park is huge and offers a much-needed break from the frenetic pace of the city. We suggest you arrive early during the day, when it’s cooler.

 Ithaka’s Pro Tip: Some sections may be closed for renovations, so it’s best to check the latest information online, before you visit.

10. Fener & Balat Neighbourhoods

 

The streets of Fener and Balat  are filled with old-styled colourful houses and hidden churches, which make for an excellent walk around town. This neighbourhood is off-the-beaten-path and gives an insight into the daily lives of Istanbulites living in a city rich with history and culture. If for nothing else, go here to admire architectural structures like the old Greek Orthodox College, Yavuz Selim Mosque, and to grab some Turkish coffee at one of the many authentic cafes in the area. 

 

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