Monday, December 13, 2010

10 free things to do in Istanbul

There’s no doubt that the cost of living in – and visiting – Istanbul keeps creeping up and up. While working on a new guide to the city for, I was shocked to see how expensive some of my favorite attractions, such as the Bosphorus Tour, had become since I first encountered Istanbul as a wide-eyed tourist. But there are still plenty of things to – some seasonally, others throughout the year – that don’t cost even a kuruş.


1. Gallery-hop down İstiklal Caddesi – Between the Akbank and Yapı Kredi (right) cultural centers, the numerous galleries in the beautiful old Misir Apartment building, and the new contemporary art center Arter, Beyoğlu’s main drag has plenty to entertain an art lover for an afternoon or more.

2. Visit Istanbul’s top modern-art museum – The high-profile Istanbul Modern museum in Tophane is free to all comers on Thursdays, when it’s open from 10am to 8pm. Though the permanent collection of Turkish painting and sculpture upstairs is often overshadowed by the views across the water to Asia and the Old City, the photography gallery and temporary exhibition hall downstairs show innovative work from around the world. While you’re there, cross the parking lot to check out Sanat Limanı (Art Port), a new warehouse space that’s always free of charge.

3. Watch a film festival screening – Film buffs can catch free screenings of movies with English subtitles at the Mountain Film Festival in early spring, the Istanbul International Short Film Festival in November, and periodic events hosted by Documentarist.

4. Enjoy live music acts – The summer months bring plenty of opportunities to see free concerts in Istanbul, with many events organized at Taksim Square and underneath the Galata Tower, as well as in smaller parks and public spaces in various neighborhoods. There’s also no cover to see many bands that play at the Beyoğlu club Dogz Star, though the Efes beers don’t come for free.


5. Experience a moment of reverence – Even if you’re not religious, Istanbul’s many historical mosques will awe you with their architecture and design. My favorites are the tiny, colorfully tied Rustem Paşa Camii in Eminönü and the hilltop Sülemaniye Camii in Fatih, which has been newly reopened after a long renovation. Though minarets dominate the skyline, remnants of Turkey’s other religious communities remain in the form of equally worth-visiting churches and synagogues. The St. Anthony of Padua Cathedral on İstiklal Caddesi has English-language masses every day, while the Bulgarian St. Stephen Church (left) on the banks of the Golden Horn is an impressive and rare example of a pre-fabricated cast-iron church. For security reasons, synagogues such as the nearby Ahrida Synagogue in Balat require would-be visitors to make an appointment and submit a copy of their passport at least 24 hours in advance.

6. See where modern nursing was pioneered – Also requiring a bit of advance planning is a trip to the Florence Nightingale Museum, located inside the Selimiye military barracks in Üsküdar. Nightingale developed some of her revolutionary nursing methods here to help stem high death rates during the Crimean War. Visitors must send a fax with their passport details at least 48 hours ahead of time to receive permission to tour the site. Cameras are not allowed.

7. Window shop in a colorful bazaar – Of course, there’s the famous (if touristy) Grand Bazaar, with its labyrinth of souvenir, jewelry, and antique shops, but Istanbul is also full of outdoor street markets where browsing is an attraction in itself. The sprawling Fatih market draws crowds on Wednesdays, while the streets behind the Spice Bazaar in Eminönü are packed daily with people buying fresh foodstuffs, clothes, and household goods.


8. People-watch in Eyüp or Örtaköy – Though these two neighborhoods couldn’t be more different, they’re both great places to absorb the atmosphere of the city, watching religious pilgrims and the families of about-to-be-circumcised boys parade through Eyüp, or mingling with hip young couples amid the waterfront cafes of Örtaköy.

9. Take a break from the concrete jungle – The leafy Yıldız Park in Beşiktaş and Gülhane Park (right) in Sultanahmet offer relaxing, green oases from Istanbul’s traffic and sprawl. Both have walking paths and plenty of trees. Gülhane Park is especially nice to visit in April, when the old gardens of Topkapı Palace are filled with colorful flowers for the annual Tulip Festival.

10. Watch fishermen and boats – Walking across the Galata Bridge between Karaköy and Eminönü has long been one of my favorite mini-escapes. Fishermen try their luck from the bridge in almost any weather, and it’s a great vantage point from which to watch the city’s many ferries pass from Europe to Asia and back again.

Find more free ways to discover the world -- from museums in London to thermal springs in Japan, a sculpture park in Oslo to yoga in Gibraltar -- at BootsnAll.


Aaron Myers said...

Great list. A few I had not yet heard of. A few I had heard of but not yet taken in. And a few I have enjoyed immensely. Add to the list the Tulip Festival every spring!

Anonymous said...

I am SO happy to have stumbled upon your blog!! I visited Istanbul this past summer and I loved it. I truly miss it and can't wait to go back. I've read some of your archived posts and can't wait to follow your blog :)

The Turkish Life said...

Thanks! Glad you've both enjoyed the post, and the blog. The Tulip Festival is probably worth its own entry, rather than just a mention under parks. The amount of color it brings to the city is pretty amazing.

Marty said...

Your list is great and helpfull. I thing everyone in Istanbul must create their own lists. Here I found one more good one :

Anonymous said...

Good post. We have recently left Istanbul and miss it already. What a wonderful and riveting city. Nice to know we saw quite a bit in our two short stints there. Being on an extreme budget with a family is no small feat. Opportunities like couchsurfing can you can afford some ticket prices and we took the public ferry Bosporous day trip which is much more affordable.

The Turkish Life said...

Glad you found it helpful. Thanks for the comment and enjoy the rest of your travels!