In some ways, Istanbul sits in the middle of the world. Situated so that it straddles two continents – Europe and Asia – it embodies a mix of Western and Eastern cultures. But because it is so conveniently located relative to the rest of the world, it’s also an extremely popular, and sometimes expensive, place.
Luckily, there’s so much to do in this fascinating city without spending a single Lira. If you’re traveling on a budget, here are our picks for the best 25 free things to do in Istanbul.
1. Don’t miss the Blue Mosque
Named for the thousands of dazzling azure İznik tiles that line its interior, the 400-year-old Blue Mosque, or Sultan Ahmet Camii in Turkish, is one of Istanbul’s greatest treasures. Take some time to marvel at its imposing architecture and lavish interior, just keep in mind that this historical monument and its associated madrasa – a school of Islamic instruction – is still serving the citizens as an active house of prayer and learning.
2. Take a walk down İstiklal
Dating back to Byzantine times, a stroll down Beyoğlu’s main boulevard will reveal the city’s striking mix of old and new. İstiklal Caddesi (Independence Avenue) is the most popular pedestrian thoroughfare in Istanbul. At times boasting an incredible 3 million visitors a day, it is over a kilometer long and is lined with grandiose 19th-century buildings housing hip boutiques, buzzing cafés, and cutting-edge art galleries.
3. Snap some pictures in Fener & Balat
Still rarely visited by tourists, these two picturesque neighborhoods are known for their rainbow-hued row houses and Ottoman architecture. Historically home to Greek, Armenian, and Jewish communities, the area is a treasure trove for photographers, with a wealth of historic sights, atmospheric streets, and clotheslines strung between romantically crumbling buildings.
4. Cross the Galata Bridge
A walk across the Galata Bridge at sunset, surrounded by soaring seagulls and mighty silhouettes of ancient mosques, is one of the most memorable experiences one can have in Istanbul. First conceived as far back as the 16th century, the current iteration of the bridge was built in 1992. It has two levels: the top, with lanes for pedestrians and motorists, and the lower, which is lined with restaurants and coffee shops.
5. Try a free walking tour
If you don’t want to choreograph your own itinerary, or are overwhelmed with all the options, you can instead opt to take a walking tour of the Old Town. Tour guides in Istanbul are required by law to be licensed, so they will be led by someone with an encyclopedic knowledge of the city.
6. Admire the goods at the Kadıköy Bazaar
Found on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, you’ll find much more than just a simple market at this famous bazaar. Interspersed with the traditional fishmongers, cafés, artisan shops, and bookstores, it’s a wonderful place to immerse yourself into the local culture.
7. Check out Elgiz Museum of Contemporary Art
This non-profit museum was created with the mission of promoting international contemporary art. It houses the Elgiz family’s private collection as well as rotating exhibitions of up-and-coming artists.
8. Take a trip to the Suleymaniye Mosque
Completed nearly 500 years ago, the Suleymaniye Mosque is the second largest mosque in İstanbul. Over the years, it has suffered damage from multiple fires and earthquakes, but each time it has been lovingly restored. After marveling at its monumental interiors, visit the lavish tomb of its patron Suleyman the Magnificent and then take in breathtaking views of the Golden Horn from the serene courtyard.
9. Stroll through the Grand Bazaar
Situated in Fatih, in the city’s Old Town, this is the largest covered market in the world, and has been around since 1461. Once the commercial center of İstanbul, it is a true living spectacle, with over 4,000 colorful shops selling everything from exotic spices to traditional textiles, original artworks, and jewel-toned Turkish delights.
10. Take a load off at the Eminönü Pier
When you grab a bench on the Eminönü pier, you have the perfect opportunity to watch real Istanbul stroll by. It is within walking distance from the Grand Bazaar, at one end of the Galata Bridge.
11. Go see the Quincentennial Foundation Museum of Turkish Jews
Enjoying their new location at the Neve Shalom Synagogue since 2015, this intimate museum tells the history of Turkish Jews. On Thursday evenings, you can even catch a film screening or live music at their event series.
12. Learn to haggle at the Feriköy Flea Market
Long been the home of Greek and Armenian communities, Feriköy is also home to one of the city’s most diverse and beloved flea markets. Every Sunday, you’ll find 200 stalls of used and vintage goods, knick-knacks, jewelry, books, and more.
13. Relax in Yildiz Park
A historic park in İstanbul’s Beşiktaş neighborhood, this park was once part of the imperial gardens of Yildiz Palace. On sunny days, locals flock to this leafy urban for long family picnics, nature walks, and panoramic views of the Bosphorus. It also boasts a small artificial lake, beautiful gardens, and a couple of historical Ottoman residences.
14. Visit the Zeyrek Mosque
Named after Molla Zeyrek, an Ottoman scholar who taught there when the building was converted into a mosque after the fall of Constantinople, the Zeyrek Mosque is one of the best examples of Byzantine architecture in Istanbul.
15. Marvel at the architecture of Istinye Park
Though it’s called a ‘park’, Istinye Park is actually a massive shopping center. Its vaulted glass ceiling fills the interior with sunlight, and in the center, you’ll find a courtyard with both enclosed and open-air areas to lounge and relax.
16. Check out the Inebolu Village Market
Tucked away in the Kampisala neighborhood of the Beyoğlu district, this village market has been hosting farmers and their goods for years. You’ll be shocked how quaint the whole place is when you consider its location within walking distance of the bustling Taksim Square.
17. Admire the beauty of Emirgan Park
The former private gardens of Isma’il Pasha, once the Khedive of Egypt, Emirgan Park remains equally as beautiful as before it was open to the public. If you come in April, you can catch the annual Tulip Festival, when you’ll find thousands of blooming tulips of over a hundred different varieties.
18. Chill on the beach on one of the Princes’ Islands
These are a chain of small islands extending into the Bosphorus, straight off the coast of Istanbul. None of the four of the Princes’ islands that are open to the public allow cars, only bicycles and horse-drawn carriages, so they’re the perfect place to get away from the stress of the city.
19. Explore the Arasta Bazaar
Located just near the Blue Mosque, you’ll find everything from souvenirs to carpets at this historic market. Left to deteriorate for many years, it was refurbished in the 80s and 90s in response to increased tourism.
20. Go see St. Anthony of Padua
Known to Turks as the Sent Antuan Bazilikası, this is the largest Roman Catholic church in İstanbul. Though you are welcome to tour the interior during certain times, don’t forget to take photos of its impressive, pastel-hued exterior.
21. Visit the İsbank Museum
Housing some interesting items from İsbanks’ long history like stamps, typewriters, and even piggy banks, the real highlights of this cozy museum are the still intact bank counters, vaults, and safe that visitors can now tour.
22. Walk along the walls of Constantinople
Originally built by Constantine the Great during the Holy Roman Empire, these protective walls were only breached twice in 1600 years. Though there are several spots to see remaining sections of the wall, a favorite is at Yedikule, where you can see the Fortress of the Seven Towers right where the walls meet the sea.
23. Make the pilgrimage to Sirkeci Station
Once the Eastern end of the world-famous Orient Express, the old Sirkeci station is a striking example of Oriental-Gothic design and houses a small, free railway museum filled with artifacts of the now defunct railway line’s former glory.
24. Visit the Dogançay Museum
Exhibiting and protecting 50 years of Burhan Dogançay’s artistic works, the Dogançay Museum was actually Istanbul’s first modern art museum. It’s closed on Mondays, so plan accordingly.
25. Do some people watching at Taksim Square
The central hub of the city, Taksim Square can be more than just transfer trains or busses. Situated at one end of İstiklal Caddesi, it’s the perfect place to grab a bench and people watch, especially after the sun goes down.