There was a time when Istanbul was one of the world’s greatest travel bargains, but that time wasn’t so good for the city itself. Inflation was out of control, prices changed every week, and people changed their banknotes with six zeros in for U.S. dollars every payday. On the tourism front the country was basically an unknown.
Within a decade and a half, everything changed and as Turkey passed the 20 million visitors mark and kept climbing, prices kept climbing as well. As the country’s economy took off and the richest got richer, investment poured in and the currency rose in value.
We haven’t quite come full circle, but I’m here to say that if you were waiting for a chance for Turkey to become cheap again, it’s at least in the “reasonable” category now. [Update – in 2018 it’s now bargain city again.] In many ways it’s back to being a much better value than Western Europe.
Hotels and Hostels
First of all, that photo above is from Downtown Istanbul Hostel, rated very highly on booking sites and going for just $12-$14 a night for a dorm bed to flop in. If you go to book hotels there and are looking for something more private, there are literally hundreds of hotels going for less than $100 a night these days. Many of them in very convenient areas.
After years of heady growth, both in the economy and in tourism, Turkey hit a wall at the beginning of this year and numbers are down quite a bit. The proximity to Syria, a few terrorist incidents, a Russian plane shot down, and a heavy-handed government that’s killing off press freedom have all put a damper on the country’s reputation and visitor numbers. If you’re willing to look past all that, you’ll find businesses waiting for you with open arms and lower rates. This chic boutique hotel I stayed in below barely breaks the $100 mark and it’s one of the nicest city hotels I’ve been in the past couple years.
Food, Glorious Food!
Ask truly well-traveled foodies about their favorite cities around the world for eating and Istanbul will usually get a mention. It may not be as famous as other European spots in France, Spain, or Italy, but you are rewarded at meal time with less pretentious prices and wonderful food. The Ottomans conquered quite a bit of territory in their long heyday and the sultans were very serious about their food. They welcomed and embraced all the foreign influences and ended up with a cuisine that got better and better with age.
I spent much of my time in Istanbul looking for an excuse to get something to eat, roaming the market streets of Asian Kadikoy on a food tour and then with a friend, plus visiting the famous Karakoy Gulluoglu baklava shop to savor their deliciously perfect mixtures of flaky dough, pistachios, honey, and syrup. I first went there a few years ago and salivated every time I pictured the place in my head. Now I’m recharged for another few years.
With the exchange rate drop, the street stall places have gotten downright cheap, whether you’re grabbing a doner kebab to go or eating at a simple lamucan place with minced lamb on a fresh-baked thin crust. A typical cafeteria style place will fill you up for $5 to $7 these days for several courses.
When I last visited in 2013 and the Turkish lira was around 1.7 to the U.S. dollar, fine dining was a rather expensive treat. Now that the rate is around 3 to 1, you don’t have to scrutinize the menu so carefully at the top restaurants. I explored the Beyoglu neighborhood a bit in the rain with a couple expats living in the city and after we downed a couple beers at a funky artistic pub, we had dinner with the woman behind Gram and Lokanta Maya at the latter.
This is one of the hot restaurants in a part of the city with plenty of competition. The chef has a mouthful of a name for us English speakers – Didem Şenol Tiryakioğlu – but she has done a great job of combining her classic culinary training with the best local ingredients. They make their own Turkish pastrami in house, as well as key flavor elements like pomegranate paste. She also owns the Gram bakery, which supplies the desserts and breads for Maya.
Going forth with Guidance
I know Istanbul pretty well. I even lived there for a while in my younger days when I was backpacking around the world and teaching English. I still always find little oddities and surprises when exploring the city though. I discover even more of them when I’m with someone who lives there. Last time I visited I was working on a magazine story, so a guy who was old enough not to care what anyone thinks gave me a very opinionated and lively tour of multiple neighborhoods, speaking frankly about how the city was discarding its tolerant past and lurching further and further into a dictatorship.
My various formal and informal guides this time were just as cranky about politics, but different personalities led to different angles. “It’s so good that we have this man looking out for our health, our well-being, and our morality,” said one who was taking me around on a food and markets tour. “How would I know how to stay well and out of trouble if our benevolent leader wasn’t making all those decisions for me?”
For a country that’s been around in some form or another for a few thousand years, however, everyone knows deep down that this too shall pass. Eventually. The truth that keeps shining through is that this is one of the richest tourism destinations on Earth. With this much history and cultural richness ready to be uncovered, however, if you can afford it pay someone to set it up right to make it the trip of a lifetime.