The airfare of my dreams was a Valentine's Day special open to anyone: $599 round-trip from L.A. to continent-straddling Istanbul, including tax and fees. It required a companion fare (which meant I had to find someone to go with) and traveling in February. (This was Turkish airlines, and although this fare is not available now—some fares this month are as low as $758 on American, so keep an eye out for specials.)
With little time to plan, I found a willing accomplice (my friend Sonia), and packed a carry-on bag for the week. I scanned a few guidebooks during the 13-hour flight that said Istanbul wasn't the super bargain it once was. But traveling off-season in a country outside the euro zone worked in my favor. After just one day, I found the Turkish city easy to get to know — and easy to explore without spending a fortune.
During the impromptu trip, Sonia and I found good budget hotels in the hip Beyoglu and the old city for less than $100 a night. No mini-bars or microwaves, just neat single rooms (we didn't have to double up to save money) that included good breakfast buffets.
Cafeteria-like eateries that serve hot and cold Middle Eastern dishes for about $8 to $10 became our go-to stops for lunch and dinner. Entrance fees at the superstars of the ancient world — Hagia Sophia Museum, the Blue Mosque (also called the Sultanahmet Mosque) and Topkapi palace – ranged from free to $11.
The money we saved on hotels and food meant we could splurge on experiences we didn't want to miss, including taking a real Turkish bath ($60) and spending an evening seeing Mevlevi whirling dervishes ($22).
It was heaven to travel abroad without experiencing sticker shock at every shop and hotel. The week I spent in Istanbul, including airfare, cost about $1,400 -- a price I never could have matched in Paris or London for all that I got to see and do in this equally grand city that gave us the flavor of Europe and Asia.
Istanbul is compact and walkable, a nice way to mentally piece together its modern and ancient parts. In Beyoglu, the newer section of the city north of the landmark Galata Bridge, locals turn out in droves every evening to snack or simply be seen on Istiklal Avenue, a wide pedestrian shopping street with trendy clothing shops and boutiques.
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Istiklal also is where Sonia and I discovered our favorite dining stops. What I can describe only as storefront restaurants were easy to find anywhere in the city, and so nondescript I never knew the name of any of them. Just look for steaming troughs of food in the window and a cook standing by ready to load up your plate.
As a vegetarian, I found endless variations of eggplant, spicy okra, spinach and garlic, lentil soup and yogurt so thick it was served from sheet pans and cut like cake. There also typically was lamb roasting on a spit and chicken dishes too. I pointed to what I wanted – no menu necessary – and a waiter took the plates and served us at a table inside.
In Beyoglu we spent three nights at Pera Tulip hotel, which Sonia had booked before we left the States. This is a modern hotel with a spa area (sauna and hot bath) and a little piano bar. For $71 a night (less than the hotel's posted rates), the room was neat and clean, on the level of a Holiday Inn Express.
From the hotel, we often walked 45 minutes to Galata Bridge, which crosses the Golden Horn inlet and leads to the older section of Istanbul. Here fishermen line up with poles and buckets each morning to try their luck. Below the bridge, ornately decorated boats tied to crowded docks grill the fresh fish and sell $5 sandwiches to hungry waterfront diners.
The bridge was the stepping-off point to visit the Grand Bazaar, the Egyptian Spice Market and the Sultanahmet.
The covered bazaar isn't just a place to shop; it's a landmark. The ancient domed buildings draw lots of tourists who can find goods as diverse as 18-karat gold jewelry and cheap trinkets, musical instruments and leather slippers, hand-painted tiles and cotton tunics.
Shopkeepers here hustle in earnest, not necessarily to haggle but to sell, sell, sell. For me, it always started in English when they asked, "Where are you from? Cal-ee-FOR-nia?" If I feigned even the most remote interest in a necklace or bracelet, the salesmen (and they were all men) would launch into a spiel about the quality of the silver, the pendant, whatever they were selling.
I found it hard to keep converting two currencies – lira and euros – into dollars every time I wanted to make a simple purchase. So I quickly adopted 10 euros (about $13) as my price point for three of anything: scarves, key chains, necklaces even slippers. Sometimes it worked; sometimes it didn't.
Around midweek, Sonia suggested we shift to a hotel in Sultanahmet to get a different perspective on the city. The touristy old city was considerably quieter in winter than the hopping Beyoglu.
We inquired at several hotels in the area until we found a price we liked. The Vezir Hotel offered a cash rate of $53 a night with Wi-Fi and breakfast. It was an old pension-style building with no elevators (my room was on the third floor), and the Internet connection was spotty. But I liked the price and the fact I could hear the call to prayer emanating from nearby mosques while I was lying in bed. The single room had a double bed, small shower and a wooden door that still locked with an old-style key rather than a key card.
The hotel was about five minutes from Topkapi Palace, Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque; it could take a week to tour and learn the history of these landmarks. We compressed the ancient trifecta into a day and a half without feeling too rushed.
At Topkapi, we wandered through the maze of ornate domes and blue-tiled rooms of the Harem, the private rooms of Ottoman sultans from the 15th to 19th centuries. (Many people skip this because it costs $8 besides the palace's $11 ticket.) Back in the day, riffraff like me never would have set eyes on the gilt canopy of the sultan's bed, the elaborate salons and private bathing areas. The rooms are largely empty, with the gems, armor and other royal possessions on display in the palace's treasury building.
With so many integral waterways— the Bosporus Strait dividing the city's European and Asian sides, the Sea of Marmara and the Golden Horn—ferries are a cheap and easy way to get around. We took a six-hour excursion one day along the Bosporus Strait ($14 round-trip) and spent another on an hour-long ride to Buyukada, the largest of a handful of islands in the Sea of Marmara called the Princes Islands. No cars are allowed on these small islands; horse-and-carriage rides or rental bikes are the modes of travel.
When we docked, some people toured shops and bakeries near the ferry building or took a walk along the waterfront. Sonia and I decided to head inland and spend a few hours walking up curling roads to the top of the island. Along the way, we saw summer villas – some dilapidated, some freshly redone – along roads mostly silent except for the clacking of horse hooves. (Guidebooks say the islands get crowded on summer weekends.)
Toward the top, we continued walking upward until we came to a pine forest and a Greek monastery called Aya Yorgi, orSt. George. It was a clear day with good views of the green forests of nearby islands and the water. I looked back at Istanbul's hills and dense whitish buildings and marveled at just how far this visit on a shoestring had taken me.