One US dollar will no longer buy you a million lira, but the country of Turkey is still a bargain destination for American travelers, with the added bonus of being among the most fascinating countries in the world. The city of Istanbul is a bustling, cosmopolitan place where East literally meets West. Half of the city is situated on the continent of Europe, but a short ferry ride will bring you to shores of Asia in about twenty minutes.
This bi-continental city offers an outstanding cuisine. There are the omnipresent kebabs – served Iskender style with a red sauce and yogurt, or in a durum, the Turkish equivalent of a burrito. Vegetarian food can be harder to find, but herbivores and carnivores alike should not miss the imam bayildi, which translates as “the imam fainted” because of the pure deliciousness of this aubergine dish with tomatoes and spices, (or the lavish use of olive oil, which was rather expensive at the time. You can choose your favorite version to believe).
All these options are not only mouth-wateringly good but also cheap. It’s quite possible to feed two people for $5-10 if you eat outside the tourist center. Even a more high-end meal in a centrally located restaurant costs about what a modest meal at TGI Friday’s will back home. A personal favorite is an Istanbul restaurant called Doy Doy, which is tucked just behind the Hippodrome and Blue Mosque. They have a rooftop restaurant where the Blue Mosque appears to float before your eyes and where you can watch the ships and ferries cruising along the Bosphorus. One would expect to pay high prices for such a perfect locale, but not only are the prices are quite reasonable (about $10-12 a person), the food is also fantastic. The beyti kebab, spiced lamb or beef wrapped in a thin lavash bread, was my go-to meal here.
After a satisfying meal at Doy Doy, you are in the perfect spot to enjoy the sights of Istanbul and all at a reasonable price. The Blue Mosque, for instance, will set you back …. absolutely nothing. Most mosques are free to enter, provided you avoid the five daily prayer times. Even the ones off the tourist track do not charge, and will open solely for your viewing pleasure. (This writer was treated to a personal tour of the Mehmet Pasha Mosque, just outside the center. It was a paradise of blue tiles, ornate Arabic script and complete silence as the caretaker pointed out the mosque’s highlights.)
The most impressive sight in Istanbul is surely the ancient Haghia Sophia, which began as a church in the 600s, was converted to a mosque and is now simply a museum. Haghia Sophia does charge admission to enter, but only about 25YTL ($12 USD), a bargain for a wonder of the world. Istanbul also boasts ancient Roman cisterns (10YTL), a Sultan’s palace and harem (a bit more expensive but certainly worth it), and a wonderful day cruise along the Bosphorus (about $7 for the official tour). And when souvenir shopping, be sure to visit the Grand Bazaar where you can haggle your way to a good deal.