The best free things to do in İstanbul

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Exchange rates are very favourable these days for travellers visiting İstanbul with dollars, euros or pounds in their pocket, though inflation keeps creeping (sometimes jumping) ever-upward to try and keep pace. You can feast on street food for pocket change, and the city’s marvellous mosques and parks are just a few of its attractions that can be visited at no cost at all. Here's Lonely Planet's guide to the best free things to do in İstanbul.

Admire the architecture of mosques

İstanbul’s Ottoman mosques top the seven hills of the Old City and adorn many streets. These architectural wonders are open to everyone regardless of their religion, but non-worshippers should avoid going inside at prayer times, which are displayed near the entrance. All visitors must dress modestly, with women covering their heads.

The elegant Süleymaniye Mosque has a grand complex of buildings around it, and an equally impressive perch overlooking the Golden Horn to Beyoğlu. Tucked away in the bustling market streets of Eminönü, the intimate Rüstem Paşa Mosque boasts wonderfully rich tile work.

Sample the contemporary art scene

Turkey’s banks and business dynasties have funded the creation of some top-notch cultural centres, primarily in the Beyoğlu area. Their largesse means many can be visited for free, including SALT Galata (and its sister institution SALT Beyoğlu), Yapı Kredi Kültür Sanat, Akbank Art, the Koç University Research Centre for Anatolian Civilizations and the İstanbul Research Institute.

The Pera Museum offers free admission every Friday between 6pm and 10pm; there is also free admission on Wednesdays for students. On the banks of the Bosphorus, the Sakıp Sabancı Museum offers free entry to all on Wednesdays.

Browse through the busy markets

Locals love to shop! The hundreds of traditional street markets in İstanbul retain a loyal following, even when there are many modern malls to choose from. Explore the sprawling Grand Bazaar for both treasures and tat. Alternatively, get a sense of vibrant local life in the streets around the side and back of the Spice Bazaar in Eminönü and at the Kadınlar Pazarı in Fatih. The famous produce market in Kadıköy runs every day except Sunday. On Wednesdays, the best market to browse is in the streets surrounding the Fatih Mosque. On Saturdays, head for Feriköy for Turkey’s first organic bazaar.

No matter which market you visit, you’ll find that each vendor carefully arranges their colourful displays of olives, produce, dried fruit and nuts, fish, cheese, pickles and much more, making for great photographic opportunities.

Relax in parks and gardens

Two favourite local pastimes are picnicking and promenading, and there are some lovely parks and gardens open to the public. Gülhane Park – once part of the Topkapı Palace gardens – is particularly beautiful. Take a stroll round the historic Hippodrome in Sultanahmet; visit hilly Yıldız Park in Beşiktaş; and the gardens around Hıdiv Kasrı. Emirgan Park on opposite shores of the Bosphorus is very family-friendly. Gülhane and Emirgan Parks are two of the most popular spots to enjoy the annual İstanbul Tulip Festival in April, when millions of bulbs planted around the city bloom in a riot of colours. Maçka Park in Şişli is a favourite place for locals to while away a sunny weekend afternoon, as is the Moda shoreline in Kadıköy, where the sunset views are spectacular.