There are free walking tours in more than 100 cities around the world (see list here). In fact, I am one of the cofounders of the Free Sofia Tour. Most people that visit Bulgaria’s capital either come from Istanbul or visit it next. Yet, finding a free tour in Istanbul proves to be a difficult task. But there are a couple of ways around that…
UPDATE 25/05/2016: There seems to be a new group doing free tours in Istanbul – Free Istanbul Tours. They have 20 positive reviews on TripAdvisor and seem to be here (there) to stay. Check them out and let me know if they are good or they are still around (legal restrictions in Turkey are quite strict, as far as I know).
1. FLYING INTO ISTANBUL
Whoever said ‘there’s no free lunch‘, has not flown with Turkish Airlines. Istanbul Ataturk airport is a popular layover destination and a hub for the airline. There’s a way to do sightseeing for free in Turkey’s biggest city. In order to be eligible for the service, your layover must be at least 6 hours during the day. Then you just have to go to the Turkish Airlines Hotel Desk at the airport (located after the customs’ check point at the arrival) and choose one of the three options. I plan on trying one of those when I fly to Kathmandu in April this year.
If you are flying overnight in Istanbul, there’s a way to get free accommodation as well. There has to be more than 10 hours between your flights. This service is not applicable when there is a shorter connection available within the time frame mentioned above. This service is not applicable when there is a shorter connection available within the time frame mentioned above. Again, you have to go to the elusive “Hotel Desk“. Here’s the official Turkish Airlines rule about that.
2. GOING BY BUS/TRAIN/CAR TO ISTANBUL
If you are not flying into Istanbul, don’t be dismayed. Throughout the years, many organizations have tried to organize an Istanbul Free Tour but due to the specifics of the market, none has been sustainable. Maybe in the future, someone would find a way to organize a regular free tour. Until then, you can try a couple of alternatives.
All over the world, there are “greeters” – local people who would be happy to show you around if you let them know in advance you are coming. Here’s how the Istanbul one is advertised: “Istanbul Greeters is a service for travellers provided by the Education Volunteers. Come to Istanbul, and we will match you with enthusiastic, city-knowledgeable residents – Greeters, who can show you remarkable sights and ambiance that make Istanbul a terrific place to live and visit.”
I have been registered in Couchsurfing for years but so far I have only hosted a couple of people. However, I have used Airbnb quite a lot in the recent years. The best thing about these services is not the free/cheap accommodation. It’s the possibility to immerse yourself in local culture, meet locals and experience the life of natives. Not all hosts would have time to show you around but most would give you invaluable tips that cannot be found on any guide – after all, they live there.
Istanbul is one of the few cities where I have been eager to go back. It’s not the fact that Turkey’s a neighbouring country to Bulgaria (actually, it’s takes quite a long time to get there if you are on a budget). It’s the city that’s in the crossroads of civilizations – the messy but intriguing Asia and the tidy and rigid Europe. Istanbul took the best of both and has a lot to offer to any taste. Unfortunately, private tours are crazy expensive there but it’s very easy to organize your own itinerary. One of the most helpful resources that I have found online is the Turkey Travel Planner. I also used a lot the recommendation of locals in Spotted By Locals Istanbul. One of our favourites is the restaurant Balikci Sabahattin (it’s a bit pricey but totally worth it). But more about my experiences in Istanbul probably in a separate post.