$24 whiskeys and $.35 cookies

Istanbul Travel Blog

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So after 8 consective days with a blog post, I finally missed one (although frankly I’m surprised my streak lasted that long).  I’ve been fighting a bit of a cold, and despite lazing around the apartment for most of the day yesterday, I just couldn’t motivate myself to write much of anything.  I’d like so say that to make up for it, this entry will be twice as interesting (or at least twice as long), but don’t hold your breath…

I actually did try to write for a little while, but just couldn't seem to find a good angle on my chosen topic: how prices in Istanbul compare to the US and other places I've been.  Istanbul's definitely not as cheap as I expected (or at least hoped) it would be, but I'm still occasionally shocked at how inexpensive some things (especially food) can be.  To me, it's just another indication of the limbo status of present-day Turkey.  It's far from a third-world country (Istanbul especially, which to me seems in many ways more modern than southern Italy and parts of Greece), but it's also still rapidly developing and not quite yet totally 'westernized' (for lack of a better word).

On average, I'd say prices are pretty comparable to a large city in the US.  The price of a beer -- one of my trustiest methods for comparing prices in different places, since you can get beer everywhere, and I pretty much do -- is around $.75-$1 in a supermarket, and $4-5 in a bar.  And dinner in a decent restaurant will set you back $15-40.  But some things are ridiculously expensive as well... I've had what may have been my most expensive drink ever here in Istanbul: a whiskey on the rocks in a pretty high-end lounge/club.  Except it wasn't Johnnie Walker Blue, and it wasn't a uber-posh place packed with models and movie stars; a normal Jameson set me back 35 YTL (around $24 at the current exchange rate).  Don't get me wrong, I like Jamey plenty (some might say a little too much), but not that much...  And both gasoline and cars are *ridiculously* expensive as well.   Gas is even pricier than most of Europe, at I think slightly below $2 per litre.  Imported cars cost roughly 1.5 to 2.5 times their sticker price in the US, meaning a new Honda Civic is around $28,000, and that 6-cylinder BMW X3 you've been eyeing (since the X5 is just a little too big) will set you back a cool $117,000.  All of these are due to the fact that the Turkish government uses indirect taxes (via what it calls the 'Special Consumption Tax') to collect a large share of its tax revenues, since the collection of income taxes and even property taxes hasn't exactly been reliable in the past.  Even the taxation factor on automobiles is dependent solely on engine size, not on value as would make more sense (since you can simply understate the legal purchase price or current value of your car, but the size of your engine is a little more difficult to fudge).  So gasoline, cars, alcohol, cigarettes, cell-phones, luxury goods and a few other select items are very heavily taxed, and are therefore really expensive.

Then again, once you've become mentally acclimated to prices approximately equivalent to those in the US, some things strike you as surprisingly inexpensive.  This is especially true on trips to the supermarket, where you can easily buy a few days worth of groceries for under $10.  A small pack of 10 turkish cookies is .5 YTL at most ($.35), and fresh produce is cheap as well.  Even cheap restaurants are, well, cheap:  if you know where to go, a decent and more-than-filling multiple-course meal (soup, salad, main course and dessert) will cost little more than  $5.  Outside Istanbul (and probably even outside my neighborhood, which is one of the posher in the city, meaning my general perception may very well be more than a little skewed), things are, I'm sure, even less costly.

So all this for no real conclusion as to whether Istanbul is expensive:  it is, and it isn't.  Although I haven't had McDonald's since I left the States in April (nor do I really miss it), I may have to pop in and check out the price of a Big Mac just to see where Turkey stands with regard to McParity...
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photo by: Memo