6 Offbeat Things to Do in Istanbul

This is a guest post by Emily Starbuck-Crone from Maiden Voyage Travel.

When I went to Istanbul, the big historical sites—Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, the Grand Bazaar, and the Spice Market—blew me away. But I also wanted to find fun things to do that were less touristy.

Locals ended up giving us some great tips. One advised my partner and I to go to the Basilica Cistern, and that was the first we’d heard of it. This bizarre underground cavern turned out to be one of the highlights of my trip, and I didn’t even know it existed prior to that tip. I’m also glad that we heeded the advice to go to a real hammam rather than taking the easy route and going to a Westernized version in a fancy hotel.

Don’t miss Istanbul’s major sites. But once you’ve done them, here are some lesser-known gems and activities to explore:

Descend into the Basilica Cistern
A long hallway down the Basilica Cistern in Istanbul
I walked on top of this ancient cavern for days without realizing it. After entering an unassuming doorway and climbing down a gloomy set of stairs, we ended up in an underground former water reservoir built in the sixth century. It’s filled with centuries-old columns and is dim, only eerily lit in shades of orange. Koi fish swim in the standing water, and you have to walk on wooden planks to get around. You can hear drips echoing, and there are two mysterious statues with the head of Medusa. It feels like you’re in a scary movie.

Explore the Asian Side
Building on the Asian side of Istanbul
Istanbul is the only city in the world to straddle two continents; it spans from Europe to Asia. The Asian side, also called the Anatolian side, is separated from the European side by the Bosphorus Strait. You can take a bus over the famous Bosphorus Bridge, or you can ride over in a ferry. The city’s main tourist sites are on the European side, but if you’ve never been to Asia, it’s fun to cross over so you can say you’ve been there. If you’re interested in shopping, check out the popular markets in Kadiköy. Other worthy activities include touring the Beylerbeyi Palace, riding up to the top of Çamlica Hill for incredible views of the city, and strolling along Bagdat Caddesi to explore the many restaurants, cafes, and shops.

Visit a Real Hammam
(Picture not available—everyone was naked inside!)
Many of the swanky hotels in Istanbul have hammams, otherwise known as Turkish baths, but they aren’t the real deal. They’re made for Westerners looking for a cushy and modest experience. Real hammams have been a Turkish tradition for thousands of years, and they have served as both a place to cleanse and to socialize. Most hammams are separated by gender, and women generally go topless. You transition through several different rooms of different temperatures, one being the hot steam room much like a sauna. You can opt to pay an attendant to give you a thorough scrub-down. It’s rough but invigorating! We went to the Çemberlitai Hamami and really enjoyed it; another popular one is Cagaloglu. Both are in the Old Town.

Go to Princes’ Islands
An offbeat activity is a horse and carriage ride through the streets of Princes' Island
This chain of nine islands off the coast of Istanbul provides a unique getaway from the crowds. An easy day trip during the warm months, the islands are just a quick ferry ride from the city. Most travelers visit the four larger islands, as the other five are very small and mostly residential. You can explore historic buildings, eat at tasty cafes, and see beautiful homes. Motorized transportation isn’t allowed on the islands, making them peaceful and quiet. You can get around by walking, bicycle, or horse and carriage.

Take a Ferry
View of castles taken from the ferry around the Turkish islands
A great way to explore this massive city is by boat. You’ll see many boats that offer paid tours of the Bosporus, but if you want to save money and have more flexibility, take a regular ferry ride instead. The fare will be cheaper, and you won’t be competing for space with other tourists trying to take photos. You’ll pass by Topkapi Palace, the Bosphorous Bridge, gorgeous mansions, mosques with massive minarets, other castles and palaces, and more. You can hop off, eat some fresh seafood, and then head back.

Explore the Jewish History
The door to a Jewish landmark in Istanbul
While Turkey is predominantly a Muslim country, it has a surprisingly long Jewish history. There are Jewish heritage tours you can take, or you can explore the stops on your own. Jews have lived in Turkey for thousands of years, but the population really grew during the Ottoman Empire (which includes some of Turkey) in the 1400s. Growth increased in 1492 when Spain expelled its Jews and the Ottoman Empire welcomed them (they had good business skills and came with money). Istanbul’s Galata quarter and Balat quarters are steeped in Jewish history, and you can find historic synagogues there and in other areas throughout town. Istanbul also has a Jewish museum that is very good.

Watch the Fishermen on Galata Bridge
Lots of fisherman on Galata Bridge in Turkey on a cold day
Every day, dozens, if not hundreds, of local men form a row along the top level of the Galata Bridge and fish over the edge. It’s an incredible sight. They spend hours hoping to catch fresh seafood, and some of them will sell it to you while they’re still out there fishing. Many of the men haven’t even made a catch; they seem to enjoy just standing there hanging their pole over the water. There’s also a fish market at the base of the bridge, and the many booths of fresh-caught fish are fun to look at (though it can also be a bit gross).

Istanbul is a very large and crowded city, and it can be intimidating. But it’s also home to some fascinating history. Regardless of how many of these attractions you’re able to fit in your first time in Istanbul, you’ll undoubtedly still be in awe of the city’s majestic architecture and complicated past.

Emily Starbuck Crone is a professional writer and editor based in Austin, Texas. She runs the travel blog Maiden Voyage, which is geared toward twentysomethings. Find her on Twitter at @TheMaidenVoyage or on Facebook.

  1. The cistern was definitely very cool and worth visiting! Random side thing going on down there: photographers will dress you up in sultan wear and pose you for pics and if you buy it, you have quite the offbeat memento of your cistern visit!

    • That’s actually really funny that they do that because the sultan’s would have been Muslim and wouldn’t be in a basilica! Still a fun memento to take away from the trip though!

  2. Ivan

    I didn’t know Cistern is considered off-beat, I thought it is one of the biggest attractions Istanbul has to offer.
    One other thing to complete this list is relatively new museum just outside the city wall – Panorama 1453. In it you are standing on a platform that is surrounded by recreation of last siege of Istanbul in 1453. The platform is under a dome which is painted to represent what the city looked like at the moment it fell to the Ottoman Empire from that very spot. It is really worth to pay it a visit.

    Also, there is a church of st. Chorae which was converted into a mosque and then into a museum. As its mosaics were only plastered over they are preserved and truly breath-taking beautiful.

  3. Raimar

    Turks are great and big-hearted people —- it will be a life-changing event for many!

    Get ready to have your preconceptions shattered!

  4. Did you try the barbecued fish sandwiches near the Galata bridge? That is a must visit place at night.

    One of my favorite parts of Istanbul was heading out of the core along the Bospherus. It is amazing to see how many cargo ships are in queue waiting for approval to go past Istanbul.

  5. I’m really looking forward to the opportunity to visit Istanbul with my friends next year, especially as they’ve been back to the city a few times. Among the three of us, we’ve got the combination of Turkish/German/English covered – well, at least I’ve got two of the three.

    I’m fascinated how Istanbul straddles the Europe-Asia ‘border’ and how that plays out with the people, architecture, religion, food, art/culture, etc. The tips offered in the post as well as in the comments are valuable, and I’m taking notes!

    Thanks for your post, Emily, and thanks for hosting, Matt!

  6. zeynep

    Hi everyone!

    I’m an Istanbuller and I read everything above. I got happy because you liked it and could see and know about the beauties.For the ones who couldn’t come to Istanbul yet; I hope you can as soon as possible. Have a great trip,which I’m sure you will 😉

    Thanks for the kind things you said.Take care and enjoy! :)

    • Hi, I’m born in India but moved to America and currently living in NYC. I’m a lawyer turned into an actor. I just booked a ticket to spend 4 nights in Istanbul before I go to Athens. I’m coming there this Saturday June 20. Any advice?

  7. Not Cool Emily. Not Cool. As if after reading about the Byzantine Empire I didn’t want to go to Istanbul enough.After reading this I have a driving need to go. Must…Not…Buy…Plane…Ticket…to…Turkey……Yet

  8. Thanks for the comments, everyone–so glad you enjoyed my guest post! A big thanks to Matt for giving me the chance to share it.

    @ipopic: The Cistern may be well-known to some, but I didn’t remember hearing about it before I went on my trip, and I definitely did some research. Those museums sound really cool–I’ll check them out next time I’m there!

    @John: Are you talking about the fish sandwiches from the guys serving who serve them from the boats? If so, I wasn’t too impressed with mine…then again, they were cranking them out like left and right. If you’re talking about something else, my bad :)

    • Mary

      Wanted to defend the poster who said the cistern is well-known… Its on Frommers one day Istanbul tour, Rick Steves one day tour, and basically every highlight list. Often its listed under the Turkish name, so maybe thats why you hadnt recognized it?

      Frommers covers istanbul really well, so yall should check that out. It suggests a real hammam, the government ferry, the galata bridge fishermen, the cistern, and I think every one of these in its 3 day itinerary!

  9. I know what you mean about the Basilica Cistern. We finally headed down there on the last day of our time in Istanbul this past August and I am really glad we did. Did you know it was lost for hundreds of years. People had forgotten it existed. It was only discovered because authorities became suspicious of those lucky folks who lived above the cistern. They seemed to always have an endless supply of fresh water. It’s very usual to view and well worth visiting. It doesn’t take long to walk through, doesn’t cost much and is right across the street from the Ayasofya and the Blue Mosque.

  10. Ken

    I’m very glad that I found this site. I have been contemplating going to Istanbul, but from what I’ve read here, I now can’t wait to get my plans made.

  11. I wast just in Istanbul, and I have to agree, I somehow stumbled upon the cistern (I don’t know how considering it’s underground) and was very impressed.

    I should have gone over to the Asian side as I wanted to see how modern Turks lived, without the interfer…involvement with the mosques/touristic ambiance. haha I’m going to do a post about the hammam soon too, and I don’t have any pictures either (but you know how wild it is in there!).

  12. So many cities have underground tunnels that no one knows about. I imagine 1000 years from now tourists will be taken on tours of the tunnels under New York City. There won’t be any koi ponds, of course, just lots and lots of rats!


  13. I live in Istanbul (Asian Side) and you’ve put together a great list! On the ferry tour you’ll pass the European Fortress which might be one to add to the list. Pretty Amazing from the outside and equally as cool on the inside but a bit harder to access. Everyone should come to Istanbul though! Great city!

  14. You can’t visit Istanbul without venturing out onto the Bosphorous at least once. It’s really the lifeblood of the city. Istanbul is a easy city to get around, and usually entails a lot of walking, so what better way to give your feet a rest, than sit on a boat, and enjoy the ride.

    We took a trip to Büyükada, the biggest of the Princes Islands – you’ll need to allow a day to get there and back, and give yourself enough time to rent a bike and cycle around. But well worth it, especially if you’re in Istanbul for more than 5 days.

    We also took a quick jaunt to Üsküdar, on Istanbul’s Asian side – not much to see, but just great to hop of the city ferry and ride the waves.

    The alternative to the City Ferries, are is the Turyol Line. Both offer Bosphorous Cruises. The short route goes as far as the Bosphorus Bridge, and the long route ends up near the Black sea.

    And if you just don’t have time to find your sea legs – take a front seat view from the Galata Bridge, and watch as ferries, ships, yachts and fishing boats play chicken with each other as they navigate out of the port and into the open river. Fun to watch!

  15. Chris

    I love that you mentioned the fishermen on the Galata Bridge and exploring the Asian Side. I thought the Asian Side was actually one of the overlooked highlights of the city. You mention the (sometimes gross) fish market at the base of the bridge…did you try the market restuarant??? They serve fresh-caught firsh cooked simply at an locals-only price.

  16. Majida

    Was there, did the most tourist things, but next time will keep your tips in mind! Esp. exploring the Asian side, the Jewish history- always fascinating to me, and may be the Princess islands! And of course the Hammam :)

  17. Daichovo

    Here’s a couple things I hope to do in Istanbul when I get there in a few days that are not the standard tourist thing maybe

    -go to the top of the Sapphire Building (tallest building in Turkey)…anyone know actually what the hours are? I was considering NYE!

    -hunt down a zurna (weapon of mass destruction/crazy musical instrument. This predecessor to the predecessor of the oboe has two volumes: playing or not playing)

    -visit someone in your field (I am studying acupuncture so visiting a clinic)- see how they do it there

    -find a slightly less touristy (and, cheaper!) hamam. I don’t have time to get too far off the path but Gedikpasa Hamam, Tarihi Sifi Hamam, and Aziziye on Asian side look promising)

    These aren’t totally bizarre but not on EVERY list. Iyi ?anslar!

  18. Dan

    From a frequent visitor:

    – never pay for tea (chai)
    – watch out when being directed to a carpet shop when on a historical sites tour of Istanbul (it’s the old classic set-up, your tour guide is on commission)
    – travel by ferry (if crossing the Bosporus) when you can, avoid the traffic/bridge
    – use the Dolmus (mini-bus), cheap, easy transport around the city – plus you will get a laugh watching the driver manage his cash (and count it), while driving and smoking at the same-time
    – Bargain! yes you stick out as a foreigner!
    – Go shopping where the locals go, great finds and clothing/footwear bargains to be found!
    – For the men, buy your business suits from Turkey, great quality, styles and awesome prices!
    – learn the local language, Turks love foreigners attempting a chat in Turkish!
    – When being asked (told) to support a local Istanbul football team like Fenerbahce, Besiktas or Galatasaray tell your host or random stranger on the street you support Eskisehir (just a random city in the middle of no-where, 5 hours from Istanbul that seems to have no rivalries). Your enquirer will somehow be confused, shrug his shoulders and be satisfied all at the same-time with your response)
    – Go to Eskisehir – best place in Turkey that I have been to for a Hamman (uses natural themo heated water), also has a nice river running through the city!
    – eat as much seafood as you can!
    – If you are going on a coach tour outside of Istanbul, go on one that is dedicated to the locals – u will meet more locals, share stories and have a good time, while most of time not understanding a thing the tour host has to say!
    – Meze (entrees) are far better than mains! order as much Meze as you can eat
    – Raki is your choice of drink to go with your Meze
    – Make sure you get to the roof-top bars in Taksim Square – great, classy spots looking over the Bosporus.

  19. Stephanie Porter

    I recently traveled to Turkey, and found that many of my favorite parts of Istanbul were those that were “off the beaten path”! I did follow this posts advice, and watched the fisherman off Galata bridge, and was able to go to both the Hammam and take a boat cruise on the Bosphorous as a part of a day tour called “The Other Tour”. For anyone who wants to see more of Turkey’s culture and less touristy sights – I would highly recommend checking it out, as it was one of my favorite things I have ever done, and I recommend it to everyone I know!

  20. Helen

    If you are looking for a great experience for dinner – try Al Jamal – fantastic food and show – but not for tourist, rather for the upscale domestic market.
    The Princess Islands are fantastic and the Seafood the best in turkey (so far) and my turkish husband agrees.. :)

  21. I’ve visited Turkey for a 12 times, but it always was the beach vacations. At the present time, I’m in Crimea, not so far from Istanbul…and I think about to visit this city. Thank for your review!

  22. Peyton

    Istanbul is not the only city to straddle two continents. There are about four others. One of those four is Atyrau, Kazakhstan where the Ural river separates the two continents. In January, 2010, I was able to walk across the frozen river from Asia to Europe.

  23. If you want to go off the beaten track, go and stay at The Karamanyan boutique apartments on Heybeliada, one of the Princes Islands just off the coast of Istanbul. Stunning car free islands, its like stepping back in time. The evening view back over to the city is breath taking.
    The Karamanyan apartments are a cool place to stay, they have just been voted in the top 10 apartments to stay in Turkey by The Guardian Newspaper.

  24. Great summary Emily. The challenge is to limit the list to just 6 (offbeat or otherwise). I had a hard time keeping my list to just 10. I’d recommend getting an Istanbulkart and going on a voyage of discovery.

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