This is a guest post by Emily Starbuck-Crone from Maiden Voyage Travel. Istanbul can be intimidating to first-time visitors, but here Emily offers some offbeat suggestions to dive into the heart of the city.
When I went to Istanbul, the big historical sites — the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, Grand Bazaar, and 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 me 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 (Turkish bath) 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
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
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, cafés, 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 a 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 the Prince Islands
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 cafés, 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
A great way to explore this massive city is by boat. You’ll see many boats that offer paid tours of the Bosphorus, 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 Bosphorus 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 Jewish History
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 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
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 don’t even make 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.
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