20 Non-Touristy Things To Do In Istanbul, Turkey

20 Non-Touristy Things To Do In Istanbul, Turkey
Verena
Verena 
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Ranked as the 6th most popular tourist destination in the world in 2014, Istanbul has attracted millions of foreigners every year due to its incredible culture and history. Whether you have been here before or not, I’m sure most people have heard of Istanbul’s major tourist sights, such as the Hagia Sophia, Sultan Ahmed Mosque (Blue Mosque), and Grand Bazaar. While these attractions should definitely not be missed, there are also a lot more things to do in Istanbul that are less common, especially among tourists. Even accommodations are one-of-a-kind as you’ll find many unique Airbnbs in Istanbul. If you have been to all the major points of interest and find yourself with extra time, below is a list of non-touristy things to do in Istanbul, Turkey.

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Istanbul

Balat

While planning your trip, take note of this hidden gem: the neighborhood of Balat is a colorful place with historical buildings and cultural significance. It's worth visiting!

1. Explore two continents in one day

Bosphorus
Source: Photo by Wikimedia Commons user Bertil Videt used under CC BY 2.5

Separated by the Bosphorus strait, Istanbul is the only city in the world divided into two continents—Europe and Asia. Crossing from one side to the other is a must-do in Istanbul. It’s not everyday you get to say you went from Europe to Asia (or vice versa) in 20 minutes. It is easy to get across either side by ferry or bus. And if you have never been to Asia before, this is your chance to say that you have! While the most popular tourist attractions are located on the European side and close to the beautiful family resorts in Istanbul, you should also spend some time exploring the Asian side. Some points of interest on the Asian side include the Kadikoy Market, Beylerbeyi Palace, Camlica Hill, and Bagdat Caddedi.

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2. Swim between Europe and Asia in a pool on the sea at Suada Club

Galatasaray Island Adasi
Source: Photo by Wikimedia Commons user Helge Høifødt used under CC BY-SA 3.0

Suada Club is a resort complex located on Galatasaray Island, a small island in between Europe and Asia on the Bosphorus. Swimming in the Bosphorus is extremely dangerous, but swimming in a pool on the Bosphorus isn’t. This is something you will not experience anywhere else in the world. Apart from the pool, Suada Club also has 6 restaurants, giving you plenty of options for food. An ideal place to relax with upbeat DJ music, refreshing drinks, and surreal scenery, it is basically heaven on earth. You can easily get to there via a free ferry from Kurucesme Park that shuttles to and from the island, which is located just 165 meters from shore.

Suada Club

Address: Galatasaray Adasi, Kuruçeşme Park, Beşiktaş, İstanbul

Opening Hours: 9am - 12am

Access: free ferry from Kurucesme Park

Contact: +90-2122637300

Official Website: Suada Club

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3. Descend 52 stone steps into the depths of Basilica Cistern

Turkey-03528 - Basilica Cistern
Source: Photo by user Dennis Jarvis used under CC BY-SA 2.0

Among the hundreds of ancient cisterns that lie beneath Istanbul, Basilica Cistern is the largest. It is also one of the only two that remain open to the public today. Just 150 meters (500 feet) away from Hagia Sophia, this structures holds lots of the city’s history. To discover the underground cistern, you have to climb down 52 stone steps. The cold atmosphere of the cistern, from the dripping water and subdued lighting, may give you chills at first. But in reality, it enhances your experience of the cistern’s unique history. Don’t forget to admire all 336 Ionic- and Corinthian-style marble columns used to support the roof as you stroll through.

Basilica Cistern

Address: Alemdar Mh., Yerebatan Cd. 1/3, 34410 Fatih/İstanbul, Turkey

Opening Hours: 9am - 5.30pm. Daily.

Official Website: Basilica Cistern

Contact: +90 212 522 1259

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4. Capture vibrant photos on a 'street art walk'

Street Art Istanbul
Source: Photo by user Pelle Sten used under CC BY 2.0

Istanbul is a city full of colorful murals. You can spot these scattered all over the city, but especially in famous urban neighborhoods, such as Sishane, Karakoy, and Kadikoy. Take time to just walk around and look out for these graffiti murals. These walls will be some of the most impressive art works you can find in the city. They also make for great backdrops, so don’t forget to snap a couple of photos. If you don’t feel comfortable exploring by yourself, you can also join a professional tour from Istanbul Tour Studio to take you around.

Istanbul Tour Studio: One Day Street Art Tour

Duration: 5.5 hours

Price: 120 USD per person for 2 people *Price per person is cheaper in bigger groups

Contact: 1-800-262-3412 (USA/Canada toll-free)

Offciial Website: Istanbul Tour Studio: One Day Street Art Tour

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Istanbul Tour Guide

Rose TheGuide

Rose The Guide

Professional Tour / Travel Guide and Photographer Certified by Turkish Republic Ministry of Culture and Tourism. I am a knowledgeable and motivated individual with years of experience in organizing group tours in several areas; have the ability to motivate different sets of audience; have the ability to communicate effectively and possess high degree of energy and enthusiasm.

Istanbul Tour Guide

Dilek Orubegarcia

Dilek Orubegarcia

My name is Dilek, a national-licensed tour guide. I am 40 years old and have been guiding for 12 years. My husband is from Mexico as a Mexican Turkish family and with our two young kids we live in Istanbul. When I don't work I spend most of my time outdoor with my family, enjoying Istanbul as much as we can. We go out, try to discover new restaurants, new museums, art galleries, children's acti... Read more

Istanbul Tour Guide

Safiye Kaban

Safiye Kaban

Hi there, this is Safiye from istanbul. I am a professional licensed tour guide and travel expert over 12 years. I have guided thousands of travellers from all around the world. I love meeting with new people, making new friends and building bridges. I orgnize cultural, historical, shopping and food tours to small groups, I mostly guide to private tours. I am also a foodie, I love discovering n... Read more

Istanbul Tour Guide

Guide Hamide

Guide Hamide

Hello, everyone! I'm Hamide, a professional tour guide in Istanbul. I studied archeology, mithology, history of art, anatolia, and religions. After my bachelors' degree graduation, I started to work in Cappadocia for 4 years. I came and settled in Istanbul when I realised that Istanbul has a very deep history, a unique multiple culture and stunning geography! I still keep experiencing new taste... Read more

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5. Discover Turkish adventurers’ antiques at Minyatur’s Nautical Instruments shop

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Source: Photo by Wikimedia Commons user Jean Baptiste Bou... used under PUBLIC DOMAIN

Minyatur’s Nautical Instruments shop is a gem in the crowd of stores in the Grand Bazaar. It features a huge collection of vintage nautical objects (e.g. globes, compasses, telescopes) from past Turkish adventurers. Each object has its own story that you can ask the shop owner to share with you. Admire every unique vintage item on display, and feel the magic of travel the moment you step into the store.

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6. Learn the craft of Ottoman jewelry in the Grand Bazaar

Turkish jewelry display
Source: Photo by Wikimedia Commons user U.S. Air Force ph... used under PUBLIC DOMAIN

Tourists from all over the world flock to the Grand Bazaar when they are in Istanbul to buy intricate jewelry. Instead of just browsing and purchasing display jewelry pieces, why not make your own? Istanbul Tour Studio offers an Ottoman jewelry workshop that will be taught by a master. The workshop includes a demonstration of the ancient craft of Ottoman jewelry-making, and a chance to design and create your own.

Istanbul Tour Studio: Jewelry Workshop

Address: Grand Bazaar, Beyazıt Mh., İstanbul, Turkey

Opening Hours: 9am - 7pm. Closed on Sundays and public holidays.

Duration: 4 hours

Price: 140 USD

Website: Istanbul Tour Studio: Jewelry Workshop

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7. Produce colorful patterns at a Turkish Marbling (Ebru) workshop

Paper Marbling Tank
Source: Photo by Wikimedia Commons user Zephyris used under CC BY-SA 3.0

Turkish paper marbling is a method of aqueous surface design that produces patterns similar to marble. It is a traditional form of art from the Ottoman Empire, particularly with flower designs.

If you are after unique experiences in Istanbul, check out the workshop hosted by Les Arts Turc. Learn the secrets to handmade paper marbling techniques. Create your own unique designs on paper, glass, or silk fabrics. This is a unique experience you wouldn’t want to miss out on in Istanbul.

Turkish Marbling (Ebru) Lessons & Workshops at Les Arts Turcs

Address: Incili Cavus St. No:19 Floor:3 (Yerebatan Sarayi Girisi Arkasi), Alemdar Mah., Sultanahmet 34400, Istanbul, Turkey

Opening Hours: 9am - 6pm. Closed on public holidays.

Duration: 2 hours

Price: 80 EUR (89.10 USD) for 1 person, 70 EUR (78 USD) per person for 2+ people

Contact: +90-2125276859

Website: Turkish Marbling/Ebru Lessons & Workshops at Les Arts Turcs

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8. Whip up delicious local specialties at a cooking class

Turkish food
Source: Photo by Wikimedia Commons user Garry Knight used under CC BY-SA 2.0

Turkish cuisine has received influence from various cultures, thus creating a fusion of interesting flavors and techniques. The only thing better than tasting their local cuisine is learning how to cook it yourself. Nothing is more satisfying than eating food you made. There are several cooking schools in Istanbul where you can learn more about Turkish food. I recommend Istanbul Cooking School or Cooking Alaturka. Both schools offer lessons at a reasonable price, giving you the opportunity to cook a variety of dishes and shine in the kitchen.

Istanbul Cooking School

Address: Kamer Hatun, Mahallesi, Tarlabaşı Bulvarı, 117/2 34435, Beyoğlu, İstanbul

Opening Hours: 10:30am - 3:30pm, or 3pm - 8pm

Duration: 5 hours

Price: 65 USD

Contact: +90-5455546677

Official Website: Istanbul Cooking School

Cooking Alaturka

Address: Akbiyik Caddesi 72a Sultanahmet, Istanbul, Turkey

Opening Hours: 10:30am - 2:30pm, or 4:30pm - 8:30pm. Closed on Sundays

Duration: 4 hours

Price: 65 EUR (72.40 USD)

Contact: +90-2124585919

Official Website: Cooking Alaturka

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9. Visit the Valens Aqueduct

Bozdoģan Kemeri - panoramio
Source: Photo by Wikimedia Commons user Laima Gūtmane (si... used under CC BY-SA 3.0

Step back in time and marvel at the grandeur of the Valens Aqueduct in Istanbul. This ancient architectural marvel, dating back to the Roman period, is a testament to the city’s rich history and engineering prowess. As you approach the aqueduct, you’ll be awestruck by its impressive scale and majestic arches. Built in the 4th century, the Valens Aqueduct was a vital part of the city’s water supply system, spanning kilometers and carrying water from the forests to the city.

Stroll along the aqueduct’s pedestrian pathway, soaking in the panoramic views of the surrounding area. Admire the intricate craftsmanship and the sheer magnitude of the structure, which has withstood the test of time. This point of interest in Istanbul provides a picturesque backdrop for memorable photos, capturing the blend of ancient and modern elements that Istanbul is renowned for.

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10. Make a wish at Hagia Sophia Wishing Column

Editor's Note: There's no photo available at the time of writing

Experience the enchantment of the Hagia Sophia Wishing Column in Istanbul. This iconic and unusual place in Istanbul invites you to make a wish and be part of a centuries-old tradition. Located within the magnificent Hagia Sophia, the Wishing Column holds a special place in the hearts of visitors. Touching the column and making a wish can bring good luck and fulfillment.

The Wishing Column has witnessed countless hopes and dreams throughout the ages and carries an aura of mystery and reverence. Take a moment to reflect, meditate, or offer a silent prayer as you connect with the spiritual energy of this sacred place.

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11. Take a trip out to the Princes' Islands (from USD 122.0)

Büyükada, Dilburnu Mesire Yeri'nden bakış
Source: Photo by Wikimedia Commons user Beyazmavi used under PUBLIC DOMAIN

An archipelago consisting of 4 larger islands and 5 smaller ones, Princes’ Islands is a perfect getaway from the city, especially for a day-trip. Located in the Sea of Marmara, they are the only islands around Istanbul, hence are commonly referred to as ‘The Islands’ by local Turks. The islands are easy to get to by ferry from the mainland. It is home to elaborate Ottoman architecture, peaceful Greek monasteries, and mansion where Leon Trotsky was once exiled. On the biggest island Buyukada, climb up to Yucetepe Kir Gazinosu, a restaurant located on the island’s highest peak that can be accessed by a steep footpath, to admire the amazing views of sea. Tired of planning your own day trip? You can go on a guided tour. More details as follow.

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Cruise to the Princes' Islands

Duration: 8 hours

5 reviews

12. Explore Istanbul's culinary scene through street food

Istanbul - Simit
Source: Photo by user drivoit used under CC BY 2.0

Exploring the delectable food landscape is surely one of the gratifying activities in Istanbul. Street food is a key part of Turkish culture and is the best way to try various local specialties for extremely cheap prices.

Some popular street food in Istanbul include simit, midye dolma, and kokorec. Simit is a circular bread encrusted with sesame seeds. While there are different variations of it all over Turkey, the ones in Istanbul are unique because they are made with molasses.

One of the most commonly seen street food is midye dolma, which is essentially boiled mussels with spicy rice filling and eaten with a hint of lemon juice. Kokorec is a dish for the adventurous—it is made of grilled sheep intestines with tomatoes, green peppers, and spices, and is usually served inside bread. You can’t visit a country without trying its local cuisine, so take your pick at any one, or several, street food to try.

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13. Drink fresh homemade pomegranate juice

Fresh oranges & pomegranates in Istanbul
Source: Pixabay

Street vendors selling homemade natural juices is a regular sight in Istanbul. The most common fruits used by these vendors are pomegranates and oranges. These juices are made right in front of you in less than a minute. Since pure orange juice is common all over the world, try the pomegranate juice. It makes for a delicious, healthy, and inexpensive refresher on a hot day. Note that tourist areas charge up to 10 TRY (3.40 USD) for a small cup of juice, but you can find it in local areas for just 3 TRY (1 USD).

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14. Fall in love with the cats of Istanbul

The Cats of Istanbul
Source: Photo by user Pelle Sten used under CC BY 2.0

Istanbul is famous for having lots of cats roaming around the streets. Despite their existence as strays, these cats are fed and sheltered by the public. People love and admire them. No one knows exactly how or when this came to be, but it has been a part of the city’s soul for a long time. Walk around the city, observe the cats, snap some photos, and maybe fall in love with them. If you are an extreme cat lover, you could take the cat obsession to a new level by dining at a cat-theme café (e.g. Elif Café) or spending a night in the Stray Cat Hostel.

Stray Cat Hostel in Istanbul

Address: Cihangir, Mebusan Ykş. No:35, 34433 Beyoğlu/İstanbul, Turkey

Contact: +90 212 293 9103

Tip from tour guide

Safiye

Safiye
Istanbul

Cafe Naftalin K. Cafe Naftalin K. Cafe Naftalin K.

Another great and cozy place to meet cute cats in Istanbul is Cafe Naftalin K. From there, you can sit by the window and enjoy the narrow streets and vibrant buildings around.

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15. Travel back to the past at the Istanbul Railway Museum

IstanbulRailwayMuseum06
Source: Photo by Wikimedia Commons user CeeGee used under CC BY-SA 4.0

Railways have always been a significant part of Turkey’s history. Learn about its importance at the Istanbul Railway Museum. Located in Sirkeci Terminal, the famous station that was once the eastern endpoint of the Orient Express, this small museum features around 300 historical items. These artefacts range from parts of old trains (e.g. tools, silverware, seats), to photographs and documents. Admission is free; expect a visit there to take no more than 30 minutes.

Istanbul Railway Museum

Address: Hoca Paşa, Sirkeci tren Garı, 34410 Sirkeci Fatih/İstanbul, Turkey

Price: Free

Opening Hours: 09:00hr to 12:30hr and 1:00hr to 17:00hr; Daily except public holidays

Official Website: Istanbul Railway Museum

Contact: 0212 520 65 75/7885

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16. Learn about Jewish history at the Jewish Museum of Turkey

Jewish Museum of Istanbul
Source: Photo by user Chadica used under CC BY 2.0

In a world of conflicts and wars, Istanbul is the only city in the world where people have worshipped at mosques, synagogues, and churches simultaneously for five centuries in harmony. However, because Istanbul is a primarily Muslim city, tourists often visit mosques and disregard other religious landmarks. Located in what was once known as Zulfaris Synagogue, the Jewish Museum of Turkey is the place for you to find out more about the Turkish-Jewish community. It highlights the intermingling cultures of Jews and Muslims, and Turkish-Jewish traditions.

Jewish Museum of Turkey

Address: Bereketzade, Büyük Hendek Cd. No:39, 34421 Beyoğlu/İstanbul, Turkey

Opening Hours: Monday to Thursday; 10:00hr to 16:00hr, Fridays and Sundays; 10:00hr to 14:00hr. Closed on Saturday and special occasions.

Official Website: Jewish Museum of Turkey

Contact: (0212) 292 63 33 (0212) 292 63 34

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17. Witness a religious ceremony of the Whirling Sufi Dervishes

Whirlingdervishes
Source: Photo by Wikimedia Commons user myself used under PUBLIC DOMAIN

The Whirling Dervishes is a dance performed within the Sema, a Sufi worship ceremony. It began in the 13th century when a Sufi master decided that this whirling dance was the way for Sufis to gain a closer relationship with God. Even though the dance was never intended as a performance or a tourist attraction, it has become an increasingly popular activity amongst travelers. If you are interested, the Galata Mevlevi Museum hosts a Whirling Dervish performance that is open to the public every Sunday for 50 TRY (17 USD). It is a great way to experience a unique and mystical look into Sufi spiritualism. However, do bear in mind that this is still a religious ceremony, and all guests should be respectful.

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18. Cleanse in a traditional Turkish bath

Turkish Bath, interior 03
Source: Photo by Wikimedia Commons user sailko used under CC BY-SA 3.0

A Turkish bath (also known as hamam) has been an important part of Turkish culture for a long time. It is a rendition of the traditional Roman bath that focuses more on a humid and steamy environment. The goal of a Turkish bath is to cleanse and relax the body. Many hotels offer modern versions of hamam that allow guests to wear clothes into the bath. However, for a proper traditional experience, strip down completely as the Turks have been doing for centuries. While various services are offered that you can choose from, a classic Turkish bath includes washing, body scrubbing, a foam wash, and a massage. For those willing to embrace this tradition to the fullest, visit one of the famous traditional bath places in Istanbul, such as Ayasofya Hürrem Sultan Hamam, Cağaloğlu Hamam, or Çemberlitaş Hamam.

Haseki Hürrem Sultan Hamamı

Address: Cankurtaran Mh., Ayasofya Meydanı No:2, Fatih/İstanbul, Turkey

Opening Hours: Daily 8am - 10pm

Access: How to access [ex: 1 min walk from hougang mrt]

Website: Haseki Hürrem Sultan Hamamı

Contact: +90 212 517 3535

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19. Smoke a Turkish water pipe in Tophane

Turkish water pipes (hookah)

A Turkish water pipe (also known as nargile, or more commonly as hookah) is a traditional Turkish way of smoking tobacco. Used as an indication of status, it became especially popular around the 17th–19th century during the Ottoman Empire. Smoking a water pipe may not be healthy, but every traveler in Istanbul should try it at least once or twice to experience this important Turkish custom. There are hookah places scattered all over the city, but stop by Tophane for an authentic experience. Commonly considered the birthplace of nargile, Tophane is lined with countless cafes and bars for anyone to get the quintessential smoking experience.

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20. Ride a funicular up to Pierre Loti Cafe

Tunel Istanbul 2011
Source: Photo by Wikimedia Commons user Atomicbre used under CC BY-SA 3.0

A modern teahouse located in Eyup, Pierre Loti Café provides spectacular views of the Golden Horn, a waterway that serves the primary inlet of the Bosphorus. With its wooden furniture, blue tiled interior, and old photographs, the café is decorated to reflect the 19th century. It is a great place to enjoy a calm afternoon in Istanbul with snacks, drinks, and a surreal sight. It is possible to reach the hilltop that Pierre Loti Café is located on by walking. But for a more interesting and unique experience, take the funicular to avoid a tough climb uphill. You could always take a walk back down if you desire.

Pierre Loti Café

Address: Eyüp Merkez, Gümüşsuyu Cad./balmumcu Sok. No:5, Eyüp/Istanbul - Europe, Turkey

Contact: +90 212 581 2696

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21. Hop on a helicopter to enjoy a bird's-eye view of Istanbul

Contributed by Tour Guide, Rose TheGuide

If you’re looking for a unique and unforgettable way to experience the beauty and grandeur of Istanbul, make sure to book an incredible helicopter tour of the city! This tour will take you soaring over the city’s most iconic landmarks and offer beautiful views. From the dome of Hagia Sophia to the towering Bosphorus Bridge, unparalleled vistas of Istanbul’s stunning skyline and rich architecture await you.

So whether you’re looking to celebrate a special occasion, impress a loved one, or simply enjoy a unique and exciting adventure, an Istanbul helicopter tour is the perfect choice to create memories for a lifetime

Uniquely Istanbul

As one of the most visited cities in the world, Istanbul is a global city that embodies the past, the present, and the future. When looking for things to do in Istanbul, many tourists will only visit the common attractions and move on to their next destination. But Istanbul is not a city you want to briefly visit. Its rich history and ever-growing economy makes it a place you should truly explore. Make the most out of your trip. Do something different. Step out of the typical tourist bubble and experience Istanbul through a different lens.

Frequently asked questions about the non-touristy things to do in Istanbul, Turkey


Any must-sees we missed? Tell us about them in the comments section or write a post here to help out fellow travelers!

In light of the February 2023 earthquake that devastated Turkey and Syria, Trip101 urges you to be apprised of the latest news if you have any plans to travel to Eastern Turkey. Other parts of the country remain open to travelers.

Disclosure: Trip101 selects the listings in our articles independently. Some of the listings in this article contain affiliate links.

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Verena is currently a journalism student in New York City. Having to move around a lot throughout her childhood triggered her passion for traveling at a young age. She believes that exploring new...Read more

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Exploring Turkey In 12 Days: Best Things To Do And See

Exploring Turkey In 12 Days: Best Things To Do And See