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 there 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. If you have been to all the major points of interest and find yourself with extra time, below is a list of activities to consider that will allow you to experience Istanbul from an unusual perspective.
1. Explore two continents in one day
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, you should also spend some times exploring the Asian side. Some points of interest on the Asian side include the Kadikoy Market, Beylerbeyi Palace, Camlica Hill, and Bagdat Caddedi.
2. Swim between Europe and Asia in a pool on the sea at Suada Club
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.
Address: Galatasaray Adasi, Kuruçeşme Park, Beşiktaş, İstanbul
Opening Hours: 9am - 12am
Access: free ferry from Kurucesme Park
Official Website: Suada Club
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.
Cruise to the Princes' Islands
Duration: 8 hours
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4. Descend 52 stone steps into the depths of Basilica Cistern
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.
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
5. Capture vibrant photos on a 'street art walk'
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
6. Discover Turkish adventurers’ antiques at Minyatur’s Nautical Instruments shop
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.
7. Learn the craft of Ottoman jewelry in the Grand Bazaar
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
8. Produce colorful patterns at a Turkish Marbling (Ebru) workshop
Turkish paper marbling is a method of aqueous surface deisgn that produces patterns similar to marble. It is a traditional form of art from the Ottoman Empire, particularly with flower designs. If art is something you are interest in, 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
9. Whip up delicious local specialties at a cooking class
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
Official Website: Istanbul Cooking School
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)
Official Website: Cooking Alaturka
10. Explore Istanbul's culinary scene through street food
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, spices, and usually served inside bread. You can’t visit a country without trying their local cuisine, so take your pick at any one, or several, street food to try.
11. Drink fresh homemade pomegranate juice
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).
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
13. Travel back to the past at the Istanbul Railway Museum
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
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
14. Learn about Jewish history at the Jewish Museum of Turkey
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
15. Witness a religious ceremony of the Whirling Sufi Dervishes
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.
16. Cleanse in a traditional Turkish bath
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
17. Smoke a Turkish water pipe in Tophane
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.
18. Ride a funicular up to Pierre Loti Cafe
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
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.
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