Is this your second time in the city, and you are looking for non-touristy things to do in Istanbul? Or perhaps you simply prefer to steer clear of tourist traps and crowds? If so, this article is for you!
NOTE: We’ll showcase some lesser-known places that first-time visitors to the city often overlook. While these spots may still attract a few tourists, you’ll find that they are mostly frequented by local Turkish people, giving you a chance to experience the city like a true insider.
So if you want to avoid the crowds and get a feel for the real Istanbul, be sure to give these places a visit. And if this is your first time in the city, don’t forget to check out my suggested itinerary for Istanbul if it’s your first time here.
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Table of Contents
10 Non-Touristy Things to Do in Istanbul
The following suggestions will guide you to a deeper side of the city. You will learn more about local customs and activities. Have fun with the Turkish friends you will make on the way!
Looking for a place to store your luggage while exploring the city’s non-touristy attractions? LuggageHero is a convenient and reliable luggage storage service that allows you to drop off your bags at various locations throughout the city, including Sultanahmet and Beyoglu. With LuggageHero, you can enjoy peace of mind knowing that your belongings are stored safely and securely while you explore off the beaten path.
1. Spend a Few Hours in Arnavutköy
Arnavutköy is the perfect spot to escape from the touristic madness of Istanbul and immerse yourself in a beautiful and relaxed part of the city.
The colourful wooden houses along the waterfront create a posh village vibe that is both charming and modern.
As you stroll along the Bosphorus, you’ll be treated to a fantastic view of the magnificent Ottoman-style mansions and the local fishermen doing their thing.
You can’t help but be drawn in by the area’s unique and captivating energy. Plus, with its rich history in fishing, Arnavutköy has some of the best seafood restaurants in town.
Be sure to grab a bite to eat and enjoy a Turkish tea in a tulip cup while taking in the stunning view.
2. Explore Balat and Fener
The historically cosmopolitan neighbourhoods of Balat and Fener were declared UNESCO World Heritage and they are still one of the best non-touristy things to do in Istanbul.
This colourful space is a melting pot of cultures, and you can still see traces of Jewish, Armenian, and Orthodox communities.
Check out the iconic Phanar Greek Orthodox College, known locally as the red school. It’s a massive red castle-shaped building that serves as the oldest and most prestigious Greek Orthodox school in Istanbul.
Visit the Church of St. George and the beautiful Bulgarian St. Stephen Church, which recently reopened to the public. Don’t forget to stop for a coffee in one of the many bohemian cafés in the area.
3. Drink Çay at Camlica Hill
If you want to catch a bird’s-eye view of Istanbul, Çamlıca is the place to be. This charming district on the Asian side has some of the best panoramic views of the city, making it the perfect spot for Instagram-worthy pictures.
But it’s not just the view that’s impressive. You’ll find tea gardens, fountains, and restaurants managed by the Municipality, where you can sit back, relax, and take in the stunning surroundings.
The colourful tulips add an extra touch of beauty to the area.
If you’re a bird lover, you’re in for a treat. Çamlıca is known to be a good spot for bird-watching, particularly during September and October.
And the best part? You’ll be hanging out with the locals while enjoying tea and snacks, making it an unforgettable experience.
4. Guided Tours of Hidden Gems in Istanbul
Looking for guided tours to explore some of Istanbul’s hidden gems? Viator is a trusted partner that offers guided tours that take you off the beaten path and give you a taste of the city’s lesser-known attractions.
The Hidden Istanbul is a private tour that takes you to the back streets and alleyways of the city, where you’ll discover unique architecture, street art, and local culture. You’ll visit historical buildings, see stunning Byzantine mosaics, and even learn about the ancient game of backgammon.
The Circle Istanbul tour is the way to go takes you on a journey around the city, exploring its different districts and neighborhoods. You’ll visit charming historical sites and will experience a traditional Turkish Bath!
And if you’re looking for a luxurious way to experience Istanbul, don’t miss the sunset cruise on a luxury yacht through the Bosphorus. You’ll enjoy stunning views of the city skyline as you sail along the Bosphorus, sipping on complimentary drinks and snacks, and taking in the beauty of Istanbul from the water.
It’s the perfect way to cap off a day of exploring the city’s hidden gems.
5. Visit the Prince Islands
If you are looking for an alternative day trip from Istanbul, head to the Prince Islands. They are a chain of nine small islands, but only four of them are open to visits.
Büyükada is the biggest and most popular of the islands, followed by Heybeliada, Kınalıada, and Burgazada.
I suggest you go to Büyükada, one hour from the city by ferry (preferably not on Sunday to avoid the crowds).
The first thing you will notice is that there are no motorized vehicles. For moving around the island, people walk, use carriages moved by horses, or rent a bike.
Take an early ferry, have breakfast on one of the terraces along the Marmara Sea, and explore the streets surrounded by Victorian-style houses.
Check out the former residence of the famous Soviet politician Leon Trotsky, and the stunning views from the Greek Orthodox Monastery Saint George.
6. Smoke Nargile in Fenerbahçe
Do you want to see where locals hang out and socialize? A great non-touristy thing to do in Istanbul is to mingle with Istanbulites at one of their nargile (hookah) cafes.
Try one of the many flavours, and maybe play some backgammon, just like the people around you.
Of course, it’s not the healthiest activity ever, but you can try it once to have a very traditional Turkish experience.
There are a lot of places for smoking nargile on Fener Kalamiş Street. This street is right next to the Marmara Sea and to a yacht marina.
Enjoy the view of the Marmara while trying the local nargile, and then walk to the beautiful park located at the end of the street.
7. Live Like a Sultan in Kuçuksu Palace
Kuçuksu Palace is a hidden gem in Istanbul that tourists often overlook.
If you’re looking to explore beyond the main attractions like Topkapı Palace and Dolmabahçe, and delve deeper into the opulent lifestyle of the Sultans, then Kuçuksu Palace is a must-visit destination.
Located on the Asian side of Istanbul, this luxurious summer house was built for the Sultan and boasts breathtaking views of the narrowest part of the Bosphorus, with a clear view of the European side.
Its intricate details and the fairytale style of the outside doors make it an architectural masterpiece. Plus, the lack of crowds and tourists means you’ll have plenty of space to explore and admire its beauty.
While the entrance fee is only 60 TL for foreigners (£2-3 GBP), it’s important to note that this alternative attraction is located about an hour from the city centre.
So, it’s essential to plan your trip accordingly. However, the guided tour in Turkish or English included in the admission price will enhance your experience and make it well worth the trip.
8. Get to the Top of Istanbul at the Sapphire Tower
Explore a much more modern side of Istanbul climbing to the top of one of the tallest skyscrapers in Turkey.
Enjoy non-touristy things to do in Istanbul by visiting the financial area. The Sapphire Tower is in Levent, a business district. The easiest way to get here by public transportation is by taking the metro to 4 Levent Station.
The station is connected to the Sapphire shopping mall (inside the Tower) and has a ticket booth before the entrance to get to the observation floor.
You will continue to the lift that will take you to the top floor, or floor number 54. At this point, there is a 360º view of the city, including Europe and Asia.
You can also ride a 4D helicopter ride simulator that “flies” over the city.
The fee for the Sapphire Observation Deck is 55 TL, but add 38TL if you include the Skyride 4D simulation experience. It simulates a flight in a helicopter and shows you the city landmarks from above.
Access this experience for free with an Istanbul Tourist Pass. Worth it!
9. Be the first at Şerefiye Sarnici
Şerefiye Sarnici, also known as Theodosius Cistern, is a hidden gem located beneath the streets of Istanbul. Constructed during the Byzantine Empire, this cistern is much smaller than the famous Basilic Cistern, but it’s just as impressive.
Despite being located close to the main tourist attractions in Sultanahmet, it remains relatively unknown to most visitors, making it a great place to explore in peace.
In fact, Şerefiye Sarnici is one of the best non-touristy things to do in Istanbul, so you can enjoy its stunning architecture and ancient history without worrying about crowds.
The cistern has been open to tourists only since April 2018, which adds to its exclusivity. This means you’ll have the opportunity to discover this hidden gem and have a unique experience in Istanbul that most tourists miss.
Although the entrance fee has increased recently to 150 Turkish liras (roughly £7 GBP), it’s well worth the cost for the opportunity to explore this fascinating piece of history.
With its impressive columns, intricate carvings, and serene atmosphere, Şerefiye Sarnici is a must-visit attraction for anyone interested in the history and culture of Istanbul.
10. Istanbul Archaeological Museums
Arkeoloji Müzeleri is an impressive compound of three world-renowned archaeological museums: the Istanbul Archaeological Museum, The Museum of the Ancient Orient, and the Tiled Kiosk Museum.
Its rich history is as fascinating as its incredible collection, making it one of the most remarkable museums in Turkey.
Being the first Turkish museum in history, Arkeoloji Müzeleri is home to over one million works and artefacts spanning more than 5,000 years of human history.
The vast range of ancient art and relics is bound to impress anyone, from ancient Greek and Roman sculptures to Hellenistic and Byzantine mosaics and stunning Ottoman calligraphy.
Of the three museums, my favourite was the Tiled Kiosk Museum, adjacent to the iconic Topkapi Palace.
The Tiled Kiosk Museum boasts a Persian facade and a beautiful collection of colourful tiles, which adds to its unique charm and sets it apart from the other two museums.
While Topkapi Palace may be the more famous attraction, the Arkeoloji Müzeleri is a perfect alternative for those interested in ancient art and history in a non-touristy site in Istanbul.
It’s an opportunity to immerse yourself in the splendours of the ancient world, learn about past cultures and their ways of life, and appreciate the beauty and artistry of ancient artefacts.
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