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
9 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!
1. Spend a Few Hours in Arnavutköy
Arnavutköy is the perfect location to get away from the touristic craziness while still experiencing a beautiful area of the city. You will love the colourful wooden waterfront houses and the ‘posh village’ vibe. Besides, it’s a very modern and multicultural scene in its own charming way.
Walk along the Bosphorus to get a fantastic view of the Ottoman-style mansions and the fishermen doing their thing. It became a popular area for fishing, so it has some outstanding seafood restaurants. Enjoy a tasty meal or Turkish tea in a tulip cup while taking in the 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
In the Üsküdar district, on the Asian side of Istanbul, Camlica is one of the highest and most beautiful views in the city. There are several fountains, tea gardens, and restaurants managed by the Municipality, surrounded by trees, and colourful tulips.
It is also known as a good place for bird-watching, especially in September and October.
Its location makes it perfect for enjoying the view of the two continents while relaxing with the locals having tea and a snack.
4. 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 (10-20 TL for the day).
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.
5. 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.
6. Live Like a Sultan in Kuçuksu Palace
Kuçuksu Palace is one of those places overshadowed by the main touristic attractions. If you’ve already been to Topkapı Palace and Dolmabahçe and want to take a further look at the Sultans’ lifestyle, this is the place for you.
Located on the Asian side, this palace served as a luxury summer house for the Sultan. It is right in front of the narrowest part of the Bosphorus, with a clear view of the European side. You will love its intricate details and the fairytale style of the outside doors. And of course, the fact that there are almost no tourists!
The entrance is only 10 TL for adults and includes a guided tour in Turkish or English.
The downside of this alternative attraction is that it is located about an hour from the city centre, so you’ll have to plan accordingly.
7. 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. If you want, 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. Totally worth it!
8. Be the first at Şerefiye Sarnici
Also called Theodosius Cistern, is one of the many cisterns built during the Byzantine Empire and that is now underneath the city of Istanbul.
It is located very close to the main touristic points in Sultanahmet, just like the Basilic Cistern, but it is smaller and not nearly as famous.
The Şerefiye Sarnici or Theodosius Cistern is a non-touristy attraction in Istanbul, which means you’ll get the beautiful cistern mostly to yourself. This is partly because this place is only open to tourists since April 2018!
The entrance fee has increased recently to 150 Turkish liras (± £7 GBP)
9. Istanbul Archaeological Museums
The Arkeoloji Müzeleri is a compound of three archaeological museums: the Istanbul Archaeological Museum, The Museum of the Ancient Orient, and the Tiled Kiosk Museum. museums.
This was the first Turkish museum in history, and it’s one of the world’s largest museums with over one million works and artefacts.
My favourite was the Tiled Kiosk, as it is very different from the rest with its Persian facade and colourful tiles.
It is located next to the Topkapi Palace, and even though the Topkapi is more interesting, the archaeological museums are a great alternative to looking at the ancient art of Greek, Roman, and Byzantine origin.
Have you tried or visited one of these non-touristy things to do in Istanbul? Do you have more recommendations? Let us know in the comments!
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