Istanbul has been in the top 10 of the most visited cities in the world for the past few years, with almost 10 million tourists coming to Istanbul in just half of this year.
The strategic location of the metropolitan city that's split between Asia and Europe is only one of the many things that draw millions of visitors to Istanbul.
Not to mention with Istanbul being the hub of the national carrier Turkish Airlines, which caters to over 300 both domestic and international routes. A lot of tourists sometimes explore the wonderful city for a short time in between their flights during their transit in Istanbul.
I believe there are already enough posts on the internet that talk about the top tourist things to do in Istanbul, and that's why this time I came up with an idea to talk about some alternative activities for popular things to do in Istanbul so you can explore some off-the-beaten-path spots in this huge city!
Why You Want to Explore Some Off-Beat Things to Do in Istanbul, Turkey
Istanbul is a big place, and it sure is crowded enough even without tourists. Some of the places you often see as the must things to do in Istanbul, like Sultanahmet or Taksim Square in Beyoglu, can be pretty overwhelming, especially if you're an introverted traveler.
For me, despite Turkey (known officially as Türkiye) being one of my favorite destinations of all times, I've never been a fan of Istanbul because of the crowd. That's also one of the reasons why I found a way to stay in Yalova instead to escape the hustle and bustle of Istanbul, or even choose to explore some less popular places to visit in Turkey like Edirne.
While Istanbul is pretty well-connected in terms of public transportation to get around, the city itself is so big that there are still some areas in Istanbul that you don't often see in travel articles about Istanbul.
Stretched for over 5,000 km², you can use Istanbulkart for almost all public transport around the city except the dolmus (the minivan). These include the funicular, tramway, ferry, public bus, and metro or Marmaray.
Just by getting an Istanbulkart transport card, Istanbul could be your oyster. You can easily explore some non-touristy things to do in Istanbul, including some places that you've probably never heard of.
Doing these alternative activities can be such a huge relief after brushing shoulders with way too many people in places like Hagia Sofia or even Grand Bazaar.
So, here's everything you need to know if you're looking for some ideas for unusual things to do in Istanbul!
Short on time? My top recommendations for your Istanbul trip can be found below!
↠ Transport: You can purchase an unlimited public transport card, Istanbulkart, here to get around Istanbul with anything from public buses, tramway, funicular, Marmaray metro, and ferry boats.
- Visiting the Maiden Tower
- Cruising and Exploring Princes Island
- Taking a cable car to Pierre Loti Hills
17 Alternative Things to Do in Istanbul
While most visitors usually spend around 3 to 4 days in Istanbul, Turkish Airlines, as the national carrier with one of the most international flight routes in the world, also provides Touristanbul. The latter is a set of complimentary transit tours for those who fly through the city for around 6 to 24-hour layover in Istanbul.
Most tours usually cover some popular things to do in Istanbul, including the historical sites around the Sultanahmet area or even the Turkish Historical series tour (that I could only assume referring to the Magnificent Century, or what's known as Muhteşem Yüzyıl in Turkish).
However, as long as you organize your transit plan in the city, you can also choose some of these alternative things to do in Istanbul for a more off-beat experience!
1. Visit Karaburun Beach
Karaburun Lighthouse in Arnavutkoy, Istanbul | Recommended by me
Got a layover in Istanbul? Instead of doing the typical transit tours all the way to the city center, why not arrange a trip on your own for a beach getaway to Karaburun?
In fact, it's more time-efficient if you're in Istanbul between flights since Karaburun Beach is far closer to the airport than the city center!
Situated in the Arnavutkoy district, the same district where the Istanbul New Airport is located, Karaburun Beach is only 30 minutes by car. The best way to get there is by renting a car for 4 to 6 hours, or you can also hire a driver to get there directly from the airport.
The beach is situated in a quaint fishing village along the Black Sea coast. Over the years, due to Istanbul's rapid urbanization, Karaburun has experienced some development and population growth. So you can find some good local eateries and modern coffee shops in the area.
Despite the development, Karaburun has managed to retain much of its charm, offering a more relaxed and quieter atmosphere compared to the bustling city center.
The neighborhood is also home to Karaburun Lighthouse (Karaburun Feneri in Turkish), a historic lighthouse built in 1860 as a result of the Crimean War with an objective to serve as a navigational aid for ships and vessels navigating the Black Sea coastline near Istanbul.
While the lighthouse is now inoperative, you can still see it from outside and even go around the lighthouse area to see the bird's eye view of the Black Sea.
2. Climb Pierre Loti Hill
I have traveled to Istanbul several times. On my first visit, I was still wondering if Istanbul is safe for solo female travelers and I stuck to the main touristy areas.
However, with each subsequent visit I became more confident and comfortable in the city, and I started exploring off-the-beaten-path attractions like Pierre Loti Hill.
The most cliché activity for solo female travelers in Istanbul is definitely the rooftop breakfast photoshoot in Sultanahmet. Here, you join the queue of other tourists to dress up and get your photo taken on a rooftop, with a full (uneaten) breakfast spread in the foreground and minarets (and seagulls) in the background.
If you're more into authentic experiences, you'll want to swap the staged rooftops for the natural panoramic viewpoints dotted along the Golden Horn inlet – and the best one is atop Pierre Loti Hill.
Accessed via a public funicular, this hilltop features spectacular views, plus a cafe and restaurant that focus on food, not photoshoots!
Most of the travelers who travel this far from the city center are Turkish locals, though you'll probably encounter a few other foreign tourists as well.
Admire the view while sipping Turkish tea or coffee, and then either take the funicular back down or consider walking – it's an interesting stroll through the Eyüp Cemetery.
3. Admire the architecture of Suleymaniye Mosque
One of the most popular attractions in Istanbul is the Blue Mosque. It is one of the most famous and majestic Ottoman mosques in Turkey and on everyone's Istanbul itinerary. This is Istanbul's most photogenic building.
The name Blue Mosque is due to the large number of blue ionic tiles adorning the mosque interiors. However, the popularity brings large crowds and you need to queue up to get inside.
An equally impressive but less crowded mosque is the Suleymaniye Mosque. It is located in the Sultanahmet area, close to the other popular attractions in Istanbul.
The size and scale of this mosque are truly impressive. The central dome stands at 47 meters high. This massive central dome has 32 openings high up that let light stream in and give the entire space a dazzling effect. There are also tombs of Emperor Suleyman and his wife to be visited within the complex. There is no entrance price for visiting this mosque.
If you are short on time, you can visit Suleymaniye Mosque anytime from 9 AM until 6 PM (except for prayer times). If you do have time, I would recommend a walking tour that covers Suleymaniye Mosque along with Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque.
4. Explore Cisterna
Deep below the surface of the Sultanahmet District in Istanbul are a series of ancient cisterns, which were built during the 6th century by the Byzantine emperor Justinian I. They were primarily used as water storage and filtration for the Great Palace of Constantinople, but today their use has dried up (pun intended).
The most famous of these historic landmarks is the Basilica Cistern, which was once located under a large public square belonging to the Stoa Basilica.
The Basilica, which was originally built by the Romans in the 3rd and 4th centuries, is famous today because it appeared in the 1963 James Bond film, From Russia with Love, and the 2013 Dan Brown film adaptation of Inferno starring Tom Hanks.
The popularity of these films made it a popular tourist attraction in Istanbul, and with that, a hefty entrance fee. While you might not be overly thrilled about paying $15 to enter one room, you can see this marvel of engineering FOR FREE by walking around the corner to an art gallery, called Cisterna, which contains a gallery in its basement – a converted cistern.
You can marvel at the stone arches, see the pillars lit up with ethereal lighting, and also gaze upon some unique statues of Greek and Roman gods, learn about the creation of the Hippodrome and its uses, and shop for souvenirs in the shop.
It's small and won't take long to see, but it's free to enter. You also need to make an appointment to enter one day prior, so plan ahead if you want to visit this hidden gem in Istanbul.
5. Stroll through the Serdar-ı Ekrem Street
Serdar-ı Ekrem Street near Galata Tower in Beyoglu, Istanbul | Recommended by Jenelle of Happy Little Rover
The Galata Tower is one of Istanbul's most well-known landmarks, surviving from the 14th century, with its panoramic views back over the city and the Bosphorus.
Its popularity also means that the lines to head up to the paid terrace can stretch out for hours. Instead of waiting in line forever, the tower can easily be appreciated from afar on your way to explore the charming little streets that surround the Galata Kulesi.
You'll find vintage treasures galore down Serdar-ı Ekrem Street – a short stroll from the tower – adorable shops filled with funky souvenirs and fashionable boutiques. Bonus points if you spy some of Istanbul's feline residents making themselves at home on the souvenir baskets.
Stop by Galata Süheyla for a traditional Turkish breakfast with perfectly brewed coffee, or seek out Gallant Galata, serving decadent slices of San Sebastian cheesecake smothered in chocolate.
While you're wandering, Buyuk Hendek Caddesi offers my favorite shot of the Galata Tower, perfectly framed by the colorful buildings.
Strolling the little alleyways is the best way to discover quirky street art. Be sure to take photos when you find your favorite mural, as it may not be there when you return!
6. Grab some authentic Turkish balik ekmek
Instead of opting for the typical dining experience at the restaurants lining Galata Bridge and Karakoy, I highly recommend immersing yourself in the authentic flavors and atmosphere of Istanbul by grabbing a balik ekmek (fish sandwich) from a street vendor along the Bosphorus Strait.
The idea of a fish sandwich sounds simple, but the simplicity of this sandwich makes it so incredible. You can find them all around the area, including in countless restaurants. However, finding Turkish men in the street vendors located around here is the best option.
It's a good idea to pick up a Turkish sim card to help you navigate the city, but you can also find these guys by wandering along the Bosphorus from Galata Bridge towards the ferry terminal.
Here, you will find these men skillfully preparing the sandwiches by simultaneously removing every tiny bone from the fillets and grilling them over charcoal barbecues, infusing the fish with a distinct smokiness.
It is genuinely hard to beat the experience of enjoying this delicious grilled sandwich whilst watching the sunset over the Bosphorus Strait.
Sitting near the fishermen and enjoying the view whilst you eat your balik ekmek offers a far more authentic and immersive experience than dining in the significantly more expensive restaurants nearby.
7. Shop around Mahmutpasa Street
When it comes to shopping in Istanbul, the Grand Bazaar is often the first place recommended. The Grand Bazaar is undoubtedly a must-visit place in Istanbul, with its historic marketplace featuring plenty of tiny alleys housing over a few thousand shops.
The wide range of goods sold at the Grand Bazaar, from jewelry to scarves to carpets to lamps, is also enchanting. However, when it comes to shopping, the Grand Bazaar can be a tourist trap, with shopkeepers regularly overcharging innocent tourists.
So if you want to save money and shop where the locals do, head to Mahmutpasa Street. Mahmutpasa Street is a narrow, pedestrian street connecting the Grand Bazaar to the Spice Bazaar. It can be accessed both from the Beyazit end as well as the Eminonu end.
On this street, you won't find exquisite antiques and carpets, but you will find souvenirs, spices, scarves, towels, clothes, perfumes, shoes, bags, and everything else that you, as an average tourist, would like to take back home with you. The prices are less than half of what you'll encounter at the Grand Bazaar.
The shopkeepers are also friendly with tourists, and most shops have standard prices – which means you don't need to worry about bargaining or being overcharged.
This street also has a few local eateries and juice centers that are perfect for grabbing a quick bite after a tiring shopping spree.
8. Book hunting at Istanbul Book Bazaar
Many book lovers visiting Istanbul venture to popular bookstores like Pandora. While it's certainly worth a visit, an alternative that's a true hidden gem in Istanbul is the secondhand book bazaar.
The Istanbul book bazaar is directly adjacent to the famous Grand Bazaar, and right next to the Beyazit Mosque. Although few tourists even know it exists, it's actually one of the oldest markets in the city, dating from Byzantine times.
Today, it's full of individual booksellers with a wide range of new and used books, including an enormous selection of books in English. You can also find incredibly priced antiquarian books, maps, and prints here, including hand-written pages in Arabic that are hundreds of years old.
Perhaps the best part of the Istanbul Book Bazaar, though, is the booksellers themselves. They are friendly and helpful without being pushy (that's a rarity in Istanbul!), and they are clearly passionate about the books they sell.
Take a minute to chat with some of the vendors, and get their personal recommendations on the best books.
9. Visit St. Stephen's Church
St. Sophia is a must for any visit to Istanbul. Unfortunately, since it has been an active mosque, the basilica has lost much of its splendor.
The beautiful frescoes are hidden from view, and the magnificent marble floor is covered with a green carpet. So why not get off the beaten track and visit the smaller but stunningly beautiful Orthodox Church of St. Stephen?
St. Stephen's Church, also known as the Bulgarian Iron Church, impresses with its unique iron construction and neo-Gothic design. To this day, it is the only church in the world built entirely of iron.
It was built at the end of the 19th century. The iron elements were transported by ship from Paris and assembled on-site. The interior shines with golden elements and wonderful icons and frescoes.
To enter St. Sophia, you will have to stand in a long queue and jostle with crowds of tourists. The Iron Church is quiet, there are hardly any tourists and you can explore in peace.
So the next time you are in Istanbul, take a ferry to the Balat district. As you approach the Fener Pier, you will see St. Stephen's Church overlooking the waters of the Golden Horn.
10. Go for a bath at a traditional Turkish hamam
Traditional Turkish hamam in Istanbul, Turkiye | Recommended by Suzanne Wanders Delhi
One of the most culturally authentic experiences to have in Istanbul is to enjoy a hamam, a Turkish bath. The hamam is part of everyday life for locals, with both men and women regularly visiting their neighborhood hamam.
Many visitors end up in the luxurious but very expensive hamams in the historical center, near the Sultanahmet Mosque (the Blue Mosque). These Turkish hammams cater to tourists, and while I'm sure the experience is lovely, it may not be the most genuine.
Instead, head to a traditional hamam in a residential area like the Sofular Hamami near Aksaray metro station. You can have a traditional soap and scrub with unlimited stay in the bath for $14 US (the same thing costs $165 US at Istanbul's luxury hamams).
I did exactly this while I was in Istanbul and loved sharing the hamam with local women and getting that glimpse into everyday life in the city.
Another good option is the Cemberlitas Hamami on Vezirhan Cd, within walking distance of the historic centre. This hamam was built in the 16th century and is quite beautiful.
Because of its central location, it gets both tourists and locals, but is still very authentic and reasonably priced. A bath with soap and scrub is around $50 USD.
11. Explore the Arnavutkoy neighborhood
Meaning ‘Albanian village' in Turkish, Arnavutkoy is Istanbul's historic Albanian Quarter. The area also had a large Greek population before the 1970s, and it was these families who gifted the neighborhood with its grand mansion houses.
Quick tip: There are two different areas called Arnavutkoy in Istanbul. Avoid mistaking one for the other!
One is Arnavutkoy neighborhood in Besiktas municipality around Istanbul city center, which we're talking about in this section.
The other one is Arnavutkoy municipality in Istanbul, which is the location of Istanbul New Airport. This municipality is a bit further away, around 50 kilometers from Istanbul city center. It's also the same municipality where Karaburun Beach that we talked about earlier is located.
Arnavutkoy is located right on the water's edge. Majestic houses are lined up along a canal facing onto the small ferry port, each one painted a different shade of pastel.
While less saturated than the houses in Balat, Arnavutkoy's elegant mansions are every bit as photogenic. Admire the late-Ottoman style architecture and Art Nouveau details that perfectly reflect Istanbul's synergy of East and West.
Back from the water's edge, the rest of Arnavutkoy is a compact maze of winding backstreets and steep staircases. Every street is full of treasures, be it a restored and colorfully painted wooden mansion, a quaint cafe (Hide Arnavutkoy is a great choice for brunch), or a charmingly dilapidated house.
Arnavutkoy is far quieter than other Istanbul neighborhoods – in all likelihood, you won't find another tourist in sight. The fastest way to get there is by bus from Besiktas, with the journey taking just 15 minutes outside of peak hour.
12. Visit the Museum of Innocence
The Museum of Innocence (Masumiyet Muzesi in Turkish) in Beyoglu, Istanbul | Recommended by me
Istanbul is home to many museums that showcase the city's past history, including those from Byzantine, Ottoman Empire, and the early transformation of the country to become what's known today as the Republic of Turkiye.
However, not many people know that there is also a museum that showcases a glimpse of the modern era of Turkiye, including the society's norms and pop culture in the 1970s.
The Museum of Innocence is only around 15 minutes walk from the famous Istiklal street in Beyoglu, and the museum was built based on the fictional novel of the same title written by Orhan Pamuk.
With the setting in Istanbul around 1970s, the story revolves around a wealthy Istanbul businessman named Kemal who falls in love with his distant relative who comes from a middle-class family, Fusun.
As the museum is based on the novel, you can enter it for free if you bring a copy with you.
13. Take the regular ferry boat from Europe to Asia (or vice versa)
Almost any Istanbul itinerary includes a cruise on the Bosphorus, that enigmatic waterway that separates Europe from Asia.
Passengers all look left and right at the same time as the running commentary in 11 languages guides them. Everyone oohs and aahs at the same time. Then everyone watches a belly dancing performance and has a kebab. Jolly good. If that is your thing, good for you.
But here's a little of so many secret things to do in Istanbul. If you're looking for a much more authentic (and much cheaper) alternative, take one of the public ferries that cross the between continents.
They are basically public water buses, and they are one of the most enjoyable experiences in Istanbul.
The best ferry to take leaves from Ortakoy in Europe and takes you to Kadikoy on the Asian side. Another great option is the Karakoy-Kadikoy ferry, even though you can also take some ferry boats from other piers like Besiktas or Eminonu in Europe or Uskudar in Asian side.
You'll see all the famous sights, just like on the Bosphorus cruise, but you could also just read a book, throw chips to the seagulls outside on the upper deck, or buy a cheap tea to sip while enjoying the scenery.
The best part of taking the public ferry is your fellow commuters. It's a little glimpse into the lives of the regular İstanbullular (that's what you call a person living in the city. You're welcome!). That local experience is something you'll never get on a touristy cruise.
Ferries run roughly hourly and cost about TRY 20.
14. Take a walk around Kadikoy
Kadikoy in Asian side of Istanbul, Turkiye | Recommended by Catherine of Day Trip Nomad
Kadikoy, a district on the Asian side of Istanbul, is an authentic alternative to the more frequented Istiklal Street and Taksim Square on the European side.
Often referred to as the “hipster” neighborhood of Istanbul, Kadikoy is brimming with eclectic shops, indie music venues, and a thriving food scene that rivals its European counterparts.
The top reason why Kadikoy makes for an excellent alternative is because of its local feel. While Istiklal Street and Taksim Square are popular among tourists, they can sometimes feel crowded and commercialized.
Kadikoy keeps its charm with fewer crowds and a population of mostly local Turkish youth.
Stroll the hilly streets in Kadikoy past artisanal coffeeshops, western foods, and Turkish street food like kokoreç or midye.
They even have their own nostalgic red tram that runs through Moda, ending with a sea-front park with views of Istanbul's skyline. In the evening, Kadikoy comes alive with its numerous bars and pubs.
To reach Kadikoy from the European side, you have multiple options. You can take a Metrobus, Marmaray Line, or ferry that will stop at Kadikoy's main square.
15. Explore the Beylerbeyi Palace
Looking for a quieter alternative to the Dolmabahce Palace in Istanbul? Head to the Beylerbeyi Palace, which is located in the quieter, non-touristy Uskudar district on the Asian side of the Bosphorus.
Dolmabahce is Turkey's largest palace. Located on the European side of the Bosporus Strait, the palace boasts a splendid blend of European and Ottoman architectural styles. It has over 250 rooms and 46 halls, all of them ornately decorated with gilded ceilings, crystal chandeliers, and beautiful Turkish carpets.
Goes without saying that the Dolmabahce Palace is one of the most popular attractions to visit in Istanbul.
If you'd rather avoid the crowds but enjoy a similar architectural masterpiece, the smaller and equally prettier (if not more) Beylerbeyi Palace is a great choice.
Built as the Sultan's summer palace in the late 19th century, Beylerbeyi features exquisite, neo-Baroque architecture complete with a white marble facade and ornately furnished interiors.
The palace is so beautiful that it is said to have inspired French Empress Eugenie to model her bedroom at Tuileries Palace after it. Beylerbeyi is often called the mini-Dolmabahce!
If you're visiting Istanbul for 3 days or more and wish to add some hidden gems to your Istanbul itinerary, be sure to visit Beylerbeyi Palace and marvel at its magnificent architecture.
16. Visit the Maiden's Tower
The Maiden's Tower is situated on an islet in the middle of the Bosphorus Strait, 200 meters from the coast. An advantage of this visit is the offer of a unique perspective of Istanbul from the sea, not only from the tower but also throughtout the entire trip.
Shuttle boats depart every 15 minutes from the Üsküdar pier, and the trip takes about 45 minutes.
Several legends have made the Maiden Tower an enduring symbol of love in Turkey. One story tells of a lover who swam every night from the coast to meet his beloved at the tower. She would wait for him there, lighting a torch. However, one tragic night, the guiding torch went out, and he drowned. Discovering her lover dead on the shore, she, too, jumped into the waters.
Since its renovation in May 2023, the tower has been transformed into a museum showcasing its history and legends. It opens every day of the year. Visiting the tower is included in the Istanbul Welcome Card.
17. Sail to Princes Island
Istanbul, the crossroads of Europe and Asia, is a city that never sleeps. Its popular attractions like the Hagia Sophia Mosque, Basilica Cistern, and Topkapi Palace draw millions of visitors each year.
But for those who crave a break from the city's hustle and bustle, Istanbul has a hidden gem – the Princes' Islands!
This tranquil archipelago in the Sea of Marmara offers a peaceful retreat, with car-free streets, charming Ottoman-era villas, lush pine forests and stunning sea views, making it a popular day trip destination for both tourists and locals who want a rejuvenating day trip.
The islands' history traces back to the Byzantine era when they served as an exile for royalty, hence their name.
Over time, they became a refuge for diverse faiths and ethnicities, creating a unique cultural blend, where Greek Orthodox and Armenian churches, Jewish synagogues, and Muslim mosques all coexist together.
Whether you choose to explore the islands on foot, by bike, or in an electric bus (replacing the age-old horse-drawn carriages of the islands), the serene environment is a delightful contrast to Istanbul's bustling city center, allowing you to experience a different side of Istanbul.
If you want to immerse yourself in local culture and enjoy a change of pace that provides a refreshing break from the usual tourist trail — and truly explore Istanbul like a local appreciating its lesser-known facets — a trip to the Princes' Islands is a must!
The Necessary Turkiye Itinerary
Pay as you like, and immerse yourself in a week-long journey through Istanbul's vibrant bazaars, Cappadocia's surreal landscapes, and hidden gems only locals know. This digital guide is your passport to convenience, featuring a detailed travel guide, culinary delights, and necessary spots to visit in Turkiye!
The city is so big that you'll never run out of hidden gems in Istanbul. With easy access to public transportation, Istanbul should be easily navigated to find some offbeat things to do in Istanbul.
From commuting from Asia to Europe (or vice versa) through the public water buses to exploring the hidden spots around Sultanahmet area, you can almost do all these (almost) secret things to do in Istanbul!
So, have you been to Istanbul before? Can you suggest some unusual things to do in Istanbul that you'd recommend in a heartbeat? Share in the comment below, and cheerio!
Marya The BeauTraveler
I am the founder and main editor at The BeauTraveler. I spent 4 years working in the aviation industry but ironically got to travel more right after quitting the industry in 2015. Born and raised in Indonesia, I started working remotely in 2017, and while I stay at home most of the time, I also regularly spend 2-3 months living a semi-digital nomad life elsewhere every year.
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