Edited by Matthew Wears
Caught in a swirling cultural gyre, where Asia meets Europe, Istanbul is the spirited lovechild of both continents. Subtle features of both European and Asian influences appear in the landscape of Turkish culture. To explore Istanbul is to examine this flourishing mix of culture. You could choose to visit the popular sites of the Old City or slip lightly off the trodden path to uncover the lesser-known jewels. After 12 years in the city, I still find crevices that surprise me!
Hidden gems in Istanbul never fail to delight the lucky explorer who stumbles upon them. Whether it’s shopping for irresistible trinkets, visiting the ancient mosques, Istanbul has it all. There is a wealth of secret places in Istanbul, which I hope to share with you. Whichever you choose to visit, you can rest assured that Istanbul off the beaten path will only ever enchant.
Discover Kadikoy Fish Market
In the sprawl of market stalls, between the cries of not-so-distant gulls, the fishmongers of Kadıköy shout out their freshly caught fish, pick your favorite, the list is endless. In Kadıköy, you can munch on balık ekmek (fish sandwich), or browse the many stalls that trade in organic produce other delicious goods. With bakeries, charcuteries, and cafés in which to enjoy traditional Turkish coffee, it’s hardly fair to call this merely a fish market.
Kadıköy is a fine point to start your trip from and one of my favorite hidden gems in Istanbul. It's a great way to start your adventures on the Anatolian side before you cross over to the old city peninsula with all of its historical monuments. Kadıköy is also easy to reach by ferry from the European peninsula (they leave every twenty minutes), or by bus or Metro.
Explore The Tophane Quarter
There’s no more of a powerful representation of the colliding cultures in Istanbul than in the Tophane quarter. Whether you’re seeking a day of creature comforts or you’re on the hunt for the edgiest street art, there is something for any sort of traveler.
Tophane is situated near the popular pedestrian street Istiklal but tucked away from the touristy crowds. In a few short years, Tophane has gone from derelict suburb to creative hub, reflecting the ever-changing face of the city.
Now a vibrant collection of bohemian cafés, independent art galleries, and boutique shops, it offers a fascinating range of contemporary art, the opportunity to feast on culinary delights and excellent people watching! The area is easily accessible with a tram running every 20 minutes, and it should not be missed by anyone looking for secret Istanbul.
Go Antique Shopping In The Cihangir District
The Cihangir District is similar to Tophane only in the way of its many hip cafeś and interesting artistic spaces; other than that the suburbs are as similar as oil and water.
A largely residential portion of Istanbul, the Cihangir District is a backdrop for the rich and famous. The cobbled streets playing red carpet to faces of the silver screen, while somehow managing to stay accessible to the rest of us. If you want to experience Cihangir off the beaten path, stroll down to the antique shops that make this one of the most interesting shopping areas in the city.
You'll find all kinds of Ottaman artworks, classical furniture and second-hand books inside. Çukurcuma Street is where you’ll find the widest variety of shops such as A La Turca. A four-story extravaganza of every kind of antique you could imagine! It’s a glimpse into old Istanbul and the lush culture that has been evolving here for thousands of years.
Walk Through The Jewish Quarter; Balat
With only 1% of tourists visiting the historic Balat district, it’s reasonable to say that Balat is one of the best-kept secrets in Istanbul! Baffling when you consider it – as I do – one of the most picturesque parts of the city.
Located in the Fatih district on the European side of the Bosphorus, Balat is home to a thriving Jewish community. The atmosphere is energetic and it's easy to lose hours strolling through the colorful streets.
The unique, somewhat dilapidated architecture makes this a photographer’s playground. The shabby, lived-in characteristics of the buildings stand as a testament to the generations that have called Balat home. Grab a coffee, in one of the many quaint cafés, then hop on the tram to Fener to visit one of the many antique stores. Take time to see the Bulgarian Church, you'll be amazed by the beauty of it. Be sure to keep track of your route, it’s easy to get lost in this area!
Süleymaniye Mosque Artisan Shops
When you step foot into the 500-year-old interior of Süleymaniye Mosque there is no mystery as to why Suleiman The Magnificent might have this be his namesake.
While the mosque and surrounding gardens are incredible, the streets around the mosque are something of a hidden gem. The streets have remained essentially unchanged for centuries! The stores surrounding the mosque are a deep reflection of that commitment honoring tradition.
Many of the products for sale in the area are still crafted by the hand to this day. These artisanal goods range from the luxurious to the thoroughly practical. As an outsider, exploring these small streets feels like stumbling into an old world. You'll find the likes of your usual steel and copper merchants and some truly unusual finds including one dedicated entirely to making zips!
Visit The Kanlica District
Even in a city of this size, it's possible to find those little villages that feel as though they've moved outside the progression of time.
One of my favorite hidden gems in Istanbul is Kanlica. Kanlica offers a cozy atmosphere and amazing city views. Kanlica is well-known for its sought after specialty, yogurt topped with powdered sugar, which is offered in the many local eateries.
My favorite in Kanlica is the traditional Turkish bagels, quite different from those you get in New York, but just as delicious! Here you'll find streets lined with traditional tea houses and stalls selling a mouthwatering array of authentic Turkish food. It takes perseverance to reach this traditional area outside the city bounds.
You’ll need to board the Kavaklar ferry from Eminonu and hop off at Kanlica on the Anatolian side. To return to Istanbul simply take a bus which goes to Uskudar, then use one of the Eminönü boats.
Watch Street Singers At The Galata Tower
While the mighty Galata Tower attracts many eager visitors daily, the streets below the Galata Tower are often overlooked. From a convent of Whirling Dervishes to stalls selling freshly squeezed pomegranate juice, the streets around the Galata Tower are in my opinion where the real magic happens.
At night, when the tower lights up to create an ever-present centerpiece, and the street performers emerge, this area comes to life with an energy that draws a local crowd. The streets become a meeting place for the young and trendy seeking a place to sit, relax and socialize. Galata is great for anyone looking for a unique night out and is one of my favorite things to do in Istanbul at night. For solo visitors, it offers a great opportunity to meet new people in a place where everyone is friendly and keen to share an experience.
Take A Ferry Ride
With the sea of Marmara in the south, the Black Sea in the north, and the Bosporus snaking through to link the two together, water is an essential part of Istanbul.
It’s evident in the food, how we spend our time and of course, the way we get around! One of the unique things to do, as a visitor in Istanbul, is to catch a ferry over to another part of the city. Sail off and see some of the city’s best attractions from the water. With tea and a simit (round, sesame-crusted bread) in hand, if you time it right you’ll be able to watch a beautiful sunset from out on the Bosporus.
The Şehir Hatları Ferryboats are popular with locals and offer a range of trips including a cruise around the Golden Horn that is breathtakingly beautiful. A ferry ride is probably the simplest, but most rewarding. Make sure you get a good seat on the deck and get ready to take in the entire city.
Visit Cihangir Mosque
In the neighborhood of Cihangir, you will encounter one of the best-kept secrets Istanbul has; the Cihangir Mosque. There are countless beautiful religious buildings in my city, but the one-hundred-year-old Cihangir. The surrounding growth of old trees and lush parkland gives it a sense of peace that sets it apart from most places in the bustling city.
After exploring the interior, be sure to visit the tranquil garden area where you can enjoy stunning views of the Bosporus flowing past, which at sunset, makes for one of the best viewpoints in the city.
Remember that, while a stunning attraction to outsiders and one of the best-hidden gems in Istanbul, the Mosque is a sacred space of worship to locals, so be sure to cover up in loose, modest clothing and respect any requests with regards to removing your shoes.
Visit a Spectacular City Park
In every city in the world, there is at least one city park that makes it high up on the list of things to do for tourists. It might come as a surprise to see this on a list of hidden gems! But in Istanbul, a city roughly the size of entire European countries, there is so much to explore, that often the parks get completely forgotten.
Which makes them a good thing for travelers who prefer to steer clear of the bustle! There aren’t that many parks here, but the ones we do have are spectacular! Emirgan Park is one of the most beautiful, famous for its flower displays including an annual Tulip Festival.
Yildiz Park is the largest at twenty-five acres so it's perfect if you want somewhere spacious to relax. One of the alternative Istanbul highlights that are worth a visit has to be Ihlamur Palace. The ornate summer palace surrounded by richly decorated parklands and intricate sculptures, artworks, and water features is breathtakingly beautiful.
Hello, curious traveler!
Embark on a unique experience with Hello, curious traveler!
Embark on a unique experience with Our personalized, private tours, led by local hosts, make you feel like you’re exploring the city with a knowledgeable friend. We’ll take you to well-known sights and reveal Istanbul’s hidden gems, unveiling stories typically missed by traditional tours. So unscript your journey, and see Istanbul through the eyes of our local hosts!
Top private experiences in Istanbul
We’ll pair you with the perfect host
There is no better way to see a city than with a friend who lives there. This is why we carefully match guests with their perfect host based on interested, personality and type of experience so they can discover a city beyond the tourist trail.
Make your inbox happy with our travel tips and inspiration as well as exclusive offers and first access to new services.