Edited by Jessica Wright
Perched in the flux of the Aegean and Black seas, Istanbul is a perfect junction of European and Asian culture. Born in the city, with Mediterranean and Anatolian heritage I suppose I am a good reflection of this convergence of ancestry. Having been here all my life, the sights of the Old City and Blue Mosque are familiar backdrops to me, and the bustling labyrinth of city streets is my playground. Over the years, I’ve discovered a wealth of hidden treasures, so if you are seeking unusual things to do in Istanbul I can certainly help you out. While the well-known attractions such as the Grand Bazaar and Galata Tower are mind-blowing in their own right, once you’ve seen them, a journey across Istanbul off the beaten path will be just the thing to provide you with a perfectly rounded experience of the city and will offer a unique insight into the heart and soul of Istanbul.
Take a boat tour or rent a kayak
One of the truly unique things to do in Istanbul, particularly to see the city with fresh eyes, is to rent a boat or kayak at the natural harbor of the Golden Horn and explore the city from the water. Rent a rowboat – good for rowers of all levels – on the Anatolian side and see the landmarks from a unique perspective. With the help of experienced and licensed rowing teachers and all-inclusive equipment hire, you will pass Topkapi Palace, the Bosphorus Bridge, and a gorgeous panorama of mansions, mosques, castles, and palaces. Alternatively, you could upscale the experience by renting a yacht – with qualified sailors to show you the ropes. Enjoy a day trip with friends, stopping at various picturesque locations or sail to the Princes’ islands; an archipelago of 4 large and 5 smaller islands. The islands are also accessible from the mainland by ferry, as are the historical neighborhoods of Fener, Balat, and Eyup.
Descend into the Basilica Cistern
Take a trip back in time, circa 6th century, and into the era of Constantinople with a chilling descent into the watery underside of Istanbul, entering the Basilica Cistern – the largest of the two ancient city cisterns which are still open to the public. Entering through a nondescript doorway and climbing down the 52 steps into the damp and dripping underbelly, you might be surprised by the old-world glory present in this cavernous reservoir; over 300 Corinthian marble columns support the roof, eerily lit with a yellow glow. Beneath the walkways, koi fish glide silently in the waters, while two intimidating effigies of medusa keep watch. The dim and echoing atmosphere of the cistern provides an apt setting in which to experience this historical site, effectively transporting visitors through time. Well-obscured beneath the streets of the city, the cistern is not frequented by many travelers, making this one of the hidden gems in Istanbul that I highly recommend to any offbeat explorer. Close to one of the most famous destinations in Istanbul – Hagia Sophia – it is an ideal stop to incorporate into your itinerary, particularly if you have a bit of extra time. For some other excellent trip ideas, check out my guide to what to do in Istanbul in 3 days.
Whirling Dervishes in Istanbul
To those who have never witnessed the ceremony before, the Whirling Dervish might go a step further than non-touristy things to do in Istanbul and into the realm of downright weird things to do in Istanbul, but this religious ceremony has been performed within the Sema since the 13th century and is considered sacred amongst those who practice it. The whirling dance, a performance featuring graceful choreography, Persian chanting and traditional Turkish music, was first contrived by a Sufi master, or practitioner of Islamic mysticism, as a way to gain a higher level of intimacy in their relationship with God. In recent times the unusual dance has become increasingly popular amongst those visiting Turkey because of the rare insights it provides into the mystical aspects of Sufi spiritualism. While the cultural ceremony is an intrinsic part of Turkish tourism, and many displays of the Whirling Dervish are organised by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, it is a religious ceremony should be observed with respectfully. Visitors hoping to witness the ceremony should try their luck at Galata Mevlevihanesi, the Sirkeci Train Station and at Hodjapasha.
Take a ferry to Anadolu Kavağı
Explore Istanbul off the beaten path with an adventure around the sleepy fishing village of Anadolu Kavagi. A quiet respite from the bustling city, the village offers ruined castles, fortifications and ancient temples, and a vivacious seafood scene to indulge in. The meandering hills above the town offer a tranquil walk with some gorgeous natural scenery. To get to the village you can take Sehir Hatlari ferry, or go by car across the Bosphorus Bridge. Once there, it’s a twenty-minute walk to Yoros Castle – built in 1190 by the Genoans it’s also known as Genoa Castle – from the pier. The castle is a worthwhile visit for history buffs, as well as those simply wanting to get some fresh air and admire the view of exceptional greenery from the ramparts. On the way up, you’ll encounter the delightful Yoros Tea Garden, perfect for a quick break, and once at the top of the castle you can take a deep breath of sea air and admire the view of the place where Marmara meets the Black Sea. Enjoy a meal overlooking the Bosphorus Strait, or climb back down to the seaside where a grand feast of seafood restaurants await.
Visit the Valens Aqueduct
While the peninsula is popular among tourists, the Valens Aqueduct in Fatih has a wealth of history and is gorgeous enough to land it on any Istanbul travel list, even those for the more offbeat wanderers. What makes it one of the more unusual things to do in Istanbul is the fact that many of the travellers that do happen come across the aqueduct and surrounds rarely know what it is, or the historical significance of this attraction. Seeming no more than an ancient and oversized wall the aqueduct dates back as far as the 4th century and, built by the Roman Empire, it played a pivotal role in providing the city of Istanbul (then the capital of Constantinople) with its water supply. A pleasant and easy walk from Old City and only a few minutes walk from Suleymanie Mosque it sits right in the city, towering over one of the city’s main roads, Ataturk Bulevard. A fountainhead of history, the Valens Aqueduct is gorgeous to see, evoking the history of ancient Rome, and is surrounded by a beautifully lush green space and park.
Experience the LGBTI community
Perhaps one of the greatest signs of the progressiveness and diversity present in alternative Istanbul is the vibrancy of the LGBTI community and the abundance of festivals, events, and venues celebrating it. No matter who you are or where you come from the community will welcome you with wide arms, provided you practice the same level of tolerance and acceptance. In the city, there are several LGBTI events happening at any given time and catering to a range of tastes and interests. At XLarge you can expect to dance and be entertained well into the night by some exceptionally talented drag shows, while at the dinner theatre, Cahide Müzikhol, you can enjoy your supper with an eccentric show! If you plan to visit the sparkling Cahide Müzikhol, dress to impress because Istanbul’s premier drag queen cabaret will entertain you while you dine on world-class cuisine in an ultra-luxurious and glam setting, undoubtedly providing many a photo op!
Try the street food
One of the most delightful aspects of travel must be the opportunity to sample cuisines from around the world, and what better way to try the best wares of Istanbul then in the streets of the city, where you are likely to find some of the best food the city has to offer. A confluence of Asian, European and Islamic culture, the street food of Istanbul is a perfect reflection of this cultural diversity. Whether you favour the circular sesame-crusted simit (a circular bread) or you opt for a more savory option like midye dolma, a delicacy of tasty stuffed mussels and my personal favorite – street food promises a veritable foodie adventure, depending on how seriously you take your food! With a variety of Turkish delicacies on offer at very reasonable prices, exploring the street food scene of Istanbul can keep you occupied for some time, and is also one of the most exciting things to do in Istanbul at night. From balık-ekmek, better known as the fish sandwiches, to the more adventurous kokorec — made from grilled sheep intestines – this is an excellent opportunity to sample the local cuisine in an authentic setting.
Visit a real Hammam
While many hotels in Istanbul boast a Turkish bath, these just simply do not offer the true hammam (Turkish bath) experience. While they are undoubtedly pleasant, they cater to the western ideals of modesty and privacy. If you are searching for truly authentic Turkish encounter you need to travel a bit deeper down the rabbit hole to find the real hammams, which have been traditional in Turkish culture for thousands of years as a place to both cleanse and socialize. While it might seem a little uncomfortable to those unaccustomed to the ritualistic bathing, the Hammams are usually separated by gender and are ordinarily visited topless or in the nude. If you decide on the full experience you can expect to move through several chambers of varying temperature and a sauna room, with the option of an invigorating scrub down, delivered by a professional, followed by a cleansing foam wash and relaxing massage. For such authentic hammam experiences, you can visit Ayasofya Hürrem Sultan Hamam, Cağaloğlu Hamam, or Çemberlitaş Hamam in Old Town.
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