Istanbul,  Turkey

8 Unique Must-Experience Activities In Istanbul, Turkey

Imagine wandering through the vibrant streets of Istanbul, Turkey, where ancient history intertwines with the modern. The bustling city has an abundance of hidden gems that go beyond the typical tourist attractions. I spent quite a bit of time uncovering some of the city’s most remarkable places. There’s nothing better than venturing off the beaten path when attempting to live like a local. I’m going to show you some of my favorite spots in the city that include some of the most unique experiences in Istanbul. From stepping back in time at the mystical Basilica Cistern to discovering the secrets of the iconic Grand Bazaar, I’ll take you on a journey of exploration and discovery. So, prepare to indulge your senses and let the magic of Istanbul captivate your soul. Get ready to embark on an extraordinary adventure in the enchanting city that bridges the East and the West!

This map was made with Wanderlog, a road trip planner app on iOS and Android

1. Step into a magical underground world at the Basilica Cistern

Step back in time at the Basilica Cistern, an extraordinary underground structure that will transport you to the ancient Byzantine era. Built in the 6th century during the reign of Emperor Justinian, this hidden gem is a marvel of engineering and a testament to Istanbul’s rich history. As you descend into the dimly lit chamber, you’ll be greeted by the mesmerizing sight of hundreds of columns rising from the water, creating an otherworldly atmosphere that is both eerie and awe-inspiring. The moment I descended the stairs to the cistern, I was both mesmerized and bewildered that something like this even existed then and even now.

The Basilica Cistern, also known as the “Sunken Palace,” is like stepping into a secret world beneath the bustling streets of Istanbul. The sheer size of the cistern is mind-boggling, with a capacity to hold a staggering 80,000 cubic meters of water. As you stroll along the raised wooden platforms, you can’t help but marvel at the intricately carved Medusa head as well as modern sculptures set among the columns. It certainly adds an air of mystery to the underground labyrinth.

The Basilica Cistern is a must-visit for history enthusiasts, architecture aficionados, lovers of art, and anyone seeking a unique and immersive experience in Istanbul. Its sheer grandeur and mystique make it an unforgettable attraction that will leave you with a profound appreciation for Istanbul’s rich cultural heritage.

Tour option: Basilica Cistern Skip-the-Line Ticket with Guided Tour

A place to stay nearby: Lovely Apartment in Sultan Ahmet

 

2. Escape to the Princes’ Islands

Just a short and easy boat ride away is the Princes’ Islands, a truly unique and peaceful escape from the crowds of the bustling city streets. Comprised of nine islands, with Büyükada being the largest and most popular, these islands offer a retreat filled with serene beaches, picturesque landscapes, and the absence of cars, a feature I absolutely loved!

Once you set foot on Büyükada, you’ll immediately notice the absence of noise and pollution, as transportation on the island is limited. You can take a leisurely stroll along the charming streets lined with beautiful wooden houses, adorned with colorful flowers and captivating architecture. Indulge in the slower pace of life, embracing the simplicity and peacefulness that permeates the island. However, if you don’t want to walk, you can always rent a bike or take one of the miniature electric buses. We opted to walk as we were short on time.

We took a tour which included a pickup from our accommodations in Sultan Ahmet, the ferry ride, lunch, and a tour guide.

Tour option: Princes Island Tour From Istanbul with Lunch

A place to stay in Princes’ Islands: Sea View Retreat in Buyukada

 

3. Indulge in a traditional Turkish breakfast

Indulge in a traditional Turkish breakfast and fuel yourself with delicious flavors and authentic experiences before diving back into the artistic wonders that Istanbul has to offer. Istanbul is not only a city of rich cultural history and vibrant art scene but a paradise for food lovers. And what better way to start your day than with a traditional Turkish breakfast?

As you sit down at a local café, you’ll be greeted with a mouthwatering spread of fresh bread, olives, cheeses, honey, jams, and an array of savory dishes. The Turkish breakfast is a leisurely affair, meant to be enjoyed slowly, savoring every bite while engaging in lively conversation and soaking in the bustling atmosphere around you.

One of the highlights of this breakfast experience is the famous Turkish tea, served in delicate tulip-shaped glasses. Sip on the fragrant tea as you take in the sights and sounds of the city waking up, ready to embrace the day ahead.

I joined a couple of friends for what was one of the best breakfast experiences of my life. However, it was at Arada Endülüs, a Lebanese restaurant in the Beyoğlu neighborhood by Karakoy. I highly recommend dining here for brunch!

Food tour option: Taste of Two Continents: Istanbul Food Tour

 

4. Take a stroll through Balat and Fener neighborhoods

As you meander through the narrow cobblestone streets, you’ll be transported to a bygone era. Balat and Fener, located on the western side of the Golden Horn, are two of Istanbul’s oldest and most colorful districts. The vibrant facades of the houses, painted in shades of red, yellow, and blue, create a picturesque backdrop for your leisurely walk. If you love photography, coming to this part of Istanbul is a must!

In Balat, you’ll discover a trove of hidden gems. The neighborhood is known for its well-preserved Ottoman-era wooden houses, their intricately carved balconies, and colorful window frames telling stories of centuries past. Keep an eye out for the famous Red Church, also known as the Church of St. Stephen of the Bulgars. As you cross over into Fener, the atmosphere changes slightly, it’s a historically Greek neighborhood with churches and mosaics. The two neighborhoods seamlessly blend into one another and, if you’re like me, you’ll be delighted by your experience here.

It’s not just the architecture that makes Balat and Fener special. These neighborhoods are a haven for boutique shops, antique stores, charming restaurants, and cozy cafes. Take a moment to browse through the lovely shops, where you might stumble upon one-of-a-kind treasures and unique souvenirs to commemorate your time in Istanbul. There’s so much character in this neighborhood, and it’s my favorite part of the city to take photos. If you’re here on certain days, you can enjoy walking through a farmers’ market, the largest I’ve ever been to with produce as colorful as the buildings that surround it.

Tour option: Half-day Fener-Balat Walking Tour in Turkiye

A place to stay nearby: Historic House near Popular Landmarks in Balat

 

5. Marvel at the stunning Süleymaniye Mosque

Marvel at the stunning Süleymaniye Mosque, a masterpiece of Ottoman architecture that will leave you in awe with its grandeur and architectural details. The Süleymaniye Mosque, located in the lively neighborhood of Süleymaniye, is one of Istanbul’s most iconic landmarks and a must-visit for any traveler seeking to delve deeper into the city’s cultural heritage.

As you approach the mosque, you’ll be greeted by its imposing dome and minarets that pierce the skyline. Dating back to the 16th century, this architectural gem was built by the great Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan, who designed it to rival the magnificent Hagia Sophia. Step inside and be prepared to be transported to a world of serenity and beauty.

The interior of the Süleymaniye Mosque is equally as captivating as its exterior. Marble columns, intricately designed tiles, and delicate calligraphy adorn the walls, creating a sense of tranquility and spiritual reverence. The main prayer hall, with its high ceilings and natural light streaming through stained glass windows, creates a peaceful ambiance that encourages contemplation and reflection.

Make sure to explore the mosque’s gardens as well; its well-maintained courtyards, adorned with fountains and lush greenery are a sight to behold. This was the first mosque I visited on my very first visit to Istanbul. I was on a tour and it was a great foray into the religious customs of many Turkish people. Everyone entering a mosque must take off their shoes, shoulders and legs must be covered, and women must cover their hair. If you do not have coverings, many places offer something either for free or a fee.

Tour option: Best of Istanbul: 1, 2, or 3-Day Private Guided Istanbul Tour

A place to stay nearby: Modern Suites

 

6. Explore the vibrant streets of Kadikoy

Kadikoy is a bustling district located across the Bosphorus on the Asian side (also called the Anatolian side) of Istanbul, just a short ferry ride away from the historical center. This vibrant neighborhood is known for its lively atmosphere, vibrant street art, and a diverse mix of locals and expats. It’s a place where tradition and innovation coexist harmoniously. It also has a bit more chill than the European side of the city.

One of the highlights of Kadikoy is its lively food scene. As you stroll through the streets, you’ll come across a myriad of enticing options, from traditional Turkish kebabs to international fusion cuisine. Whether you choose to dine in a trendy restaurant or sample street food from one of the many vendors, you’re in for a treat. Don’t forget to try the famous Turkish tea or indulge in a cup of strong Turkish coffee, as you’ll find plenty of charming cafes offering these delicious beverages.

Kadikoy is also a hub for art and culture. The district is home to numerous art galleries, showcasing the works of both established and emerging artists. Take some time to explore these creative spaces and immerse yourself in the local art scene.

As you explore the vibrant streets of Kadikoy, take a moment to absorb the vibrant energy of this neighborhood. The hustle and bustle, the eclectic mix of people, and the captivating sights and sounds will make you feel like you’ve stepped into a different world.  I find it fascinating on this side of the Bosphorus!

Tour option: Asian Side of Istanbul: Uskudar and Kadikoy Full-Day Tour

A place to stay nearby: Cozy apartment in the center of Kadikoy

 

7. Discover the secrets of Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar

Discover the secrets of Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, where centuries-old tradition meets bustling commerce, in a labyrinth of shops and stalls that will leave you in awe. This iconic market is a melting pot of colors, scents, and sounds, offering a truly immersive experience for visitors. As you wander through its narrow alleyways, you’ll find yourself surrounded by a treasure trove of goods, from intricately woven Turkish carpets to shimmering lanterns, delicate ceramics, local spices, and so much more. It’s overwhelming, fascinating, and one of my favorite places to explore in Istanbul. I discovered some new corner or entrance of the Grand Bazaar each time I visited which was quite often.

The Grand Bazaar is not just a shopping destination; it’s a living testament to Istanbul’s vibrant history and cultural heritage. The market has been a hub of trade and commerce since the 15th century, attracting merchants from all corners of the globe. Walking through its bustling corridors, you’ll catch a glimpse of the city’s past, as ancient architecture mingles with modern craftsmanship.

The true magic of the Grand Bazaar lies in the unexpected discoveries that await around every corner. As I explored the maze-like passageways, I stumbled upon hidden gems, such as a tiny shop filled with antique books or a quaint café serving traditional Turkish tea. The bustling atmosphere and the constant buzz of bargaining create an ambiance that is both exhilarating and enchanting.

Tour option: Istanbul Grand Bazaar and Egyptian Bazaar Shopping Tour

A place to stay nearby: 3 Double Bedroom, Right Next to Blue Mosque, on Akbiyik Street

 

8. Relax and rejuvenate with a traditional Turkish bath

One of my favorite experiences during my time in Turkey was spending time at a Turkish bath. Stepping into the traditional Turkish bathhouse, I was immediately transported to a world of serenity and tranquility. The finely crafted architecture and intricate tilework add to the ambiance, making me feel as though I entered into a sanctuary of pure bliss.

I went to two different hammams but my favorite is in the Karakoy neighborhood. Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamam is an experience everyone should have at least once. It was built between 1578 and 1580 by Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan. So, not only will you experience the ultimate in relaxation but it’s in an incredibly historic building that is absolutely stunning!

Each day, there are hours set for men and hours set for women only. Making a reservation online was easy. As soon as my friend and I arrived, we were treated to a hibiscus drink served in a glass. We were given keys to a locker to stow our personal belongings, got undressed, and dressed in a robe, disposable underwear, and sandals for the communal steam room. We were led to a marble slab where we had to lie down as a gentle cloud of steam enveloped us, opening up our pores and detoxifying our skin. It was so relaxing but then it came time for the main event: the traditional scrub and massage.

Expert masseurs, skilled in the art of Turkish bath rituals, will guide you through a rejuvenating experience like no other. Feel the tension melt away as they expertly exfoliate your skin, removing dead cells and leaving it silky smooth. The rhythmic kneading of our muscles eased away any and all stress. It was amazing to have someone else exfoliate and bathe us.

Afterward, our masseuses took us into another room to dry us. Then we were able to head back out into the main area to rest and relax. Being here was as close to a divine experience as I ever had.

Tour option: Istanbul Evening Food Tour: The Best Bites of Taksim and Karaköy

A place to stay nearby: Cosy charm, fabulous terrace views in Galata

Now that you’ve uncovered these hidden treasures, it’s time to create your own extraordinary adventure. Step off the beaten path, embrace the unknown, and let the magic of Istanbul captivate your senses. So, book your tickets, pack your bags, and let the adventure begin. These are some of the most unique experiences in Istanbul you must have for yourself!

If you happen to be in Cappadocia, you must add hot-air ballooning over the fairytale landscape to your bucket list!

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