Istanbul is one of my favorite cities in the world and it is literally packed with things to do and incredible places to visit. From the Blue Mosque to Hagia Sophia, from Taksim to Galata Tower, from the Spice Bazaar to the Grand Bazaar, you won’t hear anyone complaining about the lack of things to do. Despite being visited by millions of tourists each year, there are some hidden gems in the city or places that are simply less frequented by tourists making them a unique experience whether you are visiting for the first time or have been a couple of times before.
1. Chora Church
Istanbul has a rich Christian history which may not be easy to find but it is there! The Chora Church, now a museum, is a medieval Byzantine Greek Orthodox church. In the 16th century, during the Ottoman era, the church was converted into a mosque and then a museum in 1948. The interior of the building is covered with some of the oldest and finest surviving Byzantine mosaics and frescoes. They were uncovered and restored after the building was secularized and turned into a museum.
A historic neighborhood in Istanbul, famous for its colorful wooden Ottoman mansions and seafood restaurants, Arnavutkoy is a safe haven from the traffic and hustle and bustle of downtown Istanbul. It can get crowded with locals here over the weekend but it remains a far more laid back place than the hectic tourist hotspots of the city.
3. Uskudar and Kiz Kulesi
Located on the Asian side, Uskudar is home to not only great food, but some incredible mosques as well. Also in Uskudar is the iconic and romantic Kiz Kulesi or Maiden’s Tower. Legend says an emperor had a much beloved daughter and one day, an oracle prophesied that she would be killed by a venomous snake on her 18th birthday. The emperor, in an effort to thwart his daughter’s early demise by placing her away from land so as to keep her away from any snakes, had the tower built in the middle of the Bosphorus to protect his daughter until her 18th birthday. On the 18th birthday of the princess, the emperor brought her a basket of exotic sumptuous fruits as a birthday gift, and upon reaching into the basket, however, a snake that had been hiding among the fruit bit the young princess and she died in her father’s arms, just as the oracle had predicted. Hence the name Maiden’s Tower.
One of my favorite neighborhoods in the city, Balat is the traditional Jewish quarter in the Fatih district of Istanbul, although very few Jews remain today. Balat is Instagram heaven with buildings painted in every color you could think of.
Another one of my favorite neighborhoods is Kuzguncuk, a quiet area with historical mansions, churches, synagogues mosques, cobblestone paved streets, and vegetable gardens. Upon visiting, you would understand why this neighborhood attracts Turkish film makers as a natural film set. Seafood restaurants are abundant here; people are friendly; and you could easily lose half a day here.
6. Suleymaniye Mosque
Despite being the second largest mosque in a city that has more than 2000 mosques, Sulemaniye Mosque is often overlooked by tourists who stick to the Blue Mosque. However, Suleymaniye is not any less grander! Its construction began in 1550 and finished in 1557, and the mosque played an important role in the re-population of Istanbul, which had a greatly reduced populace following the Ottoman conquest in 1453.
7. Haydarpasa Terminal
A now decommissioned train station, Haydarpasa Terminal has one of the most beautiful buildings in Istanbul. The station building, built in 1909 by the Anatolian Railway as the western terminus of the Baghdad and Hedjaz railways, has become a symbol of Istanbul during that time, and has a lot of historical and political significance.