Whether you call it Istanbul, Constantinople, or Byzantium, one thing is for sure; this is a city so great that it can’t be contained in one continent. Istanbul is the place where Asia and Europe meet and the city is known as the Center of the World for a reason. This grandiose metropolis is home to some of the most important historical sites in Europe and Asia, such as Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace, Basilica Cistern, Dolmabahçe Palace, and many others, but there are also a lot of hidden gems in Istanbul most tourists don’t know about. In this article, we cover some of the best places in Istanbul off the beaten track!
A Church Older Than Hagia Sophia
The Church of St Sergius and St Bacchus is oftentimes overlooked but it’s one of the oldest churches in Istanbul. In fact, it’s widely accepted that this church was built as a draft for the architectural masterpiece Hagia Sophia which today, is one of the largest mosques in the world. Before Hagia Sophia was built, this church was considered to be one of the most important early Byzantine buildings.
Once a church, today St. Sergius and St Bacchus serves as a mosque and can be found near Old Town. However, most tourists don’t know about this once-great church and today, you won’t find a lot of visitors roaming around.
If this sounds interesting, make sure to check out the local guided tour known as Istanbul; Crossroads of Humanity.
The Best Alternative District of Istanbul
Tophane is one of the best alternative districts of Istanbul. Until 20 years ago, it was just a regular Istanbul suburb but today, it’s one of Istanbul’s creative hubs. The district is only a few minutes away from the famous Istiklal Street but yet it’s somehow tucked away from the tourist crowds and is not a part of most Istanbul tours.
If there’s a district that showcases the ever-changing face of Istanbul, it’s Tophane. Today, in this district, you can find a lot of bohemian cafes, charming art galleries, antique shops, a few museums, and a myriad of culinary delights.
One of the Most Underrated Mosques in Istanbul
Istanbul has no shortage of beautiful mosques and that’s perhaps the main reason why in Istanbul, you can find a handful of beautiful underrated mosques that most tourists don’t know about. One such example is the Sokollu Mehmet Pasha- one of the most challenging architectural endeavors of the 16th century. At the time, with the limited technology available, it was unimaginable to build such a large building on top of a steep slope and the fact that the mosque is still standing today makes it even more impressive.
In addition to this, the mosque has a breath-taking interior with beautifully-decorated Iznik tyles and polychrome marbles. Having everything in mind, it’s a real surprise how this mosque is even part of this list of hidden gems in Istanbul.
The Colors of Istanbul in the Balat District
The Jewish District is one of the most down-to-earth neighborhoods of Istanbul. This part of the city is filled with colorful buildings, charming cobbled streets, and a myriad of chic cafes, street markets, and antique shops. Locals say that this is arguably the most cosmopolitan part of Istanbul. Looking around, it’s hard to deny that statement.
Balat is one of the rare places in Istanbul where you’ll find a synagogue, mosque, and an orthodox church in the same neighborhood. When people call Istanbul a melting pot of cultures, this is what they have in mind. If you want to explore this part of the city, check out this comprehensive tour of Balat and Fener.
A less famous version of Kapali Carsi
The Üsküdar Pier isn’t a famous tourist district. In fact, it’s one of Istanbul’s most conservative suburbs and one you won’t even find in most tourist guides. The suburb is filled with old Ottoman buildings, a lot of mosques, and traditional Turkish hammams, and visiting this area can surely give you a new perspective of the city but this is not the reason why we mention Üsküdar on this list of hidden gems in Istanbul.
We have Üsküdar on this list because of the Üsküdar Bit Pazari. This is one of the largest antique flea shops in Istanbul and a great alternative spot for buying unique souvenirs. There’s a wide range of cheap antique items you can buy and you can find most of the things you’d get in Kapali Carsi, and probably for a lower price too.
A Quaint District with a Small-Town Vibe
Even in a city as large as Istanbul, you can find hidden corners that feel like they haven’t progressed at the same pace as the rest of the city. In Istanbul, that’s Kanlica District; a cozy neighborhood with a lot of old buildings, traditional eateries, street food stalls, and an array of authentic traditional restaurants (usually not the kinds that are specifically designed to cater to tourists). If you want to get there, hop on a ferry from Eminou and get off at Kanlica (Anatolian side).
Istanbul’s Most Remote Nature Park
Far in the Asian part of the city, near Ömerli Dam, lies one of Istanbul’s last unspoiled corners of nature. If you’re looking for hidden gems in Istanbul where you can get away from the busy city streets, the Avcıkoru Nature Park is the largest green surface in the whole region. The park covers more than 1,600 acres and is home to large populations of deer, wild boars, and jackals. If you happen to be in Istanbul in the winter, the park is even more beautiful when covered in snow!
A Traffic-free Part of Istanbul
Yes, you read that right! There is a part of Istanbul that doesn’t have any traffic! In fact, no motorized vehicles are allowed here, except for the emergency services. This place is Heybeliada Island. In case you didn’t know, Istanbul’s area covers numerous islands and Heybeliada is the second-largest of a group of nine islands known as the 9 Princess of Istanbul.
Another interesting fact about this island is that it’s the only part of Istanbul that has more churches than mosques. The oldest church even dates back to the 11th century and houses the main Greek Orthodox seminary in Turkey. In addition to these churches, you can also find a lot of other historical sites but since cars are not allowed here, the only way to explore the island is by walking or renting a bicycle.
Remnants of One of the Longest Roman Aqueducts
Built in 375 AD, the Bozdogan Aqueduct was one of the longest aqueducts in the Roman Empire. It stretched over 1,000 meters and provided water for the entire city of Byzantium. Today, most of the aqueduct is preserved and is one of the most prominent landmarks in this part of Istanbul. The aqueduct is so long that it stretches through two of Istanbul’s districts- Vefa and Zeyrek.
The Underground Mosque
Speaking of hidden gems in Istanbul, we just have to mention Yeralti Camii. Would you guess that under the alleys of Karakoy, you can find a fascinating Ottoman mosque? Unless you’re a local or are particularly looking for this mosque, your answer is probably no and that’s the main reason why most tourists miss this spot.
Underground mosques are extremely uncommon and Yeralti is one of only a handful of underground mosques in the whole world. Initially, the grounds surrounding the mosques were a part of a Byzantine fort but after the Turks took control of the city, the bodies of two Arab soldiers were discovered inside the fort. The soldiers probably died in one of the previous sieges of the city and in their honor, the fort was turned into a mosque and today, serves as one of Istanbul’s lesser-known temples.
A Forgotten Byzantine Castle
Situated on top of of Joshua’s Hill along the far end of the Bosphorus Coast lies Yoros Castle; an ancient castle that was built by the Genoese in the mid-15th century to control the entrance of the Bosphorus. At its prime, the castle was 500 meters long and up to 130 meters wide. Byzantines, Genoese, and later, Ottomans fought for this strategic fortification for years but today, it seems like this ancient castle has been forgotten by time.
A New Byzantine Hidden Gem
Even if you didn’t visit Istanbul, you probably know of the largest underground ancient cistern- The Basilica Cistern. But do you know about a new, just as fascinating cistern that was recently discovered beneath Istanbul’s grounds? Theodosius Cistern (Şerefiye Sarnıcı) is a 1,600-years-old cistern that was hidden for centuries and discovered at the beginning of the 2010s. It took another eight years for the local authorities to restore the cistern and open it for visitors. The best part about it is that there’s no entrance fee and the cistern is open for everyone.
The Ruins of What Was Once a Grandiose Palace
When we talk about hidden gems in Istanbul, we have to mention the old Boukoleon Palace. Or at least, whatever is left of it. The palace was built by Theodosius II at the Marmara Sea Coast. At its prime, it was a marvelous building and one of the most luxurious properties in Constantinople. The property has been completely neglected by the local authorities and sadly, it seems like the glory days of the palace are long gone.
However, if you like visiting abandoned places and imagining how life there looked like during the good-old-days, I strongly suggest you visit Boukoleon Palace.
55,000 Hectares of Protected Woodland
If you’re looking for the greenest places in Istanbul, you might have heard the name Belgrad Forest. Located in the northwest part of the city, near Sariyer District, this forest stretches over 55,000 hectares of protected greenery that mainly consists of beech, oak, and chestnut trees. If you like long walks in nature, trekking, mountain biking, or just want to have a picnic and get away from Istanbul’s crowded streets, Belgrad Forest is a great choice.
A Lesser-Known Mausoleum
Thousands of people pass by Istanbul’s downtown every day and most of them don’t notice this unsuspicious quiet, regal tomb. And even fewer people know that this quiet building is actually a mausoleum that’s an eternal resting place of three Ottoman sultans; Mahmud the Second (1785-1839), Abdulaziz (1830-1876), and Abdul Hamid II (1842-1918). Interestingly, the Sultan II Mahmut Tomb is one of the first buildings built in the Ottoman Empire that shows signs of European influence.
Istanbul’s Most Underrated Museum
Even though Istanbul has a lot of great museums and some might say that classifying one museum as the city’s most underrated is an overstatement, this is our opinion. Sadberk Hanim Museum is the first private museum in Istanbul and one of the largest private collections in Turkey.
The museum houses more than 20,000 artifacts related to Anatolian Civilization, with the oldest ones dating back to 6000 B.C. There are regular exhibitions and all of the artifacts are divided according to the era they belong to (i.e. Prehistoric, Anatolian, Hellenic, Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman). You can visit during any day of the week except for Wednesdays.
The Best Viewpoint of the Bosporus
Most postcards from Istanbul feature a spectacular view of the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge connecting Europe and Asia with the Bosporus in the background that lures tourists to lining up in front of Galata Tower or visiting expensive restaurants in the area just so that they can get a glimpse of one of the most beautiful sights in Turkey. But you don’t have to do this to get a spectacular view of the Bosporus.
Just get to Otağtepe Teme and you can get the best view of the Bosporus free of charge! In fact, this spot was used for many Istanbul postcards and was used as a backdrop in many Turkish movies.
The Last Mosque of the Great Mimar Sinan
Valide-i Atik Kulliyesi is one of the most overlooked mosques in Istanbul despite being the second-largest mosque complex in town. Even more fascinating, the mosque was designed by Mimar Sinan, one of the greatest Ottoman architects of all time. The mosque is decorated with marble mihrab, ceramics, and pearl-ornamented cupboards and is one of Istanbul’s most beautiful mosques.
It was built to honor Afife Nurbanu, the first woman who effectively ruled the Empire during the Sultanate of Women. However, despite all this, Valide-i Atik Kulliyesi seems to be forgotten by most tourists, possibly because of its somewhat remote location (atop a hill that overlooks the suburbs around Üsküdar).
Helpful Resources for Visiting Istanbul
For cheap flights to Istanbul, check out Qatar Airways’s Discover the World at a low price.
For budget accommodation in Istanbul, use my discount code to get up to 15% off on all properties in town.
If you want to rent a car in Istanbul, use Auto Europe to compare the best deals in town.
Last but not least, for the best travel insurance deals in Turkey, check out World Nomads. It might cost a bit more than what you’d expect but have in mind that their plans have you covered in all potentially-unwanted things that might happen to you on the road. Travel insurance is one thing you shouldn’t try to save money on.
How did you like this list of hidden gems in Istanbul? Did you ever get the chance to visit any of them? Which one was your favorite? Let us know in the comments!
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Saturday 5th of December 2020
Hi! With full appreciation to you for the detailed account of old /Historical sited in Istanbul. I, shall make it a point to visit all of them during my next trip after the corona problem is over. Thanks again.