When you experience Istanbul for the first time on a budget, it’s one of those unforgettable moments that make you realize – yes, now I’m traveling!
It’s nothing like you’ve ever seen before, when the sun goes down over the Bosporus strait and the call to prayer rings around the city, fishermen cast huge rods off the bridges and flocks of seagulls battle over the markets.
The vibrant throng of colorful bazaars will transport you back to another time, while the alfresco dining culture breathes life into the streets that is rarely bettered anywhere else in the world.
And then, of course, there are the sites and attractions that make Istanbul so appealing to travelers and holidaymakers alike.
The Hagia Sophia, the Topkapı Palace, the Blue Mosque and many more ancient and culturally significant locations ensure the former Constantinople cannot be seen in merely one day.
But what of its hidden gems? Sights you might not have heard of? Travel experts Agness and Cez of Etramping are on hand to shed some light on Istanbul’s alternative attractions.
Here are 8 of the best hidden gems in Istanbul:
1. Basilica Cistern
Alright, so technically the Basilica Cistern is an Istanbul attraction that many people should have heard of, but it still constitutes a hidden gem – because it’s underground. If you don’t know about it or where it is, you’re more than likely to walk past the entrance.
Dating back to the 6th century, it’s a fascinating, dramatic, and gloomy subterranean experience, complete with fish. A Byzantine engineering masterpiece, it’s also a perfect location to cool off during a typical swelteringly hot Turkish day.
Read more about the Basilica Cistern: Istanbul’s Magical Yerebatan Sarnıcı (Basilica Cistern)
2. Chora Church Museum
In a city with more than its fair share of holy places visited by millions of tourists and devotees annually, the Chora Church (Kariye Müzesi) is tucked away from the crowds and doesn’t get nearly as many visitors.
That’s a real shame considering its beautiful frescoes and mosaics, hidden inside a building that has changed hands with religions and has been built and rebuilt many times. It now serves as a museum dedicated to preserving the ancient works of art adorning its walls and ceilings.
3. Gülhane Park
Again, not exactly a hidden gem, but a gem nonetheless, and you’d be surprised how many people overlook it on a visit to Istanbul. Gülhane Park is one of the most beautiful green spaces in Europe, set in the grounds of the Topkapi Palace.
It’s extremely popular with locals who come to escape the hot sun under the leafy canopy, and there’s a treasure trove of curiosities to be discovered hidden among the flora, including the ancient Column of the Goths, commemorating the Roman victory over the Goths.
4. Çamlıca Hill
Cross over to the Asian side and make your way to the Üsküdar district. There you’ll find one of the best viewpoints for a panorama of the whole city. Çamlıca Hill (Çamlıca Tepesi) has some breathtaking vistas of the Bosporus and Istanbul and is particularly beautiful when viewed as the sun is setting.
The park is well sculpted with charming gardens, colorful flowerbeds, and fountains and it’s the perfect place to take in the point where two mighty continents meet. You’re going to feel very small!
5. Graffiti Art Tour
Wandering Istanbul’s many neighbourhoods are becoming increasingly popular as many travellers seek to avoid the crowded tourist sights. You can get a sense of the real Istanbul here too, especially if you venture over to the Asian side and get lost hunting some outstanding graffiti art.
Districts like Kadıköy, Tünel and Karaköy are filled with huge rural neighborhoods from some seriously talented artists, and the city almost rivals Berlin when it comes to the quality and quantity of the street art. Paid tours are available, but why bother when you can use your own two feet?
6. Miniatürk Miniature Park
One for the kids and the kids at heart, because who doesn’t love miniature theme parks?! Miniaturk is a wonderful example of a tiny world, with over 100 detailed models in 1/25th scale.
In fact, the theme park is one of the largest model villages in the world, and you’ll surprise yourself at just how giddy you’ll be exploring all the famous landmarks and buildings recreated in miniature. It was opened in 2003 and while it attracts a good number of visitors, it still has hidden gem status for sure.
7. Istanbul Railway Museum
Commemorating the final stop of a certain train called the Orient Express, this delightful museum is located hidden within a train station – the Sirkeci Terminal. It’s crammed full of exhibits and curiosities, over 300 in fact, celebrating the history of Turkish rail.
The terminal itself – once the eastern stop of the famous passenger locomotive – is a piece of artwork in itself and a monument to a bygone era. The Orient Express ceased to run in 2009, but there’s a bit of its magic still here, and best of all – the museum is free to enter.
8. Rüstem Pasha Mosque
It is estimated that Istanbul is home to over 3,000 mosques and listening to the call to prayer is a stirringly exotic feeling – if you’re more used to living in countries without it! While there are the more obvious and well-known mosque experiences in the city if you want a hidden gem and to avoid the crowds, check out Rüstem Pasha.
It’s been likened to a miniature version of the Blue Mosque, with beautifully intricate and brilliantly blue İznik tiles adorning the walls within. As with all religious sites, remember to adhere to the dress code for entering.
Have you been to Istanbul? Let us know some of your top tips for hidden gems we might have missed!
This post was written by Agness of eTramping. Agness and Cez are two best friends from the north of Poland who quit their 9-5s and decided to travel. Learn more about Agness and Cez here.