21 Fun and Unique Things To Do in Istanbul (A Local’s Guide)

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Istanbul is one of the greatest destinations with its authentic atmosphere and lively city life.

Undoubtedly, there are countless extraordinary and enjoyable things to do in Istanbul.

There are many overrated places and extraordinary lesser-known places. For this reason, I packed my guide with lots of information that only locals would know.

In this guide, as a Turkish local, I mentioned my top places and things to do and see in Istanbul.

I hope my guide will help you enjoy your trip to Istanbul.

Basilica Cistern Istanbul

1)   Feel the Gothic Environment of Basilica Cistern

Basilica Cistern is a mysteriously beautiful place that was built by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I around the 6th century. 

The entrance of this underground cistern is located meters away from Hagia Sophia.

In the past, this cistern’s purpose was to supply water. 

The city legend is that the cistern was forgotten for centuries and rediscovered after people became curious about a man who fished fish from a hole in Sultanahmet Square. Today, fish are living in the cistern.

As soon as you enter this place, you will find yourself surrounded by columns rising out of water. The atmosphere of this underground cistern is both gloomy and magical.

Additionally, many movies, including 1963 James Bond’s From Russia with Love, and Tom Hanks’ movie, Inferno, were shot there. The ambiance that the cistern provides is unique. 

Medusa Head in Basilica Cistern Istanbul

So, what else can you do besides admiring the beauty of the Basilica Cistern? If you visit this place, seeing the Medusa heads is a must-do. When I went to this cistern, I spent ages staring at them.

Also, don’t forget to make a wish! Many people throw coins into the water and make wishes.

If you are looking for day trip ideas outside the central areas of Istanbul, check my guide on Day Trips from Istanbul.

Hagia Sophia Istanbul

2) Make a Wish in Hagia Sophia

In Turkey, we might not have a genie in a bottle, but we have some alternatives…

There’s a column named “Wishing Column” or “Crying Column” in Hagia Sophia.

A bronze plate surrounds the hole in the column. Many people get in line to make their wishes.

So, how can you actually make a wish?

First, you stick your thumb into the hole that’s in the column. Then you try to make a full circle.

According to the belief, if your finger gets wet, then you’re lucky! Because that means your wish will be fulfilled.

Istanbul has many districts. Hagia Sophia and Basilica Cistern are in Sultanahmet (Old Town), please read my guide “Where to Stay in Istanbul? A Local Answers with Map” to learn about Istanbul’s best neighborhoods.

Fish Bread Boats in Eminonu Istanbul

3)  Eat Fish Sandwich in Eminonu

Istanbul is a city that is famous for many things, including delicious street food. Undoubtedly, there are many delicious options you can try.

Fish sandwiches have been one of the most popular street food options for centuries. Eminonu can be considered the best spot to try fish sandwiches sold on boats.

Even when you’re not hungry, the smell of this grilled fish can make you stop and take a bite.

Grilled Mackerel fish, salad, and onions served inside a half loaf of bread are called Balık Ekmek (Fish Bread). 

Balık Ekmek is a simple meal, but it’s an incredibly delicious way to make your entrance into Turkish street food. 

You can also order awesome food from certain websites with no delivery fee. Read my guide to learn “How to Order Food Online in Istanbul?”

Golden Horn from Pierre Loti Hill

4)   Sip Your Tea at Pierre Loti Hill

Pierre Loti Hill is an amazing place to visit, both for tourists and locals. It’s located in Eyup and is named after Pierre Loti, who was a French novelist.

So, how can you get to this spot? From Eyüp, you can either take the cable car or prefer to walk.

This place offers you a fascinating view of the Golden Horn.

Pierre Loti Cafe is a great place to relax and have a peaceful time. You can sip your tea while watching the beautiful view.

Also, don’t forget to take some photos that will remind you of this spectacular visit.

If this is your first time, you may need some travel tips, you can check my guide on What Do You Need to Know Before Visiting Istanbul?

Penguins in Istanbul Aquarium

5) Visit the Istanbul Aquarium

From time to time, it’s better to escape city life and travel to a different place. At those times, the right spot to visit is the Istanbul Aquarium.

This complex makes you feel like you’re literally walking underwater or on a different continent.

The aquarium is located in Florya and it’s the largest thematic aquarium in the world. 

You can learn and observe the underwater life on Turkish seas as well as world seas. 

I can easily say that the themes are far more realistic than I had expected. Therefore, I think you need to visit this place and have this unique experience.

Personally, my favorite region is the Amazon Rainforest. However, all areas are equally impressive and informative.

There’s also a 5D cinema which is quite enjoyable as well. If you wish to learn more, here is the website of Istanbul Akvaryum.

Hagia Eirene and Hagia Sophia at the back.

6)   Watch a Concert at Hagia Eirene 

Hagia Eirene is a Byzantine church that today holds music concerts. This fascinating church was built in the 4th Century. 

Hagia Eirene is located in the first courtyard of Topkapi Palace. The architecture and the atmosphere of Hagia Eirene are beyond explanation.

As you can imagine, the acoustics of this place are quite spectacular. Many concerts took place at this church.

In fact, one of my favorite bands, Mor ve Otesi, performed at Hagia Eirene. It was an amazing performance, and I still watch it from time to time. Here is the video of the performance.

Long story short, I highly recommend attending a concert at this beautiful place. It can be one of the most amazing experiences you could ever have.

Mor ve Ötesi concert in Hagia Eirene.

Suggested Reading: Why and When did Istanbul Become Constantinople?

Cicek Pasaji Taksim Istanbul

7)   Enjoy the Meyhane (Tavern) Culture of Istanbul 

This is one of my favorite activities in Istanbul. Nevizade and Cicek Pasaji in Taksim are the best places to enjoy Turkish Meyhanes.

Meyhanes, or in other words, “taverns” in Istanbul, have their own unique culture. People usually visit meyhane with their loved ones and have fun together.

Meyhanes provide a cozy place where people have intimate and enjoyable conversations.

When you go to a meyhane, you will often see friends singing songs or laughing together. This beautiful view and the place itself give a sense of candidness.

Meyhane culture goes way back to the Byzantine Empire. Today, it’s still one of the most popular activities in Istanbul, and it is a great way to experience Turkish culture.

You can drink Turkish Raki, eat fish and try different kinds of mezes. 

“Meze” is a Turkish word that can be described as an appetizer or tapas.  Each meze is unique, and the choices are very diverse.

Some delicious mezes are 

  • Fava- made with mashed dried broad bean with olive oil. Sometimes it is mixed with dill and onions. 
  • Haydari – Turkish yogurt mixed with cucumber and olive oil on top
  • Şaksuka – Fried eggplant, green pepper, and potato served with yogurt and tomato sauce on top
  • Arnavut Cigeri –  fried liver, served with onion and lemon.

Additionally, melon and white cheese are very preferable as well.  These go great with Turkish Raki. In average meyhane, you will have at least 20 choices of mezes.

It is believed that fish goes very well with Raki. There is even a Turkish saying, “fish will cry if you eat it without raki.”

Most of the time, I skip the main meal or fish and instead order calamari as a side dish and various kinds of mezes. Most meyhanes serve a fruit plate at the end of dinner.

To learn more about Turkish Cuisine read Turkish Food and Turkish Cuisine – 23 Things to Know

First Day of the Month Church – St. Mary of Blachernae

8)   Visit the Church of St. Mary of Blachernae

The Church of St. Mary of Blachernae is usually called the “First Day of the Month Church.” It’s translated as “Ayın Biri Kilisesi” in Turkish.

People visit this church on the first day of every month. Not only Christians but Muslims mostly visit this Eastern Orthodox church as well.

If you want to wish for something, you can buy a candle and a key.  Afterward, you keep the key, and if your wish comes true, you will return it.

The faith is that every wish is a door. Once you open the door (or, in other words, when your wish becomes true), you return the key.

It’s one of the most popular churches in Istanbul, and many people visit this place on the first day of every month.

Click to read Is Istanbul Safe? Answered By a Local

Istanbul is calmer and uniquely beautiful from the sea. Ciragan Palace.

9)   Join one of the Bosphorus Tours

It would be a shame to visit Istanbul without having a Bosphorus tour. It’s a great way to discover Istanbul and its beauty.

The full Bosphorus tour starts at Eminonu and takes you to the historical sites of Istanbul. The last destination is Anadolu Kavagi which is an amazing place to visit.

Ortaköy Mosque

Some boat tours have guides, and some have music. You should consult the type of entertainment before you buy your way on the boat tour.

The months of April and May are ideal for attending a Bosphorus tour.

Alternatively, you can explore Istanbul from the sea with the city’s public ferries. Buy your simit (bagel), order the tea on the ferry, and enjoy your ride.

The Koc Museum is a vast complex with jet planes to London city buses.

10) Visit Rahmi M. Koc Museum

Rahmi M. Koc is a very popular museum that has many sections, from transportation to toys. You can take a look at ships, classical cars, and perfect toys.

This museum was opened in 1994 by Rahmi Koc, and it’s located in Beyoglu. Rahmi Koc also founded Koc Holding, one of the biggest corporate conglomerates in Turkey.

Even though all the sections were impressive, my favorite part was the cars.

There’s even a replica of the “flying car” that we know from the movie “Harry Potter and the Secret Chamber.” As a Harry Potter fan, I lost my mind when I saw that car and stared at it for a long time.

There are also beautiful toys that you can spend hours observing. The details of these toys make them more interesting.

Long story short, I really think you should visit this museum. It’s one of the best things you can do in Istanbul.

For more details, you can check the official website of the Koc Museum by clicking here.

Suggested Reading: Is Istanbul Rich or Poor? A Local Answers with Statistics

11)  Attend the Istanbul Jazz Festival

As you might imagine, many festivals frequently happen in Istanbul. The Istanbul Jazz Festival is one of the most popular ones of all.

At this festival, many concerts take place in various venues throughout June and July. 

Music lovers can watch performances of artists coming to Istanbul from diverse countries around the globe.

Believe it or not, plenty of people love listening to jazz in Istanbul.

In summer, many people who could not escape holiday resorts look forward to this festival every year. People usually go with their friends and have an enjoyable time together.

It’s better to remember that this festival isn’t only about jazz music. You can also listen to different kinds of music genres as well. That’s why it makes it more appealing to attend.

Even if you go alone, it’s nearly impossible not to have a good time.

For more details, you can check the official website of the Istanbul Jazz Festival.

To learn more about Turkish Culture, please read my guideIs Istanbul in the Middle East? Location, Culture, Climate, and More.”

Viktor Levi Moda has indoor and outdoor areas.

12) Have a Nice Dinner at Viktor Levi Wine House

Without a doubt, Moda is a very popular spot in Istanbul. There are many famous restaurants in Moda. That’s why sometimes deciding where to have dinner can be hard.

Viktor Levi Wine House is one of my favorite places in Moda. Many people celebrate their birthdays and anniversaries at this place.

In my university years, the cafe was in Taksim. I used to take my dates to this restaurant to impress my girlfriends. 

It’s both a cozy and elegant wine house, which is highly preferred. This place can be the best option to have a nice dinner and drink fine wine.

The place has many items on exhibit displaying its decades of wine house experience.

You can have dinner in the garden of this wine house, which has an amazing atmosphere. You can go alone, sip your wine, and read a book.

Predictably, there are plenty of different kinds of wine. Therefore, if you’re not an expert, you can have some help from the waiter.

For more details, you can check the official website of Viktor Levi by clicking here.

Further Reading: Do Turkish People Drink Alcohol? Our Laws, History, and Culture

From German Bookstore’s Instagram.

13) Turkish-German Bookstore & Cafe

I’ve always thought bookstores are one of the best spots to spend some time and relax. 

Turkish-German Bookstore & Cafe is an exceptionally perfect place for that. The place is a fusion of a bookstore,  a cafe, and a pub.

The bookstore is located on Istiklal Street in Taksim, which is one of the most popular places in Istanbul.

Since 2015, the bookstore has also functioned as a cafe. You can order a German dessert and drink your coffee or hot wine in peace.

Istanbul Toy Museum

14) Visit Istanbul Toy Museum

Even when we get older, toys still have an important place in our hearts. Many people can’t say goodbye to their toys even after years.

The Istanbul Toy Museum is a beautiful place for both children and adults. This museum is located in Goztepe and was founded by Sunay Akin who is an author.

In that museum, you can see many toys Sunay Akin has collected in 20 years.

The museum’s vast collection of toys comes from over 40 countries. Here is the official website of the Toy Museum, if you wish to know more.

Buyukada Istanbul

15) Pray at the Church of St. George (Aya Yorgi)

The Church of St. George is one of the most popular churches in Istanbul. It’s located in Buyukada, which allows you to see this excellent island as well.

This church is on the highest hill in Buyukada. Therefore, the view is so beautiful that it’s hard to describe. You can see all of Istanbul plus the Marmara Sea.

To get there, you can rent a bike, take an electric carriage, or simply just walk.

It’s better to remember that this Orthodox church is also visited by Muslims. People usually visit the Church of St. George (or Hıdrellez Church)  on April 23 and September 24.

Additionally, Hıdırellez is an important celebration in our country. It’s celebrated on the nights of May 5 and May 6. Special events take place around these days, but it is very crowded.

Istanbul is a multicultural place with many many languages, cultures, and religions. Read my article to learn about languages spoken in Istanbul.

In the recent decade, Long time forgotten Balat district has been restored back to its former colorful nature.

16)  Explore the Beautiful Streets of Balat

As you can imagine, there are plenty of beautiful places to visit in Istanbul. Especially lately, Balat is one of the places that are at the top of that list.

The colorful buildings in this place make you feel like you’re in a painting. Therefore, it’s a great spot to take some photos as well. 

You can walk around the streets of Balat and stop for a cup of coffee when you get tired.

Fener Greek Patriarchate is the spiritual leader of Orthodox Christianity.

Balat is full of history, and it is the old Jewish quarter of Istanbul.

Fener Greek Patriarchate, The Bulgarian Orthodox Church, the Church of Our Lady of the Mongols (Bloody Church), and the Balat market area (filled with vintage and antique shops) are a few historical places to explore.

Additionally, many Turkish series are filmed here, and Balat’s popularity keeps increasing each day.

From Istanbul Biennial 2005

17) Visit the Istanbul Biennial

The Istanbul Biennial is a contemporary art exhibition that is quite popular. 

The event happens every two years, and almost everyone looks forward to this art exhibition.

You can see the pieces of various artists, which makes it more appealing. Once every two years, you can enjoy yourself by observing unique arts at this place.

Even if you’re not a big fan of the arts, I assure you that visiting this art exhibition can give you a splendid experience.

You can check the homepage of the Istanbul Biennial for art activities.

Topkapi Palace is now a museum but it was once the home of Sultans.

18) Visit Topkapi Palace Museum

In Topkapi Palace Museum, you will see all the items once used in the glorious Ottoman Palace.

Besides many historical and religious artifacts are on display. 

The sacred relics that I saw here amazed me. Some of these items are  Abraham’s Pot, Joseph’s Turban, Moses’s Staff, David’s Sword, scrolls of John the Baptist, and Muhammad’s footprint. 

My wife, on the other hand, was charmed by the Spoonmaker’s Diamond. It’s an 86-carat diamond displayed in a special room. Spoonmaker’s Diamond is one of the biggest diamonds in the world.

If you want to take a closer look at these masterpieces, you should definitely visit Topkapi Palace.

Pera Palace – Room 101

19) Visit the Room where Ataturk stayed in Pera Palas

Pera Palas is one of the most elegant hotels in Istanbul and was built in 1892. The Founding Father of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, stayed at this hotel many times, starting in 1917.

Additionally, many famous names, like Agatha Christie, Alfred Hitchcock, Queen Elizabeth II, Greta Garbo, Zsa Zsa Gabor, and Shah Reza Pehlevi, stayed at this hotel as well.

However, the fact that Mustafa Kemal Ataturk stayed at this hotel makes this place extremely significant.

Today, Room 101 where Ataturk stayed, is converted into a museum.

If you are wandering around Taksim, it may be an excellent idea to visit this museum to check it off your bucket list. Here is the website of the museum and the hotel.

Asuman Chocolate Store (from Asuman’s Instagram)

20) Eat Dessert at Asuman

When I hear the word “dessert,” I automatically think about chocolate. If you’re a chocolate lover like me, I think you need to visit Asuman.

Asuman is a chocolate store that is located in Kadıköy. You can see people getting in line to eat dessert at this place. 

You can ask yourself, “Is it really that delicious?” Well, believe me, it is.

The most famous dessert in this place is called “Asuman.” This dessert is a combination of melted chocolate, strawberries, and whipped cream. It might seem simple to you, but it’s so delicious.

There are also other delicious desserts with Turkish women’s names. For instance, some other desserts are Feride, Leyla, Piraye, etc.

Lately, they have even started to open new stores abroad. For more, you check Asuman’s official website.

Suggested Reading: Which Water Should You Use in Istanbul? Answered by a Turkish Local

Grand Bazaar has more than 4000 shops and is visited by 500.000 people each day.

21) Wander in Eminonu Markets

Eminonu is not home to the Ottoman Palace, Blue Mosque, and other historical sights. The district was not only the heart of the empire’s administration, but also it was the center of the Ottoman Empire’s Commerce.  

You can easily wander a day around the markets of Eminonu. The most popular shopping venues are       Grand Bazaar and Egyptian Market.

The Grand Bazaar is one of the oldest shopping malls in the world. In this historical bazaar, you can find textiles, jewelry, carpet, ceramics, and much more. 

The Grand Bazaar is an excellent place to buy gifts or just to walk around for both locals and tourists to visit.

Suggested Reading: Fashion in Istanbul – Places to Shop, Brands, Designers, and more

Turkish Ceramics

You can buy beautifully designed scarves and unique bags.

Ceramics are also quite impressive, with different kinds of motifs and patterns on them. You can use these as decorations in your house or buy them as a gift.

Egyptian Market (Mısır Çarşısı) is another unique place to visit. Historically, this place sells Turkish food items and spices that arrive in Istanbul via trade routes.

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