The hidden gems of Istanbul

door Esther

Don’t worry. I won’t tell you to skip the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia or Topkapi Palace during your city break in Istanbul. Because really, these are some amazing sights. It is easy enough though, to get completely absorbed by the magic of palaces and bazaars and forget about everything else. Get away from the masses surrounding the top attractions and see these amazing hidden gems of Istanbul.

Hidden gems of Istanbul |

Plan your trip to Istanbul, Turkey

Hotels in Istanbul

Hotel Witt Istanbul

Photo by Hotel Witt Istanbul

Hotel Witt Istanbul is the perfect place to discover the hidden gems of Istanbul as it’s located in my favourite neighbourhood in the city: Cihangir. It’s a place of modern luxury with retro colours and furnishings. Some room have their own spacious balcony, but an amazing view over the Bosporus and the amazing sites of the old town are to be had on the beautifully decorated roof terrace.

Room mate Emir

Photo by Room mate Emir

Colourful, fun and amazinly centrally located. The Room mate Emir provides a great stay in Istanbul. The bright pink entrance with black-and-white ornaments and warm and soft brown leather couches will make you feel immediately feel at home. The rooms are specious, sleek and cleverly designed and hold all that you could possibly need during your stay in Istanbul. If you have the means, splurge on a suite with a balcony or a split level studio which shows the original details of the building.

Hotel Poem

Photo by Hotel Poem

Hotel Poem is located in the old part of Istanbul and is easily spoteed as it’s set in a fun and colourful building. The hotel is an artsy place with bright and colourful furnishings, retro black and white comics adorning the walls and works of local artists weloming you into your rooms. All rooms are bright, with large windows and some with patios or a terrace, and very comfortably designed. If your traveling with kids: Hotel Poem has very lovely family rooms available.

5 top things to see and do in Istanbul

Top things to see and do in Istanbul |

  • Hagia Sophia. You’ll be simply blown away by the Aya Sofya (or Hagia Sophia). This 1500 year old building is one of the most impressive Byzanthine sacred buildings in the world. A stunning combination of Christian and Islamic design. The prayer hall and the upper gallety’s mosaic will make your jaw drop.
  • Topkapi Palace. The Topkapi Palace is, without a doubt, the most popular thing to see in Istanbul. And rightfully so. It is a palace ade of stories and fairytales. Sultans and their harem lived and worked here from the 15th until the 19th century. The palace consists of several courts and a treasury, but the highlight of your visit will be the harem.
  • Istanbul by bike. Discovering Istanbul by bike is an amazing way to discover the city. You van choose discover the highlights of Istanbul by bike. But if you feel like discovering more of the hidden gems of Istanbul, the Eurasia bike tour or Golden Horn bike tour may be more up your alley.
  • Blue Mosque. A visit to the Blue Mosque (or Sultan Ahmen Mosque) is truely a highlight of your visit to Istanbul. The voloptuous curves, minarets and iznik tiles will blow you away. Even the carpet is stunning.
  • Grand Bazaar. The Istanbul Grand Bazaar is defintely the most colourful and fun labyrinthine in the world. Work your way trough the lanes and different ‘hans’ and find yourself admidst stunning scarves, pottery and amazing smelling herbs and spices.

Hidden gems of Istanbul

Hagia Irene

Hidden gems of Istanbul: Hagia Irene |

Even though a trip to Istanbul isn’t complete without a visit to the breathtaking Hagia Sophia, it’s also worth your while to visit its cousin Hagia Irene (or Aya Irini) right opposite Topkapi Palace. Fewer travelers know of this interesting monument so it’ll be a really nice visit without the crowds normally flocking towards Hagia Sophia. Hagia Irene is actually older than Hagia Sophia and is one of the most important monuments in Istanbul of the Byzantine era. This church was never converted into a mosque, but also doesn’t serve as a church nowadays.

Theodosius Cistern

Theodosius Cistern: hidden gems of Istanbul |

One of the top things to see in Istanbul is the famous Basilica Cistern, next to the Hagia Sophia. But if you’d rather opt for a lesser-known alternative, it’s worth checking out Theodosius Cistern, which is also located on the old part of the city. The Theodosius Cistern only opened its doors until 2018 and is therefor truly part of the hidden gems of Istanbul. The cistern is well-hidden beneath the streets of the city, was once built bij the Roman Emperor Theodosius II and is now to be found at Piyer Loti Caddesi No: 2/1.

Rüstem Pasha mosque

Hidden gems of Istanbul: Rüstem Pasha mosque |

If you’d like to visit a stunning mosque in Istanbul, but would like to stay away from the crowds at the Blue Mosque, head over to Rüstem Pasha mosque near the spice bazaar in Eminönü. The interior if this mosque will take your  breath away. You’ll enter the mosque through a window next to the main entrance and once you’re inside you’ll be absolutely mesmerized nu the blue iznik tiles and pretty domed cailings.


Istanbul hidden gems: Balat |

Balat is one of the newly listed neighbourhoods on the UNESCO World heritage list and located on the west banks of the Golden Horn. It’s on of the oldest and most colourful districts of the city. Balat was always a neighbourhood of minorities, with mostly jewish and Greek families settling there. The Fener Greek High School is still fully functioning, as well as the Yanbol Synagogue and Vaftizci Yahya Church. But Balat is most famous for it’s colourful houses, built along the narrow cobbled streets of the neighbourhood. There are mostly wooden homes and some of them are over a hundred years old. One of the true hidden gems of Istanbul is the Bulgarian St Stephen church in Balat, as it’s the last remaining iron (!) church in the world. A great place for a break in Balat is Dimitrie Cantemir Museum Café, which is hidden in a courtyard full of colourful food stands. If you need more background on the neighbourhood and don’t feel like missing a thing, join this walking tour in Balat.


Umbrella street Istanbul, Karakoy |

The Galata Tower is where all the tourists go, but a few minutes walk from the tower and you’ll find yourself in the colourful neighbourhood of Karakoy. Here you’ll be able to visit one of the few umbrella streets of Istanbul, Hoca Tahsin. This street is one of the most vibrant streets of the city with plenty of street art, shops and quaint cafés to enjoy. Karakoy is also the neighbourhood to visit the famous (and very instagrammable) rainbow steps.


7 amazing hidden gems in Istanbul, discover the Cihangir neighborhood

The first thing you’ll see after crossing the Galata bridge from Sultanahmet is Beyoğlu: the European part of Istanbul. This is actually a collection of neighbourhoods and the most vibrant one of them is Cihangir. Just picture side walk cafés, fabulous coffee shops, cream colored buildings with wrought iron balconies, vintage and antique shops and an eclectic bunch of residents. If the street signs weren’t so obviously Turkish, you’d definitely think you were in Paris. The Akarsu Yokuşu street is the beating heart of Cihangir and stuffed from bottom to top with bars and restaurants. Some have the size of a broom closet, with only two tables outside. Others resemble cozy retro living rooms and have plenty of space. Firuz is a great choice for lunch. In the early evening, have some pre-dinner drinks at either Smyrna or Kahvedan in Akarsu Yokuşu street. For dinner, try to get a table just around the corner at Savoy Balik, the best fish restaurant in the neighborhood where you’ll eat surrounded by locals only.

The Istanbul Modern

Photo by Istanbul Modern

The Istanbul Modern is one of my favourite hidden gems in Istanbul and without a doubt my favourite museum in the city. The location alone is worth the detour, as it’s set in the colourful residential area Tophane, which is a popular place for students to live. The colonial buildings lining the streets are in various states of disrepair and will make you feel like you travelled back in time to the days of the Oriënt Express. The Istanbul Modern has an impressive collection of contemporary art, dating from the beginning of the 20th century until current day. You’ll be able to admire modernist, impressionist and surrealist paintings and sculptures, as well as installations and modern media.

A Turkish coffee tour

Turksih coffee tasting tour in Istanbul |

Did you know that Turkish coffee is made differently and is so unique that the Turkish coffee culture has made its way to the UNESCO World heritage list? Coffee is, without a doubt, the national drink of Turkey and has influenced many coffee cultures within Europa, such as Vienna, Budapest and Zagreb. Therefor, going on a Turkish coffee tasting tour is a very special experience. During this tour you’ll learn how to make the perfect cup of Turkish coffee in a beautiful old shop, taste coffee in traditional shops and bazaars and taste some wonderful Turkish delight.


Hidden gems of Istanbul, Ortaköy |

Of all the hidden gems of Istanbul, I think I like Ortaköy best. During the day, Ortaköy is charming and sweet. Shopkeepers sell their beautiful handmade items, residents have an icecream whilst enjoying the views over the Bosporus or have a drink in one of the many cafés. It has this wonderful, snug village feel. But when the sun sets, Ortaköy turns into Istanbul’s best place to party. The amount of bars, restaurants and clubs to eat, drink or dance the night away are countless. My favorite was The House Café, with probably the best outside seating in Istanbul. Having a drink whilst overlooking the beautiful Büyük Mecidiye Camii mosque, Bosporus Bridge and the many boats on the river was one of the best experiences I’ve had in the city.

Beylerbei Palace

Hidden gems of Istanbul: Beylerbei Palace |

Beylerbei Palace is definitely one of the top hidden gems of Istanbul. It’s one of the lesser-known palaces of the city, yet it is a wonderful example of French baroque combined with a traditional Ottoman layout. The palace overlooks the Bosporus (on the other side of the bridge from the Büyük Mecidiye Camii mosque), has two dozen impressive state rooms, beautiful halls and a very lovely garden.

Cafer Erol

Cafer Erol, Istanbul

Cafér Erol isn’t so much as a hidden gem in Istanbul, as much as a sweet gem in Istanbul. Once you walk in you will not buy Turkish delight in the Bazar. To visit Cafer Erol, take the ferry Kadiköy, the Asian part of Istanbul. The shop isn’t far from the quayside. Firstly, sit down for a properly made Turkish coffee and let yourself be charmed by the lovely owner. He will probably talk you into tasting some of his sugared fruits and vegetables. Who knew sugared tomaties could taste so good? Take some sweets, toffees, beautifully made marzipan or Turkish delight with you to enjoy later.

Kadiköy Market

Hidden gems in Istanbul: Kadikoy fish market |

After you visit Cafer Erol it’s time to visit the Kadiköy open air market, which is a long street of fruit, vegetables and fish vendors. Since Kadiköy is on the Asian side of the city, prices are a lot lower here than in the old town or around Galata. Unsurprisingly, some of the best fisg restaurants if the city are in the direct vicinity of the market, they make a great place to have lunch before you catch the ferry back.

Street art in Istanbul

Street art in Istanbul |

Street art in Istanbul |

\The best way to see the hidden gems of Istanbul is to go hunting for street art. And oh my, Istanbul is a fabulous street art city. You don’t even have to venture far from the city centre to see some. In the Galata neighbourhood, as well as the adjoining Karaköy area there is loads of street art to be spotted. Simply wander around to see some great work. But to see loads of great street art you’ll have to take a ferry to Kadiköy, this neighbourhood has streets and streets filled with great murals. Install the street art cities app to see all the art works on a map in Istanbul.

Hidden gems of Istanbul
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Istanbul, Turkey: the best hidden gems of Istanbul |

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3 Reacties

Anouk 6 december 2018 - 09:03

Wat een bijzondere stad! Istanbul staat al lang op mijn wensen lijstje.. maar andere dingen gaan steeds voor. Het lijkt me prachtig. Leuke tips die je hebt gegeven! Altijd leuk om buiten de reisboekjes om dingen te ontdekken.

Anda 6 december 2018 - 09:04

Well, thank you for this post Esther! I’ve been in Istanbul last spring but didn’t get to see the more modern parts of it, so I enjoyed reading your post. I want to go back and continue my visit. There is so much to see there…

Mary 6 december 2018 - 09:15

Beautiful photos! Istanbul has been high on my travel wish list. I’m glad you highlighted lesser known parts of Istanbul. What a great and diverse city. I think I can spend quite some time at Cafer Erol.


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