12 Hidden Gems in Istanbul to Visit for a Unique Experience

12 Hidden Gems in Istanbul to Visit for a Unique Experience

See Turkey’s most famous city anew.

Istanbul is one of the most exciting and interesting cities you’ll find worldwide. A great influential location in the history of our little blue planet, the historic city in Turkey continues to retain an air of unmistakable importance as it stands today. 

Off the top of your head, Istanbul might conjure up images of the magnificent Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, or the iconic Topkapi Palace. But if you’re looking to avoid the crowds and still experience the best of what this city has to offer, there are many destinations in Istanbul off the beaten path that are ripe for discovery.

Also read: 12 Airbnbs in Istanbul That Are Even Better Than Hotels

Best hidden gems in Istanbul

1. Bulgarian St. Stephen Church

hidden gems in istanbul

Image credit: Mehmet Turgut Kirkgoz

Within Istanbul’s charming neighbourhood of Balat sits the Bulgarian St. Stephen Church. It is the last remaining iron church in the world and one of many Istanbul hidden gems. What is an iron church, you ask? True to its unofficial title, this house of worship was built from over 500 tons of cast iron, which were transported to Istanbul by sea at the end of the 19th century. 

The church’s elaborate architecture combines Neo-Byzantine and Neo-Baroque influences and is a wonder to behold. Fun fact: This Bulgarian Orthodox church was initially a simple wooden building constructed in 1849. Fire damage and a need for restoration led to its current status as an iron church.

2. Theodosian Walls

istanbul hidden gems

Image credit: Carole Raddato

Once upon a time, Istanbul went by a different name: Constantinople. It was the capital of the Roman Empire during the reign of Constantine the Great. Later, the city served as the capital of the Byzantine, Latin, and Ottoman Empires too. In those ancient days, Constantinople was famous for having massive and complex fortifications. The Theodosian Walls are one of many remaining structures from the old city, and one of the best hidden gems in Istanbul to explore.

These walls were built in two layers during the reign of Emperor Theodosius and continue to stand, despite the passing of many centuries. Today, the Walls of Constantinople are in various states of preservation and serve as a vital link in the study and appreciation of human history.

3. Zeyrek Mosque

hidden places in istanbul

Image credit: Dosseman

Istanbul is home to many beautiful mosques; one underrated example is the Zeyrek Mosque. Like other Ottoman mosques in the city, Zeyrek Mosque was originally built as two churches meant to stand side-by-side. This original structure was known as the Pantokrator Monastery during the Byzantine era, the second-largest religious building in the old city, next to the Hagia Sophia.

Zeyrek Mosque has a distinctly Christian exterior in terms of architecture. However, the interior looks much more like a traditional mosque. The entire building is a UNESCO World Heritage site but is often overlooked, as Istanbul is filled with many equally iconic sites. Nonetheless, the Zeyrek Mosque should be added to your list of hidden gems in Istanbul!

Also read: 12 Underrated UNESCO World Heritage Sites That Should Be on Your Bucket List

4. Yeralti Mosque

istanbul off the beaten path

Image credit: Ggia

Out of all the “secret” things to do in Istanbul, you should make a little time on your schedule to visit the Yeralti Mosque. Located in Karakoy, it is one of the more unusual mosques in the city, because it does not sit at street level. Instead, Yeralti Mosque is sunken into the ground, earning it the nickname of Istanbul’s Underground Mosque.

Many legends are tied to this mosque. Some say a great fort stood here during Byzantine times, and the underground space housed a great chain that protected Constantinople’s harbour during naval invasions. Another legend speaks of how the bodies of two Arab martyrs were discovered on this site, leading Sultan Murat IV to consecrate a shrine within the underground space that still stands in the mosque today.

Also read: 15 Awe-Inspiring Mosques Around the World Worth Visiting

5. Aqueduct of Valens

Image credit: samer daboul

A short distance away from the famous Grand Bazaar lies yet another one of many hidden gems in Istanbul: the Aqueduct of Valens. Since Istanbul was once the beating heart of the Roman Empire, it’s no surprise that the city is full of ancient Roman structures. Aqueducts like these were used to transport water from the surrounding countryside to an underground storage area.

This particular one was built in a double-arch style, and commissioned by the Eastern Roman Emperor, Valens. Much like other ancient structures in Istanbul, the aqueduct is a remnant of a once-great empire that has since been assimilated into the modern cityscape.

6. Beylerbeyi Palace

hidden gems in istanbul

Image credit: Matthieu Dalmase

Palaces are another unique feature of Istanbul that is as prolific as its mosques and churches. Whether it’s the majestic Topkapi Palace (a staple on many Istanbul itineraries) or the stunning Ciragan Palace, there is no shortage of royal dwellings within the city. 

If you’re looking for a palace to visit in Istanbul off the beaten path, consider checking out the Beylerbeyi Palace. While it doesn’t get as much face time with tourists compared to other palaces, Beylerbeyi is a stunning building that showcases French Baroque architecture integrated into a traditional Ottoman house plan.

Beylerbeyi Palace has 24 luxurious staterooms and six gorgeous halls spread out over two stories. Visitors can also explore the palace gardens. This underrated Turkish palace was built in the 19th century as a summer palace. It saw many royal visitors beneath its grand ceilings, including the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and Empress Eugenie of France.

7. Fener and Balat

hidden gems istanbul

Balat, Istanbul | Image credit: Ozbalci via Canva Pro

Somehow popular yet underrated at the same time, the neighbourhoods of Fener and Balat are both hidden gems in Istanbul that deserve your attention. Located on the western bank of the Golden Horn — the primary inlet of Turkiye’s Bosphorus Strait — Fener and Balat are renowned for their colourful buildings and cobblestone streets. The vibrant shades of paint used on each building also make these neighbourhoods great photography spots.

hidden places in istanbul

Phanar Greek Orthodox College | Image credit: Pi Istvan Toth

However, the eclectic and beautiful architecture is only a small slice of Fener and Balat’s appeal. There is plenty of culture here too, as these are home to some of the oldest buildings in Istanbul, all lovingly restored. Sights worth checking out include the Phanar Greek Orthodox College, the Balat Mosque, and the Chora Mosque

8. Kucuksu Pavillion

istanbul off the beaten path

Image credit: Mister No

Place Kucuksu Pavillion on your list of hidden gems in Istanbul, because this little summer pavilion has a big story. It was completed in the year 1857 and was used by the Ottoman sultans for short stays whenever they went out on hunting trips or country excursions. 

Like most palaces in Istanbul, the architecture of Kucuksu Pavilion is remarkable. It boasts a detailed exterior that follows a Neo-Baroque style and a beautiful, gilded interior. People have often likened it to a miniature version of Dolmahbace, another popular palace within Istanbul.

9. Nevmekan Sahil

Belonging to a chain of academic cafes in Istanbul, Nevmekan Sahil is one of Istanbul’s hidden gems that you’re unlikely to visit unless someone tells you about it. You’ll find this super cool hangout spot in the neighbourhood of Uskudar

The building may not look like much from the outside. But when you enter, get ready to be greeted by a cosy space unlike any other. Book-filled shelves line the walls, restaurant tables overlook the water, and the ceiling features a massive lotus pattern; all of which instantly make Nevmekan Sahil quite Instagrammable!

10. Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts

Image credit: Dosseman

History buffs, this one’s for you! The city of Istanbul has a history that goes back over 2,000 years. As such, it has seen the rise and fall of multiple empires. While there are plenty of ancient ruins and archaic ruins dotted around the city, one of the best places to learn about the history of Istanbul (and Turkiye), is the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts.

This edifice of history houses over 40,000 works of art, ranging from woodwork to stone art and much more. It is located in the Fatih district, sitting opposite Istanbul’s famous Blue Mosque, and is one of the largest museums in the country.

Also read: 15 Best Museums and Galleries in Seoul for Art Lovers  

11. Theodosius Cistern

Image credit: Izabela Miszczak

This giant underground chamber is one of several ancient cisterns that lie beneath Istanbul. While most visitors are familiar with the more popular Basilica Cistern, the Theodosius Cistern is one of equal importance. It was only opened to the public in 2018 and remains one of many interesting hidden gems in Istanbul.

It was built by the Roman emperor, Theodosius II, and was used to store water that was transported to the city by the Aqueduct of Valens. From a high vaulted ceiling to massive Roman columns, standing in the cistern makes you feel as if you’ve stepped foot in a truly ancient space. The entrance to the cistern is located beneath a modernist building at Piyer Lotti Cadessi No: 2/1.

12. Rahmi Koc Industrial Museum

Moving on the something a little less ancient, the Rahmi Koc Industrial Museum doesn’t often make it onto most traditional tours. However, out of the many hidden gems in Istanbul, this is certainly one of the more unique ones.

This is Turkey’s first industrial museum and is home to an incredible collection of vintage cars, motorcycles, and old Istanbul trams. On top of that, you’ll even find ferry boats, aircraft, and even carriages for kings on display. If you’re a fan of vintage vehicles visiting Istanbul, then the Rahmi Koc Museum is heaven!

Also read: 10 Gorgeous Airbnbs in Cappadocia You Won’t Want to Leave

Even if you’ve been to Istanbul before, it’s clear that the breadth of this great city still hides plenty of exciting surprises. And if you’re still planning your first trip, this means that you now have so much more to see.

About Author

Jeremiah Patrick
Jeremiah Patrick

A journeyman wordsmith wandering the creative lexicon, looking to craft a masterpiece. The only thing on par with Jerry’s love for a good story is the time he spends playing dauntingly difficult video games, reading works of fiction, and listening to horror podcasts. His mood shifts between dark brooding and cheery quips, depending on how much caffeine swirls in his system.