Unique Things to Do in Istanbul for an Authentic Experience

Estimated read time 17 min read

Istanbul, a city where continents embrace, offers more than just a gateway between Europe and Asia; it’s a haven of experiences waiting to be discovered by adventurous families. Beyond the well-known parts lie activities that promise not just fun but a deep dive into the rich tapestry of Turkish culture and history. Ready to explore the unique, the educational, and the outright exciting? Let’s set off on a journey through Istanbul’s less-explored corners.

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Building on the adventure that awaits in Istanbul’s embrace, our meticulously crafted itineraries for 1-3 days and insightful layover guide in this captivating city ensure that every moment of your visit is laced with authentic experiences. Whether your journey allows for a brief encounter or a more extended exploration, these guides invite you to immerse yourself in Istanbul’s unparalleled blend of history, culture, and contemporary vibrance. From uncovering the mysteries of ancient cisterns to delighting in the flavors of local cuisine, each recommended activity is a stepping stone into the heart of Istanbul, promising memories that resonate with the essence of this extraordinary place. 

Historical Things to do in Istanbul: A Time-Traveler’s Guide

Dive into Istanbul’s Depths: The Basilica Cistern, with its Medusa heads and ancient columns, offers a glimpse into Byzantine engineering. Tip: Wear comfortable shoes as the ground can be slippery and uneven. 

The Nakilbent Cistern provides a quieter alternative, perfect for those seeking solitude away from the crowds. And guess what, there are many cisterns, only a couple are available for public viewing.

basilica cistern red and green glow
Why are these cisterns here?
You have to go back to the 6th century to understand the beginnings of the Basilica cistern.  It’s when Constantinople was the Jewel of the Byzantine Empire. The city was growing fast and people needed clean water and storage.  
So, Emperor Justinian I decided to build the biggest underground water tank, enough to fill 32 Olympic swimming pools.  But, it also has to be fabulous so it’s lined with 336 marble columns. Some of the columns are even topped with Medusa heads, they’re sideways, they’re upside down, just holding the place up and believed to be recycled from other building projects at the time.
After a few centuries, the cisterns were forgotten during the Ottoman empire until found again in 1545 by a French scholar named Petrus Gyllius.  Following centuries of abandonment, it was revived in the 1980’s as a museum and testament to its amazing construction.  2,000 years later after many wars and earthquakes, it still stands waiting for you to take a glimpse into the past as you walk between the columns.

Tales from the Crypts and Columns: The Tombs of the Sultans are a must-visit for history enthusiasts, offering insight into Ottoman royalty. Visiting Information: Check the opening times as they can vary, especially during religious holidays. 

The Obelisk of Theodosius, standing tall, tells stories of ancient empires. Tip: Visit during the early morning or late afternoon to avoid the crowds and capture the best photos.

Obelisk of Theodosius in the Hippodrome at dusk

Imagine it’s the 4th century, and Theodosius I, the big boss of the Roman Empire, wants to spruce up his new capital, Constantinople. He’s like, “Let’s make this place look fancy,” but instead of ordering something off the ancient equivalent of Amazon, he decides to go antique shopping in Egypt.

And what does he find? An obelisk. But not just any obelisk. This one’s been standing in the Temple of Karnak in Luxor, soaking up the sun and history for about 1500 years, since the time of Pharaoh Thutmose III. It’s carved from pink granite, covered in hieroglyphs bragging about Thutmose’s victories and dedications to the sun god, Amun.

Theodosius is like, “Yep, that’s the one!,” and decides to bring it over to Constantinople. But here’s the kicker: moving a 20-meter tall, 200-ton obelisk across the Mediterranean is no small feat.

Once it arrives, they erect this ancient piece of Egyptian history in the Hippodrome, the social and sporting hub of Constantinople, where it still stands today in what’s now known as Sultanahmet Square. But, because they’re practical folks, they cut it down to about a third of its original size to make it easier to transport and erect. It’s set on a marble pedestal that has reliefs depicting Theodosius and his family, along with the people, enjoying chariot races in the Hippodrome—kind of like their version of a day out at the races or a football game.

And here’s the fun part: this obelisk has seen empires rise and fall, has witnessed the city change from Constantinople to Istanbul, and has been standing there, minding its own business, for nearly 1700 years since its arrival. It’s like a silent witness to history, watching over the city and its people, a testament to the ambition of emperors and the enduring legacy of ancient civilizations.

Toys Through Time: The Istanbul Toy Museum, with its nostalgic and educational exhibits, is perfect for families. Tip: Allocate at least an hour for your visit to fully appreciate the collections, and check for any interactive workshops available for children.

Fountains and Serpents: The Kaiser Wilhelm Fountain, not just an art piece but a historical marker, is easily accessible in Sultanahmet Square. Tip: It’s a perfect starting point for a walking tour of the area. 

Nearby, the Serpent Column offers a fascinating look into ancient Greek victories. Tip: Know its story.

serpentine column in the hippodrome

We have to go way back to 479 BC when a bunch of Greek city-states, you know, the ones we hear about in those epic tales of heroism and gods, decided to team up. Why? To kick some Persian butt at the Battle of Plataea. It was a massive showdown, and guess what? The Greeks won!

So, to celebrate this epic win and to say a big thank you to Apollo, the sun god (because let’s face it, you want him on your team), they melted down the bronze from the Persian weapons they nabbed and crafted this massive three-headed serpent pillar. Then plonked it right next to Apollo’s temple in Delphi. Talk about showing off your trophy, right?

Fast forward a few centuries, and the Roman Emperor Constantine decides, “Hey, this serpent column would look fab in my new capital, Constantinople!” So, he uproots it from Delphi and brings it over to what’s now Istanbul, placing it in the Hippodrome. 

Over time, the heads got chopped off (legend has it that a drunken Polish nobleman did it in the 17th century), and now it sort of looks like a twisted tree stump. But, it’s still standing in the Hippodrome, which is now known as Sultanahmet Square, reminding everyone of that ancient Greek victory. It’s not just a column; it’s a story of triumph, gods, and a bit of showboating. Pretty cool, huh?

Neighborhood Wonders: Quaint Corners and Hidden Gems

Ortaköy and Fener and Balat: These neighborhoods offer a colorful backdrop for exploring Istanbul’s diverse cultures. Visiting Information: Wear comfortable walking shoes as you explore the uneven and steep streets. Cafes and bakeries here offer delicious local treats, perfect for rest stops.

gulhane park

Green Spaces and Parks: Istanbul’s Urban Oasis

beltur in gulhane park

Gülhane Park: Adjacent to the Topkapi Palace, it’s a historical park with stunning views. Tip: For cheap eats like a local, stop in the restaurant Beltur in the park.

gulhane park beltur restaurant terrace
gulhane park beltur restaurant terrace

Emirgan Park is renowned for its color during the Tulip Festival. Visiting Information: Public transport is available, but parking can be limited during peak events.

Yildiz Park: This former imperial garden offers a peaceful escape. Tip: Check out the pavilions inside the park, some of which are now small museums or cafes. 

Macka Democracy Park combines greenery with modern art installations. Visiting Information: The cable car offers a unique view of the park and is a hit with kids.

Culinary Quests: Tastes of Tradition and Togetherness

A Local Family’s Kitchen: This invitation to a home offers a personal glimpse into how the locals live, emphasizing the communal spirit of sharing a morning meal together. It’s an opportunity to learn how to prepare a typical Turkish breakfast, embodying the essence of Turkish culture and the joy of sharing. Tip: Express any dietary restrictions beforehand, and don’t forget to ask for the recipes to take home with you.

fruits, dips, spreads turkish breakfast

Artistic Istanbul: A Palette of Possibilities

Discover the Art of Ebru or the Turkish Mosaic Lamp Workshop: These workshops not only teach traditional crafts but also offer a creative outlet. Tip: Book in advance as these popular workshops fill up quickly. 

Parker's Erbu painting

Oh, Ebru! It’s like painting on water, only to have it magically transferred onto paper. This art form is as mesmerizing to watch as it is profound in its history. Let’s dive into the swirling, colorful world of Ebru, shall we?

Ebru, also known as paper marbling, has roots that are a bit mysterious, shrouded in the mists of time. Some folks trace it back to the 13th century in Central Asia, a brainchild of the Turkic peoples. Imagine, way back then, someone accidentally dropped some ink into a puddle and thought, “Hey, that looks pretty neat!” And thus, Ebru was born. Well, it might not have happened exactly like that, but it’s fun to imagine.

The art found its way to the Ottoman Empire, where it truly flourished. Istanbul became a hub for Ebru artists by the 16th century, turning it into a refined craft that was more than just art—it was a meditation. The artists, or Ebru masters, believed that the water’s surface was a mirror to the soul, reflecting the inner workings of the artist’s mind. It became a spiritual practice, with each ripple and pattern symbolizing the fluidity and depth of human emotions.

Creating Ebru involves sprinkling color pigments onto oily water, then using brushes, needles, or even strands of hair to swirl and manipulate the colors into intricate designs. Flowers, birds, and geometric patterns are common themes, each more delicate and complex than the last. Once the artist is satisfied, a piece of paper is gently laid onto the water’s surface, capturing the design in a moment that feels like catching a dream.

Piper's Erbu painting

But here’s where it gets really cool: Ebru wasn’t just for decoration. It had a practical side, too. In the Ottoman Empire, this art form was used as a means of preventing forgery on important documents. The unique, impossible-to-replicate patterns of Ebru made it the perfect background for official papers. If you think about it, it was the original watermark!

Through the centuries, Ebru has spread its wings, influencing and being influenced by the cultures it touched. Each artist brings their own breath of life into the art, making it a continuous flow of creativity and innovation. Today, it’s recognized by UNESCO as a masterpiece of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, a nod to its profound impact on the artistic heritage of the world.

The Istanbul Graffiti Art Workshop showcases the city’s contemporary culture. Tip: Wear clothes you don’t mind getting paint on.  This immersive experience invites you to explore the colorful history, techniques, and styles of graffiti art over coffee or tea with the artists. Learn about the origins of graffiti and its development in Turkey, get introduced to the essential tools of the trade, and discover the art of letter structuring. Choose your own graffiti nickname and practice sketching with guidance from the artists before taking to the wall to create your own masterpiece with spray cans. 

Join a Traditional Turkish Music or Dancing Workshop: These sessions offer a rhythmic insight into Turkish heritage. Visiting Information: Many workshops are available in the evening, making them a perfect pre-dinner activity.

Educational Adventures: Learning Beyond the Classroom

Archaeological Treasures Hunt in Sultanahmet: A family-friendly way to explore ancient history. Tip: Wear sunscreen and hats during summer months, as the area can get quite hot. 

Istanbul is dotted with delightful small hidden treasures that often escape the attention of the casual visitor. These gems offer a unique glimpse into the old world’s charm and ingenuity, making them a must for those looking to uncover the city’s lesser-known stories. Here’s a list of such small, often overlooked treasures:

  • Birdhouse Palaces (Kuş Evi)
    • Scattered around the city on the exteriors of buildings, these ornate birdhouses were designed to provide shelter for the city’s feathered friends. Reflecting the Ottoman Empire’s love for nature, these miniature palaces are a testament to the empire’s architectural finesse and compassion.
  • The Million Stone
    • A remnant of the Byzantine era, this ancient milestone was once considered the center of the world from where all distances in the empire were measured. It’s a humble yet profound marker of history, located near Hagia Sophia.
  • The Leaning Column of Constantine
    • Also known as the Burnt Column, this weathered monument was once a grand column crowned with a statue of Constantine the Great. Though it has lost much of its former glory, it stands as a silent witness to the city’s enduring history.
  • The Çemberlitaş Hamamı
    • While not exactly hidden, this historical Turkish bath, designed by the famous architect Mimar Sinan, often gets overshadowed by more prominent attractions. Its beautiful interior and traditional bath experience offer a serene glimpse into Ottoman daily life.
  • The Fountain of Ahmed III
    • Located near the Hagia Sophia, this baroque-style fountain is an exquisite example of Ottoman calligraphy and tilework. It’s a peaceful spot to admire the artistry and craftsmanship of the era.
fountain of Ahmed III

  • The Tomb of Sultan Mahmud II
    • Tucked away in a quiet corner of the historic peninsula, this tomb is an architectural masterpiece, adorned with intricate tile work and calligraphy. It offers a moment of tranquility and reflection amidst the bustling city.
  • Anemas Dungeons
    • Part of the Blachernae Palace complex, these rarely visited dungeons offer a haunting look into the city’s Byzantine past. The dungeons’ eerie atmosphere and historical significance make them a fascinating stop for history enthusiasts.
  • Gulhane Park’s Goths’ Column
    • Hidden in plain sight within the tranquil Gulhane Park, this ancient Roman victory column commemorates a victory over the Goths. It’s a quiet reminder of Istanbul’s layered history, often missed by those strolling through the park.
  • Pavilion of the Holy Mantle
    • Within the Topkapi Palace complex, this small yet significant pavilion houses some of Islam’s most sacred relics, including the cloak of Prophet Muhammad. The serene atmosphere and religious significance of the pavilion offer a profound experience.
  • Yerebatan Sarnıcı’s Hen’s Eye Column
    • Within the Basilica Cistern, among the forest of columns, one column stands out with its tear-shaped engravings believed to commemorate the hundreds of slaves who died during the cistern’s construction. It’s a poignant reminder of the human cost behind ancient marvels.

The Istanbul Aquarium is an engaging experience for all ages. Visiting Information: Buy tickets online to avoid long queues.

Cultural Immersion: The Essence of Istanbul

Making Turkish Coffee on Sand & Fortune Telling Workshop: A unique cultural dive into coffee brewing methods and fortune-telling with coffee grounds. You’ll even receive a special blend of coffee beans, your own COPPER coffee pot (CEZVE), and a cup set. Tip: These workshops are small, so booking ahead ensures your spot.

turkish coffee in sand

Photographic Memories: Capturing Moments

Iconic Istanbul Photo Shoot: Explore the heart of Istanbul’s Old Town, the city’s oldest and most captivating area, through a unique photoshoot experience. The photoshoot extends to other picturesque spots like Seven Hills, Galata Bridge, and Ortakoy Mosque, ensuring a variety of breathtaking backgrounds. This experience includes a professional photoshoot in Istanbul’s most attractive places, allowing you to take home not just memories but beautifully captured moments of your journey. Tip: Schedule your shoot during the “golden hour” for the best light.

Rooftop Photo Shoot: 

Taht Istanbul, a distinctive photo studio nestled in the heart of Istanbul, offers unparalleled views of the city from the Suleymaniye area.

Breathtaking Experiences: Unique Things to Do in Istanbul

Bosphorus Sunset Cruise: An unforgettable experience with stunning views. Visiting Information: Evening cruises can get chilly, even in summer, so bring a light jacket. The Rhythm of the Dance Show at Hodjapasha combines entertainment with cultural education. This captivating performance features belly dancers, folklore dances, and stunning costumes, all set to live music and enhanced with 360-degree video projections. Perfect for the whole family, the show includes entrance fees and drinks, promising a memorable evening filled with the electric rhythms of Turkey. Tip: Arrive early to get good seats as the venue can fill up quickly.

The Legend of the Bosphorus Pearl

In the days of old, when the earth and sky were closer friends, and the line between the human and divine was as thin as a whisper, there lived a sea nymph named Eirene. She was the guardian of the Bosphorus, a stretch of water that connected two great seas and divided two continents. Eirene, with her hair as dark as the deep and eyes as blue as the waters she guarded, was in love with the sky.

Each evening, as the sun dipped its golden feet into the Bosphorus, Eirene would rise from the depths, her heart aching for a glimpse of her beloved sky. The sky, enamored by her devotion, would paint itself in hues of orange, pink, and purple, a love letter written across the heavens for her and her alone.

But their love was forbidden, for what business did the sky have with the sea, other than to reflect its beauty? The other gods, jealous of their love, cast a curse upon Eirene. She was to be imprisoned within a pearl, forever to dwell in the depths of the Bosphorus, never again to gaze upon the sky’s majestic sunsets.

Heartbroken but undeterred, the sky sought the help of Selene, the goddess of the moon. Together, they hatched a plan to communicate their love. Every evening, as the sun set, Selene would guide the moon’s light to the pearl where Eirene was imprisoned, turning the waters above into a canvas of brilliant colors, a reflection of the sky’s enduring love for the sea nymph.

The fishermen and sailors who witnessed this phenomenon began to whisper tales of the love-struck sky and the imprisoned sea nymph, of the curse that bound her and the love that refused to fade. They named the spectacle “The Bosphorus Pearl,” a sunset so breathtakingly beautiful that it could only be born of divine love and longing.

To this day, it is said that when the sun sets over the Bosphorus, painting the sky and sea in colors too magnificent for words, it is the sky reaching across the realms, caressing the pearl that holds his beloved, reminding her—and us—of a love as timeless as the waters, as boundless as the sky.


This tale, inspired by the natural beauty and mythology surrounding the Bosphorus, embodies the folkloric tradition of explaining the wonders of nature through stories of love, loss, and longing. It’s a modern myth, crafted to remind us of the magic that dances on the waters of the Bosphorus at sunset.

Happy wandering!

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