Istanbul kicked off this summer travel season as the busiest airport in Europe.
While Turkey has been a long-time favorite getaway for Europeans, other travelers are driving this summer’s record-breaking crowds too. The Turkish city has especially exploded in popularity among Americans.
Istanbul was the most popular destination in Eastern Europe and the Middle East for U.S. travelers last year and shows no signs of cooling off.
This April, Turkish Airlines reached a new high of 5 daily flights between New York and Istanbul just ahead of the summer season, adding to last year’s new non-stop flights from Denver and Detroit. Trips to Istanbul are now easier than ever for U.S. travelers.
Istanbul is having her moment. It’s no surprise, then, that all these new travelers flocking to Istanbul mean one inconvenient truth – bigger crowds.
Tourists in Istanbul this summer are getting jam-packed into trams, languishing in long lines, and feeling the frustrating effects of overcrowding.
But don’t worry. Istanbul still has a few secrets up the sleeves of her open arms. The lesser-known corners of the city welcome you to experience the magic of Turkey without massive crowds.
Here are nine hidden gems to beat the tourist crowds in Istanbul this summer:
1. Explore The Balat Jewish district
On the European side of Istanbul Golden Horn, most of the tourists will be focused on Galata, Taksim, and Eminönü. But you can get away from those crowds without missing out.
Head to the Balat Jewish district in Fatih to experience the rich culture and architectural charm of the city’s European side with fewer tourists.
While the aesthetics here are fantastic (you’ll see plenty of photoshoots along Kiremit Street), this colorful quarter isn’t just a pretty face.
Balat is one of the oldest and most authentic neighborhoods in Istanbul. Still a multi-generational residential area, it’s packed with synagogues, churches, mosques, museums, and historical landmarks.
Now, Balat is both where religions coexist and where old meets new. Young creatives, street artists, and charming cafes are giving a vibrant second wind to this iconic quarter.
- Phanar Greek Orthodox College – Sometimes called the fifth largest castle in Europe, this ‘Red School’ resembles a 15th-century Greek Hogwarts.
- Chora Church and Museum – This building has been a church, a mosque, and a museum all in one lifetime.
- Vodina Street – A hotspot of restaurants and cafes, this is a great street for taking a break from Balat’s steep hills.
- The Church of St. Stephen – The church is worth a visit itself, but this area is most famous for the rainbow stars and brightly painted street art surrounding it.
2. Visit The Hagia Sophia’s Lesser Known Sister
Nearly 14 million people visited the iconic Hagia Sophia last year. This summer, wait times to enter the popular site during daytime hours average over an hour.
Instead of baking in the sun waiting in line for Hagia Sophia, head over to her little sister, Hagia Irene.
Hagia Irene is Istanbul’s second-largest Byzantine Church. It was built in the 4th century by Emperor Constantine the Great. Since then, fires, riots, and even earthquakes haven’t managed to bring it down.
While Hagia Irene’s interior isn’t as grand as Hagia Sophia’s, its story is just as fascinating.
The building has lived a long life of renovations and reincarnations. It’s been a church, a Roman temple, a mosque, a military museum, and even an army storehouse! Today, concerts are sometimes held in Hagia Irene for its fantastic acoustics.
3. Channel Your Inner Royal
Hop a scenic ferry over to the Asian side of Istanbul to Üsküdar, and you’ll find an imperial Ottoman palace overlooked by most tourists.
Beylerbeyi Palace is usually overshadowed by Istanbul’s more famous royal sites – Dolmabahce and Topkapi Palaces.
But smart tourists can get the same gold-and-velvet opulence and sprawling gardens with a fraction of the crowds.
Beylerbeyi’s two dozen rooms and six halls will take your breath away with priceless Egyptian mats, lavish crystal chandeliers, and overwhelming luxury. The real stars of the show are the intricate ceilings, painted with elaborate scenes and mind-blowing calligraphy.
Best of all, fewer tourists visit Beylerbeyi Palace than any other royal site in Istanbul.
4. Get A Taste Of Trendy Local Nightlife
A buzzing hideaway in the heart of Istanbul? Yes, please.
Ciçek Pasajı, or ‘Flower Passage,’ is a trendy covered courtyard on İstiklal Street at Galatasaray Square. Lovingly dubbed “a shrine to Turks’ love of long, congenial group dinners,” the narrow L-shaped passage fills up every night with buzzing tables of friends and families enjoying drinks and dinners until the early morning.
The Pasaj was once a rowdy working-class merchant’s tavern street in the 1960s but was rebuilt in the ‘90s and grew into the upscale beating heart of Istiklal’s nightlife. Today, it’s a trendy favorite for locals and foreigners alike.
5. See Istanbul From The Clouds
There’s a well-kept secret perched above the glitzy EMAAR Square Mall in Istanbul’s Üsküdar district.
Head to the 48th floor for 360° views of the city. More daring visitors might take the glass-bottomed SkyWalk, while those of us who are definitely not afraid of heights at all might just take in the skyline from the safety of the swanky lounge.
EMAAR SkyView is popular among local residents (who pay just a fraction of the $30 tourist ticket price), especially around sunset. Tourists haven’t really caught on yet, though, making this a great daytime activity to escape the crowds.
6. Sample Syrian Food On Akşemsettin Street
A culinary adventure down Akşemsettin Caddesi can transport you to Damascus right in the heart of Istanbul’s Fatih district.
Unlike the tourist-packed restaurants in Galata and Sultanahmet, these Syrian mom-and-pop shops will always find a space and a smile for you.
Specialized dishes that are really hard to find outside of Syria are readily available here. Get outside of the hummus comfort zone and try:
- Mutabbal – a comforting, creamy eggplant dip with tahini and garlic
- Waraq enib – slow-stewed grape leaves stuffed with spiced beef and lemony rice
- Sfeeha with muhammara and cheese – you’ll get in trouble for calling it Syrian pizza, so we won’t…
- Heikh il mihshi – stuffed zucchini in flavorful yogurt sauce
If you’d rather have an expert guide you through Syrian cuisine, try this Syrian Food Tour. Mohamad Yaman, a Syrian refugee from Aleppo who’s lived in Istanbul for almost a decade, will happily show you the ropes.
7. Visit The Stunning Nevmekân Sahil Library
On the Asian side of Istanbul in the Üsküdar district, there’s a true urban oasis that won’t be a well-kept secret much longer.
Nevmekân Sahil Library is the perfect hidden gem for escaping the city’s crazy crowds.
Even if you’re not a book lover, the light-filled reading room will draw you in with its intricate turquoise skylight patterns and $0.40 Turkish tea.
Visitors can enjoy the library’s extensive (and photogenic) collection, art galleries, and even a quirky Museum of Lady Sultans. Afterward, have some affordable local fare at the cafe-restaurant.
The gardens overlooking the Bosphorus might be the only non-smoking outdoor space in Istanbul, so enjoy the fresh air while you can!
Best of all, you’ll only be sharing the space with some quiet students and locals. While there can be a short line on weekend afternoons, weekdays aren’t usually busy.
8. Take In The Bosphorus Amid Lush Greenery In Otağtepe
Tons of travelers will head to Galata Tower and pricy dockside tourist trap cafes to get good views of the Bosphorus. But there’s a better way.
Otağtepe Park is a sprawling public park near Sultan Mehmed Fatih Bridge. Think New York’s Central Park with sea views.
There’s no tourist infrastructure here, so you won’t find any bathrooms or cafes – but that’s precisely what keeps it under the radar. Pack a picnic and enjoy spectacular Bosphorus views free of big crowds (and free of charge!)
For travelers who want to see where East meets West but avoid throngs of fellow tourists, there are plenty of nooks and crannies in Istanbul waiting to be explored. Happy hidden gem hunting!
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This article originally appeared on TravelOffPath.com