Many people could visit Istanbul and never leave Sultanahmet – the tourist hotspot. And with good reason: there are so many incredible things to see and do that, during a shorter visit, it might not even be necessary to begin to explore the rest of the city (See The 6 Most Touristy Things To Do in Istanbul).
However, if you have exhausted the typical Istanbul check list, or if you are a traveller that like to venture off the beaten path and experience the locals’ Istanbul, consider this list of the 6 least touristy thing to do in Istanbul.
1. Get a Haircut
You bet it’s on my list. Istanbul barbers and hairdressers are amazing. Both my and Joel’s best haircuts were in Istanbul. Barber shops are like corner stores in Beyoğlu, Istanbul – they are everywhere. And most hairdressers are older men – guys’ whose families have been dressing hair and shaving beards for generations. These guys are serious about hairdressing. They don’t F around.
So when one of my South African friends visited from Belgium, I decided to bite the bullet and chop my hair, as she needed a haircut too. I went to this guy that our landlord’s sister recommended to me, and I was so impressed. He’s name is Bulent Öner, and he’s the best, AND I found his Facebook page so you can go there too.
BONUS: His English is okay. But take a picture of the hair you want, in case everybody runs out of words.
2. Lose track of time in The Museum of Innocence (Masumiyet Müzesi)
So of the ‘least touristy things to do’ on this list, this is probably the most touristy thing to do. We lived right next to the museum and whenever I saw tourists in our street is 90% guaranteed they were looking for the museum.
The museum was created by the Nobel laureate, Orhan Pamuk, at the same time that he was writing a novel of the same name. The museum is fitted out with display cabinets, each cabinet representing a chapter in the book, holding objects that epitomise the relevant chapter. It tells a love story between a wealthy young man and his poor cousin, twice-removed, and it is set in the latter half of the 20th century, and in the neighbourhoods surrounding the museum. Besides narrating this love story, it also provides a glimpse into life in Istanbul when in the transitioning period of changing from a Caliphate to a republic and mixing Western customs with its own ancient traditions. It talks not only about love, but also about class-issues, womens’ rights, traditional Turkish customs, and the peculiar position that Istanbul takes being both Western and Eastern. With its authentic 20th century objects, collected from the neighbourhood that the museum stands in, the museum occupies a wonderful space where reality and myth come together to convey a moment of the human condition specific to Istanbul.
Also, you do not need to have read the novel to appreciate this museum!
PRO MUSEUM TIP: This should be on your All-Time-Museums-To-Visit list
PRO MUSEUM TIP: You need to get the audio tour, regardless of whether you have read the book or not. The audio is really well done and it gives insights on the creation of the museum.
3. Thrift Shopping and Antiquing in Çukurcuma
Çukurcuma is an area that is known for being riddled with junk shops, antique joints, thrift stores and, every now and then, the more expensive gentrified boutique (like the uber cool suit-tailors at Civan). Find old wedding photos, kitch vases, real antique chandeliers, fur coats, and a cat catching some sun under an antique glass table.
You could spend hours going through other people’s things and get a whole new understanding of İstanbullus (fyi: someone who is from Istanbul is called an Istanbullu. You’re welcome.) It’s a fascinating venture – stop for tea along the way at the tea shop on the corner of Çukurcuma Road and Yazıcı Street and top it off with some lunch at Cuma at the top of Çukurcuma Street. Alternatively start your day at Cuma with some Turkish breakfast – they serve some of the best Turkish breakfasts there – and work your way down!
4. Feed your local four-legged friends
Istanbul is like the world’s stray-cats-Headquarters, and the greater area of Beyoğlu is where you would want to end up if you were a stray cat in Istanbul. Cihangir, specifically, is known for its well-looked after, fat, sometimes even glossy, stray street cats. (For the most part). If you were to explore the streets of Cihangir, you would find countless makeshift cat homes, water buckets, and random cat food pellets that survived a feeding frenzy. The locals don’t mind the cats unless it minds their customers, and most treat them kindly and feed them often. In fast, this is where I saw a real-life cat lady for the first time – and if you hang out in the area long enough you’ll see them too! These are old ladies (and men) walking around with their stroller-bags filled with cat food, just dumping some as they walk up and down the streets.
So if you like animals and you really want to feel like a local, pick up a small bag of cat food (kedi maması) at a market (they sell them nearly everywhere), take a stroll around Cihangir and feed some local pretties. If you look normal enough (aka you’re nor clad with large cameras, patagonia gear, hiking boots, or blonde hair) someone might even come up to you and start talking in Turkish.
Alternatively, adopt a cat for an afternoon (if your landlord doesn’t mind/know!) and give it some solace away from the streets. We found a friendly, needy cat who became our sometimes-pet.
To answer your question: Yes, it does feel like you’re cheating on your own cats a little bit.
5. Try and complete the Maze Up challenge!
I came across this Escape Room company called Maze Up while we were living in Istanbul this year. I nearly lost it, because I used to LOVE playing the point-and-click escape room games on my computer, so to imagine actually being in a real-life one was just too much. I convinced my husband Joel to do it with me, so one rainy day we made our way to maze up to be locked in an Ottoman-era styled room, fitted with secret locks, magnetic tricks, and riddle-like clues, so that we can find the diamond before the authorities catch us.
I can not adequately express how fun this was.
We had so. much. fun.
It was so exciting – the room was styled to a tee, there was this exciting, movie-like, Ottoman-ish music playing in the background to rev you up as you go through drawers and rummage through ancient-looking chests in order to find clues as to where the diamond is hidden.
We didn’t actually make it – we ran out of time before we found the diamond, but it the whole thing was so great! The only thing that sucks about it is that you can’t do it all over again, because when we were done all I wanted to do was to do it again.
It’s only 60 minutes, and you can do it in groups of 2 and up, so if you are tired of going to mosques and palaces and bazaars, GO DO THIS.
I CANNOT recommend this enough.
GO GO GO!
P.S. It’s a great way to spend some time on a rainy afternoon.
6. Play some pool at your local billiard place
Grab some tea, place some bets, and then chalk it up before you take a shot at the pool table. This was one of our favourite low-key, non-touristy things to do in the evenings before or after getting dinner. It’s just something different to the normal activities that are geared towards getting the most out of you and your friends’ pockets. We came upon this billiard place about 5 minutes walk from our home, and you could play pool, checkers, cards, and table tennis while waiters took your (non-alcoholic) drink orders. Sometimes we would just go for a quick 20 minutes of pool and a sweet apple tea after dinner before heading home.
BONUS – Go to Heybeliada to get away from the buzz
Heybeliada is an island part of the Princes’ Islands group just off the coast of Turkey. You can easily and cheaply get there with a ferry, and unlike ‘Big Island’ (another of the Princes’ Islands) it’s not swarming with tourists. In fact, this is an island rather frequented by locals. You can spend a day, or spend the night even – it’s great way to experience a very different, MUCH quieter Istanbul (no cars allowed on the Island. Only bikes and horse-and-carriages).
Wanna know more? Read about how we escaped the city by going to Heybeliada that one time.
We only lived in Istanbul for a few months before we had to leave with heavy hearts, and these are just some of things that you could do without feeling too much of a kodak-moment, patagonia-wearing tourist. However, there are SO many things to do, places to explore, and amazing sites to see that aren’t necessarily on Lonely Planet’s top 10 list. But whatever you end up doing, do it fully, and just enjoy yourself and the ‘Turkish hospitality’ that the Turks are so proud of.