Given its status as a bustling metropolis straddling the boundary separating Europe from Asia, and its cultural connections to the ancient Greek, Persian, Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman empires, its range of tourist hotspots and its architectural marvels, there is no shortage of ways to spend your time in Istanbul. You could hit up postcard-worthy sites such as the Blue Mosque or Hagia Sophia, or you could soak up some incredible history with a visit to the Underground Basilica Cistern, Topkapi Palace or the Theodosian Walls.
But if you’re of the mind to experience the city beyond mere highlights and well-worn paths, here are some unique adventures to add to your itinerary.
Go rowing on the Golden Horn
A visit to Istanbul’s legendary Golden Horn — Turkey’s iconic waterway — is a must, but why not experience it from a different perspective? Rowing on the Golden Horn has been a staple on the waters of the Bosphorus since the late Ottoman period, and there are now a number of sports clubs that offer novice and professional visitors rowing trips down the waterway.
Explore street art on the Asian Side
Mural Istanbul — a street art festival that ships in artists from around the world each year to paint murals on the façades of local buildings — has turned the Yeldeğirmeni neighbourhood of Kadıköy into one large open air art gallery. The festival has already attracted the likes of Pixel Pancho, INTI, JAZ, Dome, Tabone, Ares Badsector and CHU to cover the sides of entire buildings with art.
Bathe at a hamam
This one’s a bit of a no-brainer: if you’re in Istanbul, you have to try out one of the local hamams (Turkish baths). Once frequented by viziers and sultans to clean up and socialise, Istanbul’s hamams now serve up steamy scrubs and massages to tourists and nostalgic locals within marble walls and under lofty domes. It’s a chance to relax and take in a little history, blended together in one unique experience.
Go mushroom hunting
You might think mushrooms can’t exactly thrive in a busy metropolis, but there are over 12,000 varieties of mushrooms to be found in Turkey. Forests north of Istanbul — perfect destinations for nature enthusiasts — are flush with a plethora of mushrooms. Several tour operators host scavenger hunts to spot specific varieties and taste them, as well as host picnics in the forest.
Have dinner with a local family
To experience Turkish hospitality at its finest, you have to experience a home-cooked meal at the hands of a Turkish family. Obviously, the most authentic way to experience this would involve getting invited to a local’s house. However, if this isn’t quite possible, you could simply book the experience and enjoy a home-cooked feast with a local family in the historic neighbourhood of Sultanahmet, gaining a deeper insight into the Turkish culture.
Watch the Whirling Dervishes
The Whirling Dervishes of the Mevlevi Order are the best-known practitioners of ‘Sama’, which refers to a form of meditating by focusing on melodies and dancing. In 2008, UNESCO confirmed the ‘Mevlevi Sama Ceremony’ of Turkey as one of the ‘Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity’. The spiritual rituals of these Whirling Dervishes can be seen as performances organised at various locations across Istanbul.
Climb aboard Istanbul’s ferries
Spanned by two mammoth bridges, the Bosphorus is traversed on a daily basis by thousands of cars, ferries and fishing boats. Travelling in the famous public excursion ferry alongside massive tankers and cargo ships making their way from the Sea of Marmara to the Black Sea certainly makes a memorable day trip. Climb aboard a ferry at sunset, when the grandiose silhouette of the Old City is thrown into relief against an orange-red or dusky pink sky.
Dine in two continents on the same day
One last fun thing you can try in Istanbul: have breakfast in Europe with a view of Asia and have lunch in Asia with a view of Europe on the same day. This unique experience is one not many cities can offer. Or you could even dine on an island between the two continents.