Discovering Hidden Istanbul

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When someone tells you that something is “hidden,” usually all it does is make you want to find it.

That was exactly the case when I read about Urban Adventures' “Hidden Istanbul” walking tour for the first time. What were the “hidden” parts, I wondered? And how could I discover them?

And so, on my first morning in Istanbul — roughly an hour after getting off an overnight bus from Bulgaria, in fact — I set off to uncover those “hidden” things about this diverse and history-filled city.

Blue Mosque, Istanbul

The “Istanbul Uncovered” tour

The tour (now known as the “Istanbul Uncovered” tour) kicked off at 8:30 a.m. in the Sultanahmet neighborhood of Istanbul, not far from the famous Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque. This tour, my guide Suleyman told me, would introduce me to some of Istanbul's most-loved sites and best-kept secrets — but we would start with the best-loved sites.

Our first stop was the site of the Hippodrome of Constantinople — the Roman circus that served as the sporting and social center of the capital of the Byzantine Empire. My jaw dropped as we stopped in front of the pink-hued Obelisk of Theodosius and Suleyman began telling me about how the Roman emperor Theodosius I had it brought to the city in the year 390 AD — but that it was actually originally part of the Temple of Karnak in Luxor, having been erected there by the Pharaoh Tutmoses III around 1490 BC.

Yes, this pillar of stone is more than 3,500 years old!

Hippodrome, Istanbul

It was the first of many awe-struck moments for me as I fully realized for the first time how much history the city of Istanbul has seen.

From the Hippodrome, we next headed for the famous Sultan Ahmed Mosque — AKA the Blue Mosque. The mosque, which was built in the early 1600s during the rule of Sultan Ahmed I, is known for being one of the biggest and most beautiful in Turkey.

Blue Mosque, Istanbul

And, with its 6 minarets, 8 domes, and intricate Iznik tile work on the inside, the Blue Mosque IS stunning.

Blue Mosque, Istanbul

Blue Mosque, Istanbul

But it is also the top tourist destination in Istanbul.

Even though we arrived around 9 a.m., we still had to wait in line nearly half an hour to enter the Blue Mosque. Once inside, the place was so crowded that I didn't feel as though I had enough time or space to truly soak it in.

After all, this is a holy place for a religion that I am a stranger to — I had hoped to be able to understand it better by visiting the Blue Mosque. But instead, I just felt like I was being herded through an amusement park line that required me to take my shoes off.

Blue Mosque, Istanbul

After extracting ourselves from the Blue Mosque, it was time for more chaos at the Grand Bazaar. This covered market, consisting of about 60 different streets and thousands of shops, is one of the oldest and largest markets of its kind in the world. There are a number of different entrances to the bazaar, making it incredibly easy to get lost inside.

We were quickly in one side and out the other just to get a taste, but I knew it would be a place I would return to (which I did). Here, the crowds didn't bother me quite so much.

Grand Bazaar

Grand Bazaar, Istanbul

Thankfully, our next stops took us away from the crowds. We walked past the quiet campus of Istanbul University, stopping at a small cemetery to sit for a while in the shade when I got too hot. Suleyman, a recent university graduate himself, chatted with me about life in Istanbul, the traveling he'd like to do once he completes his mandatory military service, and what it was like to be a tour guide in such a fascinating city.

By the time we reached the next mosque we would be entering, I had all but forgotten about the sour taste the Blue Mosque had left in my mouth.

Istanbul

Approaching the Süleymaniye Mosque via a narrow alleyway was so different that approaching the Blue Mosque. Here, there were no lines. Here, I was asked to cover my hair as well as my shoulders and legs. Here, I was able to just observe and reflect — what I had failed to be able to do inside the Blue Mosque.

Süleymaniye Mosque, Istanbul

The Süleymaniye Mosque is beautiful. I was immediately struck by the symmetrical arches in the courtyard, as well as the simplistic design on the inside. This mosque is not as flashy as the Blue Mosque, but I loved it for that.

Istanbul

Süleymaniye Mosque, Istanbul

Inside, my guide Suleyman explained to me how worship at a mosque works, and also told me a bit about Mimar Sinan, often considered Istanbul's greatest architect. Sinan was the chief architect/engineer for three sultans in the 1500s, and is credited with designing hundreds of structures in Istanbul (the number is anywhere between 360 and 475).

The Süleymaniye Mosque, completed in 1557, is perhaps his most famous work.

Süleymaniye Mosque, Istanbul

Istanbul

After taking our time inside, Suleyman and I then headed outside behind the Süleymaniye Mosque. After dodging sprinklers and shaking off our quiet, contemplative moods, we were greeted to a pretty incredible view out over the Bosphorus.

Istanbul

Next we sauntered along some cute backstreets and wound up at a little cafe overlooking the city and the Bosphorus. While Suleyman clearly knew the owner, there was no pressure to buy any food, and so we simply sat sipping cold drinks instead, watching the water traffic and listening to the sounds of the city below.

Istanbul

Once we were sufficiently refreshed, Suleyman asked if I wouldn't mind making a extra, unscheduled stop. “It's my favorite place in the city,” he said. Of course I agreed.

The place turned out to be the Rüstem Pasha Mosque — another Sinan masterpiece in the city's Eminönü district. The small mosque didn't look like much from the outside, but, once we entered I understood exactly why it was Suleyman's favorite.

This is the ‘blue mosque' for me,” he said. For me, too.

Rustem Pasha Mosque, Istanbul

Rustem Pasha Mosque, Istanbul

The interior of the Rüstem Pasha Mosque is covered with incredibly vibrant blue Iznik tiles. The tiles contrast perfectly with the orange carpeting, making it a place that begs to be photographed. And here, I didn't feel weird snapping pictures — because we were essentially the only ones inside.

Rustem Pasha Mosque, Istanbul

Rustem Pasha Mosque, Istanbul

Rustem Pasha Mosque, Istanbul

Rustem Pasha Mosque, Istanbul

After thanking Suleyman profusely for adding this beautiful place to my tour, I then followed him to our last stop of the day — the Spice Bazaar. Also known as the Egyptian Bazaar, the Spice Bazaar is the second-largest bazaar in Istanbul.

It is unique in the fact that this is (obviously) where spices are sold in the city, and we spent a bit of time wandering through mounds of richly-colored, powdery spices and trying samples of Turkish Delight.

Spice Bazaar, Istanbul

By the time my 4 hours with Suleyman was up, I realized a couple of things all at once.

First, I realized both how much and how little of Istanbul I had seen.

And secondly, I realized that I had, in fact, discovered some of those “hidden” parts of the city — and then some.

Istanbul

If you would like to discover Istanbul in a similar way, I highly recommend a day tour of Istanbul with Urban Adventures. Their “Hidden Istanbul” tour is now running as “Istanbul Uncovered,” and I highly recommend it.

You definitely get value for money with an Urban Adventures tour, along with a glimpse into sides of Istanbul you would probably miss on your own.

More essential info

Which “hidden” part of Istanbul would YOU most like to uncover?

 

*Note: I received a complimentary “Hidden Istanbul” tour from Urban Adventures, and lucked out at having the guide all to myself. All opinions, as usual, are my own. To book your own Urban Adventure in Istanbul, click on the banner below:

Urban Adventure Tours

"It's a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and, if you don't keep your feet, there's no telling where you might get swept off to." - JRR Tolkien

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43 Comments on “Discovering Hidden Istanbul

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  1. Lucky you to have the guide to yourself, that must have made the tour even more special. The Spice Bazaar sounds like a place to spend some time, and money!

      Yes, having the guide to myself definitely made the experience that much more special. It was like wandering around the city with a very knowledgable friend!

    Easily one of my fave cities.. and you’re right, so much history. My favorite hidden discovery there is the underground cistern. Looks like you hit great weather too. Lovely photos!

      The cistern is great! I went there on my own later on (along with to Hagia Sofia, which I LOVED). A lot of people seem to love Istanbul, and now I completely understand why.

    What grand architecture and fine carvings. Loved the shots 🙂

    ooh I have serious travel envy after reading this lovely post. Soo much beauty and colour, I can’t wait to go! Usually I shy away from organised tours but I can see how it gets you personal with a place and you find out all those little things that are probably not in any guide book!

      Organized tours can be such a great way to learn more about a place than you would if you were going at it alone with a guidebook. In this case, my guide was a local, which meant I couldn’t have possibly got a better introduction to the city!

    Love your ‘detailed’ pictures. Gawd, I love that country. All of it. Need to go back!

      Thanks, Dalene! I took WAY too many pictures in just 2 days there.

    Been to Turkey but never to Istanbul. This is definitely on the list for next time. As is Pamukkale. Loving your pictures Amanda. What camera do you use?

      You most definitely need to get to Istanbul the next time you’re in Turkey! It’s great. I’d also love to go to Pamukkale!

      And as for the photos, I’m currently shooting with an Olympus E-PM1 micro 4/3 camera. I LOVE it!

    I was just in Turkey in June. Though I was only in Istanbul for one full day and two half days before and after…

    My favourite find was a mosque just at the entrance of the Grand Bazaar.. I have no idea what it’s called or which entrance it’s next to, but I needed somewhere to chill out after the hustle and bustle of the bazaar and ducked in… it was gorgeous and I had it pretty much to myself… the ‘keeper’ was lovely and answered lots of questions for me…

    As well as a little ceramic shop just off the Hippodrome.. I found it while I was looking for a shop to buy some water.. I ended up in there for half an hour having tea with the store keeper and he offered to let me have a go on the wheel.. but I wasn’t really dressed for it and had to go and meet friends.. I could’ve stayed and talked to him all day!!

      It sounds like you had a great (if brief) Istanbul experience, too!

    Great photos as always!
    The view from behind the Süleymaniye Mosque is my favorite in this post.

      I really like that photo (and view), too! Not one most people see, I’d guess.

    Wow, I love that “blue mosque” too! It seems much more authentic than the actual one.

      It’s funny, because I usually don’t mind really touristy places with crowds and everything. But there was just something about visiting the Blue Mosque that really turned me off. I was so happy to have visited some other, quieter mosques too for comparison.

    The tiles on that last mosque are beautiful! I can see why your guide would say it is his favorite part of the city.

      Me too! It was definitely one of my favorite places that I visited.

    I recently did this exact tour! Great post.

      Awesome, Holly! I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did.

    I had a very pleasant & memorable trip with friends to Istanbul and several other places on the west coast of Turkey about 20 years ago. Those days, we had the Blue Mosque all to ourselves, except for a few locals performing their prayers. Definitely less tour groups then.

      Such is tourism development! I’m sure it was a lot different back then.

    Maybe I’m becoming too cynical, but when I read “Suleyman asked if I wouldn’t mind making a extra, unscheduled stop” I thought he was going to take you to his uncle’s carpet shop or something. LOL!

      Hahaha. No no no, he was very professional!

    The most secret parts of the city require special permits and some are inaccessable even with special equipments. There are some dark secrets, some are occult in nature. Mosques are the symbols of the city but they are hardly “secret”. There was this house in Büyükada (big island) with the “all seeing eye” carved on the pediment and I’m still curious about the building in Karaköy with the symbol of the Rosicurians carved all over the facade. An express tour of the noteworthy places take 7-10 days and you need at least 1 month to be able to claim you saw it all. If you decide to live in Istanbul, there’s always something new to discover.

    Normally tourist who come to İstanbul don’t know anything about İstanbul asia side. There a lot of places for tourist must visit in asia side. For example Bağdat Caddesi(street). İn my Turkish blog http://www.gezipartisi.com lots of article about visit place asia side. ı hope you read and next time visit more asian side places.

    Hi there, such a beautiful blog. Did you have chance to visit the Princes’ Islands off the coast of Istanbul? They were last year voted No20 by the Observer for “the worlds undiscovered island gems”. Heybeliada is fantastic with its 900 yr old Greek Orthodox Monastery. My husband and i travelled there in 2008, fell in love, bought a Ottoman timber mansion reck, which we now run as holiday apartments. Its a real travellers treat. Theres loads more info on our website if your interested. Safe and happy travels x

    Lovely post, but you never got off the beaten path! Seriously, none of it was anything out of the ordinary. Title does not represent content if post. But Suleyman sounds like a treat.

      Well that was the name of the tour, hence the name of the post. 😉

    Love your captures of Istanbul Amanda, a real treat for someone who has Turkey on their bucket list!

      Thanks! I loved the city so much – I definitely need to see more of Turkey someday!

    Hi Amanda, such beautiful pictures of Istanbul. I loved the tiles and domes. It must have been a great cultural tour. I see that you experienced hidden gems like Rustem Pasha Mosque besides very well known highlights.
    I suggest you to see Phanar (Fener) area for the next time.

    I also realized you liked the Suleymaniye Mosque. Yes, the Suleymaniye Mosque interior decoration is not as fancy as the Blue Mosque but it is especially designed like that by Mimar Sinan. Many people visit the Blue Mosque because of its location. However Suleymaniye Mosque is just there to be explored. With its great architectural wisdom and technique. There is an absolute symmetry just as you say. I am glad that you did not miss it! Thank you for the great post.

      Yes, that was my favorite mosque! It was beautiful in its symmetry, and I liked that it wasn’t as fussy (or as crowded) as the Blue Mosque.

    Very good photos with vivid colours. You have a very good eye for details and decoration. Thank you for the awesome post.

      Thanks very much! I love looking for little details – and the more colorful, the better!

    hey i wanted to ask you if you know the name of the caffe you had gone to or it please on the map I’m looking for pleases that have a cool view of the city or small cafes that have i beautiful view.

      I´m sorry but I don´t remember the name of it!

    Amanda, thanks for your very interesting post about Istanbul. I really love Turkey.

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