Alternative Places to Visit in Istanbul

Alternative sights Istanbul

Photo by Neida Arjona / CC BY-NC 2.0

We’re all familiar with the popular Istanbul sights from Hagia Sophia’s daunting domes to Topkapı Palace’s lavish halls. So, we decided to take a small detour from the usual tourist shuffle and take you off the beaten path to discover the city’s other landmarks, where only a few wander.

Zeyrek Mosque

Zeyrek Mosque

Photo by Feride Yalav / CC BY-NC 2.0

Even though this is the city’s second largest Byzantine edifice, Zeyrek is not among the usual places to see in Istanbul. This could be because it’s a bit removed from touristic Sultanahmet and because it’s currently under renovation (set to open in 2017). However, it’s an adventure to walk up İbadethane Sokak and gaze up at the grand recessed brick structure composed of two former Eastern Orthodox churches and a chapel. Converted into a mosque after the Ottoman takeover, Zeyrek was built in the 12th century to honor Christ Pantokrator (a specific depiction of Christ in Eastern Orthodox theological conception). >map

Phanar Greek Orthodox College

Phanar Greek Orthodox College

Photo by Marylène Magnaud / CC BY-NC 2.0

As the Balat and Fener neighborhoods become one of the most popular places to visit in Istanbul, the dark red construction that looms above them is a must-see (especially up close). Walk up Sancaktar Yokuşu to reach the main gate for an eyeful of the “Red School.” Built in 1881, Phanar is one of the oldest surviving Greek Orthodox schools in the city and was preferred by the Ottoman Empire’s prominent Greek and Bulgarian families. Nowadays, only a few students remain but the visual prominence of the structure is entirely intact. >map

Yavuz Selim Mosque

Yavuz Selim Mosque

Photo by Vikipicture / CC BY-SA 3.0

Istanbul definitely has more than enough mosques but Yavuz Selim, a 16th century imperial Ottoman mosque located on the city’s fifth hill, is one of the most beautiful physical dedications to faith. Commissioned by Suleiman the Magnificent, the mosque was built to honor the memory of his late father Selim I, who died in 1520. After you wander the stunning inner courtyard, with the ablution fountain in the middle, take a walk outside in the garden for a very expansive view of the Golden Horn. >map

The Land Walls

Land Walls

Photo by Charlotte Powell / CC BY-NC 2.0

Istanbul’s Byzantine era land walls are one of the most disregarded yet equally significant historic sights. Dating back to the reign of Byzantine emperor Theodosius II in the fifth century, the land walls protected Constantinople until 1453 when the Ottomans breached them and made the city their new capital. It’s a bit difficult to tour the entirety of the wall’s remains because there’s no unified path running alongside them. The best way to see a good section is to travel to the Yedikule Fortress, which can be reached by taking the train from Sirkeci to Yedikule. >map

Küçüksu Palace

Küçüksu Palace

Photo by Ayhan Çakar / CC BY-NC 2.0

The Bosphorus coastline on the Asian side from Üsküdar all the way to Anadolu Kavağı is full of hidden treasures. One of the most lavish sights is this former summer palace, which belonged to the Ottoman sultans who used it for short stays during country excursions and hunting. Completed in 1857, the small palace abides to a neo-baroque style and can be seen as the sister of Beylerbeyi Palace, the other imperial Ottoman summer residence also located on the Asian side. Inside Küçüksu you will find fireplaces made of Italian marble, parquet floors of various patterns, European style antique furniture and art. >map

Crimean Memorial Church

Crimean Church

Photo by Feride Yalav / CC BY-NC 2.0

This Victorian neo-Gothic church in Galata is almost entirely hidden away behind the trees in its lush garden. Located at the end of Serdar-ı Ekrem Street on a downward slope toward Kumbaracı Yokuşu, Crimean Memorial Church, also known as “Christ Church,” was completed in 1868 and commemorates the fallen soldiers of the Crimean War. After closing in 1978 due to a lack of congregation, the Anglican church reopened in 1991 and continues to hold services. After viewing the beautiful altar inside, take some time to walk around the garden where geese, cats, and turtles wander around freely. >map

Beyoğlu Panayia Evangelistria Greek Orthodox Church


Photo by Tuba / CC BY-NC 2.0

Most Istanbul visitors have never seen this Greek Orthodox church that is almost entirely hidden away in the Dolapdere neighborhood. Like a complete aesthetic contradiction, the ornate towers and dark red dome of this Greek Orthodox Church rise above a few döner joints and a collection of dilapidated apartments. Still holding services every Sunday from 8:30-11:30am, the church was built between 1877 and 1893 with a cut stone exterior and impressive religious iconography and frescoes inside. >map

Ruhban Okulu, Heybeliada

Ruhban Okulu

Photo by Feride Yalav / CC BY-NC 2.0

Even though the islands have become a crowded weekend getaway for many, there are still some unknown sights to be discovered. From the crumbling Trotsky House and Prinkipo Greek Orphanaga on Büyükada, to the Church of St. John in Burgazada, our favorite continues to be Ruhban Okulu on Heybeliada. Also known as the Halki Seminary, this was the main theology school of the Eastern Orthodox Church’s Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, until 1971 when Turkish parliament enacted a law banning private higher education institutions. Today, you can walk (or take a horse drawn carriage) to the former school and visit its small Greek Orthodox church as well as taking in the amazing sea view from its large terrace. (We also recommend this piece for more things to see on Heybeliada>map

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