How to Escape the Tourist Traps in Istanbul

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January was the month where it felt like half of Australia came to visit Istanbul. Unsurprising really, considering Adelaide was recently the hottest place on earth and the Bureau of Meteorology had to add new colours to their temperature scale. When I first arrived here I was so preoccupied with finding a house and job that I neglected to visit most of the tourist sites that make Istanbul one of the most visited cities in the world. Thankfully, having a new friend visit every weekend of the month meant I could hone my tour guide skills down to a fine art.

There’s a reason that the old city of Istanbul is so popular with tourists. For hundreds of years it was the heart of three different empires, and it’s one of the few places in the city that has retained the true Ottoman feel. Unfortunately though any visit to the old city will be shared with at least 10,684 other tourists at any given time. Istanbul is one of the most-visited cities in the world, and in the summer you’ll be hard-pressed to spot a local. It’s also the only place where western prices prevail. A kebab that will cost you five lira anywhere else in the city will set you back double in Sultanahmet. While there are a plethora of attractions, many of them are overrun with tourists, overly expensive, and often sporting queues miles long. Thankfully though, if you don’t want to spend the majority of time in Istanbul waiting in line, there are some alternatives to the big tourist sights in the city.

Overcrowded Tourist Attraction #1: The Blue Mosque

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The Blue Mosque is the tourist destination in Istanbul. Its foreboding presence on one of the seven hills of the original Constantinople draws millions of tourists to the city every year. And with good reason; it’s by far the biggest mosque in Istanbul, the only one with six minarets, and the blue mosaics that line the inner dome and give the mosque it’s nickname are nothing short of spectacular. What’s less spectacular though are the constant hoards of tour groups lining up to enter the mosque. Nothing spoils a quiet spiritual moment like a loud American with an oversized camera snapping away at all the people coming to pray and commenting on how funny everyone looks in a headscarf. 

Alternative: Rustem Paşa Camii

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Thankfully, just down the hill lies a much smaller but arguably just as beautiful mosque – the Rustem Paşa Camii. My friend Katrinka Abroad first showed me this mosque, and it’s quickly become my favourite in Istanbul. Away from the bustling streets of the bazaar, it’s a sanctuary of tranquility almost completely devoid of tourists. Keep an eye out for the small sign above a nondescript stone arch and make your way into the expansive courtyard which is almost impossible to see from the street. Like the Blue Mosque, Rustem Paşa is adorned with Iznik mosaics, all hand-painted and incredibly beautiful. Unlike the Blue Mosque though they’re not just relegated to inside – you’ll find them on the porch, the mihrab, minbar and the columns by the entrance. Built in the late 1500’s by the famous architect Mimar Sinan, it’s not on the same scale as the Blue Mosque, but if you want some peace and quiet to admire some incredible mosaics, this is the place to do it.

Overcrowded Tourist Attraction #2: The Hagia Sofia

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Just across the courtyard from the Blue Mosque lies the Hagia Sofia (Turkish: Ayasofya), one of the most awe-inspiring structures in the city and often considered one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Originally a Byzantine church constructed in 537, the Ottomans had the foresight not to tear it down when they conquered Constantinople in 1453, and instead turned it into a mosque. Since the founding of the (secular) Republic of Turkey, it’s been a museum dedicated to it’s long and illustrious history. Don’t get me wrong, the Hagia Sofia is nothing short of incredible. But to enjoy the spoils of this fascinating building will set you back a hefty 25 TL and at least an hour of your precious time waiting in a queue. 

Alternative: The Küçük Ayasofya (the little Hagia Sofia)

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OK, so it’s not on quite as grand a scale as its bigger sibling, but the Küçük Ayasofya is special in its own way. It’s actually even older than the more famous equivalent. Built in 532, it is thought to have served as a model for the construction of the actual Hagia Sofia. While that’s enough to give anyone a severe case of short-man syndrome, the Küçük Ayasofya marvels in its own, understated way.  The Greek influences on the design are still evident in the writing surrounding the mezzanine level, and the Justinian insignia’s on the tops of the columns are intricately carved. If it’s looking all too familiar, it shouldn’t be a surprise that our old friend Mimar Sinan used it as a reference point for designing the Rustem Paşa Camii.

Overcrowded (and Overrated) Tourist Attraction #3: The Grand Bazaar

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The Grand Bazaar is a thing of  legend, immortalized by countless authors and films (most recently James Bond was seen to be running across the top of it during the thrilling motorbike chase in Skyfall). But in reality it’s actually just an overpriced ancient shopping mall full of seedy men bribing you with tea while trying to rip you off on an overpriced Turkish carpet that will probably never even leave your suitcase anyway. Sure, it’s worth a quick glance just to cross it off the list, but in a city full of incredible bazaars, the so-called ‘Grand’ one pales in comparison.

Alternative: The streets of Eminönü

There are so many different bazaars worth visiting in Istanbul, but in the interests of keeping this post confined to one area, the best alternative to the Grand Bazaar are simply the streets surrounding it. Eminönü was once the heart of Byzantium, and to this day is one of the most diverse and fascinating areas of the city. The narrow streets crisscrossing up from the Golden Horn towards Beyazit square are jam-packed full of absolutely every different store you could imagine. It’s like the Room of Requirement on steroids. Need that replacement hose for your shower? This is where to find it. Want a poster from an obscure Turkish film made in 1976? No worries, there’s a store for that too. Everything from Turkish Coffee to Egyptian spices (in the touristy but colourful covered Spice Bazaar) can be found in Eminönü. On the weekends it gets incredibly busy and is somewhat an assault on the senses, but you can easily whittle away a day being awed by the sheer amount of stuff on offer here.

Worthy Mentions: Topkapı Palace, The Basilica Cistern

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OK, so there are still some things that aren’t such a rip-off in the old city. Topkapı Palace, while expensive (it’ll also set you back a cool 25TL), is chock-full of riches from the Ottoman empire and the Harem (an extra entrance fee) is pretty darn special. But if you want a quieter (and cheaper) palatial experience, there are a bunch of different palaces around the city, including Dolmabahçe and Yıldız in the new city. If you can afford it, you can even stay in the Four Seasons Hotel, housed in the stunning Çırağan Palace in Beşiktaş.

Meanwhile, the Basilica Cistern is significantly cheaper at only 10TL, and if you can brave the lines (Dan Brown recently used it as a setting in his most recent doorstop novel which means a bunch of people with questionable taste in literature are visiting it by the droves) it’s a unique experience. There are actually four other cisterns in the old city, but we were disappointed to find that at the time of writing all of them were closed for construction (without any opening date in sight).

Don’t get me wrong. All of the sites mentioned here are pretty damn amazing. That’s why they’ve become such popular tourist destinations. But if you’re short on time (and cash), or if you just want to see another side of the old city away from the standard tourist trail, then these alternatives are great for keeping away from the crowds and exploring some of Istanbul’s best-kept secrets.  If you’re lucky enough, come and visit me and I might even take you to some of them.

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