Exploring Istanbul: Five Must Sees Beyond the Big Sites

Topkapi. Check. Hagia Sofia. Check. The Grand Bazaar. Check, check and may checks may bounce because of all my purchases. All easily reached from Sultanahmet district, these top destinations are all what you do on your first day. But what about your second day? Here are five must see highlights to tackle after the big sites when visiting Istanbul.1. Visit the Roman Cisterns

The Roman Cisterns are right on the Sutanahmet as well- the touristy area near the Hagia Sofia and Blue Mosque – and underground. Buy  a ticket and descend the stairs and collectively say…Whoa. Before you, in the near dark, are several football fields worth of Roman columns and arches, open to a shallow pool below. It’s like Harry Potter, the columns hinting at a dark world of magic.

There is a nice plank boardwalk to explore and walk through the cisterns. At the opposite end of the cistern are two notable columns, both had bases of huge heads – Medusa’s head. One she was sideways and the other upside down. The big mystery was how? How and why were these heads here and why were they  faced the wrong way? Very creepy. Having other tourists around is a relief because these were the kind of heads that came alive at night and cast spells and really did turn people to stone.


2. Tour the Balat Neighborhood

Catch the bus from Eminonu district by the riverside – the 90 according to Frommers, but the 35 in actuality to Kalili Musezi. Down and hill, start with the Byzantine church – Chora Church. Gorgeous gold mosaics of saints, Jesus, and the Virgin Mary splayed out on the domed ceilings. It was overdone, a kind of gaudy all this iconography in a Muslim country, but the beauty was undeniable, the effort to place each little square to create something greater than the parts made this church and impressive fine. Out of the Church and out into the streets, head downhill towards the Balat neighborhood. Frommer’s guidebook has a great neighborhood walk that I followed.


The neighborhood is working class and a mesh of different cultures: Turkish, Jewish, and Armenian. Scarved women and sweater cardiganed older men lined the streets, mostly deserted except for these groups of people. Follow the windy streets to any market area where you can find a doner lunch and the required baklava.


3. Walk Along the Bosphorous


From the Balat neighborhood, you can walk along the river back to the Eminonu district, which is at the other entrance of the Grand Bazaar. It’s a lovely walk along the major nautical thoroughfare, populated with riverside restaurants, fishing boats, and the occasional playground. At the end of this walk, visit one of the famous fish sandwich restaurants.

4. Istanbul Sunset from a Rooftop

There are hotels all over the Sultanahmet district and most of them have rooftops. If you don’t plan to say on one, find one that does and go there at Sunset. My couch surfing friend Engin was a professional photographer and found a rooftop for a perfect sunset view of the Blue Mosque.


5. Try Out a Turkish Bath

Not for the shy or the faint, a Turkish bath experience can be saved for your third or fourth day in Istanbul to rejuvinate you for more sight seeing. I wrote a whole blog post about the experience that will go into the details, but please know, you’ll be rubbed raw and feel fat and fresh like a baby.

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