The stereotypical image of touring, crammed into a packed bus as a guide rattles on for hours, wary of leaving one detail out is, thankfully, not the norm in Istanbul. There are several smaller, more personal tour vendors that let you explore the city with guides who know their stuff but also realise that more is not always better. If you want to discover the nooks and crannies of Istanbul, those spots that you never would have found on your own, then contact one of these niche companies for a unique take on the city.
Photograph your way through Istanbul
Run by the fine art photographer and long-time Istanbul resident Monica Fritz, Alternative City Tours should be the first port of call for any budding photographers. With Monica leading the way, you can capture the many moods, colours, lights and reflections of Istanbul with your camera while exploring the city’s back streets, rooftops and multicultural neighbourhoods. She offers several different photography walks, but visitors rave about her tour of the Grand Bazaar – she expertly guides you through the alleyways of this labyrinth and even takes you up to lookout points on surrounding rooftops. Seeing Istanbul through a lens will give you a new perspective on this mesmerising city.
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Walk your way through Istanbul
A walking tour is by no means novel, but there are certain companies in Istanbul that go above and beyond to ensure that you have in-depth experiences with top-notch guides. Context Travel, which can be found in cities worldwide, offers small walking seminars with docents who are chosen for their book smarts – many of them have PhDs or MA degrees – and their social intelligence – you won’t have to suffer through bad jokes or awkward silences. Their ‘History and Continuity’ walk through historic neighbourhoods on the Golden Horn demonstrates to visitors how the social and political history of the Turkish Republic has moulded these districts. The docent also uses the history of these areas to frame and contextualise questions of identity in Istanbul today – the city’s multicultural heritage is truly brought back to life.
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Eat your way through Istanbul
Some of the best food in Istanbul is hiding in plain sight. The large, brightly-lit meyhane or kebab house may grab your attention, but it is often the nondescript hole-in-the-wall that serves the most unique and delectable dishes from all corners of Turkey. To find these spots and the artisans making food there, your best bet is to book a culinary walk or cooking class with Culinary Backstreets. This venture grew out of Istanbul Eats, the beloved food blog started by Ansel Mullins and Yigal Schleifer, and has expanded to cities all over the world. In Istanbul they can show you the culinary ins-and-outs of three neighbourhoods on the Bosphorus or lead you on a market adventure that spans continents, among other tours. Whichever adventure you choose, you’re sure to leave with a full belly and a better understanding of Turkey’s culture and traditions.
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Bike your way through Istanbul
Biking in Istanbul – with its hilly terrain and notorious traffic – is not for the faint of heart. But if you prefer your sightseeing with a side of adrenaline, then exploring Istanbul on two tyres will be right up your alley. Istanbul on Bike is one of the more established outfits in this relatively new travel market. Their ‘Classic Tour’ of Sultanahmet and the surrounding areas shows a different side of the Golden Horn, one that tourists don’t normally see. While the hills will have your legs begging for mercy, the sublime views of the city will quickly erase any aches and pains.