If it’s your first time in Istanbul and you just have to see all the major sights such as Hagia Sophia or the Topkapı Palace, try to go there as early as possible and on the weekdays in order to avoid the huge crowds that usually descend upon the touristic areas in the afternoon. Being there in the early hours will mean that you’ll avoid the international tourists who are still eating breakfast at their hotels, and if you avoid the weekends, then you won’t bump into the mass of domestic tourists who also come to visit Istanbul’s famous sights.
Sultanahmet may be where all the major sights lie; however, Istanbul has plenty of other neighborhoods with historical structures or the latest restaurants that are all not so well known. One of the best places to wander around pretty undisturbed is the Balat neighborhood, which, at best, only has a few wandering tourists shooting photos of the many beautiful Greek Orthodox homes as well as the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Istanbul and the gorgeous Balat High School. Other neighborhoods worth a look without the tourist crowds include Yeniköy, Teşvikiye, Moda, Akaretler, Arnavutköy, and Emirgan.
Istanbul’s history is wide and varied, which means it has historic places around every corner. You don’t have to focus all of your attention on the significant landmarks because there’s plenty to see all over the city, especially in areas where you won’t likely come across a mass of tourists. From the former home of Leon Trotsky on Büyükada to the Pammakaristos Church, there’s plenty to explore on your own.
A lot of tourists never explore the Asian side because they see it as mostly residential. However, that’s exactly why it’s a great place to avoid tourists while also exploring neighborhoods steeped in the lovely daily routines of locals. Get lost in the Moda neighborhood, which has a very young vibe with all of its newly opened cafés, restaurants, and shops. Take a ferry to Üsküdar and then take a bus up the coast (or walk by the Bosphorus) to explore the quiet and beautiful neighborhoods of Kuzguncuk, Çengelköy, and Kandilli.
A great tip for traveling to the islands is to avoid the weekend and to go very early if you don’t want to share the ferry with a hoard of people. Choose one of the lesser-known islands such as Heybeliada or Burgazada and just wander in the unharnessed natural landscape dotted with Ottoman-era mansions and the few newly opened cafés and restaurants. If you do decide to go to the popular Büyükada, then rent a bike and get away from the crowded town center to explore the island’s remote corners.
Avoid the months between June and September to visit Istanbul; it’s the peak tourist season (especially July when tourists arrive in hoards). Avoiding Istanbul during the summer is also quite wise because temperatures can become unbearably high with very uncomfortable humidity. Enjoy Istanbul during the spring or fall when the weather is mild, and there is no one around.