Planning your Istanbul layover in 2020
If you’re reading this article, there’s a good chance you’re already planning a trip with a layover in Istanbul. Excellent choice! If you’re here for the travel inspiration, then I hope this article convinces you to add this enchanting city to your bucket list! Read below to see why you should plan a trip in 2020 with a brief stopover in Istanbul.
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Why you should plan a trip with a layover in Istanbul
Istanbul is one of the most beautiful and fascinating cities in the world. Dating back more than 2,500 years, it’s incredibly well-preserved and sprawling with life.
With 15 million people, Istanbul is the biggest city in Turkey and among the top 5 in the world. It sits at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, which made it one of the main stops along the Silk Road. Today, Istanbul is a cultural, historic, and entertainment hub in the region.
Other awesome reasons to plan a layover in Istanbul
I recently visited Istanbul during my trip to the Middle East. I chose flights with an 8-hour layover each way. This was a great decision for many reasons:
Firstly, it gave us ample time to explore the historic heart of the city. Istanbul’s top sights are all close to one another, making logistics a breeze. It takes about 1.5 hours from the airport to the center of all the action, so 8 hours offers a reasonable buffer. Of course, this is only enough time to catch a glimpse of the city, and you’ll definitely want to return to see more!
This 8-hour layover also gave us enough time to enjoy a taste of Istanbul’s culinary scene. The cuisine is as diverse as its people, influenced by Eastern European, Middle Eastern, Central Asian, and Balkan cuisines. Istanbul’s airport food does not measure up to the city’s restaurants and cafés overlooking the Bosphorus Strait, that’s for sure. The city is also known for its street food (namely kebabs), which are sold for cheap on pretty much every street corner.
Practical reasons to visit Istanbul on a layover
Lastly, it was a no-brainer to visit Istanbul given that all Turkish Airlines flights connect through there. It’s the world’s largest airline by number of countries served, so you can hop on a flight here from pretty much anywhere in the world.
Most flights to Istanbul with Turkish Airlines have long layovers. Some can be upwards of 15+ hours. Whichever flight you choose, be sure to give yourself enough time to explore the city. I’ll talk more about planning and logistics later in this article.
If you’re a history buff, foodie, or just about any other type of person, you’ll find plenty of incredible things to see and do here. Here’s everything you need to know regarding how to spend a layover in Istanbul!
(Note: If you’re here for the travel inspiration, and not necessarily the trip planning, skip down to the “Top things to see and do in Istanbul” section below.)
Getting to Istanbul
If you’re planning a trip anywhere in the world, you’ll find it easy to fit Istanbul into the equation. As mentioned above, Turkish Airlines is the world’s largest airline in terms of countries served. According to Star Alliance, Turkish Airlines flies to over 303 destinations worldwide within 120 different countries. Keep in mind that all Turkish Airlines flights connect through Istanbul. So if you’re planning a trip to Europe, Asia, etc., you’ll have no issues finding a Turkish Airlines flight to get you there.
As you begin browsing flights, be sure to choose one with a long layover. At a minimum, you’ll want to have at least a 7-hour layover in Istanbul. This will give you enough time to get to and from the airport. Personally, I wouldn’t book a flight through Istanbul unless there is a layover between 8 and 15 hours. Cutting it close could be tough with the heavy traffic getting in and out of the city.
Next, you’ll want to use a flight aggregator website to uncover the best deals. I typically use Skyscanner, but I also spot check Google Flights and Hopper to see if they have any comparable deals. Flight aggregators give you the option to filter on various criteria, so you’ll want to filter on “Turkish Airlines” connecting flights when available.
(For more information on how to find good flight deals, check out these travel hacks for flying.)
Do you already have a Turkish Airlines flight lined up? Then read on to the next section!
What you should know before arriving in Istanbul
Before arriving at Istanbul Airport, here are a few helpful tips you should consider:
Get Turkish Liras in small denominations
The Turkish Lira (TL) is the official currency of Turkey. Each Lira is about 1/6 of a US dollar. In other words, $10 will get you around 60 TL. (Check out my travel apps guide for some great currency conversion apps.)
Once you arrive at the airport, go straight to an ATM to withdraw some Liras. Many vendors in Istanbul don’t accept large notes, so you’ll want to break up your 50 and 100 Lira notes into denominations of 5, 10, and 20. These can be exchanged at airport kiosks. I had to buy a water bottle to break up the change, but it’s worth trying to see if a shop or café will do it for free.
It’s important to note that credit cards aren’t accepted by most public transport options listed below. Istanbul’s street food vendors also don’t take cards, so it’s a good idea to have cash on you at all times.
Pack a money belt to avoid pickpocketing
As advised in other major cities around the world, you’ll want to stay vigilant of pickpocketing in Istanbul. A couple of my friends have been pickpocketed here while using public transportation and walking amid large crowds. To avoid this, I recommend wearing a money belt.
I always wear a money belt whenever I travel. It gives me peace of mind in a foreign country. Better safe than sorry!
Obtain a Turkish visa prior to your layover in Istanbul
Most foreign visitors are required to get a visa to enter Turkey. Though you can get a visa upon arrival in Istanbul, it’s definitely a good idea to apply for an e-visa beforehand. If you’re strapped for time during your layover in Istanbul, the last thing you’ll want to do is wait in a long line at the airport.
U.S. citizens wishing to visit Turkey for under 90 days can apply for an e-visa online. If you’re not from the US, refer to your country’s embassy website to learn how to obtain your visa.
Note: If you’re not planning to leave the Istanbul airport, you do not need a transit visa.
Buy an Istanbul Kart if you plan to take public transportation
Before leaving the airport, be sure to purchase this prepaid card at a designated kiosk. The Istanbul Kart is required to take public transportation around the city, including buses, metros, trams, and ferries.
If you’re planning to only take taxis and walk, then you won’t need one.
Getting around Istanbul from the airport
Istanbul Atatürk Airport was the main international airport of Istanbul for many years. However, this airport was replaced by Istanbul Airport (IST) on April 6, 2019. Once it’s fully completed, it will be the largest airport in the world.
For those of you who use Google Maps to get places, don’t make the mistake of typing in “Atatürk Airport” when you’re trying to get to and from the airport. At the time of writing this article, the old airport comes up by default when searching “Istanbul Airport.” I just submitted a request to Google to fix this. Hopefully it will be updated soon and you won’t have to worry about it.
The map below shows the new and old airports in relation to the city. Be sure you double check not to call an Uber, shuttle, etc. to the wrong place!
Once you arrive at Istanbul Airport (IST), you’ll have several options to get into the city:
This is the cheapest option, but definitely the most cumbersome one. The new Istanbul Airport is 25 miles (40 km) from Sultanahmet, the historic heart of the city. This means you’ll have to transfer multiple times by bus and metro. At the time of writing this article, there’s no metro line that directly services the new airport. However, one is set to open in 2020.
Though I’m always a huge advocate for taking public transportation, I strongly advise against it from this airport. It’s not convenient at all, and there’s a decent possibility you’ll get lost or go the wrong way. If you’re willing to pay a few extra Liras, I recommend taking one of the other transport options below.
Once you’re in the city, however, public transportation is a great way to get around. Taking the trams (street cars) is a wonderful means of sightseeing.
Havaist Airport Shuttle
This is the most advisable option. The Havaist Airport Shuttle brings you to downtown Istanbul for only 18TL (~$3) each way. It’s equipped with Wi-Fi, TVs, and comfortable seats, making it a much smoother ride than public buses.
This is your best option if you’re strapped for time and want to minimize the hassle of getting places.
However, the downside of taking a taxi is that it’s the most expensive way to get around. Taxis don’t offer fixed prices, so a traffic jam will ramp up the price. Given that Istanbul is so huge, there’s a substantial possibility you’ll get stuck in traffic and have to pay a premium.
Staying overnight in Istanbul? Take a hotel or private airport shuttle
These shuttles are another reliable way to get to your destination. Each have fixed fees, making them an appealing alternative to taxis.
Hotel shuttles in Istanbul are not usually free, but it really depends on the hotel. With private shuttles, you’ll also be paying a premium, but they’re super comfortable and dependable.
Top things to see and do in Istanbul
Now that you’ve figured out all the logistical stuff, here comes the fun part.
As you approach the heart of Istanbul for the first time—whether by bus, taxi, or tram—put the smartphone down and soak it all in. You’ll be enchanted by Istanbul’s timeless charm from the get-go.
On my way into Istanbul, I could feel the city sizzling with life. The hustle and bustle was feverish, and there was a special energy in the air.
Your first stop should be the Sultanahmet district, the historic heart of the city. Here’s what you’ll want to see and do.
(Heading to Istanbul any time soon? Check out this Lonely Planet guidebook for more insider tips and cultural insights.)
Take a journey back through time at the Hagia Sophia
If you have a short layover in Istanbul and can only see one thing, it should absolutely be the Hagia Sophia.
Built nearly 1,500 years ago, the Hagia Sophia has been the focal point and spirit of Istanbul since the days of the Byzantine Empire. It’s assumed many prominent roles over the years, including a Greek Orthodox basilica (530 – 1450 AD), a Catholic cathedral (1204-1261), and an Ottoman mosque (1450-1930). Today, the Hagia Sophia is a secular museum that lures visitors with its intriguing past and grandiose stature.
Take a peek inside the museum
If time permits, you should take a peek inside. You can cover the museum in 1-1.5 hours, though you could easily spend much more time in there.
From its elaborate mosaics to the massive dome, you’ll discover some of Istanbul’s greatest gems inside the Hagia Sophia. There’s no better depiction of the building’s enchantment than this poetic passage by the former Patriarch of Constantinople:
“It is as if one were stepping into heaven itself with no one standing in the way at any point; one is illuminated and struck by the various beauties that shine forth like stars all around. Then everything else seems to be in ecstasy and the church itself seems to whirl around.”– Photios, Patriarch I of Constantinople (circa 9th century AD)
If your schedule is tight and you don’t have enough time to go inside, you can still get a pretty incredible perspective from the outside.
I was absolutely blown away by how enormous it is. You don’t truly understand the Hagia Sophia’s sheer size until you’re standing right in front of it.
Admire the Hagia Sophia’s next-door neighbor, the Blue Mosque
The Sultan Ahmed Mosque, or Blue Mosque, is another behemoth of a building and top attraction in Istanbul. It sits right across the park from the Hagia Sophia, so at the very least, you can hit two birds with one stone on this trip.
The Blue Mosque was built in the early-1600s during the rule of Ahmed I. It contains architectural elements from the Byzantine (Christian) and Ottoman (Islamic) eras. The Blue Mosque has five main domes surrounded by six minarets, making it one of the largest and most prominent mosques in all of Turkey.
Below is a short video of the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque from my recent layover in Istanbul. These structures have seemingly stared at one another since the beginning of time. Together, these buildings make up the fabric of Istanbul’s Old City.
A couple of important things to note before visiting the Blue Mosque…
Firstly, given that it’s an active mosque, you’ll need to wear appropriate attire to go inside. The Blue Mosque official website gives some guidance on the dress code.
Secondly, you’ll need to take off your shoes to go inside the prayer hall. You can either carry them with you in a plastic container or leave them at the entrance in a cubby.
The Blue Mosque is free to enter, though tourists aren’t permitted inside during the allotted prayer times. These times change throughout the year based on the number of daylight hours, so I suggest clicking here to see the most up-to-date prayer times.
At the time of writing this article, the Blue Mosque is undergoing substantial renovation work. During my visit in April 2019, it had already been going on for several months. Be sure to check the status of this renovation work beforehand, as it could limit how much of the mosque you’re able to see.
Shop ‘til you drop at the Grand Bazaar
This is another must during an Istanbul layover.
Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar is among the oldest and largest markets in the world. It covers 61 streets and more than 4,000 shops. This means you’ll find plenty of interesting things to buy here, including jewelry, souvenirs, silk clothing, and more! As such, the Grand Bazaar is a must-see during a stopover in Istanbul.
The Grand Bazaar has been a popular marketplace since the days of the Byzantine Empire. It later grew in importance during the Ottoman Empire, and was even guarded by over 100 soldiers every night. Fast forward to the 1950s: increased tourism caused many of the smaller merchants to be displaced by jewelry and souvenir shops, which now comprise much of the bazaar. However, you’ll still find smaller authentic shops located just outside the bazaar’s bustling center.
No immediate plans to visit Istanbul? You can still find some authentic jewelry designed by the finest merchants of the Grand Bazaar! (Check out my friend’s online jewelry shop: Bazaar Box Jewelry!) Note: All proceeds go to the Turkish Educational Foundation which helps to provide educational opportunities and support the school system in Turkey.
Words of advice when strolling through the Grand Bazaar…
Many shops in the Grand Bazaar are identical to one another. For example, you’ll find pretty much the same jewelry, carpets, etc. from shop to shop. This makes haggling a very common occurrence. Sellers will try to gain your attention in creative ways with the hopes of you making a purchase. If you’re overwhelmed by the sensory overload here and not keen on buying anything, just politely tell the hagglers “no thank you” and continue on.
For those of you who enjoy striking up conversation with local merchants, you’ll find a lot of that at the Grand Bazaar. Be warned though, the longer you chat with the sellers at these shops, the more difficult they’ll make it for you to walk away.
Whether you like to shop or simply would like check out the lively ambiance, the Grand Bazaar should be high on your to-do list in Istanbul.
Feeling tired? Boost your energy with a cup of Turkish coffee!
When you’re visiting Istanbul on a layover, you have to try the Turkish coffee. Brewed from Arabica beans, Turkish coffee has a very fine grind to it. Turkish coffee beans are no different than regular coffee beans. However, it’s prepared differently, with the unfiltered coffee grounds floating freely in the cup. Turkish coffee is delicious, and steeped in history.
Turkish coffee has been an important part of local culture and tradition since at least the mid-1600s. It was recently inscribed on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage List, which gives you an idea of how ingrained it is in Turkish society. Istanbul’s coffeehouses are popular meetup spots for casual socializing, special events, and just about every other occasion.
I recommend getting a cup of coffee at Ethem Tezçakar, a small coffeeshop in the Grand Bazaar. It’s known to be one of the most authentic among locals.
If you’re feeling adventurous and want to head inside a local supermarket, look out for Kurukahveci Mehmet Efendi coffee. Don’t have any immediate plans to visit Istanbul? No worries – you can actually order this coffee on Amazon!
Quick tip to best enjoy your cup of Turkish coffee…
Given that Turkish coffee is unfiltered, you should gently swirl your cup periodically so the grounds can mix with the hot water. Just make sure to keep the grounds on the bottom so you won’t have a bitter sip at the end (unless you really love strong coffee, then totally go for it).
If you’re in desperate need of a caffeine pick-me-up after your long flight, you’ll want your Turkish coffee to be as strong as possible!
Overlook Istanbul’s scenic skyline from the Galata Tower
The Galata Tower is another top sight you should include on your Istanbul layover itinerary. This medieval stone tower was built in the mid-1300s, and was the tallest building in Istanbul for several centuries. It was initially built as a lighthouse and watchtower during Byzantine times, but later became a dungeon under Ottoman rule.
The Galata Tower is perched 220 feet (67 m) above the city, offering sweeping panoramic views of Istanbul’s skyline. It also offers a beautiful vantage point of the Bosphorus Strait below.
Tip to avoid the line…
The lines at Galata Tower can get pretty long, so it’s advisable to arrive early in the morning whenever possible. However, if your layover in Istanbul is during the afternoon/evening, it’s worth waiting in line to catch the sunset from here!
Grab a bite to eat on the Bosphorus Strait
Be sure to add this to your Istanbul layover itinerary.
The Bosphorus Strait, which connects Europe and Asia, is home to an eclectic mix of fine restaurants. Here, you’ll find plenty of places selling top-notch Turkish and international cuisine. The Europe and Asian sides are totally different, so you should try visiting them both!
Another popular restaurant among locals is Nomads, which offers a delightful mix of Turkish and Arabic cuisine, as well as live entertainment. The ambiance is cozy, upbeat, and electrifying, and it’s just a stone’s throw away from the Bosphorus.
Nothing beats having Michelin-caliber cuisine while enjoying the gentle breeze of the Bosphorus!
Take a cruise along the Bosphorus
If your layover in Istanbul is long enough, consider taking a cruise along the Bosphorus. There’s no shortage of dinner cruises and boat tours that will give you an excellent perspective of Istanbul’s waterfront area.
Below are a few popular boat cruises you should consider. Additionally, I recommend checking out TripAdvisor to discover the best tours that fit your preferences.
Advice you should consider before booking a cruise or boat tour in Istanbul…
Prior to booking your cruise or boat tour along the Bosphorus, you should take into account the time of year you’ll be visiting. The best weather conditions in Istanbul are between May and September. Taking a cruise or boat tour is certainly not ideal when it’s cold and rainy.
Try Istanbul’s delightful street food
The street food in Istanbul is just fantastic. Here’s some popular Turkish cuisine you should to try during your Istanbul layover Istanbul:
- Simit: If you enjoy eating bagels, you’ll go crazy when you try the Simit. It’s basically a type of baked bread dipped in molasses and sesame. A great on-the-go breakfast snack!
- Dürüm: These are your typical Turkish kebabs. They come in a wrap filled with either beef, chicken, or vegetables, as well as other kebab ingredients.
- Midye dolma: If you’re a fan of shellfish, you’ll love the Midye dolma. They’re mussels stuffed with spicy rice and lemon juice. Yum!
- Lahmacun: Also known as Turkish pizza, Lahmacun is a thin piece of dough topped with vegetables, herbs, meats, and spices. It’s best served with a glass of cold ayran, a yogurt-based drink mixed with salt.
Walk in the footsteps of sultans at Topkapi Palace
Topkapi Palace was the residence of Ottoman sultans and their families between the 15th and 19th centuries. It was also an administrative headquarters of the empire, containing a treasury, weapons cache, and sacred relics (among a plethora of other things). Equipped with 300 rooms, 9 Turkish baths, 2 mosques, and a hospital, it certainly rivaled the extravagant palaces of Western Europe at the time.
From the outer courtyards to the stately interior, Topkapi Palace is brimming with opulence at every turn. The museum we see today is a surviving testament of the rich architecture, culture, and traditions of the Ottoman Empire. This magnificent palace should definitely be a priority during your stopover in Istanbul.
Marvel at the modern Dolmabahçe Palace
When the mid-1800s rolled around, the Topkapi Palace could no longer measure up to the royal palaces of Europe. Sensitive about this, Sultan Abdülmecid ordered that a new and improved palace be built further up the bank along the Bosphorus. This new palace was called the Dolmabahçe Palace.
This flamboyant residence had many more modern amenities than the former palace. However, this modern marvel came at a great expense. The exorbitant price tag associated with this new palace led to immense financial troubles for the Ottomans, which persisted up until the caliphate’s collapse in 1918.
Satisfy your sweet tooth with some Turkish delights and baklava
For a taste of Istanbul’s cultural heritage (and some sugary goodness), you have to try the Turkish delights. They’re found on pretty much every street corner in Istanbul, and it’s a wonderful thing. These sweets are made from starch and sugar gel, and typically include nuts and fruits.
Baklava—another crowd-pleaser—is a sweet dessert pastry filled with chopped nuts and honey. The Greeks and Turks dispute where baklava came from, but many believe its modern form was first introduced in the kitchens of Topkapi Palace. I can totally understand why both sides are seeking credit for this delicious treat!
Other things to see/do in Istanbul if you have time:
- Archeology Museum (“Arkeoloji müzesi”): A vast collection ofancient artifacts from the Romans, Greeks, and Byzantines. Though the museum contains over a million works, it’s remained a hidden gem in the heart of Istanbul.
- Basilica Cistern: An underground aqueduct dating back to the Byzantine Empire (532 AD). It could store 80,000 cubic meters of water from the Black Sea using its 20-kilometer-long underground aqueducts.
- Süleymaniye Mosque: An Imperial Ottoman mosque dating back to the mid-1500s. Though it rivals the Blue Mosque in raw beauty, it doesn’t attract the same crowds.
Secret tip: Turkish Airlines’ Stopover Program
This is one of the coolest things about having an Istanbul layover.
Turkish Airlines provides a Stopover Free Accommodation Service, where travelers can receive free accommodations for 1-2 nights in Istanbul. For business-class travelers, you’ll receive two nights free in a five-star hotel; for economy passengers, one night in a four-star hotel. Nothing beats a free hotel, especially in Istanbul!
In addition to getting a free hotel stay, you can also get a complementary Istanbul layover tour when flying with Turkish Airlines. Touristanbul offers free sightseeing tours of Istanbul when you have a layover between 6-24 hours. Here’s the official Turkish Airlines website that shows more details and how to sign up.
Note: The Istanbul stopover program and guided tour are not currently being offered due to COVID-19. Refer to the website linked here for more information.
How to make the most of your short layover in Istanbul
I hope you enjoyed reading this guide of how to spend a layover in Istanbul! As you’ve probably recognized by now, this city is jam-packed with incredible things to see and do. An overnight layover in Istanbul does not do a justice to the endless list of historic, cultural, and entertainment attractions scattered around the city.
Once you visit here once, whether it be for 8 hours or even a full day, you will likely return again and again.
How would you spend a layover in Istanbul?
Happy Travels! – Jon
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