I hear quite often people asking for advice on places to see when they have short layover in Istanbul. Istanbul is a city between Europe and Asia, and I guess lots of international routes stop there, so it is no wonder that this question arises so often. I decided to fill in this gap 🙂
Please, keep in mind that I wrote this post when Ataturk Airport was the main one in Istanbul. Now there is a new airport, and the ways to get to the center of Istanbul I mention below are not relevant anymore. But the things to do during the layover are 🙂
Some of the links below may be affiliate links, meaning that I will get a small commission (it won’t cost you anything!) if you click and book tours or accommodation.
Istanbul is an absolutely stunning city: I do not think I will ever cease to admire its people, architecture, culture and food. But what makes it truly special is the atmosphere: I always feel like at home there, and I cannot really explain why.
Well, unfortunately, I do not know how much time you have to spend in Istanbul between your flights, but it definitely must be more than 5 hours: it is important because getting to and from the city might take up to 2 hours. Consider passport control time, and the control of baggage when you come back to the airport, which means an additional queue.
Anyway, let’s suppose that you have more than 6 hours of layover in Istanbul. I made two different routes: the first one, which I would call a classical route, includes visiting the major tourist attractions of Istanbul as the Blue Mosque, Topkapi and Hagia Sophia and is perfect for first timers in the city. The second one will take you to other major sights, so, obviously, it would be better to opt for this one if you have already been to Istanbul.
1. The classical route
Like I mentioned before, this route includes visits to the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia and Topkapi. So, let’s start with the most important thing.
1.1. How to get to the historical center of Istanbul
Of course, if you have money to spare, you can always opt for taxi: just agree on the price first. You should consider that while taxi is definitely the most comfortable way to get to the city center, it will not always be the quickest. Well, traffic jams are bound to happen in big cities like Istanbul.
Another way is by metro, but it is not a direct line. You will see the sign pointing to the subway when you get out of the arrivals area. Take the red line M1 and get off at Zeytinburnu station: here you will change to the tram (or light railway) T1 towards Eminonu or Kabatas and get off at Sultanahmet station. To make it easier for you to understand the route, take a look at this map. As for the ticket cost: tokens are used to pay for subway/tram, and 1 token costs 5 liras. You will need 2 to get to the city and 2 to get back, and it will cost you 20 liras, while you can get 5 tokens for 17 liras. You can buy them at the ticketing machines in the airport at the subway station.
If you finish your visit to Istanbul at Grand Bazaar, take the tram T1 at Beyazit (towards Bağcılar) station back to Zeytinburnu, and change to the metro to the airport.
1.2. What to see in Istanbul
When you get off at the Sultanahmet station, you will see the famous Sultanahmet Square that was a hippodrome during the Byzantine times. There are some memorable monuments like Serpentine column, Egyptian obelisk, German fountain, etc. More about it here.
After spending some time on the square, go to the Blue Mosque. The entrance is free, but the queues might be really huge, so consider this when planning your route. There are some rules to obey if you want to go in: you will have to take off your shoes, so make sure you have a pair of socks with you, and have something to cover your shoulders, legs and head (for women). If you don’t have anything to cover yourself, the staff will offer you robes. Keep in mind that it is a functioning mosque, and tourists are not allowed in during prayers. The prayers take place five times a day, you can check them here.
It is time to move further: take the exit facing Hagia Sophia. You will cross a square with benches, palm trees and a fountain, and it is a perfect place for stunning pictures of these architectural wonders. There will be another queue at Hagia Sophia, and when you are inside, climb to the upper floor: the view from above is worth the effort. The entrance fee is 40 Turkish liras, and keep in mind that Hagia Sophia is closed on Mondays.
In general, it will take around 2 hours to visit these two places, and much less if there are no queues, so you might have time to visit the masterpiece of Ottoman architecture, Topkapi Palace. The palace consists of 4 courtyards, and there is a museum inside with precious stones, so you will need around 2-3 hours to actually see it. And don’t forget about the harem: actually, it is the most beautiful part of the palace. In addition, you will get lovely views over Istanbul from the 4th courtyard. The entrance fee to the palace is 40 Turkish liras and the Harem is 25 liras. The palace complex is closed on Tuesdays.
If you still have some time, pay a visit to the most famous market in Istanbul, Grand Bazaar, with seemingly endless shops with souvenirs, scarves, spices, lanterns, traditional delights, and many other things. Just keep in mind that it is closed on Sundays and religious holidays, and is usually open till 7 PM.
1.3. Museum pass
If you are already discouraged by queues or entrance fees, rejoice 🙂 There is a possibility to buy the so-called Museum Pass Istanbul for 220 liras, which grants you entrance to the above mentioned places without waiting in lines. You can read more about it here. Unfortunately, I did not order it online, so in case you wish to book it via the official website, you are on your own here 🙁
1.4. Where to eat in Istanbul
I am pretty sure you will be hungry when you get to the city center, so if the Blue Mosque is closed for prayers, I would suggest having a meal at Şirvan Sofrasi. They serve traditional Turkish cuisine, the prices are reasonable, and the restaurant is not far from the Blue Mosque.
I am pretty sure you know that Turkey is famous for its coffee 🙂 If you crave a cup, here are some recommendations for coffee shops in Istanbul.
2. The alternative route
Another way of spending a short layover in Istanbul is this route that includes visiting Suleymaniye Mosque, Egyptian Bazaar, Galata Bridge and a tour of the Bosphorus.
2.1. How to get to Suleymaniye, Istanbul
This route will not be much different from the previous one. Take the red metro line M1 to Zeytinburnu station, change to the tram T1 towards Eminonu or Kabatas and get off at Laleli-Üniversite station. Getting to the mosque from there is easy: follow Büyük Reşitpaşa Cd to Mart Şehitleri Cd that leads to Suleymaniye.
On your way back to the airport, take the tram T1 at Kabatas (towards Bağcılar) station back to Zeytinburnu, and change to the metro.
Again, you will need 4 tokens to pay for your way to the city center and back.
2.2. What to see in Istanbul
I have been to Istanbul several times, and visited the Blue Mosque several times, and considered it the most beautiful one in the city. Well, it was until I saw Suleymaniye. Built by Suleyman the Magnificent, this one is by far the most stunning mosque in Istanbul. Its splendor is not in the façade, it is the interiors that keep amazing visitors. The colours are so bright and vivid, and there is light everywhere. After visiting the Blue Mosque, which is rather dark, it is hard to believe your eyes. And one of the courtyards offers nice views over Istanbul. Luckily, the entrance is free, but the same rules as for the Blue Mosque apply.
It is time to visit the Egyptian Bazaar, known otherwise as the Spice Bazaar. This one is much smaller than the Grand Bazaar, and you will not see that variety here, but it is much cheaper. Again, you can find here lots of Turkish delights and souvenirs. And it is not so easy to get lost here as in the Grand Bazaar 🙂
From the Egyptian market head to the Yeni Mosque and Galata bridge. The bridge is a nice place for a panoramic view of Istanbul. And you will see lots of locals fishing there.
After crossing the bridge, get to the Kabatas pier: we took a Bosphorus tour from here. There are tours from the Eminonu pier at the Yeni Mosque, but I heard some bad reviews about it. We opted for hop on & hop off tour that departs almost every hour and gets you a bit farther than the Fatih Sultan Mehmet bridge and then back (because of the pandemic the timetable may be different). We did not get off the ferry at stops, but just continued the tour. The tour lasts for 1 hour and 40 minutes, and the views of both the Asian and European parts of Istanbul are amazing. On your way, you will get to see Dolmabahce, Rumelihisari, Ciragan Palace, Anadoluhisari, Beylerbeyi Palace. Just get something to cover yourself, as it might get chilly.
2.3. Where to eat in Istanbul
I am not going to advise you a restaurant here, I am going to suggest something better 🙂 At the Galata Bridge in front of the Yeni Mosque you will see boats at the waterfront: they sell one of the most popular fast foods in Istanbul, balik ekmek (literal translation is fish bread). Basically, it is a piece of bread with freshly caught and cooked fish and onions. While it might not sound appealing for some, I really loved it. Get yourself a balik ekmek, a drink, pickles, if you want, sit on steps, eat and enjoy the view 🙂 And something else: do not go to the restaurants under the bridge! They are outrageously expensive, and I have read many stories of people complaining about the food quality. Some claimed they were charged more than they should have been.
Of course, during a short layover in Istanbul you will not see everything the city has to offer, but these routes cover some of its most interesting places. I hope you will enjoy Istanbul as much as I do 🙂
Well, in any city you travel, you have to stay somewhere 🙂 When I search for accommodation, I always use two options: it is either AirBnB (click here for a discount on your first booking with AirBnB) or Booking.com.
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