Long layovers are an easy (and economical) way to get a taste of a new place. And with easy transportation between the flashy new airport and the city, Istanbul is the perfect layover destination. In addition, Turkish Airline’s new hotel policy provides a free four-star hotel for layovers in Istanbul (terms and conditions apply). And even if your flight doesn’t qualify, there are plenty of cheap places to stay during your little side trip!
Evening Itinerary: Long Layover in Istanbul
I advise booking a flight that lands in the late afternoon, if possible, so you can do the bulk of your exploring after you’ve had a good night’s sleep! I started my long layover in Istanbul by exploring some of the parks along the water and admiring the sunset. Then I explored the flavorful Taksim Square neighborhood, near my hostel, and strolled down Istiklal Street. This is a great neighborhood to stay in because it’s a short tram ride from the city’s main attractions but still isn’t super touristy. The pedestrian-only Istiklal boulevard is fully of life in the evening hours, and there are plenty of authentic shops and restaurants to check out here.
My favorite moment of the evening was when I was watching a man play a tambur, and suddenly a Turkish couple grabbed my arms and began to dance with me! I certainly did not know the proper moves to this traditional dance, which involved linking pinkies, hopping around, and kicking your legs out at seemingly-random intervals. Still, it was a lot of fun, and we all laughed hysterically. Before long, a whole slew of people had joined in the dancing! This is why I love traveling – not to tick places off my bucket list, but for the spontaneous experiences with new friends.
Morning Itinerary: Long Layover in Istanbul
I highly recommend getting up early to watch the sunrise from Sultanahmet Arkeolojik Park, between the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia. Not only is the view stunning and peaceful in the early hours, but you can take gorgeous photos in the reflection of the fountain before it turns on! After clicking away to your hearts content, grab breakfast and some coffee at the nearby Cigdem Patisserie. It’s open early, has delicious (and authentic) food, and the owners are so sweet! Then stop at the Palace of Antiochos and the German fountain on your way back to the mosque, which opens at 8:30 am.
The Blue Mosque
Even if you don’t want to get up at sunrise to visit the Sultanahmet Arkeolojik Park, you should plan to arrive at the Blue Mosque as soon as it opens to avoid the crowds and long lines. The mosque is currently undergoing renovations on both the outside and the inside of the building, which won’t be finished for quite some time. Still, it is absolutely beautiful and can’t be missed! Remember: this mosque is also a place of worship, so you must wear long pants and sleeves (and a headscarf, if you are a woman) although they have some spare clothing to borrow if needed!
The Hagia Sophia
The Hagia Sophia opens at 9 am, so it’s best to head here right after the Blue Mosque. Originally a Byzantine church, this building was later converted into a mosque. Now it’s a museum, offering a fascinating glimpse into Turkey’s layered history!
If you’re lucky, you might even spot Gli, the famous cat that lives in the Hagia Sophia. She has her own fan page and even took a selfie with Obama! I met her while kneeling on the floor to photograph the ceiling, and she climbed onto my lap and refused to get off! It was so funny that people asked to take pictures of us!
Grand Bazaar, Ferry to Kadikoy & Other Sites
Istanbul’s bazaar is one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world, with 61 streets and over 4,000 shops! This is the place to pick up your souvenirs and gifts, but be sure to bargain hard! If you plan to buy a lamp (or even just a tiny votive holder), be sure to ask for a picture of the store. Nowadays, most shopkeepers only let paying customers photograph their stunning light displays.
If you have time to spare during your long layover in Istanbul, consider taking the ferry from Europe to Asia! The boat travels from Karaköy Kadiköy, with the trip lasting approximately 25 minutes each way. The best time to go is the evening to watch the sunset. But check the schedule here to make sure you don’t miss the last boat back to your hostel! And note that most trams in Istanbul close for the night at 11:30 pm.
Lastly, if you are visiting in March, April or May, be sure to check out parks such as Emirgan and Gülhane for their phenomenal tulip gardens. The Ottomans began cultivating tulips in the 1600s, and the city hosts one of the largest tulip festivals in the world!
Want more sample itineraries for common layover cities? Check out my blog posts on things to do in Mexico City, Bangkok, Marrakech and New Delhi! Or, click here for travel tips and itineraries in all my favorite cities!